Are the Liberal Democrats manageable?

Two weeks ago, I wrote a piece questioning a proposal for managing the Party through a Steering Group, pointing out that, based on what I had been led to understand, it appeared to duplicate existing bodies while adding another step between those in charge and those to whom they are accountable. Subsequently, there were reassurances given, which I think were reasonable.

But today, I have another question.

When the Liberal Democrats were formed, it was said that it was a merger of one Party whose motto was “never trust the members” with another whose motto was “never trust the leadership”. The problem is, that the two beliefs continue to run in parallel, and are reflected in how we run our Party today.

Our Committee structures are designed to ensure that there are myriad people whose role is to reflect and defend the views and positions of their “client group”, and others whose purpose is of oversight without apparent responsibility. So, for example, the Chairs of the various Federal Committees are members of the Federal Board so that they can be held accountable. Meanwhile, the Federal Board appoints representatives on the various Federal Committees. Why? Do they not trust the Chairs to report backwards and forwards faithfully?

We could slim down the various Federal Committees by stripping out some of the duplication – how many of the represented groups have members who have been directly elected in their own right, for example, and wouldn’t that be better anyway? Does the Federal Board need to be represented on every other Committee?

And members don’t help. Every three years, we elect a bunch of people to Federal Committees to “break up the Establishment” and then, as soon as they’re in post, we charge them with being “the Establishment” and display as much distrust of them as we ever did their predecessors.

The problem is that the Party’s democracy is performative, not real. We have elections, but accountability and scrutiny are poor. Finding out what the Committees do between elections is difficult – the various minutes are seldom published, very brief reports go to Federal Conference. Here at Liberal Democrat Voice, we publish reports as they are sent to us, but we’re an imperfect way of reaching the wider membership. Meanwhile, it is difficult for individual Committee members to report back on their own personal activities, which makes voting on their records challenging and occasionally unfair when they run for re-election.

Openness and transparency are supposedly liberal values. They’re certainly mine, even allowing for the fact that there are certain subjects where discretion is not only appropriate but wholly necessary. But for openness and transparency to be practical, you need trust – on both sides. Is anyone willing to start the process of building that trust?

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  • In some ways my views on this mirror my views on nuclear disarmament: waiting for an acceptable multilateral solution is waiting for something that will never come, and it needs someone to unilaterally take the first step.

    When I was elected to FCC by the wider membership I blogged about what happened, and included vote numbers in my blog posts. There was significant pushback against this from almost all of the rest of the committee. I took to instead saying things like “unanimous” “large majority” or “close vote” instead because one doesn’t like to upset people, but it just shows that even someone like me can be pushed into being less transparent than they would like by the urge for secrecy from others….

  • Mary Regnier-Wilson 12th Aug '20 - 10:31am

    Totally agree. I say that as someone who decided not to stand for Fed board last year after a number of conversations with existing members who encouraged me to do so. My main reason was that the majority of people didn’t encourage me on the basis of the things we could do together on Fed board, but on the basis that “we need to get rid of ”

    And these were people I respected who have done wonderful work for our party. They weren’t petty, tribal people, but our systems had made them act in such a way.

    I am on a commitee now, and looking forward to actually getting stuff done on that committee. Part of the issue is that our committees are expected to both be executives (But voluntary ones) and non exec oversight (of themselves and massively overtasked staff) I’ve said before that we should move to a clear demarcation of those functions – have a directly elected Small Fed Board that only exists to have non exec oversight function. Then have exec sub committees for each area/state/SAO with both directly elected members (with list system to ensure diverse representation) and co-opted members with agreement of Fed board majority who have accepted expertise. These sub committees would be expected to actually get stuff done in conjunction with staff and report regularly to Fed board (and chairs of subs would attend but not vote at Fed board)

  • With much regret I have to observe that if the Party can’t run itself, then by no stretch of the imagination can it lay any claim whatsoever to be able to run the country – either on its own or in partnership.

    The requirements ? Three C’s…..Competence, character and charisma bound together by radical relevant policies. How many of these boxes can the party tick today, and to what extent can the two leadership candidates ?

    The electorate aren’t daft. They know this and act accordingly.

