A bit of advice to the English Liberal Democrats – sort your gender balance out and soon

I realise I could get myself into trouble here, as a Scot, offering advice to a fellow State party, but please be assured  that it is meant in a sisterly way. You  may think of it as annoying-little-sisterly but I have an annoying little sister I adore and couldn’t be without.

Anyway, tomorrow the English Council Executive has its first meeting the English Party elections. At this meeting its office bearers and committee representatives for 2015 will be chosen. For more details of what is on the agenda, Anders Hanson, outgoing Regional Chair of Yorkshire and the Humber and a directly elected member for 2015 has provided a very good summary here.

The big problem with ECE is with gender balance. Next year’s 23-3 male/female split is, believe it or not an improvement on this year’s. Anders has this analysis of the situation:

As the last of the posts I mentioned there was about diversity, it’s worth me straight away jumping in to this issue.  One thing that is really noticeable is that gender balance continues to be very poor on ECE.  Over the last year two out of eleven regional chairs have been women, (which was already very low by historic standards), and in 2015 none are.  Of directly-elected members one of the twelve was a woman, whereas next year this improves but only marginally to three members.  As far as I can recall, none of the women who stood for election, apart from Liz Leffman who stood to be chair, weren’t elected, and so perhaps the question is why aren’t women putting their names forward?  After all, they are to other party bodies.  For a body that is elected third hand (members vote for regional conference reps who vote for English Council members, who vote for English Council Executive members), it is a convoluted route to get elected to ECE and so unless people are already on English Council it’s not a quick fix.  I also suspect, and I know a couple of people who’ve told me this, that the maleness of the current ECE puts some women off from standing.  As a general point though, I’m convinced that the low awareness of what ECE does generally puts people off from standing, as it is rare to have many people contesting its elections.

As a temporary measure, ECE could, and I think should, use the power it has in the English Party’s Constitution (Article 5.6 (g) if you want to get really technical) to co-opt 3 members:

not more than three further non-voting members as the ECE may co-opt on an annual basis

It is probably the biggest no-brainer in history that they should co-opt women to these positions. Let’s not hear any nonsense about “merit” either. There are 19000 female members of the English Party. There are plenty excellent women to choose from.

The second thing that they have to do is to draw up a long term strategy to become more diverse. Anders rightly pointed out that you have to be pretty well known in the party to even get on English Council, let alone ECE. In Scotland, any member of the party can stand for the Scottish Party Executive. We’ve also had One Member One Vote since 2009 and at our last elections elected two people under 25 with a further two being appointed from our SAOs who have representation on all our committees. I feel that the committees are the better for it too.

I like the fact that I have two people under 26 on the Finance and Membership Committee I chair. We are taking big decisions about how to spend the party’s money and it’s good that they have a say. In contrast, if you want to be on the English equivalent, you have to have:

  • got involved in your local party
  • gone to an AGM and been elected to Regional Conference
  • gone to Regional Conference and been elected to English Council
  • gone to English Council and become well enough known to get elected to ECE
  • gone to ECE and been elected to the English Finance and Administration Committee

It’s not what you would call an inclusive body and basically entrenches power in the hands of the same people who may not be the most diverse bunch and who may have been around for a very long time.

The last thing any part of the party needs to be doing between now and May is to have our heads in our navels looking at our Constitution, but it shouldn’t be put off after then. It will be coming at all levels and it’s time we all looked at being more open, inclusive and transparent with a structure that meets our needs. One of our biggest needs is to look like the society we seek to serve. We have such a long way to go on that one.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Alisdair Calder McGregor 12th Dec '14 - 8:08pm

    Having sat on English Council for 3 years I can unequivocally state that it serves damn all purpose & should be abolished, to be replaced by empowered regional parties.

    The gender balance of the ECE is irrelevant, because ECE is irrelevant.

  • Agreeing with the two boys above: I don’t stand for English council (and therefore it’s exec) because as far as I can tell it’s sole reason for existing is to strangle accountability and transparency at birth.

    I’ll not stand for a body I want to see abolished.

