An endangered species – Where are we with party reform?

John Pugh and Sir David Attenborough

John Pugh with Sir David Attenborough

We are, by nature, political outsiders. None of us has been able to find a home in the establishment parties that dominate our political landscape. The political climate – electoral system, media, financial backing- is not favourable to us either. We struggle to get our voice heard, and our limited grip on power is always in peril and often short-lived.

As an endangered species, we would merit the David Attenborough treatment and as any endangered species need to husband carefully and efficiently our resources to survive. We survive by campaigning effectively on causes that matter to us and the electorate. However as Dorothy Thornhill said in her landmark report on the 2019 election “winning seats in elections has too often come second to internal discussion and management”, pointing out that “resources are being deployed on committees concerned with operational ..minutiae and their purposes and agendas at all levels of the party-national, regional and local”. The Thornhill report called for a review of the governance of all areas of the party.

Interestingly Dorothy in the report describes herself as “not an insider”, but even a party of outsiders needs its insiders. We should be grateful for those prepared to sit through the committee hours keeping the party’s cogs turning year after year as leaders, MPs and other stellar luminaries explode temporarily onto the scene, as membership waxes and wanes.

There are many insiders I could name who have served the party well – even heroically in that capacity for year after year. Often they become a distinct sub-culture within the party exchanging jobs and roles within the party either because of natural talent or because as Dorothy Thornhill puts it, they are a “someone we know”. Often they have a short commute to London.

Of course, every organisation needs an engine room, but it is the job of an engine normally to propel things forward. Every part of our party needs to be assessed on its contribution to making the party a lean (perhaps not ‘mean’) campaigning machine- to be answerable to the front line.

I take that as the Thornhill gospel but have heard little news of the radical change in the party’s structures that it would seem to require.

The review said, “There is a lack of oversight, scrutiny and poor governance structures across the federal, state, regional and parliamentary parties”. I’ll wager that most members don’t even know that there are both “state” and “federal” parties.

The sign of a failing organisation is when it consumes itself in internal procedures. In recent years, what has been noticeable is a sharp increase in compliance and other requirements laid upon local parties. There has been no parallel increase in accountability and transparency amongst the often very large federal and national bodies set up to serve them. And we have a lot.

That cannot and should not be done by dragooning our best activists into committees, but must be done by determined insiders embracing reform. The slide rule needs to go up against every internal structure, and the question asked how best can it serve the direct promotion of our values?  In some cases, the answer may be “through its dissolution or abolition”.

However, suppose we are ever again to have a serious chance of reforming our country. In that case, it might not be a bad ploy to have a serious shot at reforming our party- especially, if as Dorothy suggests, the current model has proved a drag on progress.

As a congenital outsider, I can tolerate almost any level of facile and patronising messaging from the centre so long as I know it emanates from a focussed organisation accountable and ready to learn and with the same evangelical enthusiasm as the ground troops and of course answerable to them.



* John Pugh was Liberal Democrat MP for Southport until 2017 and was elected as a Councillor for the Dukes ward of Sefton Borough Council on 2 November 2017.

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  • Richard Underhill. 13th Jan '21 - 10:11am

    Suppose we have people who think that every policy should be checked firstly for human rights compliance, or environment, bearing in mind that there is a world-wide conference coming up in the UK? Or both?

  • A starting point might be to get the Prime Minister to answer the question. Today at PMQ’s was perhaps his worst performance to date. He must be embarrassed..

  • Graham Jeffs 13th Jan '21 - 3:11pm

    “The sign of a failing organisation is when it consumes itself in internal procedures. In recent years, what has been noticeable is a sharp increase in compliance and other requirements laid upon local parties”.

    I have to say that I have found the local interpretation of GDPR by the party (presumably based on edicts from the centre) to be so ludicrous that one wonders whether anyone has ever considered what it is doing in practical terms to the ability of local activists to actually come together and be active. Neurotic would be an understatement. I have spent my whole career in compliance of one sort or another and what we have in terms of GDPR leaves me utterly de-motivated.

    I appreciate that I shall either be told that I am wrong or I shall simply be ignored. All I can say is that if this is not carefully examined many potential activists shall conclude that the effort to get anything organised within the processes currently in vogue is an effort too far. It’s challenging enough fighting the Tories and Labour without shooting ourselves in the organisational foot.

