Cambridge Lib Dems Fail to Shortlist Credible Candidate

Tuesday, January 5th, 2010. 2:55am

Despite tree fellings and folk festival losses Cambridge City Councillor Julie Smith is the best the Liberal Democrats can come up with to stand for election as Cambridge's MP.

Despite presiding over mass fellings of healthy trees and substantial folk festival losses Cambridge City Councillor Julie Smith appears to be the best the Liberal Democrats can come up with to stand for election as Cambridge’s MP.

On Tuesday the 15th of December 2009 Cambridge Liberal Democrats announced the six person shortlist from which they will select their candidate for Cambridge at the next general election. Writing in a comment on this site Liberal Democrat councillor Neale Upstone revealed that the selection would be made by a election in which all local party members have a vote. There is very little public information about the selection process available but I expect the announcement of the candidate is now imminent.

One of the Liberal Democrat’s key mantras is localism, and one of the substantial differences between their list and the Conservative shortlist is that all the Liberal Democrats live in the City. All are current City or County councillors. I like the idea of sending a local councillor, someone who is aware of the city’s problems, to represent the city in Parliament, but given their performance as councillors I don’t think any of the shortlisted bunch are up to the role. I want to see all parties put up their best candidates; that is in the interests of a strong democracy so I am happy the Lib Dems didn’t shortlist comedian Sandi Toksvig, which has been reported as a possibility.

Julie Smith

I think that Julie Smith is the strongest of the candidates and the person most likely to be selected by the Liberal Democrats.

I noted back in January of last year that it appeared that Julie Smith was being positioned for the role of Parliamentary candidate given the degree to which her colleagues, with whom she rules the city council, appeared to be attempting to insulate her from contentious matters. Opposition councillors have been among those complaining about attempts to divert questions being asked to her as an executive councillor to other councillors to answer. This was particularly explicit with respect to delays opening the play-area on the Accordia development.

As executive councillor Julie Smith has presided over attempts to pave over vast swathes of Jesus Green and a huge programme of felling healthy trees across the city on grounds such as “improving biodiversity”. Much of what has occurred on her watch has not been as a result of her actively setting policy but as a result of her failing to take control of those areas of the council she has responsibility for.

Smith is also the Executive Councillor responsible for the folk festival; which lost the city £648,000 when a dodgy company appointed to run online ticket sales failed to pass money it had taken onto the council. There is no evidence she is actively and passionately seeking the return of that money for the residents of Cambridge and the inquiry into what went on is secretive and lacklustre. The folk festival losses are another area where it appears attempts have been made to disassociate Cllr Smith from the City Council’s failings despite her being the elected individual directly responsible.

I believe, from her academic work, it can probably be inferred that Julie Smith is a strong Europhile; she would like to see greater integration and perhaps even the creation of a federal superstate it is surprising that her personal political website is rather light on the subject in which has specialised professionally and would probably devote much of her time to if elected. I think the UK should retain its independence, our laws ought be made by our MPs in the Westminster Parliament. The UK is a major net contributor to the EU and following incompetent negotiations by the current government our payments are increasing. We can’t keep subsidising the economies of Ireland, Portugal, the Czech Republic and others when our own economy is in the state it is in. Cllr Smith, like many promoting the EU, says the EU has “contributed to half a century of peace and prosperity in Europe”. Personally I put much more weight on the influence of the USA and NATO as being the forces which have ensured peace. There are clear benefits to Britain arising from the EU such as enabling easier trade and travel, but I don’t think we need to be ruled by Europe to benefit from international cooperation in those areas. I would be concerned that if elected Julie Smith would essentially continue as an academic focusing on Europe rather than acting as a generalist representative.

Cllr Smith might be a popular choice with the Liberal Democrats centrally, and nationally; she has already been elected as a member of the party’s “National Policy Forum”. She spoke at the recent Lib Dem conference, apparently on the subject of Nick Clegg’s announcement that he was no-longer going to commit to scrap tuition fees, but I was unable to make much sense of her garbled and internally inconsistent contribution. According to her website Cllr Smith is also currently vice-chair of the Liberal Democrat’s Parliamentary Candidates’ Association despite not yet being a Parliamentary candidate herself; perhaps this is an indication she is expecting to be selected?

A Cake Stall - Julie Smith Getting to Grips with Cambridge Business?

A Cake Stall – Julie Smith Getting to Grips with Cambridge Business? (Screenshot from Julie Smith’s policy page)

Cllr Smith has a website at (registered November 2009) on which she has published a PDF manifesto in which she campaigns for selection as the Lib Dem’s MP candidate for Cambridge. Julie Smith has also recently been “making friends” on the Liberal Democrat’s social networking site “Act”. On the 26th of November 2009 Cllr Smith made a posting on the site expressing her concern over the fact there were only two members of the “Cambridge Liberal Democrats” group; at the time of writing they are up to thirteen. The size of the electorate for the parliamentary candidate election has not, as far as I can tell, been made public. It would be interesting to know if the Liberal Democrats are able to muster more than the fifty or so people the Conservatives managed to get to take part in the selection of their candidate.

I have not spotted any of the shortlisted candidates taking a stance at odds with their party’s view on any issue. Cllr Smith states “Free tuition is a key Lib Dem policy” but doesn’t go so far as to commit to voting for the abolition of tuition fees if it becomes party policy to retain them. At the party conference the Liberal Democrats were split on this issue and Cllr Smith made a speech in which she both called for leadership from Nick Clegg (who had said he was in favour of dropping the policy of scrapping tuition fees) and at the same time asking for the views of the policy committee she sits on (which wanted the pledge to scrap tuition fees to be retained) to be listened to. This kind of indecision and fence sitting is not only the Liberal Democrat stereotype – it is the reality of what you get when voting Liberal Democrat. Cllr Smith’s policy page is written, like a horoscope, in such a way that those with a very wide range of views could read it and conclude they agree with most of it. This is only possible when the substance is lacking.

The one area of national politics, in addition to “Europe”, in which Cllr Smith claims to take a particular interest is immigration. She expresses her position on her website as being:

I am proud that as a party we still have the most liberal policies towards immigration but we also recognise that immigration has consequences on host communities. Thus it is essential that planners take movements of people into consideration so that we ensure that the infrastructure is adequate, be it in terms of housing, school places or the health service.

Another clear example of trying to have it both ways. Some Liberal Democrats think there ought be no limits on immigration yet the party’s official pages propose a regionalised points based system; which would presumably restrict immigrants to living in a specific part of the UK – that sounds like the start of a scary and very illiberal slippery slope to me.

Recently Cllr Smith appears to have been taking a lead from Labour candidate Daniel Zeichner who is establishing a reputation for silly stunts; she has worn odd costumes (flags / aprons ) to full council meetings. Neither the point, nor the garments themselves, have been particularly clear from the public gallery. Perhaps we will see photographs and explanations emerge during the campaign?

Belinda Brookes-Gordon

I have attended most of the West/Central area committees since Brookes-Gordon’s election as County Councillor for Castle Ward. Brookes Gordon has made very very few contributions to the discussions.

Belinda Brookes-Gordon is best known for the election campaign which she fought against independent City Councillor John Hipkin who was seeking election to the County Council. Brookes-Gordon whipped up worry in the local area about a possible supermarket on the proposed new university housing estate to be built between Huntingdon and Madingely Roads. I think she mis-prioritised the issues with respect to proposed development in the North-West of the City, and exaggerated the “threat” of a large supermarket in a cynical, but successful, attempt to gain support.

It is interesting that she appears to, as a matter of gut reaction, oppose the practice of city Liberal Democrats, particularly Julie Smith, of engaging substantively only with an elite (residents associations etc.) rather than the wider public.

