Helena Morrissey evaluates party’s progress on her recommendations

Last year, Helena Morrissey published her Report into the Processes and Culture of the Liberal Democrats and made 9 recommendations for change. Here are Stephen Tall’s and Caron Lindsay’s thoughts on it from then.

It was always intended that Helena would come back and evaluate the party’s progress on implementing her recommendations. Her progress report is published today and can be seen here.

This is what she has written in the foreword:

Considerable efforts have been made in a relatively short time, notwithstanding several new adverse revelations and complaints made since my original Report was published.

I am satisfied that there is real desire at the leadership level and at the Party’s staff headquarters to improve the environment by making it more inclusive. The shock and embarrassment of last year’s events and the lack of a satisfactory conclusion for anyone involved have been painful learning experiences. There is every motivation to try to prevent a recurrence of anything similar – and to resolve problems that do arise. A number of positive steps have been taken. In particular, as detailed below, the Party is attempting to establish high expected standards of behaviour, to clarify and implement better codes of conduct, grievance and complaints procedures and to adopt a more rigorous and timely disciplinary process.

The results of these efforts have yet to be widely felt, however, most notably in local and regional areas. I don’t think this is just a matter of insufficient time passing to ‘cascade’ the changes: the Party’s complex organisational structure is a significant impediment to broad progress. I recommend a post-election review and radical reform of this structure, which would have many potential benefits, including making the Party less vulnerable to individuals and groups not adopting best practices.

I am mindful of the upcoming General Election placing additional pressures on everyone involved with the Party, especially in light of its current poor polling. Those I interviewed recognise that these stresses may undermine efforts to improve. While it is impossible to completely safeguard against this, the Party leadership and management teams are alert to the risk. A new framework has been put in place to better manage volunteers, for example.

In this Report, I set out the specific steps taken and consider how effective they have been so far.

The experiences of implementing the recommendations have been edifying and I’d like to suggest some refinements and additional actions that could be taken, in the hope of ensuring progress continues to be made.< I have also incorporated some of the practical suggestions from members and staff made in response to the first Pastoral Care Survey. The final section of this Report reviews other developments since my inquiry, lessons that may be learned from these and observations around some of the remaining problematic areas for the Party (as far as the issues I was originally asked to review are concerned). There are (and always will be) particular difficulty in achieving ‘closure’ of disputes that result from intense human interaction, but it is still important to try. Ultimately, if a resolution cannot be found through due process, someone may need to be the ‘bigger person’ and forgive the other individual. In both this review and my original inquiry, I have come across disputes where the level of animosity has become disproportionate to the alleged wrongs committed even where the anger is justified, holding onto such a negative emotion is very destructive. It is, of course, very hard to forgive, not least because ‘Forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better past’ (Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield). We all cling onto the past, wishing things had played out differently when we are frustrated with the outcome. Nevertheless, embracing forgiveness can free and empower us, helping us attain peace and even to feel compassion towards the person who has caused our hurt or suffering. Creating an environment where fewer disputes arise is clearly important to the Party. Creating a more inclusive environment, not only for women, but for other under-represented groups, including ethnic minorities, LGBT and disabled people, is another broader goal. This applies not just to the Liberal Democrats but to other parties as well. More diversity in Westminster would be beneficial to our society, but remains an elusive aspiration. The progress seen in the corporate world over the past few years in the UK, particularly around the advancement of women as a core business objective for many companies, gives grounds for optimism that similar progress may yet be achieved in politics. An environment where everyone is treated with respect is a basic starting point if people from diverse backgrounds (not just more women) are to consider a political career. One encouraging development since my original Inquiry is that the House of Commons Respect Policy has been updated. The revised Policy is very clear about expected behavioural standards and gives examples of bullying and harassment. It sets out what people should do if they think they have been subject to bullying or harassment, including where to go for help and advice. A Staff Notice was published in July 2014 when the new Policy was introduced, which included information about a training and awareness session. At the same time, a confidential 24 hour helpline was put in place for all Parliamentary staff to assist them with problems ranging from relationships at work or home, stress, debt, drugs or alcohol etc. This service is outsourced to Health Assured, an Employee Assistance Programme and Occupational Health specialist provider. All calls are treated in confidence between the individual and a counsellor. These are helpful steps forward, particularly towards addressing the fear of recrimination that I have seen when reviewing the Liberal Democrats and which I am sure is experienced within the other parties, given the nature of the working relationships that can develop in the context of power.

I hope that this Report may motivate all to intensify efforts underway to stamp out discrimination, to modernise behaviours and working practices and so attract the diverse talent that we need.

Outgoing President Tim Farron said:

I very much welcome the report, and I’m pleased the party has made positive steps in the right direction. Helena Morrissey has undertaken a badly needed review that has already triggered important progress in our party.

I have made the tackling of these issues a priority during my time as President but there is more we must do and so it’s vital that Helena is still holding our feet to the fire, and ensures no one is complacent./blockquote>

President Elect Sal Brinton said:

The Party has come a long way, but this report really highlights the steps we still need to take. As Party President, I’m committed to guiding the party on the rest of this journey. Tim Farron has done an excellent job to help us through the past few years, and I hope to build on his good work and ensure our party is open and diverse, and protects all of our members.

