Party reforms are crucial for our fightback

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Our party has come a long way since the devastating general election defeat of 2019, when we lost many people including our then leader, Jo Swinson.

As someone standing in a Northern Leave-voting seat, I saw firsthand the effect of the mistakes that cost us so dearly in that campaign and which Dorothy Thornhill’s post-election review documented so clearly.

We must not make the same mistakes again – and that means fixing the party systems and structures that let us down in 2019.

Since 2019, we have already made a number of changes that make fighting in areas like Barnsley so much easier. Fresh political leadership in Ed Davey and Mark Pack, fresh professional leadership in Mike Dixon and investment in campaign field staff providing resources to help local teams like mine win.

The success of this change is clear to see. Unlike Labour, we have gained two seats in parliamentary by-elections (Chesham and Amersham, and North Shropshire) and mine was one of many councils where we saw gains in local elections in 2021. We are now focusing resources into getting a fantastic and diverse range of candidates elected such as Josh Babarinde in Eastbourne, Lisa Smart in Hazel Grove and Sam Collins in Hitchen and Harpenden.

But all of this progress will be irrelevant if we repeat the same mistakes as in 2019, where we over target and under-deliver.

In the aftermath of 2019, Dorothy Thornhill eviscerated the structure of our party, branding it as messy and ineffective. With no clear decision-making structure, we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes as in 2019.

This is why the reforms coming up at Conference are so crucial. They modernise our (frankly incomprehensible) party structures and make them effective for an organisation fighting elections in the 21st century.

The reforms do this by keeping the key stakeholders at the decision-making table but also by genuinely streamlining our organisation to ensure that the crucial tactical decisions are made efficiently and effectively.

The proposed new Board would be a sensible size – under 20 rather than over 40 (!!) – and it would also overwhelmingly be made up of people elected by party members, such as the President elected by all members or the Young Liberals chair elected by all YL members.

There are also three perfectly appropriate models of scrutiny that ensure we, ordinary members, are represented in ensuring good governance is being undertaken.
However, the party needs to back these important reforms with a two-thirds vote in favour at conference.

I would make a plea to our membership; we have started to turn a corner after the disastrous election of 2019 – let’s not undo the progress made. Join me in backing the reforms at Conference.

* Hannah is Lib Dem Council group leader in Barnsley

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29 Comments

  • Helen Dudden 15th Feb '22 - 11:04am

    I think reforming the present system is important.
    The government is constantly being caught out on failings, and are fast losing trust and support.
    I would love to see a society that is genuinely serving those who need a helping hand. Housing that still in the Social Housing sector has not met fully the Decent Homes standards. The NHS be brought into the present day need. Top heavy management is one point. Education, children must be able to express the understanding of what’s right and wrong, even though it causes concern to a Minister.
    Most of will know and understand where we are at present, mistakes have been made and they will cause many issues for those least able to afford the high price.

  • James Graham 15th Feb '22 - 11:14am

    I would simply say this: as a former activist I’ve seen internal reforms hailed as the cure-all for the Lib Dems woes for decades now. Indeed, this was the exact argument used for replacing the Federal Executive with the Federal Board in the first place. Under Vince Cable’s leadership between 2017 and 2019 the party seemed to be absolutely obsessed with internal reform at the expense of all else; something which I would argue contributed greatly to the disaster that was 2019.

    I’m sure improvements can be made; I don’t have any direct personal experience of the current system. But if you think that it’s the main problem then you might in fact end up making everything worse.

  • Brad Barrows 15th Feb '22 - 11:19am

    The key lesson from 2019 is never to pretend that the Liberal Democrats are competing to form a majority government or that its leader is a potential Prime Minister – voters are not taken in by this hype. Therefore the party needs to have a credible answer for what it would do if it held the balance of power, which is at least a possible outcome though unlikely while the SNP appears capable of winning 50+ seats. On that front, the party needs to learn the damage the coalition with the Tories did – and deservedly – and vow never to repeat that particular error.