Brookes-Gordon claims, on her website, to be someone who will fight for civil liberties; however where given the opportunity locally to influence local policing in response to questions I have raised at the West-Central area committee she, along with Julie Smith, Rod Cantrill and Sian Reid who are all also on this shortlist failed to prioritise getting the local police to follow the PACE codes, and treat those they stop, arrest, detain and question properly according to the safeguards which parliament has put in place. I have spoken to Kevin Wilkins, Liberal Democrat member of the police authority, and he told me that none of the committee had passed on their concerns to him, as they had said had committed in public to do. I find it hard to believe any of the Liberal Democrats’ statements about pursuing civil liberties when they fail to use their ability to influence local policing.

Like her party colleagues Brookes-Gordon appears not to have been on the ball in her role as opposition member and scrutineer of the Conservative administration at the County Council. It was only in December 2009 that she and her fellow party members started drawing attention to the worryingly secretive and undemocratic “Making Cambridgeshire Count” “project” being run in the county council, yet those able to battle their way through the County Council’s terrible website can see the project was been put to council committees months earlier. The Liberal Democrats ought to have been challenging the project (a last splurge of crazy spending on “high level meetings” before austerity kicks in) from the point at which it was conceived. Better late than never though.

Rod Cantrill

Has someone dumped a fancy 4.0L sports car on Cllr Cantrill's Drive?

Has someone dumped a fancy 4.0L sports car on Cllr Cantrill’s Drive?

One of the most notable exchanges involving Rod Cantrill which I have observed in the last year or so was when he was debating transport with the city’s Labour Leader Lewis Herbert. During the heated debate Cllr Cantrill decided to ask how many Labour members had cycled to the meeting; in response Cllr Herbert mentioned the four-litre jaguar sports car parked outside Cllr Cantrill’s large home on a private road in Newnham. Cllr Cantrill denied the car, parked on his drive, was his. At some point since Cllr Herbert’s comments and before the announcement of the shortlist including Cllr Cantrill’s name the vehicle has been covered with a tarpaulin; on balance this is more likely to be due to the weather than an attempt to hide it.

Cllr Cantrill has been responsible for the city council’s improvements to its offices, a project he is often credited with having managed well. In his role as executive councillor he has also been responsible for the remodelling of the Guildhall which has made more commercial space available for rent – a positive change.

As far as I am aware Cllr Cantrill doesn’t have a website. He has a blank “my councillor” page and appears to prefer to make statements via the Cambridge Liberal Democrats site which doesn’t allow users to comment on articles.

Cllr Cantrill is responsible for council tax collection in the city. When in October 2009 during a full council meeting I asked him why the council was harassing graduate students for council tax despite them being exempt and having proved their status to the council he flatly refused to answer. A Liberal Democrat press release was later issued in which Cllr Cantrill was quoted as saying: “I welcome the council’s prompt action to clarify the position.” I think this clearly shows Cllr Cantrill, like is fellow Lib-Dems who ought be running the council haven’t grasped their role, they run the council – they’re responsible for it – for them to be welcoming the council’s prompt action to correct something is a complete nonsense. With respect to threatening to take innocent students to court the situation may have been “clarified” as Cllr Cantrill said in his statement, but had not been fixed. Part of the problem appeared to be Cllr Cantrill’s lack of interest in, or understanding of, the city’s universities. Given Cllr Smith’s role as a graduate tutor I am surprised she didn’t help him out but she was presumably keeping as far as possible away from any trouble.

At the last West / Central area committee I asked if there was any mechanism for councillors to influence decisions on renewing and possibly expanding the city’s dispersal zones he assured me, the committee, and the public that there would be an item on the agenda of the January Strategy and Resources Scrutiny Committee agenda yet it has not yet appeared on either of the two agendas which have been published for the meeting.

Cllr Cantrill has also been involved in the creation of “Love Cambridge” which has Cambridge’s City Centre management out of democratic control an into a separate company. In response to my questioning the degree of openness and transparency with which the organisation would run at a meeting of the Strategy and Resources Scrutiny Committee Cllr Cantrill said that it would operate to the council’s standards of openness. This has not happened, the Love Cambridge board does not meet in public and the activities of the company are disclosed only to members. The new structure has been used to keep things, such as negotiations with taxi drivers, more secret than they otherwise would have been. It also appeared possible that solicitors Hewitsons were given a seat on the board of the new company in return for free, or favourably priced, work setting it up.

While the argument that a city centre management organisation free of local government bureaucracy can find it easier to raise money may well be valid I am concerned about the degree to which the change was driven by council officers seeking to “empire build” and the unnecessary loss of democratic oversight and influence as well as transparency in the way the change was made.

Sian Reid

Like Julie Smith and Rod Cantrill Sian Reid is a city councillor for the Newnham ward. Cllr Reid is the executive councillor for Climate Change and Growth. I expect she doesn’t find it at all ridiculous that Cambridge City Council has an Executive Councillor for Climate Change (The City council has a £250,000 fund for “Climate Change” which it thinks about spending on things like solar powered streetlights where the county council won’t fund mains electricity; the fund can also be diverted to re-wiring buildings as long as when the lights are re-installed they come with motion sensors).

Cllr Reid spearheads Cambridge Liberal Democrat’s opposition to improvements to the A14; a stance which I find absolutely shocking and clearly against the interests of the city. The injuries and deaths on the road, and the regular stationary traffic has a major impact on the viability of the city as a place to live and for companies to base themselves. I think it is something which needs to be addressed as soon as possible. Cllr Reid represents the City Council on Cambridgeshire Horizons the body charged with infrastructure development in the region; luckily Cllr Reid’s voice is a lone one on that body.

Cllr Reid is very strongly anti-car, her evidence to the Cambridgeshire Transport Commission saw her express a desire to “block cars further away” – she doesn’t want people to be able to drive anywhere near the city centre; she has expressed an elitist, “disneyland” vision for the City relaying her desire to promote the: “dream Cambridge lifestyle of living close to work and cycling around”. Cllr Reid doesn’t even want people to drive to the City’s Park and Ride sites – proposing charges for parking there. It appears to me that she wants to drive retail and business sectors out of the city. Those wanting to cast a vote for sending the local, and national, economies back to the stone age have Tony Juniper and the green party as an option so quite what niche Cllr Reid might appeal to is not clear to me.

Tim Bick

Tim Bick has website dedicated to his campaign to be the Lib Dem parliamentary candidate at His site presumes that the Liberal Democrats will not find themselves in Government after the next general election – he talks not about how he aspires to be part of a Government, but about how he hopes to effectively lobby government as Cambridge’s MP.

For a split second on opening Cllr Bick’s website my heart rose has he had put the word “energy” prominently in the site’s headline. Unfortunately though he doesn’t address how the UK is going to keep the lights on in the decades to come, and he doesn’t address how we ought meet the country’s energy needs. He mentions nuclear power – but only in passing, saying he campaigned against it as a student – he doesn’t say what his current views are. Even though is statement was unclear. Cllr Bick’s mention of nuclear power was about as close as any of these candidates came to addressing any of the major issues facing the country.

The “Energy” Cllr Bick focuses on goes with “Empathy” and “Experience” as he describes what he sees as his personal qualities.

One of the more ludicrous things Cllr Bick has done recently is attack those, including me, who were campaigning against Liberal Democrat plans, headed up by Julie Smith, to fell trees and pave over swathes of Jesus Green. Cllr Bick’s angry press release can be read, but not commented on, at on the Cambridge Liberal Democrats’ website.

Julian Huppert

Like Brooks-Gordon I haven’t seen Huppert speak much at the meetings he’s been at which I’ve observed.

He once spoke at an East Chesterton public meeting on policing opposing my suggestion that he (and Cllr Blair who was also present) ought take some of what had been raised to the North Area Committee where he would be able, along with his fellow County and City Councillors, to use it as a basis for setting the police priorities for the area. At that time he appeared, like many of his Lib Dem colleagues, to to think he or any other elected representatives should not play any role in directing policing strategy and holding the police to account for their performance. Since then Mr Huppert, no longer a councillor, has either clarified or changed his views, and he now believes, as I do, that councillors ought have a greater role in the Police Authority.

