Dorothy Thornhill writes: What we must do next to learn the lessons of 2019

The headline “two new MPs so far in this Parliament” is a welcome one. Winning, especially winning with record swings, is what we all want. 

Underneath the headline is a lot of hard work, plenty of tough decisions, and a drive to improve. We should all be thankful to our activists, staff and supporters. 

It is clear to me that the diagnosis and recommendations my team and I set out after the 2019 disaster were right, and that they are being taken seriously. Not least among them was that a Federal Board of 41 members cannot, and should not, be the clear leadership team we need to steer our party and help us all win elections. Something of that size is a talking shop, and talking shops are neither democratic nor effective. 

I therefore welcome the Federal Board’s motion to Spring Conference setting out options for reforming the structure of the Board.

My thanks to those who took part in the supporting consultation, collectively you have been clear that it is time for change. The feedback was crucial in helping the Board refine our options to a sensible number for consideration. With limited time, not all ideas could be brought to the floor. 

Conference is being asked to choose between three options for change, and then finally between reform and the status quo. 

As you can see (below) from the proposed set-up of a new Board, the options deliberately ensure key voices from across the party – geographically, demographically and in other respects – are built in. 

I am pleased that the reform options presented address the concerns highlighted in my review. The options provide for a smaller, more nimble leadership team.

They also retain the democratic selection we cherish while clarifying responsibilities, individual and collective. 

I see in these options a chance to better encourage cooperation. To build a real leadership team. Only when we have that team can our leaders be held collectively accountable by members: currently a missing ingredient. 

That accountability makes for a better democracy for members. Too much power, now, is wielded outside of our official structures, and so outside of accountability. 

I look forward to a rigorous, healthy debate at Conference. This is a complex question and I will be listening hard to colleagues and friends to help make my own decision. My principles will be democracy, accountability, electability, and not letting the best be the enemy of the good.

Organisational change is not easy. For us, though, it is necessary. 

Do see below for a quick summary of the options coming, in more detail, to Spring Conference.

What a reformed Board would look like: key points

The smaller, reformed Board under these proposals would consist of:

  • The President, who shall act as its Chair; 
  • The Leader;
  • The Chair of the English Party, the Convenor of the Scottish Party and the President of the Welsh Party;
  • The Vice President responsible for working with ethnic minority communities;
  • Three people who shall be party members elected by all members of the Party except that persons who, at the date of the close of nominations for election under this paragraph, are members of Parliamentary Parties set out in Article 17 shall not be eligible to be candidates for election under this paragraph. Casual vacancies amongst this group shall be filled in accordance with the election regulations;
  • A Vice-Chair of the Federal Policy Committee;
  • The Chairs of the Federal Conference Committee, the Federal Communications and Elections Committee, the Federal Finance and Resources Committee and the Federal People Development Committee;
  • The Chair of the Young Liberals; and
  • A principal local authority councillor, elected Mayor or Police and Crime Commissioner, elected by the principal local authority councillors, elected Mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners of the Party.

Others would also be invited to Board meetings where applicable, such as a staff representative and the Chief Whip for topics that particularly affect staff or interact with our MPs respectively. 

It’s important to note how many of the roles listed are already elected by party members, given direct accountability: 

  • The Party Leader, President and Vice President responsible for working with ethnic minority communities are all elected by all party members; and
  • The Scottish Convenor is elected by all members in Scotland, the Welsh President is elected by all members in Wales, the Chair of Young Liberals is elected by all Young Liberals members, that the councillor representative is elected by all councillors, and that the Chair of Federal Conference Committee (FCC) has to come from the FCC members elected by all party members.

Conference will also be asked to choose an option for holding the Board to account, with options including a relatively small ’scrutiny committee’ model of less than 20 members, a larger ‘Party Council’ model of about 40 members, or direct oversight by Conference itself alone.

More details of these options are in the full motion which will appear in the conference agenda.

* Baroness Dorothy Thornhill was the first directly elected Mayor of Watford.

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This entry was posted in Party policy and internal matters.


  • Duncan Greenland 19th Jan '22 - 10:25am

    Fully support the thrust of the reforms and the intended outcome to have a smaller,more effective,more nimble leadership team,but question whether at ,by my count 16 members , the proposed Federal Board is not still too large to provide effective leadership – unless considerable power is in practice delegated to a much smaller subcommittee that meets more often.
    Odd too that there is no representation on the Board from our members of parliament in either house ? (Other than the party leader)

  • Laurence Cox 19th Jan '22 - 12:53pm

    I agree with Duncan Greenland. The problem to my way of thinking is the presence of the Chairs of FCC, FCEC, FFRC, FPDC, and a Vice-Chair of FPC (as the Leader is the Chair). Yes, they need to report to the Board, but that doesn’t mean they have to be Board Members. If they are just reporting to the Board then it is also easier for them to be substituted if necessary.

    We also need to ask: should the three members elected by the Party members be one each from the English, Welsh and Scottish Parties; should we recognise that the Chair of the English Party alone is not directly elected by members and make this also a directly-elected position; and should there be representation from other Parliamentarians (I am thinking specifically of Members in the House of Lords who number more than all other Lib Dem Parliamentarians put together).

  • A welcome and BIG step forwards.

