Opinion: Liberal Bureaucracy – Killing Your Party With Its Song?…

This is quite a hard post to write. After all, I’ve been a party bureaucrat for more than a quarter of a century, from my embryonic days as Secretary General of the Young Liberals, via incarnations as a Returning Officer, a member of the English Candidates Committee and stints as Regional Secretary in both London and now the East of England.

Once upon a time, I took the view that, if I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, campaign, what I could do was do the boring, yet necessary stuff that enabled the Party to fulfil its organisational obligations, thus freeing up people who would much rather campaign to get elected to go out there and do so. It was, if you like, a bargain, as I put it, going to meetings so that you don’t have to.

I was young, and carefree, with a rather revolutionary view that the various rules and regulations were designed to enable the work of a political party, rather than to stop people from doing things. And yes, it might not have been exactly as Article 6, Paragraph 4, sub-clause iii) intended in terms of process, but the outcome was just, and fair, and I was always happy to justify my actions if called upon to do so.

I had, however, never thought of myself as fulfilling some kind of paralegal role. But that is what has come to pass.

I am, at heart, a light touch bureaucrat. I fret about the amount of regulation that governments load onto businesses, the voluntary sector, our public services, the arbitrary targets and, as a liberal, I shake my head with despair at the “something must be done tendency”, those whose knees jerk at the prospect of a demand from the Daily Mail for action.

And then I go to Federal Conference, where motions call for this body to be set up, or for that target to be set, and ask myself why. And the answer is simple. Politicians feel that they must be seen to be active in pursuit of their goals. If someone behaves in an unreasonable way, something needs to be done to prevent them from doing it, regardless of whether or not there is perfectly good law on the statute books that might be used effectively to address the problem.

In fairness, we don’t just want to do that to other people, we’re happy to do it to ourselves or, more worryingly, sub-contract it to other people to do it to us. Whilst most of you have been out there campaigning, or in some cases putting the world to rights via the internet, a small group of people, barely accountable to the Party at large, have been passing new rules that make the running of political parties more complex, and more legalistic than might ever have been imagined by a group of people calling themselves liberals.

From defining the time allowed to deal with disciplinary cases, to establishing a framework for the recognition of council groups, from mandatory tithing to restricting the rights of candidates to campaign in selections, the English Liberal Democrats have been hard at work, often producing guidance that would be difficult to absorb by well-organised, enthusiastic Local Parties with lots of volunteers to share the load, but are an appalling burden to small, struggling ones.

Don’t get me wrong, I am sure that they have the very best of intentions, and that the problems that they are attempting to solve are genuine ones but, in the course of building a more professional organisational base for the Party, they appear to have forgotten that virtually all of those involved are volunteers, most of whom believe in the liberal cause, not in more paperwork.

As a member of a working group set up by the English Candidates Committee to review the Parliamentary Selection Rules, I saw my duty as being to streamline the process, especially for those Local Parties who were grateful to have one application, let alone a contest for the nomination, and we ended up with a two-tier process, designed to ensure a proper degree of rigour in those selections that really mattered, i.e. the ones for seats where we might win, and reduce the level of complexity and unnecessary ‘box-ticking’ in the rest. And whilst it is yet to be applied, I am confident that it will relieve some of the pressure on Returning Officers, Local Parties and, whisper it gently, candidates. But it was a struggle, with the forces of darkness resistant to the very notion of tailoring the rules to the capacity of Local Parties to deliver them.

So, how do they get away with it? Put simply, because it is done through a labyrinth of committees that few know much about, and even fewer care about. Have you ever read a report of events at the English Council Executive, a body so dull that my Regional Chair opted out of it in a vain attempt at self-preservation? And how many people attend English Council once and feel a desperate thrill at the prospect of attending another?

Given that the same small clique of people have run the English Party for years, exchanging positions from time to time due only to term limits rather than because a genuine contest is taking place, it is unsurprising that the English Party serves only to justify its own existence, creating more and more rules and regulations that are increasingly honoured more in the breach than in the observance.

In truth, we all understand that trying to find Local Party Secretaries and Treasurers is hard, and that arms are often twisted to ensure that someone does the job. Are such people likely to want to wade through pages of Local, Regional, State and Federal Constitutions in order to work out how to deal with something, or are they more likely to do what is expedient, or is likely to achieve the desired outcome? In your heart, you know what the answer is.

