On reforming the Liberal Democrat organisation

Last September I stood for election to the Federal Board because I was aware of things which had gone wrong and needed to be put right. I didn’t expect my term of office, if elected, to start with picking up the pieces after a catastrophic general election. But it did.

The Thornhill Review has called for change, including to the Federal Board: a huge, sprawling thing with 35 voting members, the influence of any one of whom is very dilute. The Board would be better if it were less than half its current size. But whose seats should go? It will never agree. It is incapable of reforming itself, because everyone on it has an interest in their own seat being kept.

A slimmed-down Board could be a co-ordinating committee of members who represent other Party bodies. Like Mark Valladares, who asked on this site on 12th August whether the Party was manageable, I question the value of all the cross-representation on committees that exists now, and I don’t think reducing the Board to that is the right way to go. If Committee A needs to report to the Board, it shouldn’t have someone on the Board marking its homework. It makes it harder for the Board to be an unflinching critic if need be. Nor does the Board need to have someone on Committee A. It’s a fudge, a blurring of accountability.

The new Steering Group is rather like this. It’s full of reps of other Party bodies. I have asked for its composition to go back on the Board’s agenda but been refused. It is not too serious, because the Steering Group is only a delegation arrangement under existing standing orders. It isn’t permanent. The full Board can revoke the arrangement at any time.
Alternatively a slimmed-down Board could be directly elected by the grassroots members. Board members would be accountable via the ballot. That would only work if there was transparency as well.

Mark Valladares wrote on this site on 12th August that finding out what the Committees did between elections was difficult, as it was for individual Committee members to report back on their own personal activities. That’s true. Where are the minutes of crucial decisions that led to last year’s disaster? What individual or party body made the decisions, even? The Thornhill Review has not pulled punches, but neither has it named names. It’s as though after a car crash everyone in the car was a passenger and no one was in the driving seat.

Assuming transparency, whether a directly-elected Board would be a good Board, and what a good Board would look like, would be up to grassroots members who took an interest.

A third option is to appoint people based on expertise. But wouldn’t the grassroots first have to directly elect an Appointments Board to make the appointments? Who would decide what kinds of expertise to appoint? And isn’t this elitist?

It’s vital to get things right at the top of the Party. There’s also the vexed question of whether we need both the 12 Regions and the Party in England intermediate between the Federal Party and the Local Parties. If there are too many tiers, which should go? Are the Local Parties too big, too small, too various? What is the point of Branches?

The wider Party, not the Board, needs to step back, take a good look at the whole and bring proposals for reform by way of constitutional amendment.

The wider Party probably has as many opinions on this as there are members. To help get through this necessary but difficult process, it should obtain independent advice from outside the Party on how best to reorganise itself.

* Jo Hayes is a party activist, Chair of the East of England Regional Party and a member of the party's Federal Board.

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17 Comments

  • David Evershed 17th Aug '20 - 2:52pm

    Step 1 is to decide the purpose of the Federal Board.

    Step 2 is to decide what the Federal Board has to do to achieve its purpose.

    Step 3 is to appoint people to the Federal Board who have the competencies needed to do what it has to do.

  • richard underhill. 17th Aug '20 - 3:28pm

    The South-East of England Regional Party had an achievement in Eastbourne,
    helped by deciding to focus £5,000 on one constituency.
    Will others copy?
    It may be tempting to kill a tory MP, but please don’t. It is illegal.

  • Jo Hayes makes some very good points. Dorothy Thornhill, in her recent election review, recommended a thoroughgoing organisation and governance review. This is what is badly needed. The Party has grown like topsy over the years and is no longer fit for purpose.

    I am thoroughly disheartened by what I hear of this review. There is piecemeal reform being conducted at Federal Board level, within HQ and in the English Party. There is no holistic strategy behind that and indeed evidence of a defeatist attitude that major reviews have not worked in the past so why bother now.

    What would other organisations do in a crisis situation like we face: businesses, charities, health trusts, local authorities etc.? They would more than likely call in external consultants/advisers to help them, whose first task would be to understand what we’re trying to achieve, our culture and what the owners (we as members) want to see happen. They would then be able to come up with options to help us sort ourselves out to be a far more effective campaigning organisation.

    There are many in the Party who can’t believe any outsider could possibly understand us because we are so complex. This is far from true. Strategic consultants who do this sort of work have to deal with far more complex organisations. The procurement process would enable to the Board to judge who had the team most likely to fit best with us.

    A couple of weeks ago the Council of the English Party urged the Federal Board to bring in outside help. I urge the FB to take this seriously and do just that.

  • Laurence Cox 17th Aug '20 - 4:20pm

    Joe and David make some good points, and I don’t think that I am revealing any confidences if I say that similar issues came up in the working group under Duncan Brack looking at internal elections to the FB, when we compared our own election processes to those of other organisations such as professional bodies and large membership organisations (like the RHS which I am a member of). No doubt, when Duncan reports to the FB on this you will have the benefit of all the working group’s deliberations.

