Putting the Lib Dems in danger of being more successful

Following the Thornhill Report, I propose that a good way to formulate remedies for the many problems identified is to draw parallels between how we apply our principles to UK reform, and how we apply such principles in running our party.

The party has always supported decentralisation, holding that decisions should be taken at a level as close to those affected as practically feasible (a COVID-19 lesson!).

By contrast, the Report explains that the party had succumbed to the temptations of increasing centralised control; applying top-down decisions hidden behind the bureaucratic fog.

In contrast to principles of openness and transparency, decision-making became opaque and secretive.

By contrast with the party’s ‘strength in diversity’ principle, the Report describes a clique of people at the top who all agreed over a narrow range of tangential issues. Contrary to core liberal principles of openness to new ideas and challenges to the status quo, the party was closed to new thinking, defensive and impenetrable.

The party has always stood against corruption, supporting the rule-of-law, with clearly defined roles and functions. However, the Report describes overlapping responsibilities and fudging of relative roles of President, CEO and Leader. In policymaking, the distinction between member representatives, and ‘experts’ were not made, ignoring conflicts of interests rules.

The picture over democratic principles was even more difficult.

The party is strongly critical of tokenistic democracy, where ‘controlled’ elections merely ‘legitimise’ regimes. The party holds that it’s society’s job to change the government, not vice versa.

However, in elections to LibDem governing bodies, over 90% of party members did NOT vote! Worse, this process was regarded as legitimate, in contrast (e.g.) to the party’s criticisms of the 2016 EU referendum.

If we believe such liberal-democratic principles are good for the country, we should apply them to ourselves, and reform accordingly, for example:

1. GOVERNANCE should be transformed by local parties and regions electing representatives to a central governing body; reflecting diversity, with sub-committees to deal with complexities (i.e. banning obscure non-transparent bodies and the ‘ex-offcio game’).

2. POLICYMAKING should be improved with ‘standing committees’ of volunteer experts problem-solving on key topics (health, education, environment etc.), overseen by an elected body of regional representatives addressing; prioritisation, policymaking ‘best practice’, tracking Conference-approved policies, appointments, and conflicts of interest.

3. SENIOR ROLES should be clarified. The Leader should focus on parliament, ‘competitive policy and strategy’ and messaging with the public. The elected President should focus on membership, party organisation, diversity and implementation of party strategy internally. A paid Secretary-General should be responsible for staffing, finances and fundraising, processes and IT.

4. STRUCTURES should shift, so that local parties, supported by regions, should be the basic ‘autonomous units’ of the party. HQ functions should be a service to regions and local parties and not vice versa. (i.e. no more ‘please work harder for me’ emails). Problem-solving among local parties, and development of moribund/small local parties, should be key tasks of regions.

5. The key CULTURAL change should be that the party should be outward, not inward, looking. The longer-term cultural change pursuit should be a party seeing itself more humbly as a ‘problem-solving’ service to the public, via liberal-democratic principles, (away from ‘changing society’ and finger-wagging the recidivist voter !!)

Such reforms, or similar, may address any tendency to hide our principles under a bushel.

* Paul Reynolds works with multilateral organisations as an independent adviser on international relations, economics, and senior governance. He is a member of the Lib Dem Federal International Relations Committee and an Executive member of Liberal International (British Group).

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11 Comments

  • The analysis by Paul Reynolds is in my opinion accurate. However there is no evidence that the structure we would end up with would be a real improvement, at least no evidence is given.
    As far as the comment by Paul Fisher is concerned, this method of saying just get on with it, rather than follow a clear decision making process, appears to be what we do now. we are likely to end up where we started if that is so.
    We need to accept that another dream has been shattered by the virus. We know that this event isn’t something new. It is just that we were one of the countries which had been lucky so far. The first stage is to see in what ways we can involve all our members in genuine decision making. If our conference is simply the same formula as before then we will have the same results.

