Reducing the size of the Federal Board and giving power to the members

Last week Mark Valladares wrote an article – ‘How the Party is managed – can you be democratic and efficient’ and some in the comments called for a smaller Federal Board.

The Thornhill 2019 Election Review talks of a Federal Board of 40+ members (page 34) which is too large to be a ‘realistic decision-making body’ (page 22) and implies that during a governance review this should be reduced (pages 24 and 49).

Mark Pack in his report on the July Federal Board meeting states that the Federal Board has a membership of 43. The Constitution sets out a membership of 35 voting members and five non-voting members with the option to co-opt three people. Then there is the Vice President responsible for working with BaME communities (Federal Constitution Article 20.2) who we might expect to be a member and is listed as a member on the Party website.

Before we had a Federal Board we had a Federal Executive Committee and the 1994 Federal Constitution set its number at 27 voting members and six non-voting members. In our original 1988 Constitution there were also 27 voting members and only four non-voting members.

To reduce the size of the Federal Board we should remove some of those added in the 2016 constitution changes and most of the Parliamentarians.

We should keep one member elected by and from the Specified Associated Organisation representing youth and/or students.

We should keep one member elected by and from the principal local authority councillors of the Party.

We should reduce the number from the State Parties to one from each. And we should abolish the automatic right of the three Vice Presidents – the Chair of the English Liberal Democrats, the Convenor of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, the Chair of the NEC of the Welsh Liberal Democrats – to be on the Federal Board. We should allow them to stand to be their respective state party representative.

We should scrap all those elected by the Parliamentarians because the Leader of the Party has to be an MP and that person can represent our Parliamentarians. We should keep the President as a member.

As I am proposing the abolition of three Vice Presidents I think the fourth should also be abolished. Then instead of the Federal Board electing a Vice President to work with BaME communities, perhaps BaME members could elect one of themselves to the Federal Board.

The increase in size has been the result of people being there as a result of their position on another committee, so we should reduce this number.

We should elect from the members of the Federal Board and not the whole party the chairs of the Federal People Development Committee, the Federal Communications & Elections Committee, the Racial Diversity Campaign, the Federal International Relations Committee and Federal Audit & Scrutiny Committee. The Federal Board should appoint from outside its own members the Chair of the Federal Finance & Resources Committee, who on election becomes a voting member of the Federal Board.

We should reluctantly reduce the number directly elected by all the members to 12 (from 14) making 21 voting members.

We should restrict the non-voting members to the Federal Treasurer, the Federal Chief Executive, and one representative of the staff employed by the Federal Party and the Parliamentary Parties and elected by them.

The Chair of the Federal Policy Committee is the Leader of the Party and therefore a member of the Federal Board. There is no need for the Chair of the Federal Conference Committee to be a member of the Federal Board because the Federal Board elects one of its own number to that committee {Article 11.2 (d)} and that person can report both from the Federal Board and to the Federal Board.

The Federal Board should still have the power to co-opt up to three people.

My suggestions would reduce the total number excluding co-options from 40 to 24 and the voting members down to only 21. The majority of these 21 would be directly elected by all the members and six by a subsection of the membership and only one by the Federal Board. None would be there by holding another position in the party except the Leader and President who are elected by the whole membership. Therefore the power to elect just over 95% of the Federal Board would rest with the members.

* Michael Berwick-Gooding is a Liberal Democrat member in Basingstoke and has held various party positions at local, regional and English Party level. He posts comments as Michael BG.

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  • richard underhill 3rd Aug '20 - 9:34am

    Michael Berwick-Gooding | Mon 3rd August 2020 – 9:25 am
    Looks good, let’s do that, but add a further review with a time limit of, say, two years.

  • David Warren 3rd Aug '20 - 9:36am

    Good article Michael and I agree 100% with the idea of reducing the size of the Federal Board.

    I also feel we need to look at other Federal Committees. There are people on these who are not directly elected and in the case of the FCC I feel very strongly that this is totally wrong. We need reform of party structures and this is a good place to start.

  • Nonconformistradical 3rd Aug '20 - 11:17am

    “We should reluctantly reduce the number directly elected by all the members to 12 (from 14)”

    Michael – how would you see the election operating? Last time we elected members to the federal board the number of candidates was somewhere in the mid-30s – and I suspect most of the members probably knew little or nothing about any of them other than what they put intheir manifestos. And as far as I know there is nothing to ensure those elected can represent the members acrtoss the country.

