Chris Bones writes… The Party Reform Commission – taking the Lib Dems forward

At the beginning of the year Nick Clegg as Leader, Simon Hughes as Party President, and Chris Rennard as Chief Executive asked me and my colleagues, Cllr Duncan Greenland, Kate Parminter and Paul Burstow MP, to produce a report into how the Liberal Democrats’ internal organisation could be built upon to double our number of MPs over the next two general elections. I was delighted to have this opportunity to serve the party, which I have supported for nearly 30 years, in this way. The process has been hard work, frustrating at times, surprising – but in the end rewarding.

All conference delegates should have received the executive summary of our work. An electronic version of both the executive summary and the full report, which runs to over 90 pages, will be available later today for party members in the members-only section of Liberal Democrat Voice. There will be an email from the Party President going out to all members later this week drawing their attention to our work as well as a number of articles in this week’s Lib Dem News.

I know that many Liberal Democrat bloggers, including Stephen Tall here on Lib Dem Voice, have expressed some concerns about how the distribution of the report has been handled. I understand and to some extent share those concerns. Communication in these circumstances is a problem straight out of the management textbooks, and unlike the answers in the textbooks I have to take issue with those of you out there who believe there is one right way of doing things.

Whilst the way we organise decision making and at times shroud it in unnecessary mystery is an area we take on in our report and address through some very direct proposals for streamlining and opening up party structures and processes, there was a very real dilemma in the way we rolled out the full report. The problem with resolving a dilemma is that, whatever you do, some people are not going to be happy and I take accountability for the decisions made on communication given the structures and processes we employ today.

Under our current setup we felt it would be wrong for affected party bodies and committees, and indeed potentially affected individuals, to read about our proposals for their futures at the same time as the mass of the party membership. Had we done this we would have faced equally powerful criticism from those who believe that the democratically elected bodies that run the party should be communicated to and consulted with first.

We as a Commission tried to ensure that we spoke to those who would be most affected by our proposals first, and explain our thinking to them and engage in dialogue with them – a process which is currently ongoing with, amongst others, the Federal Executive and the English Council Executive. Additionally we have had to present to the Federal Conference Committee, to the parliamentary parties in Westminster, and (rightly) to staff, many of whose roles are affected by the review. We have still to hold reviews with the party in Scotland and Wales, and no doubt there will be others along the way who want their say.

In addition we have the environmental dilemma of printing off a 90-plus page full report for every conference delegate or, as we eventually decided, to agree a shorter executive summary and issue the full report online, drawing as much attention to it as possible through channels such as LDV, Lib Dem News and others.

Finally, there was the issue of timing the release of the full report: August, when everyone is away on holiday, or wait till the first week of September when Lib Dem News re-starts, and we can get as much publicity for it as possible.

This may sound defensive – it isn’t meant to be: it is an explanation of the real dilemmas that face any leadership in how to communicate proposals for change. It is a shame that for a small minority the process of communication has led to entirely inaccurate speculations about motivations, hidden agendas and internal politics.

However, I can appreciate that from the outside the to-ing fro-ing between various opaque party committees and the communication dilemmas on timing may have looked somewhat unaccountable and undemocratic. Whilst the communication issues are real and sensitivities need managing in any organization, the to-ing and fro-ing does need challenging and changed for the better.

I believe that the whole process therefore made it clear that we a need a much more transparent and accountable decision making process for issues such as this report. And that, happily, is precisely what this report is proposing.

In coming to our conclusions we heard from hundreds of party members and local parties, spoke to many leading figures in the party with a diverse range of experience and knowledge and consulted widely with party bodies and committees. We received a great response from the party as a whole, which was characterised by consistency in the issues being raised.

We went to considerable efforts to encourage contributions from across the party. Many individuals and bodies did engage with us, and we have used their ideas and suggestions a great deal in our work. Indeed we engaged in a second round of consultations – directly with local parties – precisely because there was a clear desire amongst many in the party to be part of looking for new ideas to help take us forward.