    Your third option is one widely used by professional bodies because these are charities and so subject to the Charity Commission’s requirements for trustees; you may like to ask Greg Foster at HQ about his suggestion to the working group which goes some way in this direction.

  • Jo Hayes,

    You refer to Mark Valladares’ article of 12th August, but didn’t mention my article (https://www.libdemvoice.org/reducing-the-size-of-the-federal-board-and-giving-power-to-the-members-65516.html) of 3rd August and you didn’t post anything in the comments section. For the Federal Board to be accountable the membership need to elect the people on it and have the power to remove them during their term of office.

    We also need to publish the minutes of meetings that include vote numbers and how people voted when there are recorded votes with limited information on confidential matters just like council meeting minutes.

    As liberals we should trust the members and we should believe that the best form of governance is where the members elected people to run the party. We also have to have an open and transparent system.

  • I agree with most of the points made by Jo and commenters, but I think that Joe has hit the nail on the head – and not only for Federal Board. Which party bodies at Federal, State and Regional levels are Executive, and which are representative? If they are Executive, then how is the expectation that the members will have the time and expertise to fulfill an executive role validated? And if the body is representative, then how are the necessary executive and secretariat functions delivered?

    I disagree with John about the complexity of the Lib Dem organisation. True, many corporations include many more entities than the Lib Dems, but the chain of responsibility and reporting will be very clear. However the Lib Dems is (at least in theory) a federation of State Parties, and the English Party is to some (unclear) extent a federation of Regions. The various constitutions that apply to a Member of the English Party are twice the length of Hamlet. However, they mainly deal with process – and how to appeal against the decisions made through that process, and how to appeal against the decisions of that appeal. There is very little in the Constitutions about the responsibilities of the various bodies and relations between them – and some key bodies are not mentioned at all.

    Voters in General Elections can be confident that the candidates of the major parties will have gone through an approval process that verifies that they are capable of fulfilling the role of MP. However, for Lib Dem internal elections, the only information that voters receive is a manifesto written by the candidate – which often describes their experience in roles with very different requirements.

    Jo and John both mention obtaining external advice on the organisation of the Party. However, the brief for any such advice would need to describe the sort of party that the membership want it to be – and I am far from convinced that there is a consensus on this!

    As John says “As liberals, we should trust the members” – but there are two corolaries to this:
    1) The members should be able to make an informed choice on who the elect to offices and committees.
    2) the members should then trust them to act in the best interests of the Party.

  • David asks what is the purpose of the Federal Board. The answer is in the Federal Party’s founding document (as amended by Federal Conference) to which it owes its existence. To answer Joe’s question, the Federal Board does not execute; it appoints a salaried Chief Executive to do that. It does not represent, either; it furthers the interests of the Party. It periodically prepares the Party’s strategy for approval by the Federal Conference, and it directs, co-ordinates and supervises the implementation of the Party’s strategy and the work of the Federal Party. It is not a board of trustees; the Party‘s assets are vested in separate trustees. The amendments a few years ago that substituted the Board for the Federal Executive are plainly modelled on corporate boards of directors (though the Party is not incorporated). Unless and until the Federal Conference amends the Board’s functions, the aim of changes to its composition has got to be to make it a better board of directors.

  • David Craddock 18th Aug '20 - 9:12am

    I like Jo’s approach and the idea that the Lib Dem Party should be true to its culture and philosophy, and organise itself in a way it would run the country if in power. This means having a proper Federal structure that fully represents the different needs of voters regionally. Nearly 80% of membership fees in England are controlled or managed by either the Federal or English Party. The historical strength of the Lib Dems is in its grass roots, local and regional parties, which are mainly run by volunteers with minimal support or finances from the central party. We need a smaller head office and more funds and resources going to the front line to improve our ability to campaign across the country. The current organisation and structure is top heavy and to reorganise we need to consider taking a more holistic approach. Reducing the Federal Board in size may well be a good idea but what about the rest of the party? I agree with John on the idea of bringing in outside, independent help, to consider reorganizational change. I’ve been a part of reorganizational projects in both private and public sector organisations and it does not have to be a long drawn out process. Typically a project like this would take 2 to 3 months to come up with a new streamlined and effective structure which could be put to conference in the spring. The danger with the current piecemeal approach is that we end up with a number of unconnected and un-related projects which risk becoming committees!

  • David Craddock 18th Aug '20 - 9:16am

    Just to add that reorganisation should be driven by a strategy and it is rather unclear to me what the Lib Dem strategy is overall.

