Liberal Democrats who want to understand how the party runs can easily become confused by the range of offices, executives, committees, subcommittees and working groups that they encounter. Some have grand sounding names and are made up of “the great and the good”. Others are little heard of with powers unknown. One of the most obscure is probably the English Council.
I confess to being a bit of a nerd when it comes to matters of party organisation, but even I have found myself asking – “what on earth does English Council do?”
Last year, through my regional party, I was elected as a member of it in an attempt to answer this question. As I very much doubt that I am alone in my confusion, and following discussions with co-editor Mark Pack, I’ve also been asked to take on the role of “English Council correspondent” for Liberal Democrat Voice. I will be writing the occasional article here to highlight the work of this little known but important party body, and thought it appropriate to start with a brief overview of the role of the English Council as I understand it.
The Liberal Democrats are a federal party. That is to say the party is a federation made up of three components; the state parties of England, Scotland and Wales. (The party has chosen not to establish a state party in Northern Ireland – instead recognising the Alliance party as our sister party in that part of the UK.) While some functions are reserved at the federal level, the party’s constitution devolves most powers and functions to the state parties.
While this arrangement is quite straightforward for Scotland and Wales – in England things are a bit more complicated. In theory the Liberal Democrats in England remain an autonomous body. In practice, in many areas, they have chosen to either pass their powers and responsibilities back to the Federal party or devolved them down to the English regions.
Unlike the Scottish and Welsh state parties there is no annual English conference. The English party has conferred its powers to make policy onto the Federal party, resulting in the current situation where our Spring and Autumn federal conferences can make policy in areas that affect England, or the UK as a whole, but not in those that affect Scotland and Wales only.
Again, unlike the Scottish and Welsh state parties, the Liberal Democrats in England currently employ no staff. This means that most of the practical implementation and administration of the responsibilities of the English party are in fact carried out by employees of the Federal party. At the grassroots, support for local parties and council groups, and the coordination of campaigning activities, tends to be done by regional parties and bodies such as the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors, with, of course, input from the Campaigns Department. So in many areas of activity the English party itself is somewhat peripheral. This perhaps explains why there is a general lack of knowledge and understanding of the bodies that make up the English party amongst the wider Liberal Democrat membership.
The English Council is the sovereign body of the Liberal Democrats in England and does have some important functions. Made up of representatives from each of the regional parties, as well as representatives from Liberal Youth, it currently has 142 members and meets twice a year – the meeting held in October or November being its AGM.
The English Council elects the Chair of the English party each year, who is also the English Vice President of the Federal party and represents England on the Federal Finance and Administration Committee. The Council also elects representatives onto a number of other federal bodies including the Federal Policy Committee, the Federal Executive, and the Federal Conference Committee. There is also an English Council Executive whose role is to organise the work of the English Council and take actions when needed between meetings of the Council.
My general impression is that the English Council mostly sees its role as being one of coordinating the activities of regional parties and as the writer of the rule book for how the party in England operates. It is responsible for approving the membership rules for the English party, the model constitution for local parties, and the rules for the selection of parliamentary candidates in England.
It also manages the finances of the English party, deciding how party funds, mostly generated from membership income, are distributed amongst local and regional parties and other bodies.
Probably the most significant piece of work that the English Council does is that to do with the process of approval and selection of parliamentary candidates and candidates for other public offices. As well as deciding on the rules, it has a major co-ordinating role, working with regional parties to manage the process of candidate selection. It does this work through the English Candidates Committee.
The next meeting of the English Council is roughly a month away, on 23 June in London.
The preliminary agenda for that meeting is rather thin. Aside from the usual reports from officeholders and representatives on other bodies there isn’t much on it other than a proposed constitutional change related to the organisation of local parties. I will report on this in a post tomorrow.
* Andy Strange is a member of the Lib Dems' English Council. He blogs at Strange Thoughts.