Before I start, let me make one thing clear. This is not about Simon Hughes. It may or may not be useful to ask “What is the point of Simon Hughes?” but that is not what I am doing here.
No, I am concerned with the office and not the man. I want to question the nature of the role that the post of President of the Liberal Democrats plays within the Party. I want to know why we have a President of the Party.
Well, come on. Why do we?
Other than the Leader, it is the only post elected by an all member ballot, on those rare occasions when we have more than one candidate that is, so it must have a pretty important purpose. But what is it?
I suspect that every active Liberal Democrat you ask that question of, if they have ever thought about it at all, will have a different idea about what the job of the President is. Each of the different people who have held the post over the years also seem to have had a different take on what the role was about. It seems to me that as a Party we are remarkably unclear about what the President is for.
Does looking at the Federal Constitution of the Liberal Democrats help? Actually it has very little to say about the purpose of the President. It says even less about the job of the Leader, but I think we all have a good idea of what the Leader is for. The only things it specifies are that the President “shall be the principal public representative of the Party and shall chair the Federal Executive.”
I’m not really sure what the first of those means. But the second task gives us a clue about what the great sages from the SDP and the Liberal Party were trying to do when, in the negotiations of 20 years ago, they bequeathed to us our current party structures. The Federal Executive is, or is at least supposed to be, “responsible for directing, co-ordinating and implementing the work of the Federal Party”. By putting the President, elected by the whole Party, in charge of it makes me believe that they saw him or her as the person with primary responsibility for leading the party organisation.
Whereas the Leader is the captain on the bridge of the great ship Lib Dem, the President should be down in the engine room making sure we have power and momentum. Being Scotty to the Leader’s Kirk, as it were.
If the post of President has a purpose surely that must be it?
In recent weeks I’ve been blogging about party reform, and how many of the problems the Liberal Democrats are facing are down to our lack of effective organisational leadership. I would argue that a biggest single reason for this is that the post of President, over many years, has failed to fulfil the role that the Constitution has set out for it. This has led to a vacuum within the Party organisation. Naturally then I also believe that the Presidency could be key to fixing those problems.
However, it is likely to get worse rather than better. A little noticed item on the agenda for Conference this weekend is a constitutional amendment to remove the requirement from the President to chair the Federal Executive. It introduces a new post of Chair of the FE as a replacement.
I am not at all clear why we are being asked to agree to this but, if we are confused about the purpose of the President now, this will not help. If passed this amendment will remove the key constitutional responsibility of the Presidency. It will be left as little more than an honorary position.
If Conference passes this amendment on Saturday afternoon then the answer to the question “What’s the point of the Party President?” will surely have to be “Not a lot”.
* Andy Strange is a councillor in Luton and blogs at Process Guy.