  • Stuart Wheatcroft 12th Dec '14 - 8:25pm

    I think the co-optees have to be drawn from the English Council as well, so the 19,000 isn’t strictly speaking relevant. The rest I agree with.

    I do think it’s worth highlighting the role of regional parties in achieving gender balance: the elections that fill posts on EC and ECE happen at regional level. If there’s is to be concerted action in future (though the next election is a fair way off now) it probably needs to happen at that level.

  • Simon McGrath 12th Dec '14 - 8:25pm

    “. Anders rightly pointed out that you have to be pretty well known in the party to even get on English Council,”
    Not at all , in many places not enough people stand. This is an example of the fundamental problem the party has on gender balance – not enough women put themselves forward.

  • Morwen Millson 12th Dec '14 - 8:44pm

    Why should we put ourselves forward? Someone sell me the English Council and tell me why I should be interested. If no-one can, it should be abolished!

  • To stand for election to English Council executive you need to already be a member of English Council – which in practice means you need to have been elected the year before. I’m not convinced that such a proposal is constitutional as – in effect – if you were to join the party now it would be impossible to stand for ECE until the elections in 2016.

  • Over twenty years ago I was briefly on the English Council was co-opted (or volunteered onto) a number of committees and because I was an elected concillor and nominated in a year when not enough people stood for election became a member of the Executive. I can honestly say that in 44 years in the party I have never attended any more boring, pointless and inconsequential meetings. I am told that things have got gradually worse year by year since then.

    So I endorse the views expressed above in various comments. I particularly liked —
    Alisdair Calder McGregor 12th Dec ’14 – 8:08pm
    Having sat on English Council for 3 years I can unequivocally state that it serves damn all purpose & should be abolished, to be replaced by empowered regional parties.
    The gender balance of the ECE is irrelevant, because ECE is irrelevant.

    He might have gone on to say that with the general election result we all anticipate, discussing the gender balance on the ECE is about as useful as discussing the gender balance of those who did not get into life-boats when The Titanic went down.

  • Alisdair McGregor 12th Dec '14 - 9:14pm

    @Simon McGrath – I did 3 years on EC without ever being elected. I was co-opted (twice for East Mids, once for Yorks & Humber) each time.

  • Martin Land 12th Dec '14 - 9:53pm

    Caron, could it just be that women members have better things to do?

  • Dr Michael Taylor 12th Dec '14 - 10:32pm

    As a newly elected member of English Council I understand I might be invited to a meeting sometime after the GE next year. Surely, if this body means anything, then it should meet regularly and certainly sooner than June 2015. I was, supposedly, elected to this body a few year’s ago, but never got invited to a single meeting.

    Seems to me the sooner we scrap the English Party and get on with a proper federal structure, the better.

  • Gordon Lishman 12th Dec '14 - 10:45pm

    Broadly, I agree with both Caron and Anders. It’s good that the incoming Chair of the English Party, Steve Jarvis, also agrees and has said so in his proposals about co-options tomorrow. Anders is right that the ECE has the style of a male-dominated Committee. I’ve spent my working life in the context of female-dominated and led committees and they are different (and, in my view, more effective).
    1. I don’t think that the issue of women’s representation should take absolute priority over issues about the representation of minorities. I therefore welcome Tim Farron’s proposal to the FE that we also need a greater and specific focus on BAME representation;
    2. I suggest that we under-estimate the extent of discrimination against people with work and caring responsibilities which make it difficult to attend particularly weekday evening meetings in central London, but also meetings at other times – the FE, FPC and policy working groups are prime examples. Women and people from some minorities are disproportionately victims of this unthinking discrimination, but so are some men (as I recall from a time of trying to balance single parenthood of two small children with a full-time job and Party involvement) and anyone who chooses to live in the North or West of England or Wales outside Cardiff/Newport; and
    3. There are issues about the management of meetings which encourage people to conform to a style of operation and which leads women to feel that they have to adopt a male approach in order to participate and compete.
    More generally, with the English Party as with the FE up to now, there are issues about the value and contribution of bodies which do not seem to be fulfilling a useful purpose (as recognised by several other respondents). The answer to those problems is not to ignore them or to argue for abolition without any clear idea of alternatives! It should be either (1) to make them useful (as with the FE, whose functions are crucial and irreplaceable, even if currently it is dysfunctional) or (2) to work out an alternative which works better. I’m not entirely sure whether the English State Party is in category 1 or 2, although I incline to 2. A test of the new ECE and its Chair will be whether or not it can address and resolve that challenge.
    One final thought: it may be that many women tend to be more rational and less hierarchical and status-conscious in terms of the choices they make about how they can most usefully be involved. And, possibly, more interested in outcomes than in offices. That would naturally lead to choices about whether to be a candidate which, as Anders suggests, is a bigger issue than whether women are elected when they stand. If that’s true, it follows that the route to greater female involvement is to make bodies more useful and outcome-focussed rather than simply addressing numbers.

