I’d rather be delivering leaflets

If you know me at all, you’ll know I never wanted to be on the Federal Board. But…

In the wake of 2019 I dusted myself down from my Westminster campaign in Hazel Grove (you would be very welcome to get involved this time!) and decided that enough was enough. We need to do more winning.

Dorothy Thornhill agreed with me, and I got stuck-in to reform efforts by taking on the role of Chair of the Federal Communications and Elections Committee (and therefore a member of the Board).

We’ve come some way in the last few years, but it’s not enough.

Our Board is many things, and it’s important, but it isn’t knocking on doors, delivering leaflets, sharpening our message and campaigning to improve the lives of the people we represent. It certainly isn’t winning elections. Can you imagine trying to run your local campaign with an exec of 41?

Our current Board is too big. It wastes vast quantities of time. It feels like we are clinging to structures that aren’t fit for this century, let alone a professionalised organisation.

Worse, the structures reinforce a culture of indecision and uncertainty – meaning we aren’t getting the best out of our brilliant and hard working colleagues.

I sit on a number of boards, advisory panels and committees and the Federal Board is by some margin the least effective.

No one in Hazel Grove votes Lib Dem because I spent another Saturday in a meeting instead of getting things done for my community.

To be more effective, we need a smaller, focused board. Cut down to the people who make our machine work. It is for them to make decisions, and for Conference, or the Scrutiny Committee or the Council, to then assess how well they have done.

As a candidate in a target seat, I need to know that when I report what I hear from voters the Board can act decisively.

I understand those with the instinct to want a broader Board with more voices. I know that a key failing in 2019 was not hearing our activist feedback faster. But those arguing this proves the need for a board of many voices seem to forget that we had one in 2019 – it failed.

By the time any reforms come in, I’ll no longer be a Board member. I’ll be too busy doing what we are here to do, campaigning. We need to shake off an approach to governance fit for a 19th century gentleman’s club and disastrous for a lean fighting machine. Let’s get on with it, we’ve got some winning to do.

* Lisa Smart is the Chair of the Liberal Democrats Federal Campaigns and Elections Committee

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This entry was posted in Op-eds and Party policy and internal matters.


  • Alisdair McGregor 7th Mar '22 - 3:04pm

    Ahh, another missive from the “shut up and deliver leaflets” brigade.

    The biggest problem with this party are the people who believe it should be a leaflet delivery cult to the exclusion of being the home of a political, moral and ethical philosophy.

    We do not need a smaller board, that by its nature excludes the multiplicity of viewpoints that must be heard in order to make good policy and good campaigns. A smaller echo chamber that shuts out activists voices and only gives answers that leadership and the head office want to hear is a terrible, terrible plan.

  • Sarah Brown 7th Mar '22 - 3:21pm

    Ah yes, Dorothy also told me, during the coalition, when I made it clear that there was absolutely no way on earth that I was going to hold my seat in a traditionally labour ward, to shut up and deliver leaflets as well.

    Maybe the leaflets stopped the greens from beating us into third place instead of a hopeless second, maybe they didn’t. Whoopee do.

    People might have voted for me if they didn’t have the perception that we’d betray everything we told them and were just a vacuous leaflet delivery cult. Who knows?

  • Richard Flowers 7th Mar '22 - 3:21pm

    Leadership should come from the Leader (self-evidently) with the President, Vice-President, Treasurer and CEO support. Get that (small) team working together to drive the agenda (like when are we going to stop tinkering with committees and get the “Liberal message” that the strategy paper promised last Autumn?)

    The Board should be there to scrutinise and make alternative suggestions, bring in alternative points of view and pipe up with the things not thought of.

    The reform proposals seem to be saying we need a Scrutiny Panel to scrutinise the scrutiny of the Board. Which I’m sure leaves Lisa even less time to deliver leaflets.

  • Federal Board is meant to be the key Democratic decision-making body of our Party between Conferences. It should therefore be wholly or largely democratically elected by our membership. The flaw in kicking out most of the directly elected members and restricting key decisions to people “who make our machine work” is that we are a political party not a company making widgets.

    I hope Conference resoundingly votes down this power grab by the centre.

