Opinion: Shhh! Keep this secret

Everyone knows that the Federal Party committees do important business and that this business has to be kept absolutely secret. So I can’t really say anything about Monday’s Federal Executive meeting.

But if we are to move to OMOV (one member one vote – essentially the abolition of conference representatives) there need to be reports capable of being seen in the public domain and hopefully – unlike some reports I have seen within the Party about Federal Committees – uncoloured by the standpoint of the observer.

So let’s have a go.

We talked about OMOV itself. There is now a working party including both enthusiasts and sceptics and this has gone through the necessary amendments again and is hoping that this time it’s watertight. There are some very important loose ends, like how to ensure that people can afford to attend conference, and how the members of committees are to be held properly to account. There will be some consultation work on these at the spring conference.

We approved the budget, which contains some glad news on donations. Membership continues to grow and we considered a better way of making members feel they belong.

We also discussed a report on campaigning (I really need to be careful here). Suffice to say that there is some rather good news although obviously some issues still to sort.

FE continues to be keen to sort out the Party’s governance issues. This is not a constitutional issue but more a question of how things are done and where.  At some point in the past, for instance, FE decided it was really a scrutiny body and so abandoned its constitutionally required duties to develop a Party strategy. This needs to come back. And its right and duty to challenge other parts of the Party needs to be better accepted and understood.

The Morrissey report remains key to FE thinking and we are now moving to the next stage – looking at race and BAME issues. The work in relation to sexual harassment and discrimination will, of course, continue.

FE always has a political update, often by the Party Leader. On this occasion, however, there was a presentation on where the Party was on devolution – and the marked contrast with the Conservatives who are obsessing about English votes for English laws.

The recent Presidential and Federal Committee elections were touched on. The processes need to be reviewed but for obvious reasons not until after the General Election. If you have anything you want to contribute, I would suggest you write it down now while it’s still fresh in your mind and then send it in at the appropriate time.

Tim Farron was given a vote of thanks and the new President Sal Brinton was welcomed. She takes office on 1 January.

Not sure this will interest the Daily Mail but I hope it might interest you if you have read this far.

* Chris White is a Hertfordshire County Councillor and Deputy Leader (Policy) of the Liberal Democrat Group at the Local Government Association

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  • Thanks Chris – hope this might be the start of regular updates. If I bother to click through to the members’ forum, might there be a less guarded summary?

  • David Faggiani 16th Dec '14 - 3:30pm

    That’s interesting Chris, thanks. I was present at the Camberwell & Peckham PPC selection last night, where the potential progress of ‘OMOV’ was mentioned. It’s obviously a matter of huge interest for any party with ‘Democrats’ in its name.

  • I agree with tpfkar and hope it will be the start of regular reports from the Federal Committees.

    If members of the Federal Executive are looking at ways to help people afford to attend Federal conference they could look at giving grants to attend. For example pay those claimants who don’t receive the state pension £10 per night towards their conference accommodation. For those who receive housing benefit (including those on the state pension) could receive a portion of the £10 in relation to their housing benefit. For example someone paying £700 rent a month and receiving £174 a month housing benefit would receive £2.49 a night towards their accommodation. I hope it would be easy for someone to provide evidence of their rent and housing benefit. I know it is not much but it would be a start and it would then allow the Federal Executive to review it every year so they could increase the levels.

  • “Everyone knows that the Federal Party committees do important business and that this business has to be kept absolutely secret. So I can’t really say anything about Monday’s Federal Executive meeting.”

    Chris – in that case how come Brian Orrell regularly produced detailed and highly candid written reports of FE meetings which were circulated to all members of English Council (several hundred people).

  • Reading Chris’s article brought a smile to my face, OMOV, reports fit for ‘public’ consumption, work and reports that have to be kept “absolutely secret” are all things that have been normal day-to-day operational matters for many membership organisations, since forever…

  • I’m interested by the reference to the FE discussing the party’s views on devolution. As that’s a policy matter, it doesn’t immediately sound to me a good use of the FE’s time. I say this not because of any sort of turf fight with the Federal Policy Committee but rather because policy does have another route for debate in the party, but issues which only the FE can/should decide on often seem to get squeezed out without being given enough time at FE meetings. So is it a good use of the FE’s time to discuss policy like this?