  • The English Party needs to be abolished – in local government we would call it an efficiency saving. It has failed to get candidates in place for the General Election, has messed about with what was (finally) a good and progressive membership system, and is generally a distraction and irritant from campaigning. It is unaccountable in real terms and totally lacks transparency.

  • Interesting comments. Gender balance is important and the party needs to address it seriously. It is worth looking at other countries to see what is happening. Parties need to build gender balance at all levels so that the voice of all people can be heard. Germany, Irish Republic, Netherlands are all realising that this is a serious issue.
    Without an effective participatory process for women , there is a danger that parties become less atuned to the needs of the whole population.
    Every policy affects women, yet all too often so called ‘women’s issues’ means that the clear voice of women in other policy areas is buried by the phrase . The party is already suffering from the lack of gender balance at all levels and this will only get worse without effective action.
    To be blunt, all party committees should be balanced with a minimum number – say 40% – of men and women. Men and women work in quite distinctive ways and both are needed.
    Too often the so called ‘feminist’ view is derided, while machoism rides high.

  • Daniel Henry 13th Dec '14 - 1:03am

    I’ve never heard a good story about the English Party. EVERY story I hear about their involvement, they come out badly.

    I’d quite happily see it abolished.

    George’s call for the abolishment of the federal party is perhaps a bit too far though! 🙂

  • David Evans 13th Dec '14 - 1:13am

    A bit of advice to all Liberal Democrats – sort out the leadership issue now or there probably won’t be any Liberal Democrats in 30 years time. Deckchairs – Titanic. Sorry, get real.

  • @ Caron
    “you have to be pretty well known in the party to even get on English Council, let alone ECE.”

    There is lots of rot said about the English party. I am not well known in the party, but I served three terms on the ECE. If you look at the names of the 25 on the ECE for 2015 I would say only one is a national figure know to the membership and three others are well known to Federal conference goers. The out-going chair Peter Ellis is not well known. So we should be clear. To get elected to ECE one does not have to be well known. Twelve of the members are regional chairs and therefore should be well known in their region but don’t have to be well known in the English party. I believe that if someone is well known in their region they should be able to get elected as a directly elected member of the ECE. Also a person only needs to be well known in their region to get elected to the English Council. Therefore getting elected to the ECE is harder than becoming a Federal conference rep, however getting elected to the ECE is as easy as getting elected to a Regional Executive and not as hard as getting elected to a Federal committee.

    It seems strange to me that the members of a committee that doesn’t take office until 1st January is electing members of its sub-committees and vice chair before taking office.

    @ Tim Oliver
    “we could scrap the English Party”
    And then have 14 state parties and add 11 more people on the Federal Executive and make it more representative of the wider membership.

    I think the reason the English party exists is because it was felt that the regions were not big enough to be state parties. It would be interesting to know the membership of the Scottish and Welsh parties and how they compare to the English regions.

    The ECE has a role which I think is greater than the role of regional executives. It is the English party that encourages best practice and passes it on to regions and local parties. However party members are often not aware of this.

  • Sorry “Therefore getting elected to the ECE is harder than becoming a Federal conference rep” should have been “Therefore getting elected to the EC (English Council) is harder than becoming a Federal conference rep” (I just shouldn’t use initials!).