  • Graham Jeffs 14th Jan '21 - 11:29am

    John Pugh – I thought your article was very good and to the point. My apologies for merely referring to my particular gripe, based on experience.

    What really disturbs me is that there has been basically zero reaction to the points you made. Ignoring what you say isn’t going to make the problems go away. We have very limited resources – including activists – and it’s essential that they are all used as productively as possible.

    That isn’t happening. We need organisational leadership that cuts through the crap. Do we have anyone with the balls to do that?

  • John Pugh is right. Before the Thornhill Review was even thought of, I knew things needed to change. I was elected to Federal Board in late 2019 promising to work with the Board to loosen the Federal reins a little, provide what’s necessary to strengthen and streamline Parliamentary candidate approvals and speed up selections, improve transparency so far as legally possible and work with everyone. Well, the Board as a whole didn’t want to loosen the Federal reins. Now, a steering group of mainly chairs of committees, not directly elected members like me, runs the Federal Party. Change is slow in the English State Party, which voted down proposals to reform itself three years ago. The State Parties control candidate selections procedures, which in England at local party level now face more obstacles than before. Central control and use of information have tightened. Changes are moving in the wrong direction. It matters because if we are ineffective as an organisation the Tories will be in power indefinitely. That is unacceptable to me. Please get in touch with me, text me on 07813800741, if you are willing to help gradually, gradually turn the oil tanker.

  • David Craddock 14th Jan '21 - 4:05pm

    John Pugh makes some very useful observations. Some positive changes have been made since the Thornhill review – not least with an improvement in communication between HQ Campaigns and the regions. However the Lib Dem organisations reminds me a bit of a company I once worked for that had a lot of departments (read committees) that operated like little fiefdoms or silos. There was little interaction between each and almost no co-ordination. I believe this is a challenge for us as a party which traditionally has been very bottom up and democratic in many respects. Also the difference between my experience and the party is the importance of unpaid volunteers and well as employees. If you want radical reorganisation this has to be consider as a ‘top down’ exercise. If we started with the question ‘what do we need to be doing to win more election?’ how might we better organise ourselves to achieve this aim? Do we need State Parties, Regional Parties, Local Parties and a Federal Party (all with their own constitutions – some of which are contradictory) and do we need the plethora of committees? How could we streamline our organisation to deliver better election outcomes? There are many people in the party with experience of these kinds of issues – why don’t we ask them to come up with some radical ideas to improve our performance?

  • Thanks for this John.

    I suspect that David Attenborough would, if asked, point out that the success of a species depends not only on the evolutionary fitness of individuals but also, by the theory of multi-level selection, on their ability to cooperate to enhance their collective fitness.

    That is why lions, which alone among cats work together in prides, are traditionally king of the jungle. It’s also why wolf packs are able to tackle buffalo which are far more than an order of magnitude larger than the largest wolf.

    But it is we humans who are the world champion co-operators. We learnt to dominate the world because we have that talent in spades and not because of our individual strength or cleverness. If that were all we had, we would probably have gone extinct long ago.

    And the story of expanding human cooperation has not ended for the Internet has opened cooperation on a global scale to anyone who is connected.

    All this should add up to a golden age for Lib Dems, one thoroughly in tune with our instincts and one that would enable us to transform governance in this country for the better. But the party is in the grip of a committee-heavy and top-down approach, a mistake baked-in at the time of the Liberal/SDP merger and subsequently continued long past its sell-by date, so the best efforts of a small group of loyal insiders to keep the show on the road are doomed by the organisational errors they have inherited. Evolutionary change is unlikely to work at this point or it would be showing results already.

    A paradigm change is needed so my sense is that the MPs – and particularly Ed Davey – must lead on breaking the logjam. He/they should search out new ideas about how to manage things better, compile the best of them into a scheme to deliver nimble and effective party governance and then take that to conference next autumn for formal approval.

    The organisational issues involved are not unique to the Lib Dems so I am sure there will be members with relevant experience who would be delighted to help. But the clock is ticking.

  • Peter Martin 14th Jan '21 - 4:44pm

    @ Gordon,

    Lions don’t live in the jungle!

    Co-operation between lions is based on family relationships to maximise the passing along of the same genes to the next generation. If one male lion displaces another as head of the pride any cubs which are the offspring of the previous male will be killed.

