How not to write Standing Orders?

Having been called to speak in over half of the Lib Dem conferences I have attended since my first in 2015, I can’t complain about missing out at Spring Conference 2023, especially as the one item I submitted a Speaker’s Card for – F7: Selection of policy motions for debate – was resolved satisfactorily and with a clear majority vote. However, I wanted to approach the problems of F7 from a particular angle and to prompt members to consider something when putting their mind to future amendments to the Constitution or Standing Orders.

Let me first go into some functional details of what F7 proposed. Section 4.3 contained two main elements enabling some policy motions to be selected by a ballot of members, summarised thus:

(1) All [acceptable] policy motions must either be placed on the Agenda or in a ballot.

(2) FCC may hold separate ballots to select which of a range of motions to debate.

Whether or not one supports in principle, as I do, the notion of at least some element of direct membership involvement in setting the Agenda, the authors unfortunately failed to create anything remotely rational or workable. Point (1) above has but one interpretation: that as long as a minimum of one debate in the Agenda is determined by the ballot, the rule is satisfied. From one year to the next, FCC could allow an arbitrary and wildly different number of debates to be selected by the ballot, down to that minimum of one. This is surely a recipe for a toxic relationship between FCC and the membership, the latter suspecting FCC’s trust in them is a rather variable thing. As for (2), it is ambiguous, open-ended and arbitrary beyond belief. It would appear to suggest that FCC could select three particular motions to be balloted for two slots in the Agenda whilst the remaining fifty submitted motions are left vying for one slot in the Agenda by means of a second ballot: a licence for the most outrageous gerrymandering.

Some may think I am unreasonably suggesting outcomes that simply won’t arise because FCC are generally sensible and politically astute – which they are. But I would respectfully suggest that to say “I know [this] is technically possible but it is never actually going to happen”, is no better a thing for an author of Standing Orders to say than for a Health and Safety Officer to say, if you get my drift.

Getting from the submission of dozens of policy motions to a final Agenda requires a process, an algorithm for FCC to follow in a predictable and transparent fashion. One involving a membership ballot must be far more complex than one simply stating “FCC shall select which policy motions will be debated”. Numerous steps with detailed criteria may be required for a fault-tolerant, rational and functional process. Something that turns out to remarkably elegant and brief yet still ideal for the job is, sadly, often the exception. More often than not, the need to cover all manner of holes and unintended consequences will require something lengthier with far more steps and criteria.

I contend that members should expect – nay, demand – that Standing Orders are generally written as numbered lists of clear, discrete steps and criteria, not condensed into a single paragraph of prose as with Section 4.3 of F7. Please let us ensure this is the case.

I further contend that those who might criticise a proposal for a lengthier algorithm as being ‘overly complex or prescriptive’ should consider that the measure of a process must be qualitative, not quantitative. Functionality is rather more important than brevity when it comes to the constitution of an organisation with many thousands of members.

Wholly separate from the question of whether or not our Conference Agenda should be set partly by a ballot of members as opposed to being under the complete control of FCC, Section 4.3 of F7 was about the worst train-crash of a process that could have been proposed. It had holes you could drive a bus through and its brevity and ambiguity were laughable in light of the far-reaching significance of the changes it attempted to introduce. I struggle to see how it constituted a valid motion for inclusion in the Agenda. But then I would be straying into the territory of the Standing Orders that set the criteria for the acceptance of constitutional motions, so perhaps I should stop there!

* Michael is an English Council representative for the East of England

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This entry was posted in Party policy and internal matters.


  • @John Waller – This is because of three things:
    1) The cancellation of the much longer Autumn Conference due to the death of the Queen meant there was more housekeeping than normal to do;
    2) FCC can only reject constitutional and standing order amendments under very limited circumstances and is usually compelled to make time for them;
    3) High costs constrained the total amount of time available at this Conference.

    There were motions on most, if not all, of the subjects that you listed, either on the agenda, in the members’ ballot for emergency and topical motions, or in consulting sessions for presentation at the next Conference. But there was widespread feeling that there was insufficient time – to the point that practically the first thing to happen was a motion to suspend standing orders to replace the most objectionable of the constitutional votes with a policy one which didn’t make the initial cut due to time constraints.

  • Michael Kilpatrick Michael Kilpatrick 22nd Mar '23 - 12:06pm

    John, just be thankful that yet another constitutional motion – one that sought to tweak the Standings Orders relating to how speakers should be selected in the debates – was not also on the agenda! That motion, along with F7 that I refer to in my article, was also submitted for the cancelled Autumn Conference. Had it been resubmitted it would have to have been placed in the Agenda also.

    John Grout refers to the move to suspend Standing Orders. I belief this happened on the Saturday morning at the start of the session, and it so happened that I walked into the auditorium just as this was concluding so I heard mention of the words “suspend standing orders” but had no idea what had just happened. I should watch the video of the start of the session to catch up on that.

  • Richard Gadsden Richard Gadsden 23rd Mar '23 - 4:10pm

    I should add at this point that there were two further constitutional amendments that I submitted to the cancelled Autumn Conference (one adding young people to the list of underrepresented groups that receive guaranteed places through the diversity requirements for committees, and one tweaking the memberships of certain federal committees to increase the number that are directly elected).

    I declined to resubmit them to this Spring Conference because I knew the timetable was badly constrained and took the view that it was reasonable for them to wait given that the next elections that they will affect will not be until 2025.

  • Michael Kilpatrick,

    As clause 4.5 allows more than one ballot on emergency motions I thought more than one ballot should be allowable on the normal motions. I received drafting advice on three versions from one member of FCC and this year I received advice from a different member. For last autumn and this spring the motion was in order.

    You wrote that you believe that “FCC are generally sensible and politically astute” and therefore what you suggest would never actually happen. However, if the standing order amendment had been passed as submitted and it did happen then the standing orders could be amended to stop it from happening in the future. The standing orders do not currently cover everything they should and I don’t propose changing them with one huge amendment. I would rather propose small changes. This amendment suggested two changes and more work is required on both if they are to be submitted as separate amendments.

    If you would like to be involved in drafting the new amendments please send me a message on Facebook –

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