    How about electing members by English region plus Wales and Scotland? With members just voting among the candidates in their own area. It might be possible to have a manageable number of manifestos to read (properly) and it might be more likely that members will have had some contact locally with (some of) the candidates.

    Yes – I know – we have some members overseas – haven’t worked out how to look after their interests but we would need to.

  • Laurence Cox 3rd Aug '20 - 12:04pm


    If you go to regional elections then you have a problem with Paragraph 2.6 of the Federal Constitution.:

    2.6 Whenever this Constitution provides for the election by party members of ten or more persons to any Federal Committee or other Federal body:

    (a) not less than 10% or, if 10% is not a whole number, the whole number nearest to but not exceeding 10% shall be from underrepresented ethnic backgrounds;
    (b) not less than 10% or, if 10% is not a whole number, the whole number nearest to but not exceeding 10% shall be disabled people; and
    (c) not less than 10% or, if 10% is not a whole number, the whole number nearest to but not exceeding 10% shall be people from under-represented sexual orientations and gender identities, including trans and non-binary identities.

    Michael’s BAME member election would deal with the first of these but not the second and third. If we are to be truly diverse, we need to think about all underrepresented groups not just the most obvious.

  • Nonconformistradical 3rd Aug '20 - 4:41pm

    @Laurence Cox
    Re your 12:04pm posting

    OK but the criticism that the party is too London-centered seems quite common. How do you think we should deal with that?

    And how could we increase the turnout at party federal elections? I believe it was somewhere in the region of 10% for the federal board. Not great.

  • And yet again, we see the lack of understanding of Federalism within the party.

    The point is – the State parties have equal representation. This means that their Conveners have equal status as Vice Presidents of the Federal Party. That’s absolutely correct. Removing that would almost certainly make it more difficult for the State Parties to be heard at a Federal level – to give an example, it’s surely more relevant for the Scottish Convener to give a view on how to tackle the SNP than, say, an elected rep from Wolverhampton.

    If you really wanted to make a difference, hold all the Federal Board meetings outside London.

  • Andy Hinton 3rd Aug '20 - 5:47pm

    I have a lot of sympathy for this post. It is especially striking when Michael lays out the history of the Federal Board/Exec’s makeup that the direction of travel over the years has been steadily in the direction of ever greater influence being wielded by ex officio members of The Great And The Good who have not been directly elected to FB, with Pack’s Politburo being the latest particularly brazen shove in that direction. As we as a party ought to understand, the beauty of STV elections is that they enable diverse strands of opinion to be optimally represented. Placing the power at the heart of the party instead in the hands of a series of individuals who have won separate AV elections, on the other hand, is a recipe for a fudgey monoculture.

    As Michael says, we should be looking to thin out that sort of thing, not creating a body composed entirely of it and fobbing off any criticisms with “well yes, perhaps one day we should directly elect those posts”, which would merely replace AV elections amongst particular committees with AV elections amongst the membership at large.

  • Laurence Cox 3rd Aug '20 - 6:56pm


    I was just making the point that you cannot arbitrarily change one aspect of elections under the Federal Party consitution without affecting other parts of the constitution, in this case the diversity provisions. Are you saying that you don’t think diversity matters?

    The turnout at Federal elections is an issue that is already being addressed by a working group under the leadership of Duncan Brack (and was advertised on here some months ago).

  • Thank you everyone who has posted a comment, especially the supportive ones from Richard Underhill, David Warren and Andy Hinton.


    I accept that “most of the members probably knew little or nothing about any of them other than what they put in their manifestos”. I hope we can get the minutes of all committee meetings published on the members’ only website like Council minutes. Including the count of votes and where requested how each member of the committee voted. Once these are done the directly elected members will be more accountable.

    We can’t put the clock back and restrict the electorate for directly elected members as it was in the past. I suppose it would be possible to scrap the English representative and the directly elected members and elect one each from the eleven regions that the party has. And this would reduce the membership of the Federal Board by a further two. However, with three State Parties some will object to Scotland and Wales having one representative each, while England has eleven. Laurence Cox also makes a valid point about the 10% rule.

