Lib Dem governance reforms are vital

As a collective groan not heard since I last set my students an essay rings out, I am afraid the subject of governance reforms, whilst unexciting, is far too important to leave undiscussed.

In Dorothy Thornhill’s recent article, she sets out the importance of having a more agile organisation and ensuring that our party is fit to fight elections.

Much of this work has been ably carried out by HQ under the new CEO, Mike Dixon. The results at the Chesham & Amersham, and North Shropshire by elections pay testament to the strategic sense of shifting resources to the campaigns department.

However, staffing restructures can only take us so far. In order to effectively elect outstanding candidates in our target seats at the next election, we need to ensure that we have the organisational nimbleness to effectively grow our Council and Parliamentary base.

Having worked across public, third and private sectors, literally no organisation has an internal structure as dysfunctional as the Liberal Democrat Committee system.

We tie ourselves up in knots and have an uncanny ability to avoid difficult decisions by kicking them between committees of ever more ambiguous acronymisation.

This is a culture that permeates from the Federal Party, down to the sub-committee to the branch committee of Dunny-on-the-Wold. Quite simply, we cannot continue like this.

As the culture permeates from the top, it is imperative that we start with the top and organise ourselves more effectively in a way that any truly effective campaigning organisation would be.

This brings me to the party reforms up at the next conference. We have a governance structure proposal that leaves a majority of the governing body as being directly-elected, satisfying the need for a membership led party.

It also represents all stakeholders, from young members to campaigners and councillors. It is, in every conventional use of the word, a proposal that is democratic and membership led.

Additionally, the three models of scrutiny all add something beneficial to our party. These are a small audit committee, a scrutiny council or direct conference oversight.

Each of these have strengths and weaknesses. However, what all of these models have that the current doesn’t, is a track record of effectiveness when used by other organisations.

We cannot miss this opportunity to make our party fighting fit for the 2020’s, to miss the opportunity would be to actively shoot ourselves in the foot from an organisational point of view.

Therefore, I would encourage the party membership to back these changes when they come to conference in March.

* Callum Robertson is the Lib Dem Candidate for Essex Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner. In his day job, he works for a multi-national human rights NGO as an Advocacy Officer. Read about his plans for Essex here.

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20 Comments

  • Brad Barrows 21st Jan '22 - 9:18pm

    Where I disagree with the proposals is that I believe a Federal Party should elect the majority of its members by, and as representatives of, the individual parties that together constitute the Federal Party.

  • Trevor Andrews 22nd Jan '22 - 8:30am

    Forgive my ignorance of the machinations of the organisation, especially at the top. However as a business person I am fully aware of the need for efficient and effective decision making.

    Interesting to see Callum’s point on it impeding our election activity, I have often wondered what was going wrong.

    Yes we want a top management that is represents the people but we need some sub organisation that can provide the decision making quickly and without the need to go back in every point. And we need it now.

  • Callum Robertson 22nd Jan '22 - 1:00pm

    Thank you to Trevor, Jenny and Brad for your comments.

    I’m going to ignore John Hall as it’s not particularly relevant to internal restructuring.

    Jenny. I share your concerns about the longer term reforms that are needed. Also the point you make about chunks is indeed true, it would certainly be a decisive move.

    Would a firmer transparency about future reforms convince you to back them?

    Trevor. Thank you for the comment. It is true from a business sense (and this is something Ed made clear in the leadership election too), that large deliberative bodies are terrible at strategy. From a political perspective, leader and cabinet, committee and Mayoral models at local government level all refer some decision making responsibilities to smaller groups and allow people to specialise.

    Brad. I completely get where you’re coming from. The new structure would have a majority of directly elected people, but the key difference is that they would come from constituencies rather than general membership, if anything it enhances minority member voices.

    For example, younger people would be represented well, England, Scotland and Wales all have their own representative. As do local government. All of these people are elected by a constituency.

    Furthermore, the leadership, President, Vice President, FCC and FPC reps, alongside the three directly elected members, all have direct mandates.

  • “…literally no organisation has an internal structure as dysfunctional as the Liberal Democrat Committee system.”