  • Michael BG
    The membership in Scotland is less than 3,000.
    If the membership in Wales is bigger than that I would be surprised, but someone could tell us.
    The membership in my London Borough is more than 400. So I am guessing that the total membeship across all 32 London Boroughs will be quite a bit bigger than Scotland.
    And this may be the source of the problem of The English Party. It exists to make the Scots and Welsh feel better about themselves and to build into the structure of the federal party a system reflecting national sentiment rather than organisational logic.
    Historically the Liberal Party had disproportionate parliamentary strength in the Celtic bits, especially after the 1970 General Election. The Scots in particular have had a privileged position in the federal party and that fact coincides with a series of federal party leaders from North of the border (Grimond, Steel, Kennedy, Campbell). That has all changed in the last twenty years – and there is nothing to suggest that the balance will tip back away from England in May, quite the opposite.

    There is absolutely no reason why the membership supremos could not be honest and publish the membership figures region by region. Exactly where are the 44,000 members?
    Or should that question be -“where are the 40,000 English members?”

    When we start the General Election in a few weeks time with who knows how many seats without a Liberal Democrat candidate the media will pick up on the weakness of the party in some regions. Better to get any embarrassing facts out into the open now rather than leaving it until March and handing our enemies in the media another stick to beat us with.

  • Tsar Nicolas 13th Dec '14 - 8:45am

    John Tilley

    The membership in the second largest local authority area in Wales is less than the constitutionally mandated 30 necessary for a recognised local party.

  • Thanks, Tsar.

    Any idea of the total membership for all of Wales?
    Would it for example be bigger or smaller than England’s East Midlands region?

  • Nick Collins 13th Dec '14 - 9:33am

    I was a Local Party officer for more than 18 years. In all of that time, I cannot recall anything useful emanating from the English Council.

  • Nick Collins 13th Dec '14 - 12:14pm

    “Of course, a democratic body should not be abolished solely on the ground of ineffectiveness. Making it more effective and representative should be tried first.”

    Two questions:

    1 How democratic is it? I do not recall ever having seen a ballot paper or an invitation to nominate candidates for election to it.

    2. Why should anyone bother to vote in an election to a body if it is ineffective?

  • The English Council meets twice a year after the local elections and after Federal conference. It is the cheapest body to be a member of. It costs £10 to register for my regional conference and then you have to pay your own travelling costs. Unless things have changed in the last five or six years it costs nothing to attend the EC and travel expenses over £10 are paid. The membership was based on one rep for every 500 members, now it is fixed at 150 and split between the regions and youth organisation based on their share of the total English membership. I thought I had an old file giving regional memberships but I couldn’t find one. The English party must have one to use at the September meeting of ECE.

    If you compare the responsibilities of the Scottish party and the English party, the English party has less because some are the responsibility of the regions. The main functions of the English party are:
    Co-ordinating activities of the Regional parties;
    Ensuring that the Regional parties follow the English constitution;
    Managing the finance of the English party;
    Managing the English membership;
    Co-ordinating Parliamentary candidate selection across England;
    Dealing with appeals in England and conflicts between regions.

  • Tony Dawson 14th Dec '14 - 9:25am

    Michael BG:

    “It is the English party that encourages best practice and passes it on to regions and local parties. However party members are often not aware of this”

    I would be intrigued to learn how the ‘English Party’ believes that it learns about ‘best practice’. What is going on in 95 percent of the country is clearly ‘worst practice’ which is dragging the Party down.If the English Party is encouraging people to sit tight while the parliamentary leadership destroys our Party from the top down then it should perhaps self-destruct?

  • Nick Collins 14th Dec '14 - 2:49pm

    “It is the English party that encourages best practice and passes it on to regions and local parties. However party members are often not aware of this”

    Neither in, my 18+ years as a Local Party officer, was I. As I said earlier, I never saw anything useful emanate from the English Party. I wonder how it imagines that it encourages this alleged best practice; by some form of osmosis, perhaps?