  • Mick Taylor 7th Mar '22 - 4:05pm

    The real problem during the last GE – correctly identified by Dorothy Thornhill – was that there were two leadership groups. The FB and the President on the one hand and the group around the Leader on the other. The size of FB wasn’t the problem, but the disconnect between FB and the leader was.
    Changing the party’s structure won’t gain a single extra seat or vote. A united party, speaking with one voice, with an agreed strategy that we stick to, will.
    The party’s executive body must be democratically elected by the party, not made up of placeholders. Back in the day, we had an executive and a party council to oversee its work. The only reason we didn’t continue with that structure was that David Owen and the SDP didn’t like it.
    If FB had any sense, they would withdraw these largely unworkable proposals and focus instead on getting everyone singing from the same hymn sheet and campaigning to win. Far too many in our party obsess with minutiae and insist on arguing every comma or full stop – even during a GE.
    I am reminded of Petronius Arbiter
    “We trained hard—but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we were reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing, and what a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while actually producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.”

  • “Can you imagine trying to run your local campaign with an exec of 41?”

    No. But every single person on my local party exec is directly elected by a vote of all members at the AGM or in a postal ballot. And the same should be true of yours too.

    Federal Board is crammed full of people who weren’t elected to be on the board but come from all sorts of other places. Sure, they were mostly elected to those places, but they can’t be held accountable by those places.

    If you’re on the Board ex officio as, say, Chair of some other committee – then is that committee really going to change their chair because they don’t like the way you voted in some other meeting?

    Let’s cut the board right down. Eleven would be enough: 10 directly elected, plus the Leader. FB elections are held the same time as Presidential elections, so you could just require the President to stand for Federal Board as well, and if they can’t get on the Board then they shouldn’t be President.

  • Andy Hinton 7th Mar '22 - 4:16pm

    I have to say I’m intrigued as to what the “behind the scenes” story of the 2019 General Election strategy was. Presumably it was one of an all-powerful Board forcing a strategy on poor old Jo Swindon and her leadership team, who were doubtless held hostage by the Board’s fanatical commitment to overambitious hubris?

    Otherwise I can’t understand what reasonable examination of that debacle could lead someone to conclude that this near-elimination of direct elections to the party’s most important decision-making body was the most important reform to the party we could be pursuing.

    But I’m sure I’m just not important enough to understand these things. Probably I should just shut up and deliver some leaflets.

  • Andy Hinton 7th Mar '22 - 4:18pm

    *Swinson. Stoopid auto-corrupt!

  • Richard Kemp 7th Mar '22 - 4:29pm

    I think Lisa is spot on here. A Board with more than 12 people on is a public meeting. We exercise huge influence over the leadership of the Party by internal elections; the opportunity to question those we elect; the fact that mush of what we do is decided at local level with some at regional level. I sat on the FPC for years and that was far too big. I’m a community activist, a Liberal Democrat activist, a councillor and a Leader. I don’t just deliver leaflets although as its a nice day I’ve been out in two wards today neither my own. I then came back and write a speech and a blog about International Women’s Day tomorrow. I just want my Party well and efficiently run. I want to get on with all the other jobs I have and leave running the Party to the Board.

  • Simon McGrath 7th Mar '22 - 4:32pm

    ” Can you imagine trying to run your local campaign with an exec of 41?”
    Nope but then we ddint try to run the General Election campaign from the Board. It was run by the Federal Campaigns and Elections Cttee and the Leaders office – and given how badly they did so ( before Lisa’s time as Chair of the FCEC) it might not have been the disaster it was if the Board had run it

  • Alexandra Lanes 7th Mar '22 - 4:43pm

    In my experience people only deliver leaflets and knock on doors because they want to achieve something that improves the world, and they get behind that something with their time and shoe leather because they feel they have a say and a stake. The surest way to remove that stake, the surest way to demotivate, is to have a pile of distant unaccountable appointees at the top of the tree. Motivated volunteers will deliver and knock till they drop. Unmotivated ones burn out and drop out.

  • Jennie (she/her) 7th Mar '22 - 5:07pm

    I am gratified to see that I am not alone in thinking that while reducing the size of the board is a fine idea, reducing it’s electoral accountability is a terrible idea.

    And while, of course, leaflet delivery is good and valid and important (for those who are physically capable of doing it, which many are not, and should not be treated as lesser because of this) it won’t win us elections unless we have a clear and resonant message to put on the leaflets. One that we can all believe in, so that we can, as Mick says, speak enthusiastically with one voice. Perhaps we could try some liberalism? Instead of the soft tory “please don’t upset the Daily Mail” rubbish that seems to come out of the powers that be these days.