It is inevitable that when change is proposed it generates criticism: if this report didn’t get criticized then I don’t think we would have done our job properly: it is disappointing that some of this criticism is based on hearsay, assumptions and assertion as to our intentions rather than on the content: on the whole this is not a helpful approach. On the other hand we have had some thoughtful and engaging criticism based on the detail of the report which I believe will add significantly to any final decision.

I hope all interested party members will take the time to read the report, either the summary or, if they are feeling brave as it is fairly lengthy, the full report and then come to their own conclusions and views.

I am sure that we haven’t got it all right; equally I am sure that with further debate and discussion what will emerge as final detailed solutions will be developments from the direction of travel that the report lays out. What I am certain of is that without addressing the issues we raise and without adopting the broad thrust of the changes we are proposing we will not reach anything like our full political potential.

As a former constituency chair, a candidate in local government elections, and a still active member of my local party I would feel let down if those who lead our party, federally and at state and regional levels do not grasp the nettle and lead the changes required: looking at the bulk of the submissions and engaging with a wide range of members I don’t think I am in the minority in hoping that the change agenda is delivered rather than debated at length.

There will of course be a chance to debate the report at conference, an opportunity I am very much looking forward to. However before then for those with questions or comments I’m happy to answer them. LDV has kindly agreed to use the members-only section of this website as a forum for the asking and answering of those questions. If you put your questions in there over the next week or so I will reply to them all – if they get there before conference, they will be replied to before conference.

Our recommendations are aimed at creating the conditions for continued and increasing success at the next general election and beyond. Too often in our party we can agree on a desired outcome, for example success in local elections in key areas, but following through on this is a difficult and tortuous process. Moving resources, both people and money, requires lengthy and passionate debate which often delays or even prevents us doing what is required to win. This inhibits us and must change.

To set our federal budget currently requires nearly 20 meetings of five different committees. We must ask ourselves: is this really the most efficient method of working; is this the method most likely to ensure we are all working towards the same political strategy and allocating our precious resources correctly?

Our recommendations call for significant changes from all sections of the party: its leadership, its professional organisation, states, regions and local parties. These recommendations do not just reflect our values, but also reflect the belief we heard so often when we consulted with the party that we must change the way we do business. Our key proposals include:

• Empowering our leadership to deliver its strategic aims through a new management board responsible for setting and delivering the party’s overall political strategy and budget;
• Ensuring accountability and transparency in decision making by clarifying the role of party committees to ensure that we have real democratic accountability in our party;
• An audit board which will ensure that we hold ourselves to the highest possible standards in public life;
• Broadening the political battlefield by strengthening regions and local parties and developing newly winnable seats;
• Rapid improvement in our use of technology to ensure that we stay at the cutting edges of campaigning;
• A suggestion that those who are elected on the Liberal Democrat ticket should contribute back financially to the party;
• Improving internal communications between the ‘Westminster’ party and the wider party, especially our local government base;
• Changing and improving the way the party interacts with its members and volunteers – so that there are more opportunities for involvement in the party than just delivering leaflets or donating money;
• Taking steps to encourage highly talented candidates, especially those from non-traditional backgrounds, to become PPCs in winnable seats and working to do all we can to get them elected;
• Introducing a Leadership Academy to oversee training and development of parliamentarians, candidates, staff and volunteers.

If we want to take our party forward and deliver on our leader’s aim to double our number of MPs we must up our game. Our work has outlined a path by which we can do this. It is now up to the party as a whole to deliver it.

* Professor Christopher Bones is Dean of Henley Business School at the University of Reading, and chaired the Liberal Democrats’ Party Reform Commission.

Editor’s note: as Professor Bones mentions, he has offered to answer questions from party members on the Reform Commission’s report. To put your question to him, please access the LDV members’ forum, and use the thread headed BONES COMMISSION ON PARTY REFORM – ask your questions here! in the Party Organisation section.

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31 Comments

  • The Bones Commission is a long over due. Nick Clegg takes great credit for initating it. The party is far more professional than it was but the need for streamlining of decision-making, clear accountability, a focus on serious development of leaders at the levels of community, Council, Assmblies and Parliaments and the rapid up-grading of campaigning capabilities linked to a clear liberal and internationalist narrative are all vital

  • Tiger Tiger 3rd Sep '08 - 1:18pm

    Err Geoffrey – if you’re looking for a response, suggest you re-post that to the members’ forum as suggested above!