Julian Huppert has a campaign website at

Mr Huppert stood for the Liberal Democrats in Huntingdon in the 2005 general election.

My View

We’ve seen the lackluster and directionless way the Liberal Democrats have failed to get to grips with running the city council; I think we really shouldn’t as a city inflict on the country what the residents of Newnham have inflicted on Cambridge for the last few years. With the potential for a hung Parliament those considering voting Liberal Democrat need to think even harder than usual about what they are doing and what the consequences could be for the country.

As with the Conservative – we’ve got a lot to learn about whichever of the candidates is selected by party members in Cambridge before the election.

70 comments/updates on “Cambridge Lib Dems Fail to Shortlist Credible Candidate

  1. Jim Johnson

    Good piece Richard, but a bit harsh. Julie Smith has won praise for her chairing of the Jesus Green Working Group and the priorities agreed are now much more measured and sensible. Shows she is getting a grip on over-ambitious council officers. And her speech against the railings outside the Round Church was also impressive.

    She can’t be any worse than David Howarth,anyhow

  2. Chris Rand

    Great piece, Richard. I worry we’re going to have a really uninspiring choice of candidates at the election, with the parties selecting them on a “least worst” basis, and then the electorate doing the same. Still, at least some poor candidates might encourage wider discussion of their abilities. Better that than the MP being elected on the unquestioning, sheep-like basis we get in county council elections.

  3. Richard Article author

    As chair of the Jesus Green working group Cllr Smith decided to hold the meetings in secret. I don’t know how well she has performed behind closed doors.

  4. Martin

    I’m afraid that, despite not being a Lib Dem supporter, I find this piece one of your least impressive articles, Richard. It comes across as rather over-sarcastic and picky.

    For instance, you criticise one candidate for wanting to have it both ways, then do exactly that yourself:

    “While the argument that a city centre management organisation free of local government bureaucracy can find it easier to raise money may well be valid I am concerned about … the unnecessary loss of democratic oversight and influence as well as transparency in the way the change was made.”

    I’d have thought Julian Huppert in particular is a fairly serious contender. His website seems to set out some sensible things, he is a scientist, and he is an anti-ID card supporter. I guess his poor rating in your eyes may be due to him not being active as a Councillor lately, though I recall him doing active work as a County Councillor on transport issues at least.

    As for the (unevidenced) statement that Tony Juniper represents “stone age” economics, can I suggest you read this NEF document, in which he is listed as first author?

  5. Richard Article author

    One problem is that its very hard to comment on these people’s views on serious national issues when they’ve largely not expressed any. What I’ve tried to do is share my experience of their actions as city councillors; there’s good evidence that people continue to act in the way they did as councillors if elected to Westminster. Alistair Darling is a good example – he’s been promoting higher taxes and making decisions which have cost the country huge amounts since his time on Lothian Council. *

    I don’t think I’ve been inconsistent with my views on Love Cambridge. It would be perfectly possible to publish more information about the activities of the group and to have ensured more democratic oversight – say with a majority of the board being elected councillors. We’re yet to see if the turnover of the City Centre management organisation has substantially increased following the change. If the problems the potential donors had were more clearly explained then it may have been possible to address them within the council (for example with a more rapid budget cycle within that departent, or more freedom for that department to spend money it had generated itsself).

    With respect to Huppert – I wasn’t convinced he were effectively representing the residents of East Chesterton. I agree having scientifically trained people in Government is desirable (its something the Chinese do to great effect).

    I based my comments on Juniper’s views on his contribution the hustings on growth, I think his views and proposals are extreme, and if implemented would be immensely damaging for Cambridge and the Country.

  6. Richard Article author

    An informed individual called me earlier this evening letting me know that the Liberal Democrat electorate is only around 250 people. If that is true, it is a shockingly tiny fraction of the electorate and is yet another indication that party politics has had its day.

  7. Richard Article author

    I spoke to Mr Huppert this morning he told me:

    *The results will be released on the 15th of January.

    *All party members in the city, over 12 get a vote, he said this was “several hundred” people.

    Mr Huppert also offered to meet me after the announcement of the result. Perhaps Mr Huppert is considering what role he’s going to play in the forthcoming election if he’s not selected as the Lib Dem’s candidate. (If there’s a shock result and he wins I’ll get an early chance to talk to the newly selected candidate.)

  8. David Vincent

    Although 250 people (or even “several hundred”) may be a small electorate, as far as I recall, Nick Hillman was chosen by 50 or 60 people hanging around the Guildhall on a Saturday morning. I am not entirely sure how Daniel Z and Tony J were selected by their respective parties, but I assume it involved similar fairly small numbers of people. I am glad to see that Lib Dem teenagers have a chance to vote to select their candidate, even if they can’t vote at any general election. Of course, those teenagers who take the trouble to join a national political party are probably not an especially representative group, but it is probably as well to involve them young (if not to let them speak at party conferences).

  9. Richard Article author

    A surprise result: Julian Huppert ( has been selected by Cambridge Liberal Democrats to be their candidate in the upcoming general election.

    While Mr Huppert has been a County Councillor between 2001-9 he has done very little and unlike the City Councillors on the shortlist (who’ve been in-control of the City Council) he is not personally directly associated with unpopular policy positions as he has only served in opposition on the County Council. The party appear to have chosen someone able to start the campaign with a clean sheet.

    It is possible that due to internal divisions (or even the STV electoral system they chose to use) Cambridge’s Lib Dems have failed to select their strongest candidate. I didn’t think any of the Lib Dems shortlisted were credible potential MPs for Cambridge; I thought Huppert came a long way behind the strongest candidates.

    To his credit Mr Huppert had the most detailed policy webpage of any of Lib Dem hopefuls. He says he will vote to scrap university tuition fees (though the Lib Dems generally are wavering on this). Mr Huppert needs to make clear if he is prepared to commit to vote against his party policy on this and other key issues. His transport page though isn’t particularly clear on his current views on A14 improvements and doesn’t mention the congestion charge, perhaps he’s avoiding contentious areas where his views may meet significant opposition.

    I think this selection by the Lib Dems really does leave the election for Cambridge’s MP wide open – anyone could win it.

  10. Martin

    Personally I don’t think this is very surprising at all. Julian comes across to me as the most heavyweight candidate and one the one best versed on national issues. Looks like my prediction was right.

  11. David Vincent

    So after all that, it seems we have four white men as candidates for Cambridge MP. (And perhaps one white male black witch with a hotline to the local newspaper).

  12. Richard Article author

    10.6% of Cambridge residents non-white according to the 2001 census.

    So all other things being equal there’s a chance of about 1 in 25 of four candidates selecting a white male. We’ve got to look deeper than the statistics though; in the Conservative selection process nationally there is a bias towards women and ethnic minorities. My view is that selection should be on merit; I view positive discrimination as just as undesirable as statistical under-representation.

  13. Richard Article author

    Councillor Whitebread has posted an interesting and unguarded blog-post about the selection meeting:

    Cllr Whitebread reports that one of the Liberal Democrat members asking a question at the hustings was pro-ID cards. This highlights one of the big problems with the Lib Dem party – they are a very broad church – far too broad in my view to make any sense as a political party.

    Cllr Whitebred was debating tweeting during the hustings but in the event appears to have decided against it – perhaps scared of what the party machine might make of such an attempt at openness when they had gone to such lengths to ensure the process took place behind closed doors.

    Sian Reid’s web-page on the voting procedures described how members needed to bring proof of ID to the meeting, yet the TV coverage and mention in Cllr Whitebread’s article of non-city Liberal Democrats attending makes what actually happened rather unclear. I note only TV images of the general scene were broadcast, not any speeches – this is in line with what councillors allow at council meetings – it is possible the cameras were thrown out before the proceedings-proper got underway.