    Keith Legg,

    Under my proposals the State Parties still have equal representation. The one representative elected by the State Party for the specified role of being a member of the Federal Board should be able to give a State view if one is required.

  • Nonconformistradical 3rd Aug '20 - 7:30pm

    @Laurence Cox
    “Are you saying that you don’t think diversity matters?”

    Did I say that? No I did not. I merely introduced another aspect to the issue of fair representation of the membership. If, for example, one or more of the English regions were to end up with no elected federal board members while another region had several elected members that is not fair. It’s just one more issue to put into the melting pot.

  • Gordon Lishman 4th Aug '20 - 12:10pm

    I don’t object to much of Michael’s post, although there needs to be more thought given to Keith Legg’s point if we move, as we ought, from 3 State Parties to a proper UK federal structure.

    My main, concern, however, is the underlying assumption, common to many liberals when we talk about governance, whether our own or the country’s, that good governance is primarily about the details of structure.

    That’s simply not true – it’s also the fallacy which has undermined the effective operation of the NHS for decades.

    Good governance is about relationships, accountability, everyday operating systems and organisational culture. If you get those right, almost any structure can be made to work. That’s why it’s a mistake to put all the emphasis on structure – particularly when every successive change undermines the other aspects of effective governance and management.

    As we have learned from the last few years, adding layers of structure undermines clarity and accountability – even though the intention is the exact opposite.

    As we have seen in a number of General Election campaigns, an effective recipe for disaster is to fail to address culture and working practice, regard working relationships as irrelevant and discard any sense of coherent planning or accountability.
    Moving around the constitutional, structural deckchairs doesn’t have much effect when the iceberg is heading for you!

    Charles Kennedy (as Leader but less as President), Paddy Ashdown (in his early years as Leader) and Jo Grimond (in a very different context) understood these realities and worked with the Party rather than ignoring, instructing or undermining it. A Leader is not a concept that arises in most other settings, public, private or voluntary; all the more reason to look at it carefully and integrate into effective governance. And, frankly, to insist on it whether the current inhabitant of that role wants it or not!

  • richard underhill 4th Aug '20 - 1:44pm

    Gordon Lishman 4th Aug ’20 – 12:10pm
    … … “there needs to be more thought given if we move, as we ought, …. … from 3 State Parties to a proper UK federal structure.”
    Is this policy a vote-winner?
    Do we have members and/or activists who disagree?

  • Most of the reduction should come from those posts on one committee that are filled by nominees from another committee. The purpose of these is simply to limit the membership’s ability to change the direction of the party via its elected representatives and thereby to make challenge to the status quo more difficult. As we saw with our General Election campaign, such an approach is disfunctional.

    The discriminatory election rules that allow the election results from the membership to be overridden by a set of purely arbitrary rules should simply be abolished as illiberal and unnecessary, which would make it much easier to push through reforms of the sort proposed in this article.

  • From the Thornhill Review: “Establishing a consistent view on who was ‘in charge’ how committees related to the senior roles of the party, and how governance worked proved effectively impossible.”

    Quite so!

    So, what, exactly, is the role of the FB? Article 9.1 of the constitution says, “There shall be a Federal Board (FB), which shall be responsible for directing, coordinating and overseeing the implementation of the Party’s strategy and the work of the Federal Party.”

    But how should that be interpreted? For instance, ‘strategy’ could potentially be interpreted as either political strategy or administrative strategy – which are very different things.

    Surely the political lead and strategy should be for conference and the elected politicians. The FB’s role is then to provide efficient management of the party’s affairs – finance, resources, personnel etc. Those are all administrative matters, the provision of which should be a service to the wider party to enable it to do its core political job efficiently. To do that it requires good awareness of the situation in every part of the party – the Parliamentary party, State parties, councils, SAOs etc. That, in turn, implies a membership with deep experience of what is needed at the various coal faces including, crucially, a high-level appreciation of the wider political context – in short, ‘greyhairs’.

    Then, if representatives of some parts of the party aren’t happy with the FB’s performance, it is up to their representatives to kick up a fuss until things are sorted.

    But what is the point of directly elected members on the FB? I really don’t see any. The Party’s sovereign body is conference and having other bodies with some, if limited, democratic mandate cuts across that especially when the turnout is so derisory and those elected are almost all from London. That’s democratic in name only. I suspect they are there only because Lib Dems tend to the default assumption that ‘more elections => more democracy => better’ which simply isn’t correct.