    As someone who has led governance-related projects in companies you have heard of, and who has been banging on about the need for change for years, I totally agree.

    The Thornhill proposals are a welcome step towards right-sizing the Federal Board, but I would caution that changes of the necessary magnitude are not easily achieved in one step and should be revisited after the next GE at the latest.

    As Callum says, the committee system has delivered pervasively dysfunctional culture and governance, yet these proposals create a Board still substantially comprised of members of the Federal Committees. And that leaves the tail wagging the dog. The Board is a governing body; it should be directing the Federal Committees and not run by them, not even in part.

    The Board’s core task is facilitating the election of LDs at every level, especially to Parliament and it will do that better if comprised of politicians who know what it takes. Inter alia, that implies MPs and councillors – elected by their peer group – should have strong representation (say, three from each group) to ensure that the party is delivering the campaigns, polices etc. they need.

    Had such an approach been adopted some years ago, I doubt that we would have lost the Celtic Fringe or that GE2109 would have been such a shambles.

  • Jenny – I’m very much in agreement with you on elephant eating. It’s why I’ve been keen for this stage of improving how the party is run to focus specifically on the Board. Previous ‘big bang’ governance reviews have suffered from attention being diluted across many topics, making it much easier for opponents of change to deflect attention away onto other issues.

    For an overall picture, the Thornhill Report sets out what we need to do very well – including working together much more effectively as one party, working to a common plan. Some of that is about rules and structures, other parts are about internal culture. The Board motion fits into this bigger picture as a more effective team at the heart of our democratic structures not only makes that democracy stronger, it’ll also help us work better together across our existing different – and many! – organisational boundaries.

    Hope that helps answer your question?

  • William (he/him) 22nd Jan '22 - 4:11pm

    I will reserve judgement til I see the proposals. I agree that reform may be needed; crucial for me is that members are able to directly elect people to play an oversight role. (Other roles are of course directly elected, but members should not have to think “will this person do well on FB?” when electing people to e.g. FCC).

    Mark/Callum – I don’t suppose you are able to share the proposals you are talking about? This piece is nice but I’d rather see the proposal itself.

  • Callum Robertson 22nd Jan '22 - 4:23pm

    Hi William, more detail is in the Thornhill article at linked in my one. Here it is again though: https://www.libdems.org.uk/what-we-must-do-next-to-learn-the-lessons-of-2019

  • William (he/him) 22nd Jan '22 - 4:37pm

    Thanks Callum, that’s helpful, but I would still like to read the full proposals. Hopefully they will be available soon 🙂

  • Full details are in the conference motion – and the usual form is to let FCC publish the conference agenda as a whole first. So will be available shortly and the motion expands on the summary in Dorothy’s piece.

  • Gordon Lishman 22nd Jan '22 - 6:10pm

    1. I also have experience of governance at high levels in the public, private and voluntary sectors. That lead me to the conclusion that politics is in fact a “Fourth Sector” and that governance issues in particular should be considered in that context. In terms of leadership and management as well as the unique role of volunteer activists and the highly competitive and distinctive roles of political parties, governance matters need to be addressed in this specific context without too much reliance on the models from other sectors which, in any case, differ between themselves.
    2. Too many organisations see governance in terms primarily of structure, which can easily be a blind alley. My mnemonic in consulting, advising, training and practising governance is that it is about Culture, Relationships, Accountability, Systems and Structure. Structure is often the least important – if you want to see an example of an organisations that delivers reasonably well despite its varying structures, look at the NHS!
    3. Dorothy Thornhill rightly identified the problem of the tri-partite elements in party leadership – Chief Executive; President; Leader – failing to manage as a coherent group. That is about Relationships rather than Structure. If the relationships work, then Accountability becomes the next key issue. You don’t change those core relationships and make their output accountable by messing about with the structure.
    4.

