A key internal party reform built from liberal principles

The seventeenth century had a big impact on British liberal thinking. In response to unrepresentative and unaccountable monarchical government, liberal thinkers developed a strong focus on dispersing power so that it was not all held by one individual, opening those who do hold power up to scrutiny and accountability – and in choosing those in power through election. They might not straight away have got to modern standards in all these areas – slight understatement! – but these fundamental principles remain central to how liberals and Liberal Democrats view power, society and government today.

So – fast forward three and a half centuries, and what does all this mean for how Liberal Democrats actually organise themselves in the twenty first century? The challenge from the Thornhill review of our governance arrangements, combined with a wider general sense that perhaps the party’s board at 41 does seem to be rather on the large size, means that proposals to change this are coming to this spring conference. The consultation exercise on them sent this message pretty clearly too. So how does this proposal measure up against these basic liberal principles about the organisation of power?

Let’s start first with the test of democratic election. The proposed new-size Board would have sixteen members, all except four elected directly by party members. (The Leader, President and Vice President elected by all members; the Scottish party convenor and Welsh President, councillor representative, and chair of the Young Liberals elected by all party members in those groups; the FCC chair and FPC vice chair elected initially by all members and then additionally by their colleagues on those committees to the chair / vice chair roles; and three others directly elected. The four elected indirectly, each by a committee of themselves elected party members, are the Chair of the English Party, and Chairs of the Finance (FFRC), Elections (FCEC) and People (FPDC) committees).

Secondly – scrutiny and accountability. Among the options coming to Conference are two different possibilities for new committees specifically to hold the new smaller Board to account (either a “scrutiny committee” of about twenty or a “party council” of about forty) – as well as an option for it being accountable directly Conference. Conference will choose one of these scrutiny and accountability mechanisms.

And finally, how about not centralising power all in one place? The authors of our party’s constitution have clearly always had this one carefully in mind! The constitution sets out how responsibility for different areas within the federal party should sit in different places. The three ‘senior’ party committees (Board, conference, policy) are all directly by party members to hold responsibility in those areas. This is surely broadly how we want to see it: I can’t imagine Conference approving a change for, say, the Federal Board to directly run party conference. Further key areas such as campaigns and finance (and our international relations) have long had specialist committees to bring greater expertise and attention than they would get at the full board – as well as the relatively new arrival of the people development committee (which in my own view has a perhaps little understood but really important role in supporting, understanding and making the most of our most important resource). And all this is still at the UK-wide level, before our federalist instincts have led us quite rightly to embody power independently at the national, regional and local levels. There is plenty of dispersal of power in the Liberal Democrats.

In fact amongst all this dispersal, the challenge is to make sure that the Board is not just ‘another committee’ sitting alongside all these other ones. As a party we need it to play the essential role of pulling this all together, so that all these disparate parts are moving in the same direction towards a common goal, not just in their own silos doing their own good work but in an unco-ordinated way.

This is not just a theoretical problem! From my own experience leading one of these committees it is very clear indeed to me that one of our biggest problems has long been all our different moving parts not relating to each other. The Thornhill report clearly agreed with this analysis, as do others who have actually tried to operate in this system. The 2016 party reforms made some progress here, for the first time bringing the chairs of other committees into the Board’s fold, to help get all the committees pointed in the same direction. For example in my own case, linking up policy to the party’s board and strategy, it’s clear that this has made a very real difference, with the party’s policy-making structures much more involved in and supportive of the party’s wider political needs than has ever been the case. The chairs of FCC, and the finance and elections committees are absolutely key roles within the party and it is exceptionally difficult to justify them not being part of its board – if we do really want that to be the key decision-making point. We need to go further on this kind of co-ordination, rather than backwards, and ensure the new Board is even more successful in pointing our many diverse parts in the same direction, rather than just being (as I’m afraid it much too often was, in the days of the pre-2016 Federal Executive) “just another committee”.