  • David Raw” ” the electorate aren’t daft” they were daft enough to give this apology of a government a large majority at the last election!

  • Adrian Sanders 12th Aug '20 - 10:58am

    Very good points Mark. I didn’t know until a recent appeal from her that we had a Vice-President. Did I miss an election? I fear the answer may be yes as the numbers of posts and candidates is mind-boggling and few, if any members will know much about most of them. I want to see power devolved and shared by as many members as possible that’s both away from the Parliamentary leadership and the Westminster bubble. Perhaps an answer is to pass down more powers and responsibilities to the regions and functioning local parties. Maybe the re-establishment of a Party Council moving around the county in place of some of the London based national committees might engage and involve more members. Hopefully others have better ideas than going back to the future, although notwithstanding some admirable people who try to report back digitally, I can’t help thinking we knew more about what was going on at the top of the Party’s management when Liberal News was being published every week. Whoever wins the Leadership may need to look very carefully at the challenges Mark has highlighted.

  • Adrian Mark Sanders 12th Aug '20 - 11:01am

    In answer to self – moving around the country – not county!!!!

  • I have not voted outside of leadership elections as I simply do not understand the implications of what I would be voting for or anything about the candidates.

    Even if you did fully engage the wider membership with these elections I’m not sure how great it would be. I do not feel qualified to decide who is most suitable for taking on a particular role or whether someone is performing well even if you make everything transparent and assume that I as an ordinary member take the time to try to reach an informed decision.

    I joined when Tim was leader so I haven’t been around for ages and do not know too much about everyone though I suspect most members aren’t engaged with these elections and I seem to remember turnout being very low as % of the membership though I cannot locate that information.

  • In the party’s internal committee ballots, members are asked to choose from a large number of candidates for a large number of vacancies and to rank them in order of preference. Most of them are unknown to most members, so the exercise is more of a lottery than a meritocracy (the origin of the process comes from ‘ball lot’). Voting used to be limited to conference reps, but even among this group, few will have sufficient knowledge of the candidates to make informed judgements. Some candidates may be better known in their regions, so perhaps committee places could be elected from regional lists?

  • This article raises some very important questions.

    For me, the fact that we patently cannot or will not run the party in the way that our principles suggest we want to run the country is a major, almost fatal, handicap to our credibility.

    We claim to be a party that believes in localism and decentralisation, but have just ran a (catastrophically poor) election campaign that was obscenely centralised, with centrally designed literature and mailings imposes on local parties, often without notification let alone any consultation or genuine involvement.

    We claim to be a party that believes in everyone having an equal opportunity to participate regardless of their identity or background, yet run internal elections that require candidates to declare their gender, sexuality, disability and other personal characteristics and then overrides the results of those elections to impose arbitrary and discriminatory quotas.

    We claim to be a party that believes in participatory democracy (Revoke aside, TBF), yet manage our affairs through narrow cliques and a series of committees each with rights to nominate appointments to other committees, all designed to ensure that there is always a majority to defeat any challenge to the status quo. Where is the record of any challenge from any of the placemen (people) on these committees to the patently idiotic decisions taken regarding our 2019 campaign?

    We like to see ourselves as anti-establishment and championing the small man (person) against vested interest, yet within our party there is clearly an establishment doing its best to close down any challenge (cf Thornhill’s report on the 2019 campaign) and our handful of remaining MPs mostly represent seats stuffed with people who are the winners from the currently iniquitous economic settlement.

    We claim to be a party advocating radical change yet during this century have directed almost all of our efforts into defending a clearly unacceptable status quo.

  • Yeovil Yokel 12th Aug '20 - 2:40pm

    Barry Lofty: most of the electorate didn’t vote for the Government, but their large minority vote was converted by FPTP to a large majority of seats. Whether that large minority was ‘daft’ or not I couldn’t possibly comment.

    Ian: “…..yet right here on LDV posts are regularly censored…..merely because they happen to conflict with the personal opinions of the LDV moderator on duty at the time.”
    (1) How do you know they are regularly censored?
    (2) Well, clearly the moderator has let yours through!