    It’d be interesting to know more about what the FE discussed and how it was made relevant to the FE’s remit?

  • Chris White 17th Dec '14 - 7:50am

    tpfkar: Not yet. Less guarded and more official summaries are what we have been discussing on the OMOV working group. There seems to be goodwill there for it to happen with all Federal committees. But we are not there yet.

    On affordability: I think we also have to look at the cost of accommodation. Birmingham was egregiously expensive in terms of accommodation – there is a reason why we used to frequent seaside resorts! Plus we need to make it easier to car share and share accommodation. I think FCC would be interested in all of this.

    Hywel: you need to ask him. I understand they were more highly coloured than highly candid. But it’s not as if the English Party has been forthcoming in getting them out to a wider forum. Those of us not in the golden circle struggled even to find out who the recently elected English Party Chair was.

    Roland: quite.

    Mark: it was a curious one. FE receives a current political update which is often Nick talking about what’s been happening in the Commons or behind the scenes which may be of interest or concern. At such meetings the general Party concerns about being too close to the Tory agenda were raised in the past – some might argue to good effect. It’s important that FE does this. It isn’t, by contrast, really that important that we look at devolution.

    Your broader point is spot on. We have got to stop cramming everything in to a 3 hour meeting on a Monday night. I would prefer more task and finish groups and two or three weekend meetings where we can really stretch out and do the key job of setting the strategy, considering the longer term budget and so forth.

    We also need to stop the practice of on the night presentations. A number of us have a hinterland (mine is the local government family) and can’t report back properly or get briefings if some of the key documentation is not available. This is a bad practice imported from the private sector.

  • Chris White
    “…..more highly coloured than highly candid”
    That is a coincidence. Some might say that would be a very accurate description of your article here.

    I have never been a fan of the nudge-nudge, wink-wink way of writing a report of what has happened at a party meeting.
    It all smacks of the writer saying something like “I am so important that I know all these things that I am not allowed to tell you. Here are a few hints to make your mouth water and increase your desire to know, and that will make me feel even more important.”. I should make it clear that I am not criticising Brian Orrell here.

    Members elected to party bodies should be honest, open and clear in saying to members what is being done and why.

  • Firstly thanks for providing this albeit minimal report and responding to follow ups. There is a stunning lack of willingness to do that by most FE members.

    However you’ve given a consumate politicans answer, avoid the question and erect a spurious straw man!

    I’m not asking Brian though – I’m asking you. What rule or convention stops you producing a similarly candid report (and it should be noted that when I’ve been to English Council no-one – and there are other members of FE there – have disputed the accuracy of his reports).

    And if there is such a rule how many times has a change been proposed and discussed in the last two years?

    Lets be honest – if you were a Councillor on a body and told the whole meeting was secret (even areas where there was no justification for such secrecy) you would approach that position with some scepticism.

  • peter tyzack 17th Dec '14 - 9:08am

    might there be a more accessable website, with useful information more easy to find..?
    might there be a drive to get more members email addresses onto the system so that communication is easier(and when emails are sent out making sure a complete and up-to-date list is used).
    might there be a regular communication with ordinary members, sent out centrally(but regions able to add inserts to) so that members feel they actually belong to something..

  • I attended my first meeting of FCC over a week ago, and raised the issue of publishing reports and also of confidentiality. On the latter we were told that very little on an FCC agenda is confidential, so I requested that all agendas, papers and minute items should be marked as confidential where relevant. The rest can then be reported openly.

    The committee also accepted the principle of reporting back online and I thought this should be on the members section of the Federal website. Some members didn’t seem to know it
    existed! A report on the LDV members forum is not, in my view, the best place for greatest transparency. FCC needs to be involved in discussions with the other committees to agree on a process.