  • Katharine Pindar 4th Aug '20 - 4:37pm

    @ Gordon Lishman. I don’t think this article is fundamentally at all about aiming to achieve good governance by structural reform. It is about allowing ordinary members to directly elect most of the members of the Federal Board, when it is reduced to a manageable size. The unwieldiness of the current system allows too many people to have an undue share of power. Small sub-groups then break away in a genuine effort to get things done but with no regard for the democratic rights of members. We have seen how disastrous that was, when the cabal around our last leader ignored proper consultations and made bad decisions. We need more openness and accountability to the members at the heart of our government structures, and less self-serving privilege.

  • Katharine Pindar 4th Aug '20 - 8:50pm

    Gordon, I used to believe in the supremacy of Conference, but not any more since it was managed and misled at Bournemouth. No, give me a mostly-elected slimmed-down Federal Board to balance it, working with the Leader and spokespeople on political strategy in between the conferences, and by the way I hope I shall see Michael himself elected to FB when next there are elections. Meantime, I suppose we have to find out how to move Constitutional amendments at York next spring. to effect these reforms.

  • Laurence Cox,

    In the Duncan Brack LDV article, Duncan sets out the terms of reference:

    • “Seek views on the conduct of the autumn 2019 committee elections.
    • Consider whether the election regulations and party HQ’s operating procedures require any updates in the light of evolving party practices or greater use of electronic technology.
    • Look at how similar internal elections are run in other comparable organisations such as trades unions, charities or NGOs, and whether there any aspects we should learn from”.

    These do not seem to cover turnout in any way. With regard to turnout Duncan posted in the comments,

    “About 9 per cent for the Federal Board, about 6-7 per cent for the others. A little bit lower than three years ago, if I remember correctly, but membership is significantly higher now”.

    Gordon Lishman,

    We do not have more than three state parties and if we did of course then my suggestions might need amending (they might need amending anyway). I hope a majority of party members would support in broad outline my suggestions rather than the creation of a Steering Committee with few of the 15 members of the Federal Board, who are elected every three years by the whole membership, on it.

    I agree accountability is important, that if why my suggestions I believe increase accountability which could be increased further with more openness of what happens at committee meetings. The Thornhill review says the Federal Board is too large. I also wonder if having such a large Federal Board adversely affects relationships, accountability, everyday operating systems and organisational culture.


    Please let me know how the Federal Conference effectively holds any committee or committee member accountable?

    I believe accountability is related to the ability to overturn a decision and/or remove those who one feels made a bad decision. The Federal Conference can’t do either.

  • @ Katharine– I agree that there is a lot wrong with conference – a subset IMO of wider problems with how the party works and the foundational assumptions behind that. But, in the meantime, and until the constitution is changed, the party’s sovereign body is conference like it or not. It’s hard to see how it could usefully intervene, so we do need a better solution.

    While I see the FB as having a very necessary role in the ‘administrative management’ of the party, we know (see Michael’s link to Duncan Brack LDV article) that the FB isn’t doing that well. We also know from an earlier article by Duncan that turnout in internal committee elections “is never likely to be more than about 5-10%” and “The vast majority of party members will have no idea who any of the candidates are or what the committees they are standing for do.” Also Caron Lindsay wrote in November 2019 that: “Federal Board is incredibly London-centric. Eight of its fifteen [elected] members actually come from London and only April and I could be described as beyond the Home Counties.”

    So, the FB has no meaningful democratic legitimacy in either turnout or geographical terms. Also, I suspect that any solution that ‘balances’ different power centres is likely to end in an energy-sapping and destructive power struggle and yet more confusion about who was or wasn’t responsible for what.

    For an alternative, suppose the directly elected members were dispensed with entirely and all members were either ex-officio (e.g. by virtue of being chair of ALDC/chair of a state party/certain key party office holders and so on) or, in a few cases, nominees (e.g. standing in for the party leader who shouldn’t be bogged down in party management unless unavoidable). That clears the path to a much smaller (and therefore more effective) committee composed of people with a strong and direct interest in making it work, with solid experience of relevant areas (e.g. councils – ALDE, regions/states – the state party heads, etc.).