  • David Allen 12th Aug '20 - 3:38pm

    This is a soviet problem. Soviet theory was that if you established a complex hierarchical series of committees extending from the top down to the grass roots, then the bottom tier would control the tier above it and so on upwards, so that the individual workers at the bottom would dictate what Joe Stalin at the top should do. Soviet practice was that only Joe had the power to control the system and dictate to the successive tiers from the top down.

    Joe was cynically imposing a top-down control system which masqueraded as its opposite, but the Lib Dems like many other organisations are doing something similar largely inadvertently. What favours this kind of bad result is over-complexity, multiple overlapping organisations, and as posters have mentioned, the need to vote for anonymous unknown names on a ballot paper.

    There aren’t any simple answers. ironically Labour’s National Executive Committee is probably as good, structurally, as you’re going to get. A single powerful committee, with well-known names on it, people whose performance and positioning can be understood, argued over and challenged by ordinary party members. However, as Labour have shown, even a good structure is no panacea!.

  • I would like to tell a story about openness.
    At one time I was involved as a teacher in the parent teacher association in the school I worked in. This was in the late sixties I think. I attended county federation of PTAs meetings. We agreed to write to all chairs of governors and offer to talk to the governors of the school. So the County was approached for the names of chairs. The answer was a very firm no – confidential.
    Since then we have reached the stage where not only names are available but so are minutes of meetings, unless confidential. And there is a clear definition of what is confidential, and there is a means of enforcing this.
    My belief is that openness leads to better decision making.
    It is often asked why most liberals do not vote Liberal Democrat. Is the answer that they do not see the Liberal Democrat’s as a Liberal Party?
    Are they right?

  • You’re probably right, Mark. Maybe the garden is more rewarding and productive.

    Let’s just say that giving loads of commitment and service to something for fifty years, and then discovering it’s evolved into something it would have been strongly opposed to at one time is more than a little disappointing.

    Looking at the stats I’m not alone in coming to that conclusion.

  • Mark – the truth is that, like David I suspect, it is hard to see any way back from where we are, and like him after decades of involvement I am on the point of walking away.

    I remember attending my first party conference in the early 80s and it feeling like arriving home. Look at the party now and there is little recognisably liberal about the way it conducts itself, and that is before you get onto policy. I am sure part of this is the passing of years and the replacement of youthful idealism with the realisation that positive change is hard and slow.

    But I really don’t see the point of devoting time and money to a party that has so demonstrably lost its way. The way the coalition was conducted was a travesty (and I speak as someone who ran my own for four years) and the 2019 election campaign was a greater travesty for being an even more self inflicted disaster. There is a limit to how many travesties one can endure; perhaps it is time to step aside and leave the party to younger members who are welcome to see if dedicating the party to identity politics can reverse the trend in worldwide public opinion heading in precisely the opposite direction.

  • Peter Chambers 12th Aug '20 - 7:56pm


    May I extend my thanks to you for reporting from the FCC online?
    What you attempted could be viewed as simply what any committee of a member organisation should report. For those of us who live far from London, digital democracy is the only hope of meaningful engagement with the Party machinery. This is doubly true in the age of Covid. Telecommunications has to be more than the megaphone from HQ.

    I did try the Policy Lab experiment. Let’s just say that it looks about a decade behind the work of some of the continental participatory parties. We are at the stage of learning what is possible and have a lot of learning to do even to walk.

  • That’s more than kind, Ruth. So are you. I think you know from experience what I’m talking about.

    Mark, yes I remember Thorpe and all his works, what happened to the National Liberal Club and what circulated through the Channel Islands… I also remember Smith…. and I know what my friends Richard Wainwright and Donald Wade thought about both of them. Some blue plaques last longer than others.

    Your last paragraph rings true, big fish/small pond. It would be interesting to know what happened to the class of 64-66 and what percent of the survivors still support the Lib Dems.

  • Barry Lofty 12th Aug '20 - 8:24pm

    It is very sad to read of so many older! members who are so disenchanted with the present party, as someone who has supported the party for most of my life but have not been involved with the business end of things since my younger days!! it so disappointing that these people who have worked for the party over the years feel this way and a bit thought provoking for me. By the way being self employed for most of my working life took more than enough of my time.