So I think the proposal coming to spring conference measures up against these core liberal principles pretty well. Clearly, it would be possible to put a different membership in it – there are many other extremely important groups and roles in the party who certainly have a strong case to be there. This is a large part of the reason we currently have a board of 41 members! And why a theme of this consultation process has been many contributions being “16 members is still too many…and we just need to add post x”! And no doubt we will spend some time playing Fantasy Lib Dem Board Composition!

But overall the proposal seems about right to me. It is very difficult to think of other any other organisation – from a local party or AO to a global charity or company – which tries to have an actual effective board of more than forty managing the organisation (as distinct from playing a wider ‘party council’-type role).

Having settled the rules about composing the Board, much the most important thing is that we get the right people filling those roles – reflecting all the party’s diversity, insights, commitment and talent. Virtually all those who do will be elected by party members in the next elections towards the end of this year. Despite a widespread perception, their holders tend to change fairly often – almost all the current holders have been in post for just a year or two – so there will be plenty of opportunities. These are critical roles – and it’s worth saying too, in most cases take on a huge amount of responsibility and hard work. Would you like to stand – for the board, the federal policy committee, conference committee, international relations committee or others?

In the meantime – I hope spring conference has great debates before selecting some of the options and putting in place an improved structure to learn the lessons of the past, help us tackle our challenges effectively together, and succeed in making a real difference to people’s lives.


* Jeremy Hargreaves is a vice chair of Federal Policy Committee and the Federal Board.

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  • Brad Barrows 5th Feb '22 - 12:20pm

    If the Scottish Convenor and Welsh President, on the Board, are elected by all Scottish and all Welsh members respectively, it is only appropriate that the Chair of the English Party, on the Board, should be elected by all English members.

  • Callum Robertson 6th Feb '22 - 2:16pm

    Fantastic and well-timed article.

    The logical thing to do here, is to support the reforms to the board!

  • The general acceptance (as it now seems) that the Board should be reduced in size is a big and welcome step forward.

    Also, I totally agree about the importance of representative and accountable government but don’t think the proposals will deliver either. To explain why I must return to first principles.

    With FPTP all parties are necessarily ‘internal’ coalitions of many different strands of opinion. That should be comfortable territory for Liberals given their emphasis on diversity etc.

    But it means working out which strand of thought should take the lead at any time and then doing deals with the others. That’s fundamentally a function of political leadership and, as such, not something a committee can do. In practice, the leadership depends largely on which strand has the best candidate.

    It also means a willingness, indeed eagerness, to depose a leader when they lose the zeitgeist of party and/or country and become an electoral liability. The Coalition experience showed how important this is!

    The LD approach is very different. It asks a byzantine cluster of committees to come up with (necessarily) lowest common denominator policies which are rubber stamped by Conference to become unchallengeable. In practice, that means a small group of (mainly) London-based insiders get to scratch their itches.

    Instead of Liberal diversity the system generates dull conformity. Because it starts with detail it has never, will never develop a narrative. Also, it can’t move fast enough to keep up with events, a critical weakness.

  • Although I’m much more positive than you about the proposals, Gordon, I’m not sure that our views are that far apart. I think a better structured committee (Board) can better help avoid the sort of risks you rightly highlight. For example, having a Board in which nearly everyone has a very clear, specific role, makes it easier to hold people to account and also reduces the chances of some of the downsides you mention.

    By the way, the conference motion includes a provision to make it easier to oust the leadership – well, the President at least, with a new power to no-confidence an incumbent who has gone off the rails.

    Although it’s not in the motion, it’s important that we continue the heavy use of Zoom for meetings as they are so beneficial for improved participation, especially from those who are far away from meeting locations or those with caring responsibilities. There’s a role for in-person catch-ups to help teams gell and work together better, but they should remain the exception for our federal committee meetings.

  • Jack Worrall 7th Feb '22 - 11:50am

    Thank you for this article and these reforms.