  • @ Nick Collins
    Have you been Vice Chair for those 18 years?
    It is the English party that communicates with the Membership Development Officer.
    I haven’t been Chair or Secretary for a while, but in the past every year in September the English party would send out a letter and information (and for some years a CD) with information about holding the AGM and officer positions. This pack from time to time included other things for local parties.
    However the English party often communicates via regional parties about compliance with PPERA.
    Regions report to ECE about best practice and then regional chairs can pass this information back to their region. The reason you may not know about this is because your region is poor at passing this information to local parties and may only pass it on during regional training.

    @ Nick Perry
    Also the reps elected by the English Council to the Federal Committees report back at every meeting and this is very useful. They also report to ECE meetings. I don’t know if this happens in Scotland and Wales, but most people on these Federal Committee don’t report back twice a year to those who elect them.

  • Michael BG 14th Dec ’14 – 11:23pm
    When you say in response to the author of an earlier comment –“…..Have you been Vice Chair for those 18 years?”
    Are you suggesting that to understand the purpose and effectiveness of this bit of the party you have to be Vice Chair?

    Could I suggest as a mere member of the party that if you have to be vice-chair to recognise its worth and understand what it does then it is in need of change?

    After all we are not talking about a Masonic Lodge or the more secret corners of The Magic Circle here. We are talking about what is supposed to be a democratic part of a political party that values transparency and accountability.

    You go on to say — “It is the English party that communicates with the Membership Development Officer.”
    In view of the appalling decline in the numbers of members of the party over the last seven years could you explain what you have been communicating to the Membership Development Officer and if you think that your communications have been either (1) a Success or (2) a Failure ?

  • Nick Collins 15th Dec '14 - 12:48pm

    Michael BG

    I have been a Vice Chair, A Chair and a Secretary. In that time, I received a lot of useful help from the Regional Officers,, from ALDC and from Party HQ (having been out of the game for the past four years, I do not know how effective those bodies are today). I have seen nothing to convince me that the portentously named “English Party” added anything of value. Does it, perhaps , work in a mysterious way its wonders to perform?

  • matt (Bristol) 15th Dec '14 - 2:50pm

    I don’t understand why a party whose current policy is that in a federal future, devolution in the UK within England should be to regional or smaller than regional bodies, without the need for an English constitutional entity, would maintain an ‘English ‘federal’ political entity within itself.

  • @ John Tilley
    I don’t believe that a Vice Chair would have had any communications from the English Party (So it is the opposite of what you thought).

    You are correct the English party is too secretive and that is why members don’t know what it does. Hopefully in my Local Party they have more of an idea, but I do recall one new member of the Executive telling me I was mistaken – there is no English Party! (I think it is time that the English Party had its own website like the Scottish and Welsh parties and which it kept up to date.)

    I don’t believe the Membership Department is responsible for our declining membership. I know the English Party in the past employed someone part time to assist with getting new members, but I don’t recall how hands on it was, or how much it was a training function. Perhaps someone on the ECE could post here and say if the post still exists.

    I have not been a member of the EC since 2010 and I haven’t been a member of the ECE for over ten years, but I did attend at least one ECE meeting deputising for my regional chair in 2008. If I was well enough I would like to be involved again.

    @ Nick Collins

    I wonder if any of the useful information you received from your Regional Officers came to them from the English Party? (The English Party doesn’t publicize what it does.)
    I wonder how much of the information that you received from HQ came from the English Party based there?

    It is very clear that the English Party has failed to let the membership know what it does. It really needs to let ordinary members know what it does. However it can only be abolished by the English Council or by every region getting state status.

    On a positive note the ECE has moved Federal constitutional amendments successfully and I don’t remember them ever having problems like the Federal Executive had this year at conference.

  • Michael BG 16th Dec ’14 – 1:21am

    Thank you for you polite and clear response. We agree that the English Party is too secretive. I remain of the view that after more than twenty years it has had long enough to prove its worth and it has not dne so. I guess that is where we differ.

  • Nick Collins 16th Dec '14 - 9:56am

    @ Michael BG

    I agree with John Tilley and I stand by my earlier comments

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