    Plus the females do nearly all the work while the males lounge around most of the time and only stir themselves to fend off other males. The Lib Dem sisterhood will not be too impressed with that arrangement!

    Not a sociological model to copy!

  • Stephen Booth 14th Jan '21 - 6:48pm

    Could not agree more. We’ve become obsessed with compliance and process; and don’t get me started on GDPR – a barrack room lawyer’s charter and we have plenty of them standing ready to impede progress.
    There is also a certain irony in the way local government candidates have to be vetted and thoroughly interviewed yet come a general election many candidates, some having been in the party five minutes, are parachuted into unwinnable seats, perhaps to make fools of themselves.

    While for local elections let me share my experience. I am a district councillor elected two years ago after a gap of 29 years when I was a councillor for 8 years in the 1980s. I was approved to stand as a county candidate in 2017 and stood as a paper candidate. I was asked to stand again this year as a paper candidate but i would have to go through a selection procedure. You know what? I couldn’t be arsed! If my credentials as a councillor and party member since its foundation and the Liberal Party for 25 years before aren’t good enough, so be it.

  • Those who say that the current death by bureaucrat is all the fault of the 1988 Merger constitution miss the fact that, for around 20 years after that, we actually achieved our greatest success in a century. Record numbers of MP’s culminated in the 62 elected in 2005 – the greatest number since 1922. Record numbers of Councils controlled, successful Coalition Government for 8 years in Scotland and 4 years in Wales, unprecedented levels of success in traditional Labour fiefdoms.

    It is the last 10 years that have brought us back to the edge of extinction that the Liberal Party faced in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The political and policy disasters are mostly understood, although denied by some. The organisational issues are different. The folly of the centralised Command and Control introduced under Clegg reached even greater heights in 2019 along with the abandonment of any concept of a rational Target Seat system. The Kafkaesque disciplinary system is hilariously but all too accurately depicted in the short video John Pugh has linked to above. The ever spreading snares of the Committee sitters are outlined by Jo Hayes.

    I wrote on LDV a couple of years ago comparing the English Party to a cross between Spectre and Kafka but things have only got worse since. Last year they embarked upon a great Development Strategy initiative whereby the English Party tells Regional Parties to write up a Strategy statement and they do the same with Local Parties. Everyone then ticks all the boxes with due reference to the 17 points provided by the English Party and everyone congratulates each other on a job well done. Last week every Local Party Officer received a long English Party directive warning that before they can select a PPC they will have to provide comprehensive documentation as to how they have tried to make their membership a mathmatical reflection of any and all types of local diversity. Or else….what? Will the English Party refuse to let Local Parties stand candidates as a punishment? Or will they impose candidates from the vast pool of those who are always [Irony alert] chomping at the bit to stand at every level from Council upwards?

    These stultifying, box ticking, committee based, central controls are a product of the last 10 years and above all mushroomed unchecked in the power vacuum that followed near annhilation in 2015. The Thornhill Report called for a reversal of the process. Jo Hayes notes that instead it is getting worse.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 14th Jan '21 - 11:03pm

    Excellent from John and Paul.

    I said very frequently, only the US have it correct on candidates.

    Nobody listened. The latest, bright notion only the chosen on a candidate list can be chosen by members as peers!

    If we really think the party so bad, at this, Labour regarded as lousy by many here, why not be like the Co op and select with Labour and at least win!

  • Graham Jeffs 15th Jan '21 - 9:21am

    Paul Holmes – you describe things, not least concerning the selection of PPCs – of which I am happily unaware. Who would really want to allocate even more of their valuable spare time to such an activity! Or, more to the point, have to stop doing something more politically constructive in order to do so.

    These inane edicts are appalling. I believe both the substance and the philosophy behind these burdens are going to kill the party by organisational paralysis and disenchantment. We are lucky to get any members down here – perish the thought we should be beaten over the head for not making sure they are diverse!

    But is there a way out of this quagmire? Is there really any recognition as to how serious the situation has become? What’s the chance of these committee huggers being replaced by a streamlined party framework? And are the paid “management” of the party initiators or gofers?

  • I agree with John Pugh, and also Jo Hayes above.