    I just wanted to comment to highlight my preferred option for scrutiny. That is the Council option.

    Jeremy has highlighted incredibly well that every single member of the new Federal Board apart from 3 are directly elected by party members (and of those not -> the English Party Chair is elected from English Council member who are directly elected.)

    So it stands to reason that if we are apply this standard to justify places on the Federal Board we should probably apply it to the board that is created to scrutinise them too.

    I feel that conference is too few and far between to have meaningful scrutiny of the new FB so I would probably rule that out as a viable ongoing accountability method.

    I feel like the scrutiny committee option lacks the democratic accountability that we hold as a vital pillar in our party.

    So I feel that all in all the Council option that in one way or another is directly elected by all members is the right system if we are looking at this from a point of view that balances practicality (as a 40 person body could meet on a regular basis and act fast when needed) and democratic legitimacy (as this is really the only option that allows all members to have a say and not just those either on FB or that can afford the time, money and energy to go to conference).

  • Thanks for responding Mark. I agree a better structured (and smaller) Board will be a big improvement. But as a key part of the party’s governance and operational ‘ecosystem’ it doesn’t stand alone; more must be done for the LDs to achieve political lift-off. I hope I can contribute something to early thinking about what that might look like.

    Conference is the party’s sovereign body, its ‘Parliament’, with democratic legitimacy deriving from widespread member representation. But what then is the role of the Board?

    Surely NOT representation of the wider membership since that would be double counting. Also, at the late 2019 election the turnout was well under 10% of the then membership and no candidate got more than 0.67% of first preference votes. As Duncan Brack subsequently wrote in a comment on LDV, “On the turnout point, it is never likely to be more than about 5-10% for these elections. The vast majority of party members will have no idea who any of the candidates are or what the committees they’re standing for do.”

    So, we need an alternative!

    One would be a Board comprising a small number (perhaps 5 or 6) of appointed ‘executive’ members, each with clear responsibility for a core function, e.g. Funding, with the balance comprising non-executive members representing (and elected by) key groups such as MPs, Councillors, Lords etc.

    That would make for a nimbler and more accountable structure, focussed on winning elections and rich in expertise.

  • Policymaking is another area that needs revisiting ASAP. The current approach was devised as part of the Liberal-SDP merger for reasons that were, AFAIK, perfectly sensible at the time. But time has moved on and we should too.

    The existing approach starts with detailed policy, mostly generated via the FPC. Following a lengthy gestation these go to Conference by when they’re effectively a done deal.

    Weirdly, (presumably unintentionally) it means policy is dictated to MPs. If they happen to agree with a policy, well and good. If not, they must choose between (a) ignoring party policy (see Coalition) and (b) ignoring the core principle of a Burkean representative democracy like ours, “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” (Link below.)

    Also, because policymaking starts with details, it doesn’t (can’t) aggregate to a coherent whole which explains the failure ever to develop an overarching narrative.

    The simple solution is to put MPs in charge of policymaking for the portfolio they shadow, under the general direction of the party leader – i.e. just as in Cabinet. Each should report to Conference (subject to FCC timetabling) on new thinking, developments etc. If Conference should vote ‘Not Content’ or similar, a big black mark at the least.

    This would quickly lead to a nimbler approach with portfolio-holders consulting with members, a healthy explosion of engagement and empowerment and politically savvy policies.


  • Jeremy Hargreaves 8th Feb '22 - 9:54am

    Thanks everyone for your comments.

    @Brad Barrows – I certainly see your point about the English party chair – how they choose their chair is a question for the English party, and I know the structure of the English party is something that English Council looks at regularly.

    @Jack Worrall – thanks for explaining your preference on the options. I think you make a good case for the Council option. I haven’t decided myself which one I prefer but I think perhaps I’m leaning towards this one too. It should also provide a useful forum for bringing together with different perspectives and experiences from across the party, which I think we can always do with more of.