    While Cllr Whitebread’s article doesn’t reveal any policy positions taken by Julian Huppert during the evening – perhaps avoiding controversy is what got him the support of such a diverse electorate, or perhaps she doesn’t want to damage his campaign by reporting what he said. The article does though reveal some of the positions taken by other Lib Dems by example saying that both Cllr Cantrill and Cllr Brookes Gordon want to see the overall tax-take in the UK increased ie. they want bigger government and less individual freedom for people to spend their hard earned money themselves. If Julian Huppert believes this too as far as one can tell from Cllr Whitebread’s write-up he presumably must have thought it wise not to say it (his website talks of making the tax-system fairer but doesn’t comment on the total tax-take).

    Belinda Brookes-Gordon reportedly spoke during the event to say that she thought it was party politics which puts off young people from getting involved in how we run the country; leaving me wondering why she has supported the party system by standing for a party.

    Cllr Cantrill’s car got a mention with him describing himself as a “former petrol head”. Cllr Whitebread commends him for his honesty; I wonder if he’s explained whose car it is that’s parked on his drive yet?

  14. Sarah Whitebread

    Richard, it is rather tiring the way you always jump to a negative conclusion…
    The reason I didn’t tweet was that I was sitting right next to Neil McGovern who was tweeting – I didn’t see the point in both of us doing it!
    As to the rest of your post – you can make your own mind up about Julian when you meet him. The reason I didn’t post anything he said was because I decided not to go through the speeches one by one. It would have made an already long blog post mammoth. If you have any questions feel free to ask – although you can ask the man himself when you meet him.

  15. David Vincent

    I must say I don’t follow Richard Normington’s logic, unless he believes MPs are only ever useful if they are “in power” (in essence, I assume, lobby-fodder). It might prove a more telling comment if the local conservatives in Cambridge had proved themselves capable of electing local councillors at all in recent years, or even having any influence over their party colleagues from the other towns and villages who run the county council.

  16. Andrew Bower

    David, elected representatives can achieve things in opposition – just look at Conservative Chris Howell on the city council – but David Howarth’s only achievement in parliament seems to have been to give the city council the power to impose extra compliance costs on local businesses.

    Then there was breaking his manifesto pledge and voting against a referendum for the European constitution. Not his finest hour.

  17. David Vincent

    I suppose it depends how you measure the “achievements” of an MP, which may be better done without the prismatic spectacles of party politics. As MPs, David Lane achieved little because his principles didn’t mesh with his party leadership and Robert Rhodes James was clubbable, “wet” and a decent enough historian. Probably the best constiutuency MP in my time in Cambridge was Anne Campbell (the only one not a white male, of course – is she in fact the only MP Cambridge has ever had who wasn’t a white man?). David Howarth has done a decent enough job in many ways, and was at least one MP to remain untouched by the expenses scandal.

  18. Tim

    ‘A surprise result’ to you perhaps. but why do you assume you know anything about the Lib Dems? There was a very lively campaign with lots of information available to MEMBERS. You can sneer about it being a ‘private hustings’, but in fact it was a remarkably open and democratic process and thoroughly inspiring to be a part of. But you did have to be a member.

  19. Richard Article author


    In response to your question :”Why do you assume you know anything about the Lib Dems?”

    I am aware all the candidates campaigned hard; others have written about how they received personal visits from each of the candidates and I have read the campaign websites (produced by all candidates except Cllr Cantrill), some of those websites contained the campaign literature which was distributed during the campaign. I have no doubt that within the party it was an open and democratic process.

    I had observed every one of the candidates performing, in office, as an elected representatives. My comments were based on that experience; I thought it worthwhile sharing what I’ve seen, both in this article an many others as it offers perspective which few have have experienced personally.

    When the candidates are speaking on their websites or going house to house to meet all their electors in person Liberal Democrats’ fence sitting policies enable them to be all things to all people. I’ve spoken to Liberal Democrat members in the city about what they think they’re getting when they vote Lib Dem, and I’ve seen gaps between what people think they’re voting for and what they’re getting.

    Many people in Cambridge evidently put their crosses next to the Lib Dem symbol during elections; for that reason the party’s process of selecting its candidate is of public interest.

    I’ve not sneered about the secrecy surrounding the process, but think it is worth reporting on – and drawing attention to anomalies such as the presence of BBC TV cameras in the selection meeting but it not being generally open to the press and public (though open to party members not eligible to vote) is in my view valuable. The secrecy seen in the selection is also seen in the way the Liberal Democrats behave in office. Personally I don’t think there is an appetite for decisions on how we should run our society being made behind closed doors.

    In Cambridge the Liberal Democrats don’t only make candidate selection decisions in secret, but many of the decisions they take about how to run the city are also not made in public. The idea that a process shouldn’t be commented on because it took place in secret is ludicrous.

    If the article does just a little bit to promote the debate about who we in Cambridge should sent to Parliament to represent us it has been well worth writing.

  20. Richard Article author

    When I responded personally to Tim I added:

    There’s no need for the Liberal Democrats to be so secretive and adverse to public debate and scrutiny; I think it would strengthen them if they opened up. If you’re on the inside you could suggest:

    *Enabling comments on the Cambridge Liberal Democrat website (this would surely drive up the quality of press releases if as commenters would I expect correct facts and highlight misleading statements – driving up standards).

    *Publishing agendas and reports for council meetings to everyone at the same time – not giving the Lib Dems advance notice.

    *Opening up [elements of] officer briefings to councillors and even some party meetings to the press and public.

    *Allowing campaign groups and members of the public to address party meetings (where many real decisions are made in this city).

    I am very concerned that people might vote for the likes of Cllr Julie Smith and think, from her website, she’s green and pro-trees when in office she fells many healthy trees in the name of biodiversity; I’m concerned people may vote for Julian Huppert based on his claimed pro-civil liberties views when his local track record on using is office to hold the police to account is, in my view, lacking. For example he and other Liberal Democrats have allowed police powers to be given to security guards – without a public debate; they’ve not insisted the PACE codes (key safeguards relating to the public-police relationship) are followed in Cambridge, they’ve not followed up, as they’ve promised to do, on reports about people in custody not being given access to medical treatment and food.

    I want to do what I can to make information available in the interests of making the democratic system work well; so people know what it is they’re voting for.

  21. Martin

    I don’t agree that lack of public openness in a Party candidate election process is undemocratic or unacceptable. Political parties, like many other non-publicly-funded organisations are private concerns. Opening up a selection process to the public is essentially opening up information about strategy to opponents or risking subversion of the selection process by opponents.

    I am not convinced that the recent Conservative Open Primary for Cambridge, at which a “handful” (as you put it – was it 6?) members of the public turned up, is really anything more than a gimmick to get some press interest.

    If you don’t agree that a private non-governmental body can work internally as it wants and restrict its events and processes to its members, would you be in favour of all kinds of other things of internal interest to companies, organisations, etc. being publicly available? On what grounds?

  22. Richard Article author


    I’ve not suggested that the Lib Dems private selection meeting was undemocratic or unacceptable. (That was a suggestion raised by Tim as he argued against it.)

    I quite clearly stated “I have no doubt that within the party it was an open and democratic process. ”

    I have been careful to describe the Conservative Selection meeting as an “open caucus”, it was not a true open primary has has been run elsewhere with substantial turn-outs. I think the Conservatives had a good idea, executed badly – hopefully they’ll build on their experience for next time.

    I do think that private non-governmental bodies (and individuals) ought be allowed to operate as they like. I think the reach of freedom of information, access to meetings etc. ought only legally extend to organisations with significant public responsibilities, substantially in public ownership, or responsible for spending significant sums of public money. That said I would like to see a culture of openness and transparency reach beyond where the law goes.

