Norman Lamb MP writes…We must renew, restructure and simplify the way our party works

I believe a priority for the new Leader of the Liberal Democrats is to renew, restructure and simplify the way our Party works. Some parts of the Party work well – others do not. Good practice should be shared and problem areas tackled.

As Liberal Democrats, we rightly set high standards for ourselves on tolerance, equality, openness, accountability, and diversity.  But our party often doesn’t live up to them.

During this campaign people have been telling me that there wasn’t enough accountability within the party.  People had concerns about our central message and the way we fought the election – but it felt like there was no easy channel to get those messages through.  And where mistakes were made, it wasn’t clear who ultimately was responsible.

Few party members really understand how our party works.  There are so many committees with overlapping responsibility.  The process for election to many offices within the party is arcane.  If no-one knows how our party structures work, there cannot be effective accountability.

As well as simplifying and opening up our party structures we need to confront head on the diversity challenge we face. The disastrous general election result left us with 8 middle class, white, male MPs.

Quite simply, we cannot allow this to happen again.

We need to find creative, effective and Liberal ideas for getting more women, members of ethnic minorities and people from other under-represented groups elected to the Westminster, Scottish, Welsh and European parliaments. Local government is another area where we need to broaden our representation – and councillors will have a vital role to play in the Lib Dems’ revival.

The Party did make some progress in getting a balanced slate of Westminster candidates in May. Most of our previously held seats had candidates from under-represented groups, half of whom were women. Where we have excellent candidates such as these, we must give extra support to make sure they win. But let me be clear: we should rule nothing out when we consider how we tackle this issue, because frankly this is a crisis in our party.

This is not just about Parliamentary candidates. We should also find out what prevents people from under-represented groups succeeding at every level inside the party. Then take strong and effective action to break down the barriers.

I feel particularly strongly that we should open up conference to more members. Going to conference is expensive, inconvenient and impossible for teachers, who can’t get the time off work. It’s very difficult for those with caring duties and for people who are elderly or disabled.  We must find a way to let members “attend” Conference remotely, watching proceedings, submitting questions and voting online.

Another key area of our party that needs reform is the way we employ staff. For a start, we should live by our values and pay all staff including interns the living wage. But we also need to look at how we manage and motivate our staff so that we retain the best and the brightest to campaign for us.

None of these issues are for the new leader alone to decide.  The final decision about how to reform our party will and must rest with members.  I want to hear what you think!  I will be very clear in arguing that “no change” is not an option.  We must live by our Liberal values in the way we run our party.  As Leader, I will keep making the case until we succeed.​

* Norman Lamb is MP for North Norfolk and was Liberal Democrat Minister of State at the Department of Health until May 2015. He now chairs the Science and Technology Select Committee

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  • Eddie Sammon 19th Jun '15 - 3:58pm

    Structures should be simplified and made more accountable.

    When it comes to diversity: the party should do something similar to what the Labour Party does and introduce a diversity short-list when they know the local party has some good candidates that will also improve diversity.

    Labour get it wrong with all women short-lists. The solution is diversity short-lists. We can’t just brush other inequalities such as race and class under the carpet.

    There are other good ideas in Norman’s article.

  • George Potter 19th Jun '15 - 4:12pm

    Norman’s absolutely right that the leader shouldn’t dictate how the party structure should change. However, it would be nice if he actually had some concrete ideas of how things could be changed instead of just rhetoric.

    For that matter, I find it alarming that at the London hustings he said that he didn’t understand how the party committee structure worked when he’d chaired the Federal Policy Committee for a not insignificant period of time. Given that I’ve never been elected to any party committees and still have an adequate understanding of what they do I’m not sure how Norman could fail to understand how they work if he’d done his job as chair properly.

  • This is rich…the man the other night didn’t know how the party committee work!!! I mean he used to chair one!

  • Sadie Smith 19th Jun '15 - 4:30pm

    The structures and the Campaign are separate.
    As someone who has lived in mostly dark grey holes, I have had rule 1 of elections : ignore most of what Campaigns says.
    Take some ALDC avice but look carefully at national stuff.
    That was possible most years. Even in 2010. And some seats were held that year by running their own campaign. And that campaign had the cause of a lot of our problems. It didn’t matter later that some of us refused to sign the NUS form. It got loads of publicity.
    The 2015 election was the one where rule1 could not be followed. Press were happy to trash us while in coalition, but we had given them token reasons. It really was a poor message and we were stuck with the dominance of the national message of ‘not them’.