So, I call on the English Party to take a step back and ask itself, “is your journey really necessary?”, and think about the poor bloody bureaucratic infantry from time to time. And if it can’t understand that, perhaps somebody ought to put it out of my misery…

Mark Valladares is an increasingly semi-retired bureaucrat, taking each day as it comes in the hope of a cure. He expounds The View from Creeting St Peter, and is the editor of what is possibly the smallest online newspaper in the country, The Creeting St Peter Journal.

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


  • An excellent piece and well worth everyone reading whenever they think of a new rule which must be imposed…. (By no means, do I think this is a problem unique to the English Party).

  • Dave Warren 13th Jul '11 - 7:52am

    Having been a member of various organisations and served on committees that deal with
    rules but I have never seen anything like this party.

    It has a totally confusing collection of rules and procedures which I am still trying to understand.

    There are Regional bodies who appear to have some role but i am not sure what an elected
    President who has no constitutional role!

    There is definitely a need for change in my view because the current set up isn’t fit for purpose.

  • Maybe the English party need to do what the Scottish party did a couple of years back. There was a huge review of the constitution, where the whole thing was practically re-written and a full day conference where each change was debated and voted on (two-thirds majority required, and not everything proposed got that.) While what came out was maybe not perfect – requiring MPs and MSPs to go through a full selection process as opposed to the “yes/no” selection before simply adds unnecessary cost to local parties – by and large it left the structure of the party in a better place.

  • Actually, I suspect that many English members don’t even realise that the English party exists. Part of the problem is that so much of its policy making structures are effectively handed to the Federal Conference that it really exists in little more than name only for most people.

    It needs a better identity. Possibly the way forward might be for it to have its own separate conference, with the Federal conference only considering issues which affect two or more State Parties (allowing England and Wales motions to continue to be debated there.) Certainly, part of the reason there’s been a reduction in Scottish attendees over the last 10 years or so is that there’s often little or no policies affecting Scotland to be discussed. Taking the “England Only” motions away from the Federal Conference could help.

  • Mark, you have done a great job over the years – thankyou for your time and efforts. It has not been wasted. We DO have to have rules, to ensure fairness, and that fairness is seen to be done. Currently, red tape is out of fashion, but when it is realised, as on a regular basis, that the powerful exploit loopholes and lack ofrules, then suddenly ther is a need for them again. Yes, of course, we don’t want over-prescriptive rules, but people have to realise that sometimes rules they feel have given themselves a wrong answer, are in fact, right, looked at from a wider canvas.
    One trouble with rules and volunteers is that insufficient time and enthusiasm is available to understand the why and how of the particular rules.

    Lib Dems, with our values centrally focusing on individuals, their relations with communities from the smallest to the largest, are going to need rules perhaps more than, certainly Tories. The problem for all political parties, though, is that we are and will continue to be, part volunteer, part professional. This mix makes it exceedingly difficult to manage a coherent and effective rule structure for all.

    In the Lib Dems, we have always invested a lot of faith in our Regional Parties – unfortunately, with the exception of London, they have not lived up to the billing, and HQ in all its manifold and competing institutions has intervened and controlled constantly, so immediately demonstrating a disdain for any form of subsidiarity. Leading some to question whether “if this is what we do internally, how would a Lib Dem Government look?” We now know.

    By the way, there is insufficent of this kind of self criticism on the Members’ Only Forum here. Please note, I am not, nor ever have been, a member of English Council or the ECE, but am married to a former member of both. I am, however, a long term and active Regional Exec member.

  • KL – actually, of course, the English Party started life as a Conference – the Spring Conf was at one stage the English Conference. It was not easy to manage, and wasn’t really successful, hence it was dropped.

    This why I look at with some scepticism at those recommending an English Parliament within a united UK.

  • A fantastic piece by Mark. Someone who a lot of the party owe a huge debt of gratitude to for his tireless work behind the scenes and his support of Ros when she was a fantastic Party President.

    @KL I am not sure more conferences are really the answer there are only so many weekends in the year as it is.

  • An excellent piece – I am sure that we all appreciate everything which you have done for us, Mark, and for the Party. For that we thank you most sincerely.

    I know what it is like being one of the “back room office girls” – that is what I have done for many years in more than one Local Party as I am unable to go out campaigning on the doorsteps – I have used what skills I have which are useful.

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