    This selection process might not be so important – because we’ve got plenty of time to get to know Mr Huppert before the election – and we’ll have a chance to vote on him as an individual.

    A vote for Mr Huppert though – is as I understand it a vote for proportional representation. It’s a vote for political parties, not electors in constituencies, deciding who acts as democratic representatives. In a hung Parliament proportional representation may well be a bargaining chip used to buy the Lib Dem’s support. If proportional representation was introduced then how parties select, and order, candidates on party lists will become much more important. It will be that, as much as the votes, which decides who ends up representing us.

    I think a private (or admittedly more pejoratively, but just as accurately, “secret”) selection process will damage a party’s credibility and cost it votes. If we made the mistake of introducing proportional representation (be it through Greens or Lib Dems gaining votes later this year) then candidate selection processes will become a much bigger deal and much more important.

  23. Phil Rodgers

    “I’ve not suggested that the Lib Dems private selection meeting was undemocratic or unacceptable” – that’s pretty difficult to reconcile with your comments elsewhere on this thread.

    STV, the Lib Dem’s proposed form of PR (which is already used for some elections in Scotland and Northern Ireland), does not involve an ordered party list. Voters are able to choose between different candidates from the same party, which is surely an improvement on the current situation. It’s simply wrong to say that PR would involve “political parties, not electors in constituencies, deciding who acts as democratic representatives”. Incidentally, I was bewildered by your remark in comment 10 that STV may have lead to the Lib Dems not selecting their strongest candidate. How on earth do you work that out?

  24. David Vincent

    I have always assumed that all votes for the Lib Dems for many years had been votes for PR. It is one of their policies that seems to have been consistent over many years, and which I imagine the public associates with them. I imagine David Howarth supported it and I would have been amazed if Julian H hadn’t. I wasn’t aware they had settled on the method of PR they supported. STV has many advantages over some \ most other forms of PR, but is often opposed as it doesn’t produce as truly “proportional” a result as, for example, the list systems that Richard opposes (presumably somthing like those used in the European elections, where there is undoubtedly complete party control and some candidates – who have no realistic chance – seem to be added purely for window-dressing). I am not clear which PR system the Labour Party has committed itself to putting to a referendum should they still be in power after an election -I believe it is different again (it may be some form of AV?). Weren’t the Cambridge University MPs for many years elected by a form of STV, or was that only trus of the ones in Oxford?

  25. Richard Article author

    The current voting system reform being proposed by the Liberal Democrats would involve a list system. The current Liberal Democrat policy document on Political Reform states:

    This system would give parties seats in proportion to the number of votes they receive, ensure better representation of ethnic minorities and women in Parliament and allow people to choose between different candidates from the same party.

    Lib Dem policy is to retain constituency MPs – (after a fashion as constituencies would have to almost double in size under their proposals). With that constraint giving parties seats in proportion to the number of votes they receive has to involve a list system of some sort to allocate the balancing seats.

    The Lib Dems have told us – in their policy – who their list would be loaded with: women and ethnic minorities. I don’t think this kind of discrimination is desirable.

    Locally with respect to Cambridge the Lib Dem proposals could mean the likes of Julie Smith ending up in Parliament without electors in Cambridge, or anywhere else, having a chance to vote on her personally. I have been told that Cllr Smith finds this possibility quite attractive.

    It is entirely accurate to describe the Lib Dems proposals as “political parties, not electors in constituencies, deciding who acts as democratic representatives”. The Lib Dems are seeking electoral reform which will suit the Lib Dems, not reform which would strengthen democracy in the country. Their reforms will attempt to sure-up the party system when support for it is falling away.

    I think some opportunity for minority parties with geographically spread support to be represented more proportionately in Parliament ought to be present; I think the right place for that is in the House of Lords. I would like to see a range of groups electing their representatives to the Lords from professions, political parties and campaign groups, to religions – with the groups eligible determined by their ability to muster a substantial electorate.

    My view is that the democratic deficit proportional representation introduces, along with the fact it props up party politics which is a system I think has had its day, outweighs the benefits. I am also a strong supporter of constituency MPs with whom people can make a direct, local connection. I can’t see those Lib Dems who vote for the party on the basis of its other key tenet – localism – being too keen on substantially larger constituencies.

    It is my view, based on my personal assessment of the candidates, that the Lib Dem selection procedure did not result in them choosing their strongest candidate. It may well be that the STV electoral system contributed to this – the winner might have been lots of people’s second (or lower) choice; or it might be Lib Dem members’ opinions of the candidates varied from mine.

  26. Richard Article author

    I have corrected the link. The document which Phil Rodgers has linked to is the one to which I referred and had quoted from.

    The Liberal Democrats are proposing that within a constituency elections will be by Single Transferable Vote; however that alone won’t achieve the proportional representation they say they’ll introduce; to get that they’ll need to “top up” from party lists.

    The Liberal Democrats don’t address any of the downsides of their proposals in their policy document; they don’t mention party lists, the increase in constituency sizes, two tiers of MPs (the lesser of which they want to stuff with women and ethnic minorities), and the propping up of the established political parties despite their waning support. I encourage Mr Rogers (who is a member of the Cambridge Student Liberal Democrat group on Facebook) and others who might be considering voting Lib Dem to read between the lines of the Lib Dem’s published policy and work out for themselves what it would mean in practice for this country.

    Liberal Democrat policy details have not mattered for decades. In 2010 though, with a potential hung parliament and “Proportional Representation” as a likely bargaining chip anyone considering putting their cross next to the Lib Dem logo owes it to the rest of us to understand what it is they’re seeking to inflict on us.

  27. Phil Rodgers

    The Liberal Democrat policy does not address party lists, or two tiers of MPs, because our policy requires neither; our policy is STV (, not a list system. I realise it is this blog’s policy to slag off the Lib Dems at every opportunity, regardless of the facts – no doubt you are planning another, more determined, campaign for elected office at some point – but it is simply unfair to pretend that our policy is something that it isn’t.

  28. Richard Article author

    I am very failure familiar with STV; I have run, and stood in, STV elections myself as a student. I am in no way trying to mis-represent the Lib Dem policy. Quite the opposite – I am trying my best to determine what it is, to comment on it, and publicise it.

    Once you’ve elected constituency MPs via STV – what do you do then? STV election in constituencies alone doesn’t automatically give you proportional representation in Parliament.

    While I can imagine other ways of doing it typically this second step involves a party list.

    If you don’t let the parties produce their own lists you could derive them from the election results. So say if the Greens got a seat you could give it to the member of the green party who got the most (Number 1′s) in a constituency election? That might result in anomalies like Mr Juniper being rejected by the people of Cambridge and coming fourth or fifth in the election but ending up in Parliament anyway.

    Other options I can imagine include – one could have two ballot papers – one for your constituency and one for the “PR Top-up pool” of MPs; or you could try and make Parliament proportionally representative after the general election by kicking out selected MPs (not even the Lib Dems would go for something that crazy!).

  29. Phil Rodgers

    “I am very failure with STV” – well, I couldn’t put it better myself. Clearly you are trying to misrepresent Lib Dem policy, since you repeatedly state it to be something that it isn’t.

  30. Richard Article author

    I can find nothing on Julian Huppert’s website on the key subject of the Lib Dems proposed reforms to the electoral system.

  31. Richard Article author

    I believe Cllr Rosenstiel is a bit of an expert in this area so I have invited him to contribute:

    Mr Rosenstiel,

    There is currently a discussion on my website about what the Lib Dem’s policy for Proportional Representation in the House of Commons actually amounts to.

    Your party’s latest policy document calls for STV in constituency elections; but that alone won’t result in proportional representation in the commons and no more detail is given.