  • Like James Graham I remember previous governance reforms that were going to revolutionise our fortunes but didn’t. There was the Bones Report under Nick Clegg and then the torturous President Brinton reforms in 2015/16. Then the Thornhill Review noted that our governance systems were completly unfit for purpose!

    The more streamlined proposals being forward make sense but the proof will be in what happens in practice and whether those in charge have to take notice of reality instead of opting for fantasy as in 2019. The campaigns output from 2020 is much improved so current signs are good but what would happen at some future date under a new Leader if they wanted to push through an approach like that of 2019?

  • Organisation per se was not the main problem in 2019.

    In 2019, we successfully melted down to the tiny core of convinced Remainers/ pure Revokers.

    Anyone associated with that self-defeating strategy showed themselves to be completely out-of-touch with electoral reality.

    Some of the individuals concerned have moved on; others are still there at the top of the party. Surely, the best they could do is recognise how poor their strategic understanding has been and desist from electoral strategy.

  • Hello Martin,

    2017 was de-railed by Tim’s theological cogitations; 2019 was the fruit of deliberate strategy.

    Both utterly depressing.

  • Agreed Martin. There are definitely things to learn from the 2019 election, and streamlining decision making sounds important, but too much obsession with the internal structure might have been the problem in the first place.

    In many ways we were/are stronger as a party after the 2019 election than the 2017 one. Over-targeting might have been bad news in the short-term, I’d argue that moving from 3rd to 2nd in a number of seats may put us in a stronger position for the next election than an extra couple of MPs. After all, without making progress in Chesham and Amersham in 2019, would we have been in a position to squeeze the vote in the by-election?

    Received wisdom after the 2019 election would have considered the work Helen Morgan and her team did to double her vote share was wasted. Now it’s used as an example of the value of putting in the work despite no obvious immediate pay-back.

  • John Marriott 15th Feb '22 - 1:02pm

    You can reform structures all you like and, the Lib Dems, bless ‘em, are pretty good at that. However, as Brad Barrows correctly points out, don’t run before you can walk. In a pluralistic political system, into which, despite the present Brexit led polarisation, our country is slowly evolving, it is unlikely that any party would command much more than 30% of popular support. ‘Liberal’ parties tend to poll in the low teens at best.

    As I have written several times before, IF we ever do get a voting system that really reflects the proportion of votes cast in terms of seats etc., we, and the electorate as a whole, have GOT to get used to the idea of coalition government. So, the first time it occurred almost by accident in peacetime, some activists and I assume PR devotees just want to run away. That really doesn’t augur well for a Lib Dem influenced political future, does it?

  • Paul Holmes 15th Feb '22 - 2:57pm

    Martin, as you know from previous online discussions I think that 2015, 2017 and 2019 were all disasters. All under different Leaders and for different reasons.

    The point I thought we were discussing was whether the new organisational proposals would be able to mitigate such disasters in future by exercising some checks and balances over the Leader and their personal team, whoever that happens to be at any given time.

    Clearly the Bones ‘reforms’ failed absolutely to do so where Nick Clegg and his team were concerned. Likewise the Brinton ‘reforms’ failed absolutely in 2017 and even more so in 2019. Hence the Thornhill Review saying that our governance systems were unfit for purpose and ushering in the current, third, attempt at ‘reform’. Whether it will make any difference at all only time will tell.

  • Chris Moore 15th Feb '22 - 3:17pm

    Hi Fiona, in the run up to 2019, our membership hit new highs, because of our uncompromising stance on Europe.

    (Many of the new intake were not especially liberal, however: calls to throw out the MP for Eastbourne, for example.)

    So we were certainly in a better place in that respect than post-2017. Obviously, many of those new members have since left.

    Likewise, now we are out of Europe, we no longer have the electoral millstone of going against the referendum around our necks. So we are certainly in a better place now than post-2017.