  • Richard Lowe 12th Aug '20 - 10:21pm

    Agreed. Two things I’d like to see are minutes, especially of the Federal Board, and also voting breakdown. How do we know who to vote for, when we don’t know what they do?!

  • @ Mark.. “Does our modern media-driven politics allow risk-taking, or big ideas? I’d suggest not”.

    You’re probably right, …. but they do it for the wrong reasons, pandering to non-dom owners prejudices. It’s high time the law changed to ensure UK Residence for tax purposes as an essential requirement for media ownership.

    What the (more objective) broadcasting media don’t tolerate is people who naively don’t do their homework on the so called ‘big ideas’. I have concerns about one of the Leadership candidates on that score.

  • Humphrey Hawksley 13th Aug '20 - 7:52am

    Mark, you’re absolutely right. Have you jotted down on half a page of A4 an alternative, streamlined Party structure? It reminds me a former Indian ambassador to the United Nations, then on a rotating Security Council seat, who at the end of his four year tour told me he had no idea how the Security Council worked or how it go things done. My instinct is until there’s structural reform, we will keep treading water nationally, because it’s too difficult to get new talent and ideas through the system.

  • Antony Watts 13th Aug '20 - 8:45am

    Make it clear! Liberal Democrats are a political party, not a discussion group.

    As such the only thing to be settled is our goals and vision.

  • Robert (Bristol) 13th Aug '20 - 12:01pm

    I see we’ve made Private Eye this week!

  • Sue Sutherland 13th Aug '20 - 2:05pm

    I think Mark gets it spot on when he describes our two originator parties. The result is we have a party in which the leaders don’t trust the members and members don’t trust the leaders. Jennie ( who did a great job for members like me by telling us what actually happened at the FCC) describes that process brilliantly as usual. She was sat on by other members of the Committee. It takes a very strong person to resist this kind of pressure.
    The second issue is the difficulty of believing in open government whilst trying to prevent our opponent parties knowing what we’re up to.
    The third is that having lost most of our MPs the way the party operates has become more important to us all. At the same time we are choosing a leader, mostly on the basis of policies and media appeal, when what we are really wondering is whether they will practice open or closed leadership of the party.
    We are trying to solve these problems by changing the structure of the party when they are actually problems arising from the culture of the party. We have done best in the past with leaders who have had a great love of the party and its values and members, even though they may have become irritated with us at times.
    The trust Mark asks for will only happen when members feel valued, not just as leaflet delivery fodder but as people who share the same way of looking at the world in these increasingly dark times.

  • John Probert 13th Aug '20 - 5:24pm

    @ Anthony Watts:
    Very well said and not a moment too soon either, Mr Watts!

  • Your point about the two mottos and our predecessor parties is very well put, Mark.

    Expanding the range and the reach of reporting back to members is important, and something we’ve made a start on this year. For example, I now do not only report backs after meetings, but also preview posts in advance of them (with arguably that being the more important – as knowing what’s coming up gives people the chance to influence a decision).

    In addition to the reports that FPC, FCC and the Board in their different ways regularly do, other committees have agreed to join in doing more reporting back, so you should see more of that happening in the coming months. We’ll also start always republishing those reports on the party website so that, in addition to having the advantages of using places like this site to reach more people (thank you, editors!), people can find them in the one place too.

    Two things I would add to what’s been said above in particular. One is that we have a habit in the party, as we’re liberals, to very much focus on formal written rules or processes. E.g. to say that the answer to transparency is that this document must be published in that place. But culture and habits play a big part too. For example, a few years back I was central to getting the rule change made that required every federal committee to report back regularly to members. What happened after that rule change? Pretty much nothing. Culture as well as rules need to change, and in that everyone can contribute: how people respond to reports and what they do with them is part of the culture and what encourages more of that to happen.

    The other is that these questions don’t only apply to the federal party. For those involved in local parties, for example, the questions about how transparent the local party exec is and how it reports to members is very relevant too.

    So yes, point the finger at me often, but remember there’s more to the party than the bits I’m part of 🙂

  • Far too generous @markvalladares, but thank you.
    I am very glad that our party still has plenty of people like you to think about and remind and refocus people like me who like to get stuff done on the real reasons *why* we need to get stuff done.