  • Mick Taylor 7th Mar '22 - 5:17pm

    @Richard Kemp. Quite happy for the board to run the party, but not happy if they’re not democratically elected. Oversight by a party council would also be a good thing. Not the dog’s breakfast we are being presented with at Conference.

  • Charley Hasted Charley Hasted 7th Mar '22 - 6:17pm

    Lisa takes a fair view point (although it isn’t phrased as such but seems evident in the subtext) in that we don’t talk enough about how we burn out the people we have who are willing to do the very necessary admin of being a political party by piling things on them until they either burn out, get more comfortable setting boundaries and repeating the word no until they’re sick of it or leave the party.

    Reducing the number of people on the board ironically will have the exact opposite effect though by piling the same quantity of work on fewer shoulders.

    She is also right that signing up to be the chair of a committee shouldn’t mean you have also signed up to be on FB with the extra work that entails. If you are purely interested in Candidates or policy or conference organising or finance then you should be allowed to do that- dropping in on FB when your expertise is needed- let FB be made up of people who want to do that wide ranging work by making it directly elected with the ability to request input from other committees when needed and with those chairs having attendance and speaking rights if they choose to use them.

    If the chair of a committee wishes to have voting rights on FB then they can choose to stand for it otherwise they can absolutely decide they’d rather spend more of their time delivering leaflets or working for their prospective constituents.

  • Ian Patterson 7th Mar '22 - 6:32pm

    I haven’t been following this in detail, not being a conference rep, but slimming down the Fed Board will inevitably lead to that incurable syndrome nose out of jointus.

  • Ryan Mercer 7th Mar '22 - 6:58pm

    The irony of making the case we want to free up people to focus on campaigning, while bringing such major party reforms in at a Spring Conference in the run up to major round of local elections.

    Do I miss my action day or sign up to conference to vote on these reforms?

  • Practitioner 7th Mar '22 - 9:20pm

    The elephant in this particular room is the quality and competence of people on the board. A bunch of thoroughly competent people can do good work in a mediocre system. A collection of incompetents can make a complete mess of the most carefully-designed and apparently practical set-up.

    The only competencies exhibited to voting members by the majority of people who are directly elected to Federal Board (and several other committees) are that quite a lot of people do not dislike them and that they can design a good ‘manifesto’ leaflet. Neither of these competencies is of any value when it comes to strategy, tactics or decision-making.

  • Mary Regnier-wilson 7th Mar '22 - 10:48pm

    Great thing about online conference is you can do both Ryan Mercer. I mean, I’m assuming you aren’t knocking on doors at 7:55- 9:15pm on Friday night?

    Fed Board isn’t just about scrutiny. Would that it were. Many of the members put in serious hours of work to make the party work on both Fed Board and the other committees they are on. LibDem committee roles are a curious mix of being a super volunteer and having oversight of staff efforts and the in depth knowledge one gets from the volunteering bit helps to ensure the oversight is informed. It’s not just a case of turning up 4 times a year to deal out bouquets or brickbats to a team of staff with plenty of resources to get done all the stuff that needs to be done.

    That’s why I personally am in favour of a smaller Fed Board with Chairs of Committees and State Party chairs and people who write the complaints process and people who are in Parliament that is close enough to the decisions to make decent informed ones, and a larger Federal Council that is far enough from the decisions to be able to occasionally go, Hold up, WTAF.

    ATM we have tried to mix those roles, and as well as it meaning just too many people in the meetings, it means you have to constantly switch from the role of person doing stuff, to person judging whether stuff is being done right.

  • Maybe Charley’s suggestion of having Fed Board be just that oversight group and there being an informal coterie of committee chairs getting stuff done in their area of expertise would have the same effect – but I suspect it might just have meant that the informal group chatted between themselves without Jack or anyone else there to ensure the discussions were minuted and open and somewhat transparent.

  • Trevor Andrews 8th Mar '22 - 8:24am

    Well done Lisa. I have voted Libdem since the end of Thatcher and never had anyone knock on my door. Clearly the Conservative stronghold never did, but if we are to convince people to change their vote, then getting known is key. On social media, instead of courting all my peers, I look for people of other persuasions and see if I can convert them. Having some success with the transient voters.