    Do you know if the Liberal Democrats have any more complete polices in this area? Given constituency MPs are to be retained, how would the extra, “top-up MPs” be selected – Would there be party lists? Would losing candidates in constituencies be invited to take up seats in Parliament?

    I’d like to invite you to comment at:


    Richard Taylor

    “Colin Rosenstiel” is also one of the most popular political search terms in Cambridge so mentioning him in a thread is great for getting more people to read it!

  32. Phil Rodgers

    You’re resorting to pretty desperate arguments now. I think it’s reasonable to assume, unless otherwise specified, that Julian, as a Lib Dem candidate, is in favour of Lib Dem policies.

  33. Richard Article author

    It is not that case that Julian Huppert, as a Lib Dem candidate, can be blindly assumed to be in favour of all Lib Dem policies.

    It would be an interesting stance if he said he would act as a mere conduit and always vote in line with his party’s wishes; but he has not taken that view.

    Already we have seen him take a position supporting the abolition of tuition fees whereas his party is wavering on the subject and appears now to be in no hurry to scrap them.

    When I meet Mr Huppert one of my first questions will be how he intends to reconcile his personal views on tuition fees with those of his party. Will he be prepared to vote against his party on tuition fees? If he loses the Lib Dem whip as a result – will he stand down and fight a by-election as an independent?

    Cambridge has already been betrayed once by an MP who promised to vote against tuition fees; but in the end when it came to the vote – party loyalty weighed heavier than loyalty to her voters.

    I’m sure a lot of what’s said by elected members of the Lib Dems isn’t party policy. I doubt for example that ex. Councillor Marion Holness was on-message with party policy when she described students as “marginal people” during the CB1 planning meeting. I don’t think councillors (including Huppert when he was a County Councillor) failing to use their positions to influence the police and protect civil liberties are acting in-line with the party’s position there.

  34. Phil Rodgers

    Having got bored of misrepresenting our policy on electoral reform, you have now turned to misrepresenting our policy on tuition fees. Here is our policy: – we are committed to abolishing them. Yes, it will take longer than originally planned, but economic circumstances (as I’m sure you’ve spotted) have changed. Nevertheless we are still committed to getting rid of them, starting with final-year fees. Pretending that Julian’s policy differs from Lib Dem policy is simply at variance with the facts.

    I didn’t suggest that Julian is “blindly” in favour of all Lib Dem policies, but it’s surely not an unreasonable position that, as a Lib Dem candidate, he can be assumed to be in favour of Lib Dem policies unless there’s some evidence to the contrary.

    I’m sorry to be disagreeing with you so thoroughly this afternoon – I do think this blog has something useful to contribute, when it isn’t devoted to baseless attacks on Lib Dem policy and candidates. So let me ask you a question for a change: Are you planning to stand in the local elections this year?

  35. Colin Rosenstiel (Via email) Article author

    >Your party’s latest policy document calls for STV
    >in constituency elections; but that alone won’t
    >result in proportional
    >representation in the commons

    That’s where you are wrong. For all its limitations from smaller than optimal constituencies, that’s exactly what STV has delivered in the Irish Republic since the foundation of the Free State.

    The party policy has not, as far as I know, been further developed from the conference resolution which I myself proposed in 1994. You will find my proposing speech on my web site. I’m not sure the resolution is on the web.

  36. Richard Article author

    So, if the Lib Dems are still running with what Colin Rosenstiel proposed in 1998 (94?) they are not guaranteeing a system which “would give parties seats in proportion to the number of votes they receive” as promised in their current policy.

    What they are proposing according to Rosenstiel is STV within each constituency then hoping that will result in proportional representation.

    STV results in approximate Proportional Representation in Ireland (and in Scottish Local Elections) only as a result of them having multi-seat constituencies with all seats elected at the same time.

    While the Lib Dems are proposing to reduce the number of MPs thereby increasing the size of constituencies I cannot see any proposal to make constituencies even bigger (essentially turn them into regions) by combining constituencies to create multi-member seats.

    One way the Lib Dem proposal could make sense is if they are also proposing creating larger, multi-member constituencies. This would make their policy statement: “MPs would still represent a constituency” rather misleading if that constituency became a region of half a million people.

    There is something missing from the Lib Dem policy; it’s either or both of:

    *What they’re proposing won’t have the effect they claim it will.

    *They’re proposing multi-member constituencies and not saying so clearly.

    Colin Rosenstiel’s suggestion that they’re still working on a policy derived from his 1998 speech suggests they’re not going for a list based system. Cllr Rosenstiel’s speech was as anti party-lists as I am.

  37. Colin Rosenstiel (Via email) Article author

    The Single Transferable Vote in multi-member constituencies is very clearly the Liberal Democrat policy as reiterated at regular intervals in successive conference resolutions and leadership speeches on the subject. However, I don’t have access to any more recent policy document than the resolution I proposed in 1998 (I think I got that date wrong before) which was unambiguous on the subject.

    STV in single member seats is not the same system and is referred to as the Alternative Vote to distinguish it.

    It is clearly accepted that the introduction of STV would require a general redrawing of constituency boundaries. That is why it has always been accepted as not a change that can be made instantly. The Scottish local government experience is helpful there because it demonstrated that the process could be carried out rather more quickly than previously anticipated.

    As far as the party has been able to put its policy into the practice the results are to be seen in Scottish local government. The present Liberal Democrat administration at the Guildhall also introduced STV for the election of City tenants’ representatives. This was a case where the party was not constrained by negotiations with coalition partners.

    There are no hard and fast rules on STV constituency sizes, even in advice from the Electoral Reform Society.

  38. Phil Rodgers

    You really are clutching at straws now. “MPs would still represent a constituency” is perfectly accurate. “MPs would no longer represent a constituency” would be highly misleading, since it’s not true.

    Do you accept that most of your descriptions of Lib Dem policy in this thread have been wrong? And are you going to answer my question in 40.?

  39. David Vincent

    Good. Now we have established that (a) the Lib Dems still support PR (no surprises there); (b) the method will be STV with no additional list (welcome clarification, for me at least); (c) the PPC for the party supports this policy (again no surprises); (d) STV will require bigger constituencies, but how much bigger isn’t clear (presumably it will depend on how many members per constituency is considered best – eg 4 members would seem to imply a constituency four times bigger – perhaps county-sized?). I am not sure that size would be enough to suggest there would be a major loss of local representation – “greater Cambridge” probably already includes parts of at least three constituencies.

    Richard – surely this would give better chances to vote for “person not party” and for individuals who want to seek cross-party or single issue support to stand with a chance of election? As an apparent “independent”, I am not clear why are you so opposed to it (other than because it is put forward by the Liberal Democrats).

  40. John Ionides

    Indeed, Richard — by the same reasoning the Lib Dem policies would result in individuals no longer being represented by an MP (because strictly speaking they would be represented by more than one). I can understand the Lib Dem enthusiasm for this (and not just for rather blatent and self-serving electoral advantage it would give them) but whether it would actually be better for the people (as opposed to the political class) seems very much open to doubt (to put it mildly). Indeed, there is real value in having a single person ultimately responsible for a given area, and that is something that is lost under Colin’s proposals.

  41. David Vincent

    Single member constituencies. but with elections by “alternative vote” (I think this is numbering your candidate choices, eliminating the lowest, counting again etc) were once discussed widely. I don’t know if this what Labour are now apparently proposing to put to referendum (could well be something completely different). It has the merits of retaining the “one member”, but is less “proportional”. But it does mean you can vote for your preferred “small party” candidate, without all that nonsense about “wasting” your vote.

  42. Richard Article author

    I spoke to Colin Rosenstiel this morning during recess in a City Council licensing committee meeting.

    He told me :

    *During the private Lib Dem selection meeting he had asked Julian Huppert about the Lib Dem’s electoral reform proposals and was impressed by his response.