  • “as we eventually decided, to agree a shorter executive summary and issue the full report online,”

    I must have missed this – where is it?

  • “Liberal Democrats now support tax cuts financed by cuts in our spending plans”

    I must have missed this too. Can’t remember Nick ever saying that.

    The MIH motion says “delivering big tax cuts for those who are struggling” like….erm… such as maybe the 4p cut of income tax which is already party policy passed by conference

    Not the same thing as Geoff suggests is now party policy.

    And Make it Happen is a FPC paper (a democratically elected party body). And its going to conference (the soverign policy making body of the party)

    Sounds to me like Geoff is demoralising himself needlessly.

  • What Clegg mentioned was finding £20bn in the government’s spending plans that we didn’t agree with that could be used for other spending priorities.

    This is exactly the same approach taken at the 2005 election.

    That is completely different tha your assertion that Clegg was announcing £20bn cuts in “our” spending plans.

    Your assertion is plain wrong.

    Sometimes people listen but don’t hear.

    Othertimes they listen and choose to misinterpret because it suits them.

  • David Allen 4th Sep '08 - 12:06am

    Geoffrey, expriest, let’s just read what Ed Davey said tonight on LDV shall we, and we’ll surely see who’s right. Now to quote Davey:

    “We will go into the next election with not just tax cuts for people on low and middle incomes, but net tax cuts overall, and that is a big shift…..”

    “…the party would seek to reallocate 20 billion pounds of public spending …to meet LibDem priorities, with any surplus passed on as tax cuts…”

    … Oh dear! This tax cut is a really big thing (para 1), but then again, it might not even exist at all (para 2).

    I think it’s a score draw. Geoffrey 1, expriest 1.

    Coherence, consistency and credibility, er, nil I’m afraid.

  • It may be that one of the priorities used for the £20bn of savings is tax cuts. That is a clear possibility, depending on the fiscal situation at the time of the next general election and the party’s wishes.

  • Steve Travis 4th Sep '08 - 9:59am

    “Broadening the political battlefield by strengthening regions and local parties and developing newly winnable seats;”

    One way to do this would be to send in a “flying squad” of activists into relatively moribund, but with great potential, constituencies over a seriees of weekends to bootstrap some activity by surveying etc.

  • neverapriest 4th Sep '08 - 11:18am

    Steve – a flying squad of which activists exactly?

  • Steve Travis 4th Sep '08 - 11:23am

    neverapriest – it could provide a diversion between by-elections, where there always seem to be loads of activists willing to travel. They could show us how its done.

  • Hywel Morgan 4th Sep '08 - 11:35am

    An idea along the lines Steve suggests is in the report.

  • David Allen 4th Sep '08 - 2:56pm

    Expriest, it is absolutely ludicrous for us to say that tax cutting is the Big Idea that we now stand for, and, that it might happen, but then again, it might not!

  • A suggestion that those who are elected on the Liberal Democrat ticket should contribute back financially to the party;

    Will this get us better candidates? I think not. If people give up time and earning potential in order to be candidates and then have to contribute, it merely means that we get candidates who either have private means or are retired so that they have the time.

    It then works against us being an egalitarian party. I don’t know of any political job that pays better than an equivalent private job, so to have a party “tax” on our representatives is really crazy. These people end up giving an awful lot of their private time unpaid. Charging them for the privilege is sheer lunacy.

    I have stood as a candidate at the local level in the past, and if successful the DC or CC allowances would have represented a real cut in income for a lot more work. Running a campaign for several months at a critical time for my business resulted in a significant loss and downsizing of my business because of the time spent. And you want to tax me for it?

    This really is the quick way to reduce our candidate pool.

  • This report is v good & long overdue.

    I have done my stint, 11 yrs county councilloor and 4 yrs leader of big Council, but continue to be frustrated at the amaturism of party as a whole and, in partic., elected groups such as English Exec and policy working groups.

    When I set up and ran a v successfull conference business it was often suggested that I help with getting sponsorship and exhibitors at conferences. 3 times I offered but this was never followed up because people on committees change, old hands dont want anyone rocking the boat etc., sometimes officers of the party want a quite life.

