Conference: the Bones report

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It’s Bones time, and this is one agenda item in which activists will be taking a great deal more interest in than the press. And so, with only a brief pause to offer special congratulations to the gentleman sitting near microphone A during the session for his magnificent white beard, to business.

Chris Bones introduced the report consultation session by stressing that the age of the amateur organisation in politics is over. We can mourn its passing, he said, but the time for grieving is over. That is the shift the paper is designed to address. He also said, in anticipation of membership’s concerns about the proposed Chief Officer’s Group (COG), that committees and governance are not necessarily the most important proposals of the report, even though Lib Dems concentrate on them.

Squeezed as I am between Our Vince and the faint prospect of gobbling down a biscuit for lunch before it’s time to go and Make it Happen, I don’t have time to write as much as I’d like about the many excellent contributions, but I do want to mention in particular the first comments from the floor which probably encapsulates the views of many active members.

Prue Bray emphasised that the membership are not dinosaurs. We do want to change, she said, we want to be successful. But there is a problem with this report. It advocates centralisation, whereas we preach devolution in our politics. It’s an invariable feature of management consultancy that the commissioners of a report think it’s wonderful and get carried away with their own success, and the results are then imposed on everybody else.

She suggested that, while the report writers might think they had carried out a lot of consultation, the majority of the membership did not, in her view, know what had been going on. She appealed to Chris Bones and the report’s commissioners to “take us with you”. Don’t impose brilliant solutions from the top-down. She was interrupted with smatterings of applause a couple of times and roundly applauded at the end.

The first section of the report, on the COG, predictably attracted the most controversy. Several of the comments, from Andy Strange, John Smithoson, Erland Watson and others, cumulatively and usefully thrashed out the distinction between the management function and the strategy/governance function. Bones is right to ask for more professionalism in management. But the major reform in the report, the COG, actually has the effect of further blurring this distinction. There needs to be further clarification on whether COG was an implementation and management body or a strategy and budget setting body.

In his summation, Simon Hughes referred back directly to this point, and referred to a paper agreed yesterday which has yet to be published in which this distinction was clarified and the COG is described as having purely managerial and implementational functions, with the Federal Executive and the leader retaining strategic functions.

Other stand-out points from the session:

* Fiyaz Mughal and Jo Christie-Smith made powerful points about the Report’s lack of focus on diversity. Jo pointed out that if the planned compositional membership of the COG met today, it would be entirely composed of men. Had a diversity audit been carried on the report?

* One argument put forward against the leadership academy proposal was that it might constrict the choices of local parties artificially from selecting a candidate who had the potential to be developed, who simply had not had time to undergo training.

* An argument offered in support of the academy was that other parties are catching us up in campaigning techniques, and a central body was essential for cascading new ideas. Personally, I wasn’t sure about this – it seems to depend rather heavily on whether the academy would educate ordinary campaigners and activists, which I understand is not the idea.

It was very, very noticeable that many commenters qualified their specific – sometimes serious – criticisms with the general comment that they approved of the overall thrust of the report, and felt there were many good proposals in it. This seems to underline Prue Bray’s point – the membership is ready to consider new ideas, but have serious reservations and/or suggested improvements to individual proposals, and the reservations about the role of COG came across very clearly.

It remains to be seen how the party will respond to this consultation session. Paper mentioned by Simon Hughes to be published when available.

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3 Comments

  • Hywel Morgan 15th Sep '08 - 2:05pm

    “It was very, very noticeable that many commenters qualified their specific – sometimes serious – criticisms with the general comment that they approved of the overall thrust of the report, and felt there were many good proposals in it.”

    Of course they did – it’s the classic trick of surrounding some controversial proposals with motherhood and apple-pie ideals.

  • Rob Blackie 15th Sep '08 - 4:13pm

    Alix – I think the training of local activists / campaigners is still very much up for discussion. My opinion is that the academy will be massively more effective if it does do this – since in the long term they are people who do the hard slog that takes seats (whether council or Parliamentary or other level) from black hole to target level.

    Currently we do a fair amount for target seat candidates in Parliament but relatively little for campaigners / activists elsewhere.

    This doesn’t take many resources – but it does require some, and a dedicated organisation.

  • Prue Bray? The leaders can’t take us with them if they are mislead about who we are…

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