  • Paul Reynolds 24th Jun '20 - 5:22pm

    Thank you Tom. Indeed the devil is in the detail, and detail is limited in a 500 word article. Establishing evidence for something happening in the future is always a bit of a challenge; evidence thus might be sought from liberal parties in other countries (eg FDP, D66). The key issue referred to in the Thornhill Report however, but not sufficiently emphasised perhaps, is that the inefficiencies and obstacles to success had been developing as a ‘malaise’ over many, many years. They just accelerated following the 2015 General Election debacle, up to Dec 2019. So rather than inventing a set of completely new structures and rules, and defending them with evidence from elsewhere, the task is to address the (relatively recent) malaise. The Thornhill Report does attempt to identify the causes of the malaise, and as the article implies, that it where we should start with reforms. It is not so much that a ‘new idea’ of decentralisation, for example, is being argued for; it is more ‘how on earth did we come to adopt over-centralisation and other ills, and abandon key principles, in the first place?’

  • What is needed is a cultural change in the officers who run the party. There’s a baked in way we run elections and it tends to be quite centralised and illiberal. There’s good reasons for some of that, but it goes too far.

    Whilst I agree from the outside the changes you’ve identified are a good idea, having been involved for 10+ years I can tell you with certainty that if you don’t change that culture it won’t matter what structures you have in place.

  • Ian -it depends on what you mean by ‘baked in’. This sort of over centralised dictat is a feature only of the last 3 General Elections and the quite ridiculous Target strategy of 2019 is peculiar to last year only.

    It was not done like this when we were having our best election results in a hundred years and as the Thornhill Report details (I take full ownership of my paraphrasing) we should go back to what works instead of dealing in quick fix fantasies.

  • Forgive me for pointing out an obvious truth, if a party can’t run itself how can it honestly claim to be able to run the country…….. and if that’s the case, what on earth is it for ?

  • Thé problème is Paul Fisher that I do agree that we indeed need action. That is what I am proposing. We do indeed need something iconoclastic. That is indeed what I am proposing in asking that it should be recognised that the party belongs to the members and it is they who make the decisions.
    When I joined the Liberal Party in 1959 I thought the party believed in people had a right to join in decision making over the things that affected them. I may have been wrong. I probably am.
    So no I do not believe in the strong leader model. I believe in participatory democracy – iconoclastic though that may be.

  • Peter Hirst 25th Jun '20 - 2:28pm

    If we want an overriding principle for future campaigns, we could look no further than empowering people and where they live to make their own decisions as much as possible.

  • I agree with much of Paul’s article but differ on two points.

    Firstly, we know that narcissists and psychopaths are heavily overrepresented in business and political leaderships roles. Their personality drives them to seek power and acclaim and, while those of mediocre ability fail, the talented ones make it to the top without being detected except by a tiny minority.

    Their drive and energy can make them highly effective *if* they are constrained to act responsibly; if they’re not so constrained, they are a disaster. It is the other MPs who know (or will soon discover) a new leader’s true nature whereas most of us ordinary members will only ever see the leader’s public face.

    So, MPs should have the ability to fire a leader who is going off piste via a motion of no confidence.

    I don’t believe they would ever do so lightly or without good cause; for one thing they would need a better candidate plus it would clearly constitute a party crisis. In the long run better a brief flurry of headlines than having a leader drive the party into the ground because there is no way to stop them.

    Secondly, policymaking at present has two key flaws:
    1. The notion that an expert group can come up with the perfect plan smacks of an ‘intelligent design’ approach plus committees will normally go for the lowest common denominator – hence turgid policy that doesn’t hit the spot.
    2. The implicit idea that policymaking can and should sit outside the political process.

    There’s an old dictum that ‘No plan survives contact with reality’ which we ignore at our peril. It’s especially true when the relevant policy may have been passed by Conference in a very different world two or three years earlier and/or be silent on key issues that have arisen subsequently.

    So, spokespeople must have a leadership role in developing policy in their area, with freedom to change course and respond to events when necessary while drawing ideas from multiple sources.

    Spokespeople should become responsible for getting their proposals through Conference. Policies not selected for debate could still be discussed in fringe events giving them invaluable feedback on sentiment.

    Meanwhile, interested members could combine into rival informal think tanks creating a competition of ideas with the best emerging via an evolutionary process.

  • The trouble with allowing everyone to have their say is that it takes so long and because there are so many points of view, decisions get shelved.
    Local democracy is great if it means that councils are run by consensus, hopefully with several political parties represented as ours is now. But if it flows even lower down the chain to local lib dems, you need someone with a vision to drive anything through, otherwise we all just become a talking shop. Sorry to sound pessimistic. I really believe in people being allowed to make their own decisions, but there needs to be some structure to it.

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