    I do think structure needs change. But it must not be too rigid. We went through changes all those years ago at merger and we lost some poetic language and what Martyn used to describe as the bits of elastic which a Constitution needs if it can respond to just about any circumstances.

    Whoever gets to make the changes, please remember the elastic.

    Getting both these right is going to be tricky but certainly not impossible.

  • ” The disastrous general election result left us with 8 middle class, white, male MPs.
    Quite simply, we cannot allow this to happen again.”

    Either a strange reading of the facts or someone who wants a dictatorial and hence illiberal government.

    Did the LibDems only field middle class, white, male candidate? I suspect the answer is no. The only way the LibDems can prevent this out come ever happening again is to only field candidates who are not male, white and are either middle class (whatever that may mean) or who may become middle class in the future (for example exclude graduates). However, that will confirm to many electors that the LibDems do not represent them and this nation…

  • I find this a trifle rich which if anything simply proves how apart many of the top brass of the party, especially ministers have been from the party as such, particularly when they consistently ignored those who were calling for change. It has come far too late to be convincing. Power has been concentrated in the hands of an elite few most of whom have lost their seats or influential roles as a result of the disaster they inflicted upon us. We need a whole new presentation led by personalities not intimately associated with the coalition.

  • Norman has a point — and is right to be a little vague because he is inviting us to re-think how we do things, not trying to impose a solution on us. That seems a wise course, and much more likely to have the wide support of the party.

  • Firstly, Norman and Tim seem to have different definitions of “middle class”

    This is Tim quoted in the Guardian:
    “The party’s group of eight MPs in the Commons was now “too male and too pale”, said Farron. “There are only eight of us, but you’ve got a parliamentary party that is entirely male, far too pale, no LGBT folks there, nobody with a disability and very few people like myself from a working class background.”

    Well, maybe Tim as a graduate with an MP’s salary might be considered middle class now…

    Secondly, whilst I agree entirely that the composition of our parliamentary party is embarassing, I do think both our leadership candidates will be making a big mistake if they seek to impose shortlists on local parties as Labour has done in some cases. Or if they propose to divert resources from more winnable seats to less winnable ones.. The first is a profoundly illiberal thing to do… Labour can afford to do it in their safe seats where the activity of the local party is completely unconnected with the result. We cannot splitting the local party in any winnable seat. Diverting resources from one seat to another on arbitrary grounds is just a recipe for creating resentment…

    I remember during the election reading the twitter feed of one of our female candidates in a winnable seat… She had spent Easter Monday out with her family… I thought “Good for her! She knows there are more important things than politics” But then I thought “I wonder how many of our other candidates were out on the campaign trail that day?” I have a feeling that out of the 99% of people who are far too sensible to be a Lib Dem PPC in a target seat, women form a majority!

    Anyway, I hope I am not disallowed from having a view on this by being a white middle class man!

  • Concerning MPs in parliament, by far our biggest problem is that we have so few of them.

  • Simon McGrath 19th Jun '15 - 9:15pm

    Norman is right to want to look at our structures and now is the right time to do it.

  • Norman clearly “gets it”. The party had too many clique-dominated and arcane committees and an unrepresentative conference. Great diagnosis.

  • The disaster at the election forces us to rethink everything – what we are, how we operate, how we make decisions. This has been needed for a long time but while we were doing sort of OK it was ignored. We can’t have the same situation again that local parties who wanted to get moving and select candidates for the General Election weren’t allowed to do so. The election result was a perfect storm of everything going wrong – unclear values and poor operationally. Change will be hard – especially for powerful people on existing committees – but we have to focus on what we want to achieve and what we believe. I’d welcome a complete overview and re-structure.

  • There’s a lot of good sense here. But making the party structures more accountable won’t make the slightest difference if the leader is allowed to surround him/herself with appointed ‘experts’ brought in from outside who have no understanding of the party and no interest in it. I suggest we have a rule that the senior staff in the leaders office must be card-carrying members of the party for at least 2 years prior to their appointment. We have people of great expertise and talent in our party. We should be looking to recruit the leader’s core team from our own membership.