Once we have had time to read it, we’ll let you know what we think.

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18 Comments

  • Eddie Sammon 18th Dec '14 - 4:58pm

    I’m glad to see progress on introducing a lower threshold of proof for disciplinary cases (in the full report). Without this I feel people wouldn’t have felt confidence in the party’s disciplinary processes.

    Merely a commentator

  • paul barker 18th Dec '14 - 5:27pm

    In calling for the Party to look at Internal Reform, after the Election, I hope that Helens is pushing at an open door.

  • “At the same time, a confidential 24 hour helpline was put in place for all Parliamentary staff to assist them with problems ranging from relationships at work or home,”

    How was this publicised? Passed me by and I was Parliamentary staff at the time!

    Can’t help feeling that as before this is headline grabbing stuff which looks good in party reports and no actual implementation in the real world.

  • James Moore 18th Dec '14 - 5:38pm

    For me, the most significant sentence in this is: “The results of these efforts have yet to be widely felt, however, most notably in local and regional areas. ”

    In my experience since being a party member since 2011, some local and regional areas are still resisting ‘top-down changes from HQ’ from long before the Morrissey Report (i.e. those refusing to move from EARS, adopt Council standing orders, amend local Constitutions, use colour leaflets, etc.). Some see no reason to change anything about the way they campaign or behave, which is a real struggle for anyone who does want to adopt the report’s findings and for newer members who see dinosaur-like behaviour on a regular basis.

  • Helen Dudden 18th Dec '14 - 8:16pm

    I noticed this bit. Nevertheless embracing forgiveness can free and empower us, helping us attain peace ,and even feel compassion towards the person who caused our hurt or suffering.

    Sounds very selfish to me, someone hurts you, and you put up with it. In a situation of disagreement it takes courage to apologize and be aware, your comments have hurt another. There is often a time for the person you have rude and upsetting towards, having issues within their lives. But, then all you are asking is compassion.

  • @james
    Really? Have we reached that point? Local parties to be disciplined because they don’t print colour leaflets? Don’t use mediocre American software. What next? Public stonings?

    Methinks you might be in the wrong party James.

    A Liberal, Democratic Community-based party must always work from the bottom upwards, not from the top down. It’s our failure to do so in recent years that has taken us from the radical cutting edge of British politics to our current position as Tory Glove Puppets.

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 18th Dec '14 - 11:03pm

    @ James,

    Whilst I am not as harsh in my response as Martin is, perhaps my perspective, as a Party bureaucrat at State, Regional and Local levels, might be helpful.

    Many Local Parties are led by a small group of multi-tasking individuals, who did not join a political party to deal with paperwork and enforce what, to them, are pretty obscure rules. For the most part, they do as the Party asks, as best they can, and as much as they are aware. And that awareness is often a problem. The English Party, which makes a lot of the rules that impact on my Local Party, is a distant body with little connection. There is little guidance, and less contact. And unless the right message reaches the right person, and that person is receptive and engaged – and you shouldn’t assume that Local Party Officers such as myself are – things carry on as they always have.

    I stood down as Treasurer at our AGM last month, not because I can’t do the job – I’m rather well-qualified to do it – but because I simply couldn’t raise the enthusiasm to do it any longer. As I said to them, I would rather not do the job unless I felt sufficiently enthused to give it the attention it deserves. I may end up carrying on because nobody else has, and likely will, step forward. But am I going to pore over whatever documents come my way from the Region or Great George Street? Possibly, but not perhaps with devotion. And many Local Party Officers feel the same – they’re doing their job because nobody else will.

    So, perhaps cutting Local Parties some slack might be advisable. Most are doing the best they can, with limited resources in an increasingly technological age. We should be helping them, not attacking them.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 18th Dec '14 - 11:47pm

    I think that James is giving his opinion based on his experience, Mark. It’s hard to hear that kind of criticism and to think that our party might not be as welcoming to new ideas as we would like to think. James’ experience reflects mine, though, over many years and I find that a little unsettling.

    I get what you are saying about local parties being hard-stretched but if they turn away new ideas and new people, then there is an argument that they deserve everything they get.

    I am not, of course, suggesting for a minute that your local party is like that because it wouldn’t be with you and Ros in it.

  • @Martin

    I didn’t say anything about disciplining, and linking this to public stoning is rather over the top. I’m sorry if you feel I should leave the party.

    @Mark

    Thanks for your insight. I was trying to reconcile Helena’s comments about local situations to my own personal experience. Trying to get people to change behaviours and attitudes is difficult, and my examples were used as such to explain lack of progress with implementing this report at the local level. I should point out that I am a Local Party Officer and serve on my Region’s Exec, so understand where you are coming from.

    @Caron

    Thank you. I was recently told by a senior Councillor that myself and other new members shouldn’t be actively involved until we have observed more experienced campaigners for years first. I didn’t join the Party to sit on the sidelines. I had made the assumption that Local Parties would be biting the arms off new enthusiastic members, it is sad that my assumption was wrong.