    And I rather suspect that those who elected state chairs etc. would soon kick up a fuss if the FB on which they served didn’t deliver.

  • @ Michael BG – My earlier comment was not to suggest that conference should somehow hold FB to account but only that to try and set up a dual democratic oversight could easily go wrong.

    On a more philosophical note, I suspect the party’s management issues track back to the merger when two very different organisations had to be put together in politically charged circumstances and against the clock. Also, there seems to have been the assumption that an approximation to direct democracy where everyone is involved in every vote as in ancient Athens was the way to go.

    That may work for a very small party of those whose hobby is politics, but direct democracy and the a proliferation of elected committees doesn’t scale up, is slow, ponderous and error prone because of the necessary interfaces between all those involved.

    We live in a representative democracy because that DOES scale up. It means members/voters give someone a great deal of power to represent their interests without being too prescriptive about exactly how they deliver – which is just as well because, as Bismark said, “Law and sausages are two things you should not see being made”. The counterpart is that when a politician gets it wrong he/she is fired.

    Conversely, in the LD’s semi direct democracy system, our politicians don’t officially make policy (although they have a big influence) but, equally, they don’t easily get fired when they screw up because it wasn’t their fault – or so the party culture and formal structures assume.

    In normal times it means lowest common denominator policies that nearly everyone agrees with – think Guardian Op-eds of 15 years earlier. So, originality is difficult and the many diverse strands of opinion to build the ‘big tent’ coalition within a single party forced by FPTP cannot be accommodated. Hence the LDs are stuck as a small and narrow party.

    In power, it meant Clegg could go way off-piste, yet the culture and organisation couldn’t/didn’t do much about it with calamitous results.

    Contrast that with the Tory approach. They are organised as a representative democracy, able to handle the wide and enduring coalition of factions necessary under FPTP yet pivot fast to a new position when necessary. So, should we steal their clothes?

  • Gordon,

    The members of our committees who are now elected by all members were in the recent past elected by conference representatives. The changes were made in September 2015. So our direct democracy for some committee members does not go back to merger as you suggest.

    I am not sure if you are a party member, but if you are, it seems strange that you think we should adopt the Conservative way of doing things. I agree that the party’s culture and constitution allowed Nick Clegg to go off-piste” (as you say). Therefore the answer is not to adopt the Conservative constitution but to change our constitution to make the elected officers and committees more accountable. To abolish the directly elected members of Federal Board does not do this. However, if you are a party member you could write a constitutional amendment to implement your suggestions and try to get nine other members to support it and then argue at a Federal Conference for them to be adopted.

  • Katharine Pindar 6th Aug '20 - 12:44am

    Gordon, if you want a smaller committee of people ‘with a strong and direct interest in making it work’, I suppose that’s what the new steering committee might provide. When I looked through the names and credentials of the people to be on it I thought it seemed a pretty impressive collection of hard-working activists. However, I don’t think it should be there – I still want a smaller Federal Board of mostly directly elected members.

    Presumably the voting turnout would increase if there were considerably fewer places to fill, concentrating minds, but in any case the turnout of less than ten per cent doesn’t bother me. Twas ever thus, I think – the people determined to have their say in any election for a political committee will tend to be a small percentage, if it is a working committee and nothing much hangs on the outcome, but the fact that they bother and others let them seems to me to legitimise their being elected.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 6th Aug '20 - 1:13am

    Michael I think a lot of the ideas on this are good, yours here too.

    We v must not forget the disability representation. Its usually forgotten!

    We should reduce the whole thing more, in total numbers of the reps. Why not be radical and go for it, a board of say, twenty!

  • Lorenzo Cherin 6th Aug '20 - 1:15am

    And reps of key groups, but all elected!

  • Nonconformistradical 6th Aug '20 - 7:16am

    @Katharine Pindar
    “Presumably the voting turnout would increase if there were considerably fewer places to fill, concentrating minds”
    Why? The issue is the sheer number of candidates’manifestos to wade through. I cannot see why members should find it easier to wade through 35 manifestos for candidates fighting over 12 places or whatever than if the same number of candidates are fighting over 20 places or whatever.

    “but in any case the turnout of less than ten per cent doesn’t bother me.”
    It bothers me considerably. A 10% turnout in a local authority election would be regarded as derisory.

