Federal Board reform – structures are nothing without good people

I am here to support option 3, because I think it is the least worst option of those offered. It has guaranteed local government representation. Councillors need a louder voice in the party. They are used to doing scrutiny, and will be able to use that to our benefit.

My lack of enthusiasm is not due to being resistant to change. It’s that this is not the change I am looking for.

Consider how professionally we approach campaigning – the training, the use of data, the effort that we put in. Consider how diligently we approach our policies – the use of evidence, the attention to detail. And then look at how we approach running the party – largely as an inconvenience that gets in the way of the campaigning and policy-making. But all the campaigns and policy in the world are useless without a party that can deliver them.

We need a change in culture more than we need a change in structure. We have had governance reviews before. Like this one, they have been about the shape of the structures at the top of the party. I believe that form should follow function. We need to look at the function first, and properly define what we want these structures to do for us.

Not only do I think we are starting in the wrong place, we are missing something. As someone recently said to me, competent people can make almost any set of organisational structures work. Incompetent people can destroy your organisation whatever your structures are.

We are lucky to have some good people on the Federal Board at the moment. But it is largely by luck that they are there. It certainly isn’t because we plan for it.

We do not let people stand to represent the party for external office without checking they can do the job. Candidates for parliament have to pass a formal assessment to be approved, and approval can be revoked if things go wrong. Council candidates have to go through approval every 4 years – even if they have been elected and are doing the job well. Yet, we do nothing to assess the capability or suitability of the people on the Federal Board.

We don’t even check they know what the role involves before they end up in it. This is not a sensible way to carry on.

So I fear that this set of changes is not going to cure the problems identified in the Thornhill review of the 2019 General Election. The report recommended overhauling the organisational structure but it also recommended overhauling the organisational culture. That overhaul needs to include giving the same attention to the party internally as we bring to its external face. A change to the structure of the Federal Board is not enough.

If we are going to get anywhere as a party we need to start practising internally what we preach externally. We need to foster diversity, to disperse power, nurture creativity, promote a democratic federal framework, and involve people in the decisions which affect their lives. If that’s the right way to run the country, it has to be the right way to run the party. So we need to ensure that the people we have in place on the Federal Board are people who can ensure that’s what we are doing.

* Prue Bray (she/her) has been a member of the Lib Dems since 1994. She has been a councillor in Wokingham since 2000. She was the Chair of the Candidates Committee in England during the 2017 and 2019 General Elections and the 2019 European elections, and is currently chair of ALDC and Vice Chair of the Liberal Democrats in England. She writes in a personal capacity.

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3 Comments

  • Mick Taylor 15th Mar '22 - 3:43pm

    I have often found myself in disagreement with Prue Bray on a whole raft of issues, bit in this case she is spot on.
    During the debate, many of those speaking for the proposals that have been adopted, spuriously tried to pretend that most of the people on the new board will be elected. Not to the board, because only 3 out of 16 will actually be elected specifically to be board members. Apart from the President, the Vice President and the leader, who are elected by all party members, the remaining 10 people on the board will have been elected in a different capacity by a limited franchise and will be on the board by virtue of the position they hold with no direct mandate from the party at large. They will not be answerable to the party at large for their decisions. (Nor, I fear, to the body that elected them)
    One can hope that the new party council will be able to do a real job of holding the board to account, but my experience of scrutiny in local government does not give me the confidence that it will be so
    As a Democrat, I accept that the change has been voted through, albeit with under 300 people participating. I hope it works, but as Prue rightly says, it’s culture and people that make the difference and so far, I see little evidence of changes there.

  • Laurence Cox 15th Mar '22 - 7:35pm

    @Mick Taylor

    I too agree with Prue, but electing everyone on Federal Board as you suggest isn’t a ‘silver bullet’. What we have seen in recent elections for senior Party positions are delays in those elected taking up their posts because of appeals against the results of the elections. In our new Vice-President’s case it was two months (and I now know from Mark Pack’s response to my speech at Conference that this appeal is still ongoing). It is far from the only case, with similar issues arising at Regional Party (London Region) and English Party levels. If winning candidates are unable to take up their posts because of appeals then it throws the whole basis of democracy in our Party into disrepute.

    This is why I felt it necessary to speak against the Election Regulations at Conference, even though I thought that Duncan Brack did an excellent job in rewriting them. Unless we are prepared to ask ourselves why this is happening consistently, we will end up with a hobbled Party democracy.

  • I agree strongly with Prue.

    The Preamble to the Constitution starts “The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society…… ” and Article 1 states:
    “The objectives of the Party shall be:
    B. to seek to achieve the objects set forth in the Preamble to this Constitution;
    and
    C. in order to achieve such objects, to secure the election of Liberal Democrats….”.

    Therefore, the Constitution defines one purpose for the party, and one principal route to achieving that objective. The party’s internal structures should be designed to achieve those ends, and not be an end in themselves.

    The previous composition of the Board was internally focussed rather than designed to achieve those ends, and the new structure approved by Conference is a great improvement. The most important objective now is for the next Board to focus on delivering the purpose and objectives of the constitution, which requires stability.

    As Prue says, the new structure will only work if the best Members for the roles come forward, and that they are then elected. The current process for elections can be improved within the existing Constitution, but some small changes might be needed to achieve this completely.

    We can learn a lot from the way that the Boards of major charities, public bodies and mutuals are constituted. A good example is YHA, which has a tradition of genuine participation of its members in the election of its Board.

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