  • David Rogers 18th Aug '20 - 9:41am

    Thanks Jo: very useful to have this debate, and I agree with most of your post, especially that there will be many differing opinions (not to mention vested interests!). The leadership contest is coming to an end, and whoever wins will have a view on this – a point I think already acknowledged by the FB and the President as they seek to make progress on implementing the Thornhill review, which is clearly relevant too. I’m also impressed by the comments of Simon Pike above. Despite not being a fan of “consultants” in general, it may be wise and possible to identify and engage a suitable form of external advice.

  • Michael BG, indeed I didn’t comment on your article. You set out a detailed list of places on the Board that could be done without, and you favour an almost entirely directly elected Board, with transparency and accountability. I don’t think the Board itself can decide how to reform itself. It’s up to the wider membership to come to a broad consensus on this. The English Council has asked the Federal Party to bring in outside help. I don’t think we are going to get far along the road to a broad consensus otherwise.

  • Sue Sutherland 18th Aug '20 - 3:34pm

    One of the positive things in all of this is that there seems to be general acceptance of the need to restructure the party. So what are we trying to do as an organisation? There seem to be two main aims, to win elections at every level and to develop policies to make people’s lives better. An additional ambition seems to be to involve members more in the decisions needed to achieve those two aims.
    Does the kind of Federal organisation we have at the moment help or hinder these two main ambitions? I’ve never been on any of the Boards and cannot do so now because of ill health, but it seems to me that these are two separate aims which don’t require a great deal of coordination, except at the top perhaps.
    To create policy we need people who are knowledgable in the relevant field but the decisions on which policy areas to concentrate could be taken by the leader in consultation with members. A small group would be enough to oversee the subsequent policy development. Regional groups could have input into this process of consultation.
    We need to become a lean mean fighting machine again and need to have an organisation which supports and informs those involved in campaigning, whether the local party has one or several hundred members. We need to create a group for developing the campaigning capacity in each constituency. Some people may have responsibility for starting up campaigning in several constituencies and others for only one constituency with an MP or perhaps a small number of those, or those where we are in second place.
    Conference is very important at present as it is the primary way in which members are involved. However I don’t think a Conference Committee should be deciding which policies are accepted for debate. The leader and the small overseeing policy group should do this to ensure policies are relevant to what is happening on the political scene.
    As well as this structure there should also be a way for members, or a group of members to comment and suggest ideas for both policies and campaigning so a liaison group would be necessary to manage this.
    There are obviously other issues like dealing with complaints that I can’t really go into here, but I believe we should be concentrating our energies and people power on the two main areas of policy and campaigning.

  • Do away with all the cross-nomination from one committee or party body to another. All of this was designed solely to head off any challenge and entrench the status quo – which, as we saw in December 2019, can lead to disaster.

    Abandon the so-called diversity override to the results of internal party elections, which aren’t needed in our party, are illiberal, often serve to reduce genuine diversity, and have reduced debate about organisational structures into a competition for influence between our various SAOs.

    Hey presto, you’d already have a much slimmed down and more accountable set of committees.

  • Peter Chambers 19th Aug '20 - 7:32pm

    Calling in outside help for a review?

    I remember when Coop Bank got in trouble. They asked Lord Myners do come in and do a review. He did a thorough job for them and pointed out the hard choices they had to make to turn things round. Sometimes an outsider is the one needed to give you an disinterested view.

  • Jo Hayes,

    We could have a working party which sets out all the options and applies liberal principles to them. The working party would have to take evidence from different organisations and experts on how we could be structured, but it would be down to the working party to present these options to the members for consultation. This consultation should be very wide going to State and regional conferences (and some local parties). Then some options should be set out for Federal Conference to vote on. I would restrict the membership of the working group to one person from each committee and ensure that these members are not a majority but are outnumbered (possible by two to one from ordinary members). The other members should be drawn by lot (from those who apply) from each state and each region, with a place for each group as set out in article 2.6 of the Federal Constitution and the Young Liberals and another group of members also drawn by lot at the Federal level.

    I hope some members of the Federal Board can support this idea and then canvass support from other members and so get the Federal Board to set up this working party.

    Sue Sutherland,

    As liberals we should involve members as much as possible and we should empower them not give policy drafting over to experts and the leader. The issue of discussing relevant policies is not because of the way people are elected/appointed to the Federal Conference Committee but because of the rule not to discuss a policy if a policy paper is being developed or if we discussed the issue within the last two years. (Europe seems to be an exception to this rule. It seems that it has been on every conference agenda since 2015.)

  • Michael B G, such a working party is a possible way forward but I see the way forward more in terms of the Federal Board funding the obtaining of outside expertise and then the outside experts getting on with it. They must have discretion over how they go about their job. I would have thought talking to people separately in every part of the party about what is wrong and what might work better would be more useful than a formal session.
    In your remarks about the Federal Conference Committee you say there is a “rule not to discuss a policy if a policy paper is being developed or if we discussed the issue within the last two years”. This rule isn’t in the Conference standing orders and I wonder whether it is anything more than a rule of practice, that is to say not actually a rule at all. Can you shed light on this?

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