  • Candy Piercy 8th Mar '22 - 10:28am

    I think the Federal Board has an important job to do at a strategic level. I do agree that the way the board works needs to be streamlined and numbers should be reduced. But cutting down the number of directly elected members is not the way to do it.
    Centralising power in the Party into the hands of the same few people is fundamentally unhealthy for the organisation.
    However I do agree with Lisa that delivering loads of leaflets and knocking on lots of doors is still absolutely vital!

  • Gordon Lishman 8th Mar '22 - 10:28am

    I was asked recently what I thought were the issues of Party governance. That was after I suggested that the current proposals were at best a distraction. Off the cuff, I said:
    1. The failure of the Leader, President and Chief Exec to lead coherently as the core team. It has been done in the past.
    2. The obsession with formal structure. The other factors in governance are culture, relationships, accountability and systems. If the other elements work, structure is the least important.
    3. Ineffective management of the Board. Plus the creation of other, more or less autonomous Committees which dimish accountability and organisational coherence.
    4. Assuming that any President is capable of combining public leadership, speaking truth to power, and overseeing management.
    5. A failure to build a sense of shared responsibility into key committees (with Finance as the exception).
    6. Underlying it all, the failure to understand the nature of political strategy other than optimistic bean-counting, leading to incoherence at the centre.
    7. The absence of any clear sense of political direction.
    8. The absence of a well-thought out communications strategy with members.
    9.. The conventional assumption that all local parties are like large LPs in the South of England.
    10. The absence of a strong, politically-based strategy for local government as the base of a mass party.
    11. Not recognising that politics is sui generis; models from other sectors can be helpful but not simply transplanted. Most Boards run a single entity; the Party is much more and much more disparate.

  • David Garlick 8th Mar '22 - 11:06am

    If we don’t leaflet we don’t win. If we don’t have great message then leaflets are not effective, If we don’t mange our effort then the message is not delivered/received. Make the changes to management and control, sort out the message and then get on with communicating with the public. PS Don’t forget to raise money…

  • Laurence Cox 8th Mar '22 - 11:43am

    I agree with Jon Ball:

    “Federal Board is meant to be the key Democratic decision-making body of our Party between Conferences. It should therefore be wholly or largely democratically elected by our membership.”

    As a member of the English State Party, who is not in Youth and Students (too old) or a Councillor/Elected Mayor/PCC Commissioner, the Chair of the English Party represents me (and the vast majority of Liberal Democrat members) on the proposed Federal Board. But I cannot vote for her directly. Unlike Scottish and Welsh equivalents the Chair is elected by the 150-odd members of English Council, whom supposedly I am able to elect through my Regional Party. But I cannot remember when we last had an election in my Region; it is apparently difficult to find enough candidates to stand for English Council to fill the places, as both Mark Pack and Mary Regnier-Wilson have admitted in the Facebook Group for Federal Conference.

  • Laurence – you could stand for English council yourself, then you can def vote for the chair. You could even get other members of the council to vote to change the English Party regulations and have an all member ballot for the chair. I’d back you in that campaign.

  • Paul Holmes 8th Mar '22 - 7:01pm

    Very much agree with Lisa that sitting on ‘important’ committees doesn’t win a single vote in the real world and that a smaller [but preferably elected] Board would be more effective.

    Not sure though about her criticism of the current over-large, clunky and ineffective Board as being something to do with Victorian men -those terrible terrible men! Surely it was created in its current form by the very very recent – and female – President Brinton’s laborious 2015/16 ‘reforms’?

    Agree with a lot of Gordon Lishman’s points especially No 9 and No 10.

  • John Roffey 9th Mar '22 - 7:52am

    I am inclined to agree with those who believe that the Federal Board should consist only of elected members – forming a ‘cabinet in waiting’ – as far as this is possible. It would seem the most obvious approach for an opposition party.

    If a President is needed, this role is likely to be best performed by an experienced member – who has been elected previously – but is currently unelected.

  • Ruth Bright 9th Mar '22 - 11:50am

    Impossible to better Sarah Brown’s contribution.

  • “If you know me at all, you’ll know I never wanted to be on the Federal Board. But…”

    Yes, go on. But ? But I was asked and couldn’t say no ? Even though I have a hundred other things to do and I the think the Federal Board is a bit dysfunctional ?
    I think If we knew the answer to this question left hanging in the air, we would all be a bit wiser about the way the party functions at a senior level.

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