    However, it’s true as Paul says that there are no organisational checks on a small clique around leadership, if they adopt a mistaken strategy as in 2019.

  • James, Paul: I agree with you about that reforms such as these aren’t some magic cure on their own. Indeed, that’s why when I took up office on 1 Jan 2020 (that feels a world away now!), this wasn’t top of the priority list. But, as the Thornhill Review eloquently points out, they are a necessary part of the overall package of what we need to get right – which is why there’s been plenty of changes on other fronts already and will need to continue to be so.

    Those other changes will be more effective, and more democratic, if we can add to them having at the heart of how the party is run a body that is effective and democratic.

  • CJ WILLIAMS 15th Feb '22 - 4:28pm

    Over a century ago a political theory ‘the iron law of oligarchy’ was written. It seems to me that Lib Dems are constantly fighting to supplant this law. Perhaps it would be better and lead to more success if you tried to work with this iron law.

  • @ C.J. Williams I can’t imagine why you think Liberalism has anything to do with a book written back in 1911 by Robert Michel (who went on to be by a supporter of Benito Mussolini).

  • Mick Taylor 16th Feb '22 - 9:14am

    As a member of 58 years standing I can tell you that yet another reorganisation of the way the party runs itself will not win a single extra vote or seat. What will matter -as it always has – is having an agreed platform and objectives and fighting the election full on as a united party. Once the campaign gets underway all members and supporters must pull together and shelve criticism and disagreements until the election is over. LDV should also be much more circumspect about what appears in its columns during the campaign. There is nothing more disheartening and detrimental to morale than LD members and supporters undermine the party’s efforts during a GE.

  • Internal (re-)organisation is merely a means to an end.

    Our real problem is that that we keep failing to identify and focus on a worthwhile short-term end.

    With the current (unfair and dysfunctional) UK electoral processes, everyone knows that LD stand no chance of forming the Political Executive of the UK, and therefore no chance of delivering on any posturing.

    However, a cross-party Campaign for Reform could offer a realistic worthwhile short-term end; based on a combination of:

    1. A pre-election Tactical-Voting arrangement
    to force a hung Commons
    (i.e. by unilaterally ‘gifting’ marginal seats
    from the stronger of Con and Lab to the weaker of Con and Lab,
    without any ‘whiff’ of the beneficiary Party ‘returning the favour’).
    The Liberal Democrat Party
    is uniquely-positioned with the elector-power to ‘lead’ such an arrangement
    (i.e. ‘leading’ the Green, SNP, Reform, and PC parties).

    2. A post-election Confidence-and-Supply arrangement
    (i.e. not a standing Alliance arrangement or a standing Coalition arrangement)
    with the least-obstructive of Con or Lab in a hung Commons;
    with control over the agenda for constitutional reform as the sole ‘red line’.
    The Scottish National Party
    is uniquely-positioned with the seat-power to ‘lead’ such an arrangement
    (i.e. ‘leading’ the LD, Green, Reform, and PC parties).

    Everything else is irrelevant. Pure hubris.

  • Neil James Sandison 16th Feb '22 - 10:51am

    What hurt us most was the leadership going off message on Europe . How a party with the word democrat in its title ended up with the most undemocratic leadership led change in policy did not sit well with the public . dont do it again .

  • David Raw. “the most important, significant and, I would add, genuine branch of sociology which exists.” John Maynard Keynes concerning eugenics. I am aware of Michels biography but his point still stands.

  • Mick Taylor. Absolutely. It requires a leader that commands enough respect to lead a campaign where people who disagree with that person are still motivated to campaign for and not undermine the leadership. Cameron and same sex marriage, he told his conference, no votes, no endless disscusions and they cheered him for it. A leader has to be able lead, it maybe a little elitist but people may vote for it.