    @Gordon Thanks for your comments. The focus here and in this motion to Conference is specifically on the Board. But that’s only one piece of the jigsaw and, even if not covered here, the Leader is obviously key on most of the things you talk about. The Thornhill report had things to say about that – for example about defining their role, especially in relation to other leadership roles in the party – which have been taken forward separately and already. That doesn’t obviate the need for a board doing its function too, as I think you’re agreeing with.

  • Jeremy Hargreaves 8th Feb '22 - 9:56am

    @Gordon I agree with you perhaps a bit less about the policy process! I agree it would be coherent simply to hand over policy making in individual areas to spokespeople – this is I think what the Conservative party does. But I do not think we should do this. Changing policy direction in, say, education, perhaps quite radically, every time we had a new spokesperson I simply do not think is better than us as a party working out collaboratively together what we think our policy on (say) education should be, in discussion amongst those involved in it at council level, or with personal professional experience, and others with knowledge and an interest – together with the spokesperson – and also with some eye to consistency (though as you say this needs to not prevent new thinking). You are right that by the time FPC policy papers come to conference are, apart usually from some key decisions, a “done deal”. But the “lengthy gestation” preceding that is not just people being slow, it is a period of extensive discussions with those inside and outside the party about what we should say. This “deliberative” approach does indeed give us fewer fireworks at the final stage, the conference debate – but it also gives us much better ideas, with much wider support within and outwith the party.

    At this spring conference there will be consultation sessions, supported by full consultation papers, on A Fairer Society, A More Caring Society, Homes & Planning, the Natural Environment and Early Years (areas we have selected for their appeal to key voters). The consultation papers will be published very shortly. In line with the discussion above, I’d really encourage everyone to respond at this stage – this is the stage to really influence what will come to conference in the autumn.

  • Jeremy Hargreaves 8th Feb '22 - 9:56am

    Two final small points. Most motions at Conference do not come from FPC, but from others in the party. And it is a common misconception but I think unfair that FPC’s motions start from the detail with no eye to the wider political picture and implications. Clearly it is important for these proposals to understand the policy area, but in developing motions and papers, the main focus of FPC’s discussions (with spokespeople, and others) is in fact how this fits into and supports our wider political approach, not just reforming some policy detail for the sake of it. I think this approach is pretty clear from some of our recent reports and presentations of our work – for example in a recent report here: https://www.libdems.org.uk/policy-this-autumn-2021

  • Peter Hirst 8th Feb '22 - 3:50pm

    Perhaps there is a case for two bodies, one essentially a debating chamber with 40+ members and the other the streamlined Board for decision making. There would need to be links and I suspect plenty of homework for the latter. Giving everyone a voice can interfere with making the correct decision.

  • @Jeremy Hargreaves – thanks for responding. The changes I suggested are probably more modest than you think for several reasons.

    Firstly, I see the leader coordinating policy development so any radical change would have to be with their support just as it would in government.

    Secondly, there is no reason to suppose that a new spokesperson for education (or anything) would change policy radically. If their sense was for a policy makeover, I would expect them to build a new consensus by consulting widely, for instance at Conference fringe, by initiating an online debate, and by asking the FPC to convene a working group. In practice, my sense is that most policy would only change with good reason.

    Thirdly, I believe Conference should have a big role, arguably bigger than now. Spokespeople should have to explain/justify/sell any new/revised policy. When ‘events’ requiring immediate response make prior approval impossible, they should seek it retrospectively. And votes wouldn’t necessarily have to be Yes/No. They could offer, say, five options ‘No way/Not impressed/neutral/OK-ish/Fantastic’ which would give a useful reading on the spread of opinion.

    Above all, we should expect leaders to inspire – but also to know that they are accountable.

    Also, my earlier point stands. We don’t mandate our MPs; they are our representatives, and we should have systems that support that while eliminating potential conflicts. In minor opposition that doesn’t matter much; in government it matters a lot.

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