  • Laurence Cox 14th Aug '20 - 5:48pm

    I would like to start by seconding Sue Sutherland’s thanks to Jennie for what she did in keeping us informed about what was going on in FCC but, more importantly, I would like to pick up on another of her comments:

    At the same time we are choosing a leader, mostly on the basis of policies and media appeal, when what we are really wondering is whether they will practice open or closed leadership of the party.

    What concerns me about both leadership campaigns is that they are primarily operating in transmit-only mode, a closed leadership stance. While there have been far more hustings than we would have had normally, which means more members have been able to ask questions, these must still represent only a tiny minority of members. I submitted a question on a Green Agenda topic to that hustings (which was not used) and also to the ALDES husting (also not used); on 1st August I posted it on the Lib Dem Internal Elections Facebook page (no response from either campaign) and later sent it to both campaigns (no response, not even an acknowledgment that the question had been received).

    Thinking back to previous leadership elections, I remember attending one of Nick Clegg’s ‘town hall’ style meetings before he became leader and seeing him able to field questions on his feet was impressive, but it didn’t test his political judgement which, as we now know, was badly flawed (I am not saying that Chris Huhne, who had his own flaws, would have been any better). Yet, here we are again choosing a leader in the same way that we chose between Clegg and Huhne (policies and media appeal) while what we do want to know is whether the leader will listen to grass-roots members or will operate in the Westminster bubble.

    Many years ago, when Cix was an important communication channel in the Party, Paddy used to lurk in the Lib Dem Conferences there (and occasionally post as jjd); no leader since him has really engaged with the grass-roots of the Party on a continuous basis (and there is much more to that than attending the Glee Club, although that is an indicator).

  • Laurence Cox 14th Aug '20 - 5:49pm

    @Mark Pack
    Yes, having committee reports on the Party website is good and you can always put them in the Members area, but while motions that get through FCC become public knowledge, the motions that fail end up in a black hole where only the FCC and the proposers know what they were; the rest of us only know their titles. If we are to improve bottom-up policy-making, members need to be able to see the text of motions and the reasons for refusal (with names and parties removed if necessary). PolicyLab is an interesting experiment but we shouldn’t try to use it as the sole channel for policy-making (other than emergency or topical motions).

  • Peter Chambers 14th Aug '20 - 6:42pm

    @Mark Pack

    > the questions about how transparent the local party exec is and how it reports to members is very relevant too

    This is quite correct. I remember once very long ago – Ashdown era – a local party where after local exec, attendees took away a newsletter, with the expectation that it would be in the letterboxes of members in their walk very soon.

    Sadly these days many groups will tell me that they attempt to communicate with some social media platform that I do not have.

    Looking forward to a new CTO to bring this stuff in house.

  • The Liberal tradition is to trust people and to hold to account those in power. What this means for our internal structure is to trust the membership and have systems in place to hold those on our internal committees and the President and Leader to account.


    It seems odd to me that any party member would object to you publishing on your blog the vote numbers. For accountability to work the members need to know who voted for what on our committees.

    For the Federal election last year I didn’t list the candidates standing for Federal Board who gave their email address. I only did it for the Federal Policy Committee and found 13 out of 40 candidates gave their email address. If all candidates gave an email address, those interested in openness could email them to ask if they support the minutes minus the details of the confidential items being published on the party member only part of our website and for them to include vote numbers and actual votes if a recorded vote is called for.

    This issue was raised in 2015 when we changed to One Member One Vote, but what was agreed is not open enough. We are less open than local councils and even NHS CCGs.

    Adrian Sanders,

    Recently (Spring 2019) we added to the constitution a Vice President “elected by the Federal Board” {20.2 (d)}. Perhaps you missed this and last year this

    The Liberal Party had a Party Council but it wasn’t included in the merged party constitution. If we had the minutes published for members (see above) we could give Federal Conference the power to remove any member from a committee. Perhaps with the need for ten members from 10 different Local Parties, etc. being needed to propose such a removal via a vote of no confidence. One of the problems with such a rule would be there might be a need for a by-election for the position with the person who has been removed being able to re-stand.

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