  • Steve Trevethan 16th Feb '22 - 12:05pm

    Without relevant radical economic policies might we be in danger of being a party of enthusiastically organised political ineffectiveness?
    Is our basic economic theory (still) neoliberal economics or have we switched to a policy which recognises fiat money and exposes the fallacy/deceit of the deficit myth?

  • Those in need have never forgotten the traumatising effect of austerity after they gave their trust to the Lib dems a decade ago. If you or your children starved or trembled every time the letterbox jangled the only thing that will get votes is pro EU freedoms, much higher pensions and flat rate for all sensible level of benefits. My disability went up £2 a week 27 years ago. It is still only going up £2 a week 27 years later. All that and more will be absorbed by a new landlord from the far away south east wanting to put the rent up £100 a month. Benefits must match rents.

  • Siv Wright is absolutely correct. Some things have not been forgotten and I guess never will be. My personal response at the time was that I felt impelled to move from being an elected Lib Dem Councillor to become Chair of a Food Bank.

  • I worry that after 2019 the party has thrown the baby out with the bath water a bit.

    For example I see that Keir Starmer is talking about the “opportunities of Brexit” (!) and says there is no case for rejoin (despite polls showing the public think we were wrong to leave).

    Here is an opportunity for the Lib Dems to carve out clear ground as the pro-European party but they’re not taking it.

  • Mary Regnier-Wilson 16th Feb '22 - 3:43pm

    I agree with James – I’m fed up with navel gazing about internal reform and want to concentrate on winning elections. But that’s why we need to get this through this conference, and move on from it.

    Because a board of 41 both encourages navel gazing and endless internal debates, and is useless when it comes to actually providing any governance over the party – as we saw in 2019. I know many on the board shared the concerns I was expressing in the run up to the calling of the election, but as an entity it was too unwieldy to influence what was happening.

    A smaller board will actually ensure less centralisation of power in the party – by making the board members more influential and more able to provide effective governance of the leader, president and CEO. And without that ability, we won’t do the other things that need to be done to win elections.

  • And in response to Mick Taylor- what happened to free speech and non conformity? I seem to remember you calling for that recently on this platform.
    The only time I ask for unwavering obedience from a team is on polling day – and even then I don’t demand compliance, I earn people’s trust. If our positions and campaign cannot persuade those within the party to the extent that they feel a need to publicly criticise, then they sure as hell won’t persuade the voting public. If criticism of the 2019 campiagn had been stifled during it then we’d never have changed the focus and we’d have even more former MP’s now.

    You don’t stop people publicly criticising by demanding they shut up and comply. You stop them by privately listening and engaging and making them feel listened to. By showing that even if you disagree with their conclusions, you have heard their arguments and properly taken them on board. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much some members of our current leadership have adopted this approach and it’s making us a better, more democrat and more efficient organisation.

  • Russell Simpson 16th Feb '22 - 4:44pm

    The main reason Libdems did badly in 2019 was their ridiculous change in Brexit policy/tactics. The public understood 2nd Ref. Changing to Revoke at the last minute was utter madness. We should also have resisted all efforts to push for a General Election.

  • Mary. There is a time and a place for criticism and challenging the leadership, but during a General Election is not one of them. What I am suggesting is self discipline. I had criticisms of the 2019 campaign-I was the agent in Burnley- but I communicated them privately to the Party President not publicly on LDV or other social media platforms. If you don’t understand the need for party loyalty during a GE then we are not on the same page.

  • David Garlick 17th Feb '22 - 9:53am

    No reforms will be perfect. These seem sensible and will be beneficial.
    Lets say yes and get stuck in to fund raising and campaigning for May.

  • Mary Regnier-Wilson 17th Feb '22 - 11:09pm

    I don’t think anyone can demand loyalty in any election.

    I’ve never criticised my candidates during an election- and actually have never seen any criticism of them. But I didn’t put out an order that there should be loyalty to the candidate or core team – we just earned it.

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