  • ‘Structures and campaigns are separate’. Um no. The structures are there to facilitate good campaigning and the ultimate aim is liberal democracy. Not for the Party but for the people. Norman is challenging us to think outside the box and to address issues which stop us delivering for the electorate.. IMHO we have lost our soul. We have been more bothered about electoral success & following the views of the focus groups instead of what we believe. Now is the time to address that. Tim is a good campaigner but I feel he is trying to please everyone all of the time instead of taking a step back and addressing where we need to be in order to deliver radical policies – again I say for the benefit of the electorate not our benefit. We are here to serve, we are here to be radical and to address what is holding us back. Totally fed up with the right/left social democrat/orange book arguments and with the Party structures. Leadership is not about telling us what we should do it’s about helping us to find the way forward. That means looking at our own structures, making us inclusive, listening to members and those who are not members but ultimately defining our principles and out of that being radical in our solutions. We spend too much time listening to people telling us how we should campaign but not considering why we should campaign, what our campaign priorities should be and making sure our organisation is well placed to support that. Now is definitely the time to do this. If we don’t we will turn off the new members and the older members in equal numbers and end up in a worse place than we were 6 weeks ago. Not good for us and certainly not good for constituents. Of course we want power but for the right reasons. Now is the time to try and get us in the best place to deliver that in the future. There is no better time. So I’m 100% with Norman on this. Of course we’ll debate the how but lets deal with the what and why first. Rant over – I’ll now wait for the Exocets heading my way. I originally joined the SDP because I saw possibilities. I see possibilities now. I hope for everyone’s sake I’m right but I fear I may not be. Meanwhile I will be supporting Norman as the candidate most likely to help me deliver for us and critically for the people who vote.

  • Tony Dawson 20th Jun '15 - 9:41am


    You really need to be more alert to what you are reading. The emphasis below is mine but it was clear originally.

    . “There are only eight of us, but you’ve got a parliamentary party that is entirely male, far too pale, no LGBT folks there, nobody with a disability and very few people like myself from a working class BACKGROUND.”

    So, Tim is not claiming to still be working class. Just saying that’s where he came from (his background), which is true. ALL MPs are middle class by nature of what they do etc (odd upper class one or two). Only where they came from varies

  • Tony Dawson 20th Jun '15 - 9:46am

    “During this campaign people have been telling me that there wasn’t enough accountability within the party.”

    Only during the campaign, Norman. Has no one ever told you the same thing during all that time as Nick Clegg’s pps when you were at the unaccountable heart of the Party?

    “People had concerns about our central message and the way we fought the election”.

    Is Norman accepting these huge double-deficiency or is it just something people were saying? Where, precisely, was Norman during this doubly-deficient campaign?

    “where mistakes were made, it wasn’t clear who ultimately was responsible.”

    Of course it was precisely clear who was ultimately responsible. it is still clear. But is it clear, I ask, to Norman?

  • The reason people join a party is to form its agenda – in any way they see themselves as doing that as best they can. If a party doesn’t have the correct structure, which we don’t, those who formulate these things should ask us what we think of their new structural plans instead of waffling. As our structural plan is so duff, incoherent or non-existent, it shows why no-one needed to listen to members over the last 5 years and before. I used to switch off when certain high-powered gents slagged off an MP – in public and not that long before the GE. No structures can deal with that sort of public gaff but I’m sure many sat on their hands when they should have shown what sort of party the rest of us are supporting – a listening and accepting one! So start by being open to members and accepting what all members are telling you. Create an online, members-only system of voting on concrete ideas instead of allowing members to waffle. It’s all very well to have a comment box but we all know that allows certain people in powerful positions to ignore everything as it cannot be analysed for one member one vote.

  • The only times parties are a little democratic is at election times – and most UK elections are flawed by FPTP. To be fully democratic we need, as a party, to go further than any other party. Be the first. I do hope that as a party we will be using the best systems which the ERS can support – as we formulate structures and listening to members. Leaving these issues to committees will bring about the same incoherent or non-existent results we have now – i.e. more of the same. If that happens many of us will finally say goodbye. Please create a modern, efficient, listening party and kick the old party system into history.

  • Lester Holloway 20th Jun '15 - 2:08pm

    How about allocating seats on the FE for SAOs that want it? For a very long time the FE was all-white and wasn’t interested in what BAME members had to say. Today the FE is slightly more diverse but still no voice for EMLD. The few members of colour are representing themselves while the collective agenda of the group set up to represent BAME members continues to be unheard. The BAME Labour group have a seat on their party’s National Executive Committee. I think we’re behind the times on this.

  • I thought I ought to explain and clarify a point before I leave ‘commenting’ for good; purely out of personal choice as it appears – as many above and through these pages and commentaries have stated – ‘when you give advice no one listen’ and there your forced to watch, painfully.