    Federal, state, region and local constituency must be at least one layer of bureaucracy too many, so it’s time to abolish either state or region (or both). The current system makes as much sense as the US Electoral College in this day and age.

  • Paul Holmes – Thanks for your observations about the move to centralised Command & Control and its later mushrooming.

    To be clear, I do not think that this is ALL the fault of the merger constitution – far from it. That enshrined a sensible approach which enabled the party to move on. AFAIK all members welcomed it as I did.

    But, with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, I think it got one subtle but crucial thing wrong and much has descended from that including the ‘death by bureaucrat’ you describe (other lines of descent also exist).

    Basically, it comes down to how you envisage and hence arrange matters so the party is properly democratic – clearly a key objective. There are two approaches which can be caricatured as follows:-.

    PLAN A: A democratic party is one where all members have a say in everything. In practice that’s not possible even with the Internet (which didn’t exist in 1988), so committees are elected to represent the members and control activities deemed important, in particular policy making.

    PLAN B: A democratic party is one where the members elect as leader the person most in tune with their wishes – and fire them if they mess up. The leader has a lot of power, but only as long as he/she performs well. It’s a high branch but a breezy one and easily blown off.

    The party excels at local guerrilla operations because Plan A fits like a glove. But it doesn’t scale up – on the national stage it means bureaucracy, dysfunction and bloat and, crucially, an inability to formulate a narrative or pivot to a new path.

    The Tories use Plan B, picking as leader the candidate who captures the vibe/articulates the best narrative – something that goes beyond mere policies – enabling them to pivot as necessary. They then get freedom to run with that – as long as it’s works! If/when they fail, they’re out.

    The record is clear: Plan B works better on the national stage. Multi-level selection suggests it’s because it weeds out weak performers whereas Plan A doesn’t.

    This explains something that long puzzled me. Tory activist friends were always confident they ultimately had control. Then the penny dropped; when they disliked the leader, they knew they could fire them and pivot to a new course– it was only a matter of choosing the right time to strike. Can Lib Dems do that or is the Blob a sea anchor?

  • Graham Jeffs 15th Jan '21 - 4:05pm

    Nick Baird – getting rid of state and region seems a good start. How is that to be achieved? Who needs to recognise the need for radical change?

    As for constituency – therein lies another issue for some of us. Where the party is organised on a district basis there can be circumstances whereby a constituency party is not allowed to exist. I live in such a constituency. We now have a constituency committee but we are beholden to four separate district parties to get information. There is no willingness by HQ to issue us with a consolidated membership list.

  • Peter Chambers 15th Jan '21 - 4:23pm

    Thanks for John and Jo for posting on this.

    There is a key decision the party should make and clearly signal. This is between doing things primarily with money or with volunteers. The first way is for those driven by donors, staffed by keen operators who want a social media ad-buy budget, and directed by fans of Cicero who believe that “the sinews of war are infinite money”. It can be used for astroturfing.

    The volunteer way is for those without much money but many member and supporters. It is distributed, local, bottom-up, retail, and hopefully democratic. It is harder to manage and requires much patient coaching, enabling, managing, and motivating. The result is more strength in depth.

    It should be possibly to look at an organisation and see where on the spectrum between those poles it lies. People will be attracted or repelled by what they see. You can guess how liberals and democrats will respond.

  • The centre’s culture needs to understand that supporting local Parties is their objective. Without strong local Parties it will exhaust itself maintaining them. Too many messages are requests for forms that demand rather than support. More cross constituency support would also help. We are without a Data Officer at present and am sure are not the only one. Local Treasurer’s also deserve better than aggressive demands on their time.

  • Graham Jeffs 16th Jan '21 - 4:49pm

    Sadly, much of what has been written here underpins the largely collective misgivings we have about how the party is run. But what is to be done?

    Peter Hirst points to a very real problem: the culture is so OTT and often aggressive that people do not want to accept roles where they fear that they may be vulnerable to retribution regardless of the efficiency that they may bring to the tasks. Not only is this OTT GDPR, it’s also very much on the finance side. I’m a qualified accountant – there is no way I would expose myself to the ramifications of being a Treasurer within the LibDems.

    So, is there really any prospect of achieving radical change in a relatively short time? Are the entrenched interests of those who want to intellectualise about organisation such that it’s impossible to get concise, targeted, prompt, positive action? Where do we go from here? Extinction?

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