  • Duncan Brack 17th Dec '14 - 9:59am

    Chris – thanks for this. Can you say why the FE thought the turn-out for the committee elections had dropped by almost 50% compared to 2012, even though we have more party members?

  • .Mary Reid 17th Dec ’14 – 9:52am

    Well done, Mary! Starting as you mean to go on. We need more Mary Reids on federal committees.

    And a few more Duncan Bracks as well.

  • Thanks Chris for the response.

    Good to hear too from Mary about the progress on openning up the FCC. The FPC also debated its secrecy at my request on Monday night. Of course the detail are secret :-)… but, seriously, there was widespread support for much more relaxed rules which will hopefully come into force pretty soon.

  • Nonconformistradical 18th Dec '14 - 11:03am

    Mark is right about the FE not making best use of its time by discussing matters which are the remit of some other federal committee. The FE should receive reports from the other federal committees but I see its job as primarily the running of the party organisation.

    Without knowing how OMOV is to be implemented – it is essential that non-confidential matters should be reported properly and the reports made available to any member who wants to see them. The members section of the federal website seems most appropriate.

  • John: Sorry you felt it was nudge nudge. I am trying to test the water here. There was one passage I deleted because it did look like nudge nudge. Obviously that didn’t satisfy you. If I’d really wanted to feel important I would have hugged myself about how confidential it all is and left it at that. I am in fact trying to be pioneering like Mary and Mark are elsewhere.

    Hywel: it’s a convention and we were asked in the recent past not to put sensitive items in the public domain. The problem is that there is no agreement on what is sensitive. That does not mean that there can’t be. Change is now being actively debated as part of the OMOV discussions. In my view we could easily move towards a council-style system of part 1 and Part 2, with a vote taken about moving into Part 2 etc. – which I think is essentially your point about councillors.

    Duncan: the discussion about turnout was very brief because it was felt that it needed to be thoroughly investigated and so we essentially agreed a timetable and no more. I don’t think anyone believes it’s not to do with the move to all electronic elections. I understand that there is a problem with emails being treated as spam (this became a problem certainly in the Presidential elections in relation to candidate emails), with the quality of the email database and so forth. That does not seem enough, however, to explain the extraordinary results.

    I would add that there was also an issue with the absence of attendance records. I am also pressing for the A5 limit to be lifted – that was to save money, I presume, when it all had to be printed but hardly allows a new candidate to lay out his or her wares properly.

    Nonconformistradical. Actually FE does not receive reports from other Federal bodies except for FFAC which is really its sub-committee. The connectivity is done by cross-memebrship (e.g. FE appoints someone onto FCC etc). This doesn’t really work and there have been some ridiculous mess-ups recently especially over OMOV amendments and so forth which are largely in my view down to poor communication (no blame ascribed here).

    It would, I am afraid, be difficult to say that FE runs the Party organisation. And that really is a problem.

  • “Hywel: it’s a convention and we were asked in the recent past not to put sensitive items in the public domain.”

    My point was less about the part 1 and 2 split but more if you went to a meeting which was clearly not Part 2 business but were told that convention meant you couldn’t talk about what was discussed in public. I think as a Cllr you would give a fairly short answer.

    But there are numerous instances of – even quite sensitive matters – coming out into the public domain (eg David Rendel revealing the vote on the coalition agreement. Conversely there is no real evidence of genuininely sensitive material leaking. Even when FE members have left the party (eg James Graham and Donnachadh Macarthy)

    If it is only a convention why have those FE members who claim to be reform minded not attempted to have some formal rules.

    A good start might be to require all FE members to include contact details on the committee lists page:

  • @ Chris White

    I was disappointed with your response to my idea regarding helping certain groups to afford to attend conference as it would be within the remit of the Federal Executive Committee. While looking at the cost of accommodation for conference reps is a Conference Committee task as is deciding on where to hold the conference. It would I suppose be legitimate to ask Conference Committee if they decide to hold conference at non-seaside towns and in cities because of the cost of the conference venue. And if it is changing the Federal budget to remove the profit from the Federal conferences would be a Federal Executive Committee decision.

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