    On the basis that one should always (a) know the enemy, and (b) steal their best ideas, I thought it might interest readers to see how the Tories approach their equivalent, the Board of the Conservative Party. I extracted it from their Constitution but rearranged it by appointing person/body to emphasis how it balances and constrains the various players.

    Leader’s appointees – up to 6 in all

    Deputy Chairman (1 of 2)
    Party Treasurer
    Up to one further member subject to Board endorsement
    A senior member of the professional staff nominated by the Chairman of the Board
    One further appointment by Board subject to leader’s approval

    Other appointments – up to 13 in all (NB: All represent various Conservative bodies)

    Chairman of National Conservative Convention (serves as 1 of 2 Deputy Chairmen)
    Elected by National Conservative Convention (x 4)
    Elected Chairman of the 1922 Committee
    Chairman of Conservative Peers
    Senior elected representatives of Scottish and Welsh Conservatives (x 2)
    Elected Chair of Conservative Councillors Association
    MPs (x 3)

    Note: The National Conservative Convention (NCC) is the most senior body of the Party’s voluntary wing. It is effectively the Party’s Parliament and is made up of its 800 highest-ranking Party officers comprising a mix of directly and indirectly elected members.

  • Lloyd Harris 20th Jan '22 - 9:47am

    Glad to see a reform coming the Spring for us to vote on – I hope it gets passed.
    I have always thought a board should make decisions after hearing from experts rather than assuming they always have the expertise from within their membership.
    Like a scrutiny committee on a Council questions the experts (the officers) but once the questioning is over they can make decisions.
    The board should be calling more experts in so they are better informed before they decide.

  • Following my earlier comment on the Conservatives Board, some questions and observations:

    1. Does their distinction between (a) ‘leader’s appointments’ and (b) ‘Other appointments’ roughly parallel that between (a) executive and (b) non-executive directors on a company board where the role of the former is basically running things while that of the latter is primarily scrutiny?

    2. Should that distinction be made explicit in the proposed reforms?

    3. ‘Other appointments’ includes groups essential to electoral success – MPs, councillors, etc. – all of whom have long experience and an ear to the ground. None represent identity groups, but ALL must represent ALL social groups, balancing conflicting interests, views etc. whether those holding them are well-connected activists, ordinary party members or the voting public. This is a core political skill in a liberal democracy.

    4. It also chimes with the basic principle of Representative Democracy that those elected are expected to use their judgement and are NOT mandated.

    5. It is hard to imagine that a disaster like GE2019 could happen with similarly experienced oversight.

    6. In our (mostly unwritten) constitution PMs are effectively dictators as long as they command a majority of the Commons. For Conservatives, while their perch may be a lofty one, it is also precarious as their appointments to the Board are outnumbered more than 2:1 by those with their collective ears attuned to the party in the country. So, they have to watch their Ps & Qs – unlike Clegg & Co!

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 21st Jan '22 - 1:40pm

    I suppose that, as a member of a Federal Committee that isn’t mentioned in the article, I should ask the question, “Where does the Federal International Relations Committee fit in this brave new world?”.

    The answer, perhaps, is implied by the omission, but an explanation would be appreciated.

  • I was sad to say that while the Thornhill report was tough in its findings and its conclusions, in all honesty it wasn’t anything like tough enough, and its recommendations were largely senior management techno babble of the most hackneyed sort.

    As just one example (because the new rules prevent detailed analysis), just look at the first recommendation of the report – “Based on the lives of ordinary people in the country today, create an inspiring, overarching and compelling vision which can guide the entire Liberal Democrats organisation for the duration of a parliament, ideally longer.” However there was not a single finding in the report that mentioned the lives of ordinary people – nothing to give even a clue as to what went wrong in the run up to 2019 disaster, that this recommendation could have prevented.

    Fundamentally there is one problem the party faces not even mentioned in the report.

    We are now a very small party, but our senior figures let it be reduced to this over a period of over nine years and didn’t ever have the courage to say things needed to change – until it was all way too late.

  • Nonconformistradical 25th Jan '22 - 9:06am

    @David Evans
    “We are now a very small party, but our senior figures let it be reduced to this over a period of over nine years and didn’t ever have the courage to say things needed to change – until it was all way too late.”

    So what do you think should be done to improve the situation – for both party organisation and campaigning?

  • Well Nonconformist, what we need is people who accept we are a small party and the reasons we collapsed was down to all those people who refused to fully accept we were in a mess and sadly still refuse to accept it and its inevitable consequences.

    A small party has to be nimble, but being led by groups who refuse to accept the facts and change is the total opposite of being nimble – it is being stuck in the past. Nimble is a result of attitude of mind: prepared to learn new things and accept what we used to believe were wrong when facts come along that contradict them. Too many senior figures refuse to do this publicly or privately simply because they would never want to upset their senior friends and colleagues.

    Likewise being small means we don’t have the resources (not financial, activists, political capital or most crucially time) to do all the things we would like to and so we have to focus on what will have the biggest impact on our electoral success. This means focussing on things most likely to increase our vote quickly – people and groups likely to switch to voting for us quite quickly and not having lots of earnest people spending lots of time trying to work out how to get groups that have only ever voted for us in very small numbers to come over to us now. Word limit.

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