    *The Liberal Democrats are likely to use Counties as constituencies initially. Under such a plan we would have six MPs for Cambridgeshire.

    *In the longer term he thought the Lib Dems would seek to make constituencies locally appriopriate; but not to the extent of allowing one member constituencies even in special cases such as islands.

    Update: 26/1/10: I omitted a mention of another benefit that Colin Rosenstiel mentioned – that people are free to choose between different factions of the same party in a STV vote; he used the Northern Ireland Assembly as an example of where this is important, and works. In Cambridgeshire this would let people choose between a Cambridge Liberal Democrat and a Huntingdon Liberal Democrat or one from elsewhere in the County. This might have an interesting consequence of giving those who’re not so anti-car and anti- significant A14 improvements being able to vote for a Lib Dem. It would also highlight how disparate views within the Lib Dem party are.

  43. Edward

    I’m not entirely sure I see the story here, Richard. I’m as aware as anyone why the Lib Dems support proportional representation, but multi-member constituencies are hardly a travesty to the democratic process.

    They actually have certain advantages – if one has more MPs, one can lobby them all and thus their complaints will have greater weight, there’s less of a problem when an MP dies or resigns with constituency business being dealt with and holders of minority opinions are more likely to have somebody who agrees with them.

    I don’t favour multi-member constituencies, but this is a storm in a teacup.

    Also, Rosenstiel is mad if he thinks single-member constituencies will never happen. They would on Orkney and Shetland, and probably the Isle of Man if the Lib Dems consolidate that.

  44. Richard Article author


    The length of this thread is not an indication of how passionately I oppose multi-member constituencies. It is more a measure of how much effort it took me to get to grips, to some extent, with what the Lib Dems are proposing (others’ mileage may vary). I have already explained why I think the Lib Dem proposals on this are important at the moment.

    I do oppose very large constituencies with large numbers of representatives. If Cambridge’s constituency was doubled in size (encompassing the geographical reality of the city) and elections held by STV that wouldn’t in my view be total travesty. If we lost the connection between a reasonable geographical constituency and MPs – as I think we have in the European Parliament – or would under Lib Dem plans then I do think that would be immensely damaging.

    Edward wrote:

    “if one has more MPs, one can lobby them all and thus their complaints will have greater weight”

    I don’t think that is the case at all. Multiple members add confusion and removes a clear line of responsibility and accountability; they certainly don’t add weight to a constituent’s views. Multi-member constituencies might result in MPs losing their role as advocates for constituents who find themselves being treated badly by arms of the state; as MPs may find it impossible, particularly given the importance of confidentiality, to divvy up the casework (and having all 5, or 20 of them pursue “complaints” in parallel as suggested would be massively wasteful and confusing).

    I would like to see MPs focus more on scrutinising government and ensuring we’ve got good laws and less on acting as a one-stop-shop for all manner of issues, but there is a key role of advocate of last resort which needs to be maintained as a key part of the balance of power between the citizen and state.

    As for when an MP dies or becomes ill – a by-election can be held remarkably quickly. This is much more preferable to what I’ve personally experienced in my local council ward of Arbury where Cllr Levy, due to illness, did no council work for many many months and instead of putting his seat up for election (even when other elections were being held) Cambridge Lib Dems passed a special motion at the City Council to allow him to stay on as a councillor despite not attending for longer than the period which ought result in automatic loss of office.

  45. Edward

    There’s nevertheless a problem that holders of minority opinions are almost entirely shut out under the current system. If you’re a Tory or a Green in Cambridge, there’s nobody who speaks to your issues and Labour supporters only have influence insofar as there are direct links to the government. Expanding the constituency boundaries would only exacerbate this.

    All of this is not to say that I disagree with the constituency system – certainly the European Parliament system is a travesty, and I’d much rather return to the pre-1999 system of large constituencies, with perhaps a small top-up list element if necessary.

    Certainly a by-election can be held quickly, but it does not necessarily follow that it always will. In national politics there is always a temptation to delay them when the governing party polls badly or has a very small majority.

    I’m not sure how it’s ‘wasteful and confusing’ for multiple MPs to push the same complaint. That just seems like effective lobbying – unified cross-party complaints from a greater number of individuals is both more newsworthy (increasing the attention paid to it) and more ominous (rendering the chances of a swift response greater). Not that it would be a unified complaint in many cases, of course. Some MPs would agree with the complaint and not follow it up, some would disagree and not follow it up. That seems like representative democracy in action to me.

    As for the wish “to see MPs focus more on scrutinising government and ensuring we’ve got good laws and less on acting as a one-stop-shop for all manner of issues”, I think that’s a little utopian. Most voters are not wildly interested in scrutinising government, nor do they necessarily have strong policy preferences. Constituent work both increases public participation by giving people issues they can relate to and helps to build a base of support by showing concrete achievements.

    Combine that with a strong party system, and there’s no way you’ll get many MPs being anything other than party line voters who do constituent work on the side. And much as you might wish otherwise, a strong party system isn’t going away, because almost everybody who is heavily involved in day-to-day politics is a member of an organised political party and makes use of the organisational advantages that provides them.

    Once again, I’m not actually in favour of multi-member constituencies, but I think you’re ignoring some of their benefits and instead engaging in ‘the sky is falling’ type histrionics that are almost as silly as your worries about the Lib Dems filling their top-up lists with women and ethnic minorities.

  46. Richard Article author

    “as silly as your worries about the Lib Dems filling their top-up lists with women and ethnic minorities.”

    The Liberal Democrat electoral reform policy document states they will bring in a system which will “ensure better representation of ethnic minorities and women in Parliament”.
    They don’t explain the mechanism. Only Rosenstiel, not the policy document, says that mechanism isn’t party lists.

    I think the temptation to delay polls is even greater when there isn’t a large number of electors left disenfranchised. In my local example, had Mr Levy been the only representative for a ward I expect the Lib Dem’s motion to exempt him from the rules on being thrown out for inactivity would have met opposition.

    I disagree with the suggestion the party system is not going away; support for it is falling away, fewer people are joining parties. That those who are getting elected still tend to be members of parties despite this is a problem, not a reason to keep them.

    As for supporters of those with minority opinions, with sufficient, though geographically disperse, support to warrant a voice in Parliament – I agree this is a downside of the current system. I’d solve this with reform of the House of Lords; we have a couple of Green Lords already – if they were elected by party members that would give them a electoral mandate.

  47. David Vincent

    There should be more representation of women and minority communities (and disabled people for that matter) in parliament. The only effective method we have seen of doing this so far was the Labour Party’s short-lived women only short lists. It’s rather like the ways all the parties are using “aspiration” now – largely meaningless. Everyone supports social mobility so long as it is always one way, upwards.

  48. Lucy Price

    I agree there should be more representation of minority communities but perhaps instead of ‘women only’ lists there should be more done to promote politics/parliament in schools/university to make it an aspirational & attainable career choice for all in the community.

    I disagree with positive discrimination if it results in appointments of candidates with lesser qualifications/skills just because they tick a box.

  49. David Vincent

    I see nothing to suggest that there aren’t enough highly skilled candidates out there who are not fully able white men. I see a good deal to suggest that those picking the candidates favour such candidates when they are given a choice which includes one or more of them, even if they don’t realise they are doing it. Cambridge currently has a choice of four candidates, all of whom seem extremely well qualified to be an MP (leaving policies aside). They are well educated, thoughtful and, for the most part, seem to have done a variety of proper jobs (rather than just worked for political “think-tanks” or as party apparatchiks). I doubt if in any selection process it was clearly felt that a white man was more “electable” (although some individuals involved might have done). I just think each party, in its own way, has missed an opportunity, and I find it disappointing.

  50. Edward

    Surely the fact that unpopular parties are still mopping up all the seats is evidence that the party system isn’t going away?