  • Gordon Lishman 22nd Jan '22 - 6:17pm

    1. I also have experience of governance at high levels in the public, private and voluntary sectors. That lead me to the conclusion that politics is in fact a “Fourth Sector” and that governance issues in particular should be considered in that context. In terms of leadership and management as well as the unique role of volunteer activists and the highly competitive and distinctive roles of political parties, governance matters need to be addressed in this specific context without too much reliance on the models from other sectors which, in any case, differ between themselves.
    2. Too many organisations see governance in terms primarily of structure, which can easily be a blind alley. My mnemonic in consulting, advising, training and practising governance is that it is about Culture, Relationships, Accountability, Systems and Structure. Structure is often the least important – if you want to see an example of an organisations that delivers reasonably well despite its varying structures, look at the NHS!
    3. Dorothy Thornhill rightly identified the problem of the tri-partite elements in party leadership – Chief Executive; President; Leader – failing to manage as a coherent group. That is about Relationships rather than Structure. If the relationships work, then Accountability becomes the next key issue. You don’t change those core relationships and make their output accountable by messing about with structures.
    4. Having seen 11 Leaders of my Party and worked with nearly all, I recommend Grimond, early Ashdown and Kennedy’s periods as the best models to consider – perhaps not entirely by coincidence, they were not the least successful!

  • Paul Barker 22nd Jan '22 - 7:06pm

    For me the crucial factor here is Size : large bodies are useless at making decisions. Conference needs to Vote for smaller bodies if we are serious.
    Clear decision-making will change the Culture & raise morale.

  • Matt McLaren 22nd Jan '22 - 7:56pm

    Thanks Callum, I agree that the Federal Board needs to be slimmed down and that the specific proposals coming to Spring Conference do very much provide for a democratic and membership-led Board.

    I’m currently minded to support the option for a reduced role-based Board with oversight provided directly by Conference (just so as to not establish yet another committee or council within the Party’s structures), though am open to arguments from others on the merits of the other scrutiny options.

  • James: the Steering Group pilot wasn’t perfect – which is why it was a pilot (and I think shows the value of doing a pilot rather than jumping straight to hard-coding one option into the constitution), and why the motion to conference doesn’t seek to simply copy it.

    I would though disagree with how the call-in process worked – there was never a decision that was in the call-in period after it being taken that the Board was told ‘you can’t change this as it’s too late’. Rather, implementation of decisions was deliberately held off until the time period allowed for Board members to call in something after being notified about it had expired.

  • lynne featherstone 23rd Jan '22 - 11:43am

    Form should follow function. Make it small and dynamic! The Party will always let it be known if we the people disagree profoundly with direction of travel – and challenge and change as necessary.

  • Laurence Cox 23rd Jan '22 - 2:10pm

    In my comment to Dorothy Thornhill’s post https://www.libdemvoice.org/dorothy-thornhill-writes-what-we-must-do-next-to-learn-the-lessons-of-2019-69664.html I made the point that the Chairs of FCC, FCEC, FFRC, FPDC, and a Vice-Chair of FPC (as the Leader is the Chair) should report to but not be on the Board. I note Mark Valladares’ point that the only committee excluded is FIRC.

    So the question I wish to ask of TPTB is will we need a formal amendment to delete these positions in the Conference motion, or will the FCC allow a separate vote on them?

  • David Evans 24th Jan '22 - 9:17pm

    Yet another article saying “Vote for what the powers that be want – a small, centralised, all-powerful and most importantly easily controlled group to surround the leadership.” However, the solution put forward ignores the fact that in both disaster election periods (2010 to 2015, and 2017 to 2019) the party was controlled by a small, centralised, all powerful group easily led by the leadership, just like the powers that be want once again.

    The problem was, the sort of people in those groups were those who always looked on things with the most optimistic slant possible, glass half full even when it was empty sorts – loyal to the party, its leader and its values except when it came to facing up to hard truths like the year after year loss of councillors, failure in by-elections and collapse of membership. Quite simply the sort of people great at building a personal reputation in the metropolis, but almost entirely Westminster centric in their thinking if not their actual location. Hence Wales collapsed. Scotland nearly did and is nowhere near out of the woods and the West Country, the North, the Midlands and the East are clinging on.

    What we need is a better more diverse group prepared to discuss, debate and consider the real problems we face, not a more centralised small group.

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