  • Perhaps the problem is that the vast majority of members are happy with the way things are run at a local level, but despair at the “‘top-down changes from HQ’”. Perhaps after the GE people will have more faith in the new leadership, who hopefully they will have much more in common. You know people who may actually vote for what they believe in!

  • A Social Liberal 19th Dec '14 - 2:15am

    How can we be being treated with equal respect when some of us are prevented from getting our voices heard on this forum – not because we contravened any part of the comments policy but because we are critical of our leadership. Incidentally this message is being recorded as evidence that censorship of posts which do not contravene the rules is happening.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 19th Dec '14 - 7:40am

    A Social Liberal, it is simply not credible to suggest that dissenting voices are not heard on this site, or that there is no criticism of the leadership.

    We are perfectly entitled as editors and moderators to set the parameters in which debate will be conducted and it’s because we think that people deserve to be treated with respect that we don’t allow gratuitous personal rudeness.

  • Mark Valladares as so often is a voice of sanity in LDV.

    How many people will have read this from him and quietly nodded in agreement as it so clearly underlines their own experience? —

    ” Many Local Parties are led by a small group of multi-tasking individuals, who did not join a political party to deal with paperwork and enforce what, to them, are pretty obscure rules.
    ….unless the right message reaches the right person, and that person is receptive and engaged – and you shouldn’t assume that Local Party Officers such as myself are – things carry on as they always have.
    I stood down as Treasurer at our AGM last month, not because I can’t do the job – I’m rather well-qualified to do it – but because I simply couldn’t raise the enthusiasm to do it any longer. “

  • “How can we be being treated with equal respect when some of us are prevented from getting our voices heard on this forum – not because we contravened any part of the comments policy but because we are critical of our leadership”

    I’m laughing too much to pass comment

  • SIMON BANKS 19th Dec '14 - 4:03pm

    I am really quite surprised that someone who is amazed and disgusted that local parties continue to “resist top-down change” is a member of a Liberal party. This seems to me a fundamentally illiberal way of thinking. What’s more, the examples given, such as a small party struggling to make ends meet refusing to spend money it doesn’t have on moving from EARS to Connect, are surely matters where any local group should be able to make its own informed decision. Local campaigners do tend to know what works in their area and know what budget they have for it. As for refusing to amend the local party constitution, it’s an extraordinarily illiberal system we have at present, forced on Liberals at the merger, that local party constitutions are dictated from a national script and amendments made at regional level are forced on them unless they go through a difficult appeal process which may end in failure; so if a local party sees a need for a different officer post, for example, it must go cap in hand to region for permission to vary the constitution or, of course, let reality and the constitution become different things. In any review of our arrangements I would urge instead that local parties should decided on their own constitutions, guided by a national template, and subject to check at regional level that certain basic principles and necessities are met.

    There is also too much attempting from HQ and the leader’s court to dictate the content of local campaigns, the dictation coming largely from people with little understanding of local campaigning, let alone issues in particular places.

    If we don’t understand that small local groups should be dictated to as little as possible, we are no longer Liberals because we don’t meet either Gladstone’s or John Stuart Mill’s basic propositions about trust of the people tempered by prudence, about good government being no substitute for self-government and about freedom being right unless harm to others can be shown.

    I would support review of the party’s structure in the light of Helen Morrissey’s comments and believe we’re weak from top to bottom in how we deal with equal opportunity and harassment issues. But I would strongly resist this being used as a reason for major centralisation – which would kill local parties, since many activists would pull out, and without them, there can be no local candidates or local campaigns.

  • Helen Dudden 19th Dec '14 - 5:58pm

    Actually I read the report and thought about it.

    It makes sense to settle things. An apology would still be acceptable to me.

    I don’t want to be involved in politics in the future, I prefer the law on improvement for children.

    I don’t wish to highlight the issue further, only that it would be a positive step to take.

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 20th Dec '14 - 8:50am

    @ Simon,

    Might I suggest that you’re being unnecessarily harsh on James. He has his perspective, you have yours – and both are valid.

    Having a common framework which encourages a consistent approach when faced with difficult situations can be a real plus, and it is Regional and State Party Officers who have the perspective that allows them to spot and address emerging problems. Do they always get it right in terms of finding solutions? No. Should they just leave Local Parties to muddle through – the evidence of recent controversies suggests that they shouldn’t.

    Personally, as a Party bureaucrat over nearly thirty years experience now, I tend to the view that the role of Regional and State Parties is to enable effective local campaigning and to ensure compliance with electoral law, either by supplying training, or fulfilling a monitoring role, or by acting as a purchasing agent for essential supplies in order to achieve volume savings. That isn’t all that they could do, but it is, if you like, a taster.

    The problem, as I see it, is that we proclaim ourselves as a non-interventionist Party, but are just as prone to demand that something be done when something happens that we don’t like. You cannot wish the ends without having someone provide the means, and when it comes to running a political party, that means process.

  • SIMON BANKS 19th Dec ’14 – 4:03pm

    Simon, thank you for this excellent comment. You have expressed what I was thinking far better than I could have done it myself.

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