    Point: On apologizing and sacrificing these are not simple acts they are very complex and demand very sensitive and constant ‘feedbacks and close-observations’ by a team and preferably a single ‘operational officer’ who has an excellent public and human reading abilities as well as good… the list is long to state here; getting the balance right is like ole solskjaer’s last minute goal that won Man U the champions league; simply, game-changer.

    On apology: a woman is most preferable source of origin. I vote Mme Sarah Teather -and not just for this operation but future long-term party leader – as she is completely untainted in ‘association with the Clegg administration’. However even asking her to apologize on behalf of the party old leadership shambolic behavior and policy will still [psychologically] ‘associate’ her ‘indirectly’ to being a Cleggist apologist. So dont taint her hence I originally said better leave it to the ‘Gods man’, Rt. Hon. Tim; Tim is already associated with Cleggist even if he was not really a team member (after all he presided over the party during such terrible political behavior and leadership and party management and never ‘challenged or condone it to point of threatening a resignation); hence also why Tim like Norman will never ‘save the party’; public associate these to ‘old troubles’.

    On sacrifice. Go straight, hard and repetitive on finger-pointing and scapegoating in order to save what is left to be saved of the party by placing entire party misbehavior and lack of leadership on the Cleggists Coalition Administration.

    Well, I am signing off : who knows I might look around to help start a new party of hybrid character, national social democrat; no not Nazis. not to strong on liberal democratic values (found voters turned off by some of our ‘central policies’, just to mention I am what you might say in ‘political intelligence’ and on the ground with an ear and an eye), selective on post-modern soclalists ideals and while ‘flying the flag’, mild controlled-nationalism (last two, selective-ideals, are favored strongly by majority of voters).

    Good Luck, LibDems.

  • Norman is absolutely right about the need to “renew, restructure and simplify the way our Party works.”

    The arrangements we have now were those put in place as a result of hard bargaining at the time of the merger and long since congealed into an unresponsive and treacly obstacle to progress. We deserve better and now is the time to make long overdue changes.

    Successful strategy must, like the Roman god Janus, face in two directions – outward to the lands to be conquered but also – and this is crucial but far too often forgotten – inwards to make the organisation fit for purpose. History is full of examples of armies that failed because political infighting etc. at HQ meant they weren’t provided with the proper equipment, That’s a lesson the Lib Dems need to take to heart.

  • Jean Davis – ” IMHO we have lost our soul. We have been more bothered about electoral success & following the views of the focus groups instead of what we believe. Now is the time to address that.”

    Absolutely right.

    Doing what is right will deliver the votes, chasing votes will NOT result in doing right. Prof John Kay has a short blog post and a longer book (“Obliquity”) that explains why.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 20th Jun '15 - 4:19pm

    Lester, I totally agree with you on that. In Scotland, there are seats on the Exec for Green Lib Dems, SLDW, EMLD, ALDC & LYS. It’s great as their input is in every decision we make.

  • Lester Holloway 20th Jun '15 - 6:57pm

    Thanks Caron for that comment. Having SAOs on the FE would actually empower it because their representatives would often be talking on behalf of a whole group of members, not just themselves. We’d stand more chance of addressing demands before it gets to the stage of contested conference motions, and the case of last year’s FE motion on gender zipping which missed out BAMEs, that issue would have surely been resolved at FE had EMLD been ar the table.

  • Jonathan Brown 21st Jun '15 - 3:10pm

    I agree with Norman’s stating that we need to renew and restructure, and in theory it’s quite right to say that “None of these issues are for the new leader alone to decide.” But seeing as we’ve been discussing this for years without making very much difference, I would like some concrete suggestions as to HOW we can bring about change, and rapidly.

    Lester has suggested above something that could be implemented very simply, and has much else of value to say in his excellent post here:

    I was impressed by Tim Farron’s insistence on picking a ‘shadow cabinet’ drawing on a range of talents within the party, and consciously looking to make sure that it is representative. It was one of the key suggestions which made me decide to back Tim.

  • Chris Burden 21st Jun '15 - 9:05pm

    @ Tony Rowan-Wicks 20th Jun ’15 – 12:41pm
    Hear. Hear. Please, as a matter of urgency, can we review, modify/amend/reconfigure our party structures according to the primary principle of Empowering the Membership through simplicity, transparency, and accountability.
    All other functions of the party will thus be enabled and enhanced.

  • We should use technology to widen participation.

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