    Now I have retired so I am not seeking any belated offers.

    Members need to recognise that we need to appoint good professionals get on with job and sack the poor ones- and no good decisions are made by committees, even if it is democratic!

    I hope this report leads to real change – but I am not holding my breath!!

  • Jefferson Horsley 5th Sep '08 - 4:43pm

    I have only read the summary. Long overdue and hopefully lays the foundations for improvement in the structure and the decision making processes within the party.

    I am appalled that only 10% of funding gets into campaigning and that is where it matters most if we are to succeed.

    I also liked the recognition that where we have been in office for sometime we are becoming managerial rather than initiating new ideas especially in local government but with some important exceptions.. That is a real danger and must be avoided.

    I do hope that conference can overcome its aversion to wanting to exercise its sovereignity over membership fees and the like and let the professionals being to manage the party with the scrutiny function enhanced as a safeguard.

    See you in Bournemouth

  • Elizabeth Nicholson 6th Sep '08 - 6:30am

    I was in Torquay in the early 80s; perhaps this time we will go on and form the next government.

  • peter greenhill 6th Sep '08 - 7:32am

    We are lacking a mission statement votor’s do not really know what we are
    The back of the membership card says it all but only we read it – that’s a pity Broadcast that absorbable statement and we will be understood, perhaps for the first time by many. I use it on doorsteps and its a very effective tool
    The sentiments are the model for every major party now but its our foundation

  • rochdale cowboy 6th Sep '08 - 9:35am

    Very good idea – making those elected on an income / allowance – give back financially to the party – here in Rochdale every elected cllr pays a % to the party that employs an organiser and pays for all leaflets – very successfully – only drawback is less fundraising which can limit bringing in new members and member get togethers

  • francis oeser 7th Sep '08 - 12:10pm

    Beyond all the restructuring lies a universal aspect (all democracies are facing): that the electorate don’t believe in ‘policy statements’ anymore; that politics is simply another group keeping power, NOT serving the citizenry. Look at the disinterested younger voters or the reluctance to help during elections, or the unreality of Westminster activities. There is a sense that too much tax money is spent on matters NOT within the UK (like Iraq). The L/D’s must consider doubling amounts spent on NHS, Education, leisure, local services, housing etc. HOW this is funded is our policy! That would encourage much support!

  • Cllr Mrs Sonia Holmes 7th Sep '08 - 4:50pm

    The question I ask myself about long reports are – I certainly cannot read and digest them all at one time as my time is very busy. There is one suggestion that might be acceptable. To print long reports in bite size and send them out once a month and update them on request. They could be sent out with the Libdem Newspaper or as requested etc.

  • Peter Hirst 8th Sep '08 - 12:16pm

    I have three comments from my rather cursory look at the full document.

    There is a danger of missing the wood for the trees i.e. missing the vital ingredient because of all the excellent detail.

    The need to build in some inherent flexibility as circumstances are constantly changing and we must change with them.

    Related to the other two to focus on what the electorate want, not merely in policy issues, in terms of principles, role modelling and something fresh that can catch their imagination. We are looking for that moment when the collective view is ahaa now we’ve got it. The Liberal Democrats are the change we seek.

  • peter greenhill 8th Sep '08 - 2:20pm

    We need clarity and brevity they are a winning combination. If we insist on producing worthy documents that even our exec agree are unlikely to be read, we risk even the best ideas being misunderstood or failing to gather support.
    Good editing is the equal of great text. Together they produce a good read
    We are the best party but we need to let the votors know why – wit and clarity

  • Guy Fancourt 9th Sep '08 - 9:59pm

    Not able to access excecutive summary as link is written wrong. Not clear from website where to go to find it ?

    Have read the article it is interesting to note that a lot of trouble has been spent in updating structures to allow more MP’s to be elected.

    Recently I have been involved in a selection process for our PPC and have discovered that the main problem the party faces is finding anyone willing to stand. This is something that needs to be addressed. Our requirements where quite stringent since taking on a constituency that requires a lot of work needs a very talented candidtate with wide experience.

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