    Certainly very few people join political parties. The Lib Dems have perhaps 250 in Cambridge, Labour has maybe 500 (and our numbers have held up much better here than in some much safer constituencies) and if the Tories have a hundred I’d be amazed.

    Yet organised political parties predominate. So why aren’t we swamped with independent councillors? Because they have no organisational structures. They have to recruit leaflet deliverers, sort out the rental of office space, fundraise, research, deal with casework and all the other tribulations of running for office and governing.

    Party candidates, on the other hand, have an organisation dealing with this. A small one, certainly, but since the work is shared and since much of it rests on ancient foundations, nevertheless a sufficient one.

    And even if an independent does succeed, maintaining his or her support network is difficult. People who support independents tend to be less loyal through thick and thin than those belonging to the Labour Party. Just look at any insurgent political force and see where it is three years later. Either the activists have had a massive argument and split up, or the force has become institutionalised and is essentially just another party.

    Parties are just the best way to maintain a support system for electoral candidates and elected representatives.

    P.S. As far as the issue of women/ethnic minority candidates goes, I find Lucy Price’s comment on positive discrimination deeply disingenuous. It’s an old canard, and there’s no evidence that it does “result[] in appointments of candidates with lesser qualifications/skills just because they tick a box”. Being an elected representative is not rocket science and there are no shortage of women and ethnic minorities who could do it as well (or as badly) as the current incumbents.

  51. Edward

    P.S. My eyes must have skipped over your last comment, Richard. I’d agree that Lords reform is a good solution to that. On the other hand, I don’t like list systems any more than you do (their occasional and mostly over-emphasised successes at improving demographic representation aside).

    So how would you accomplish that without using large multi-member constituencies or requiring every voter to vote for as many candidates as there are members of the Lords?

  52. Lucy Price

    Re: “result in appointments of candidates with lesser qualifications/skills just because they tick a box”

    How can you know that there aren’t better candidates who are from another background if you haven’t been able to include them on the short-list? The other ‘minorities/majorities’ don’t get a look in. I’m not disputing that some ethnic minorities/sexes picked in a positive discrimination list will do a good job but if you don’t have a level playing field to pick from – then it isn’t fair.

    The best person should win no matter what their background/personality and perhaps more importantly a constituency should be able to pick the person best suited to their area to represent them no matter who they are, what their background is and the colour of their skin.

  53. Richard Article author

    I would like to see some seats in the Lords made available to membership based groups able to muster an electorate of a sufficient size, or having demonstrated a certain level of support in a general election.

    I would like to see elections within bodies to determine who would take up their seats. ie. doctors, churches, members of political parties, students and others would elect (perhaps via a multi-choice STV election) who represents them in the Lords.

    We already have Greens, Doctors, Religious Leaders etc. in the Lords; my proposal is to require them to be elected by the geographically disparate “constituencies” they represent rather than appointed by politicians.

    I don’t think this ought be the only route of entry to the Lords. I think it is also of value to have ex. ministers, MPs, military leaders and perhaps even ex. civil servants in the second house.

    While I think hereditary Lords and Bishops ought be removed straight away I think other changes could be more gradual eg. by affecting new entrants only. I don’t think we should be scared of looking forward and creating new structures and arrangements which we can now envisage as a result of technological advances. If web-based groups took up the opportunities presented by my proposals that would be fantastic; but clearly safeguards ensuring the integrity of “membership lists” (Electoral roll matching) would be required.

    I think it’s important the House of Lords:

    *contains experienced people who are able to do the job of improving legislation well.

    *doesn’t threaten the supremacy of the House of Commons. ie. isn’t elected in the same way.

    *is democratic (but not 100% directly elected;)

    *provides some degree of continuity when compared to a more responsive commons.

  54. Richard Article author

    Phil Rodgers asked: “Are you planning to stand in the local elections this year?”

    I’ve not decided what I’ll do in relation to the upcoming elections yet.

  55. David Vincent

    I am not entirely clear why those “organised” into religious groups should be given additional representation, particularly given the disparate and fissiparous nature of many such groupings. Of course, I admit there has been some merit in the senior bishops of the CoE being able to take part in debates over the years, but would like to see them leavened with some moral philosophers from different traditions. I suppose we could go back to the tradition of various universities (perhaps the Russell Group only?) electing members, although for the Lords rather than the Commons (and they were – for the last 50 years or so at least – elected by STV). What the electorate would be seems more nebulous (MAs, resident MAs, an electoral college weighted between students, fellows and staff…). It seems to me that we may abolish one odd institution and replace it with something even odder.

  56. Andrew Bower

    David, you’ve hit the nail on the head with your last sentence.

    “It seems to me that we may abolish one odd institution and replace it with something even odder.”

    This constant itch for constitutional meddling is just utopian fantasy, whoever is pushing it.

  57. Richard Article author

    My view is that we’ve been on a gentle continuum heading towards increased democracy for centuries. Taking the next steps such as reforming the lords, removing the constitutional role of the monarch is something we need to do. I’d like to see something relatively quiet, resulting in no major upheaval, but a revolution none the less.

    If Cambridge elected an MP who’d refuse to take the oath of allegiance but would still insist on taking up their seat that would be a great start. None of the current candidates are proposing to do that.

    David – I am proposing taking the special treatment away from particular churches. I don’t think the church or royals ought play any special role in Government, though the Church’s voice ought be heard like any other group’s.

  58. David Vincent

    Richard – you said “I would like to see elections within bodies to determine who would take up their seats. ie. doctors, churches, members of political parties, students and others”. I was merely questioning why “the church” should be replaced by “churches”, thus giving additional representation to those who subscribe to some form of organised “religion” (or at least those with a minimum number of “subscribers”). But I imagine the same would be true of groups such as “the professions” (is a doctor entitled to more representation than a nurse or a ward cleaner, for instance, and if so which doctors – is the BMA representative etc?) or “students” (an amorphous group at best – only university students, or only students at some universities, or only full-time students). I don’t especially want a second chamber which is fully elected on the same basis as the commons, save only for a difference in the length of term or method of election. It would be a recipe for more of the same sort of people as are infesting the commons. In the absence of that appointment for life by the government of any particular day seems as good an arbitrary system as any that might take its place.

  59. Richard Article author

    I hope I’ve now clarified that I don’t want to see any particular church, given special treatment.

    My proposal is that in some cases instead of the Government of the day saying we think it would be useful to have a doctor or two scrutinising legislation in the second house and picking one they’ve seen on the television; I’m proposing letting the members of that profession pick their own representative. I think there is room for improvement, and increased democratisation (making use of technology), without destabilising upheaval.

    1. Richard Taylor Article author

      While this would be an improvement on what we now have I think a mass online deliberation system to scrutinise and propose amendments to legislation could effectively replace the Lords.

      We could use such a system to seek the views of all interested, including those with specific relevant experience.

      Given the staff and budget of the Lords such an open, public, system could actively reach out to seek to identify those best placed to take part in deliberations and help them participate.

  60. Richard Article author

    It has been drawn to my attention that the URL provided in the above comment by Phil Rodgers which used to link to the Lib Dem’s then current tuition fees policy is no longer active:

    In light of this I have made the letter which was available via that link available at:

    I could not find the above linked letter on Nick Clegg’s new site.

    It appears that Nick Clegg’s website has been moved to the proprietary “etelligent” system from Being Digital which runs on Microsoft’s ASP technology; Nick Clegg’s previous site ran on open source WordPress and PHP.

    Huge numbers of external links from those discussing Lib Dem policy, such as the one on this thread, have been broken by the change as have many links from within the family of Lib Dem websites.

    It appears incompetence with web-technology is endemic among party leaders in the UK. David Cameron revamped his “Webcameron” website a couple of years ago; he too broke many web-links and deleted enormous amounts of valuable content, which could have been used to hold him to account for his future actions, from the web.

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