  • @ Michael BG – FWIW I have been a party member for over 35 years.

    Why should it be strange to look at how the Tories organise themselves and learn from that? They are easily the most successful party of the last 100 years so they must be well organised at the very least. Regrettably, you can’t say that about the Lib Dems – see Thornhill.

    The way to coordinate better is surely to have people with senior-level experience of the key functions, of the regions, of campaigning etc. coming together to sort out the best solutions and coordinate plans. As it happens, the structure and composition of the Conservative board implies that (I have no direct experience!) that is exactly how they do things.

    I really fail to see how having an essentially random group, overwhelmingly from London, no doubt well-intentioned and hardworking, but whose main skill might very possibly be as self-publicists, could contribute much. What would they know of the Celtic fringe (now lost), or of the mood in the East Midlands or running a campaign except by happenstance?

    @ Katharine – I’m not clear what distinctive skills or insights you expect directly elected members would bring to the FB. Be that as it may, I agree with Nonconformistradical that the turnout DOES matter. The first elections for Police & Crime Commissioners had (IIRC) turnouts of circa 17% in some areas and were widely derided including by senior Lib Dems.

  • Lozenzo Cherin,

    As Laurence Cox pointed out our constitution does reserve one elected place of the directly elected members if that number is over 10 and below 20. I decide an odd number of voting members was better hence my 21 voting members.


    We should be have a governance model based on bottom-up not top-down which I would expect the Conservatives to have. Our governance model should be based on liberal principles in the same way that we want the UK’s governance to be based on liberal principles.

    I couldn’t find a copy of the Conservative Party’s constitution on their website. I found a 2004 constitution on the website, which states than four or maybe five were elected by the National Conservative Convention to the Federal Board but this doesn’t seem to be the current version. On their website it seems that five are elected by the National Conservative Convention and four by the MPs of the 1922 Committee. If the party leader is a member of their Federal Board then their Federal Board has 20 members.

  • @ Michael BG – I didn’t find the Conservative constitution on their website either, but I did find a fairly up to date version on Conservative Home via the link provided.

    As you say, several members of the board are elected by the ‘National Conservative Convention’ which has a Wikipedia entry. It comprises the most senior volunteers, overwhelmingly constituency chairs plus some regional workers.

    It seems to me that a body like the NCC (which could easily be expanded to include SAO representatives) would make for an expert electorate that would in most cases know the candidates well – at least by reputation.

    Experienced and successful councillors/campaigners have often complained on LDV that their advice is never sought so that campaigns are run by inexperienced people who have somehow won the right ear. No wonder we experience disasters like the last GE. We really must tap into the experience of proven campaigners and this could be a way to do that.

    On a related point, I very much doubt that such an electorate would vote overwhelmingly for London-based candidates.

  • Gordon,

    Thank you for finding a more up-to-date version of the Conservative Party Constitution, but we don’t know if any changes were made after that 2017 National Conservative Convention Meeting. Also I note that the members do not have a vote on changing their constitution (part XIII, section 90, page 43). You like the idea that people elected to be constituency ‘chairmen’ should also have a role on their National Conservative Convention, and it is this body which elects some of their Federal Board, while I prefer our members to elect people specially to be on our Federal Board. I believe my preference is the liberal way because it trusts ordinary members in the same way that liberalism trusts ordinary voters.

    I think we need more information about our membership before we say having a majority of our directly elected members of the Federal Board from London and areas close to London is problematic. I think London has the largest membership, followed by the South East region. I expect the Eastern and South Central regions are likely be in the next top three. So there could be a relationship between the number from each region and the number of members in each region. If my suggestions became a constitutional amendment I would expect an amendment along the lines suggested by Nonconformistradical.

  • Nonconformistradical 8th Aug '20 - 4:47pm

    @ Michael BG
    Re your posting 8th Aug ’20 – 2:48am

    My main concern is actually about the risk of regions which might have been fairly successful in the past but much less successful more recently being ignored by the powers that be in the party due to lack of local representation on the Federal Board. That seems a recipe for creating ever deeper black holes with fewer and fewer opportunities for LibDem regrowth in such areas.

    Objective – to ensure that every region in England and Wales and Scotland should have a representative on the Federal Board who understands their area’s campaigning and organisation needs and capabilities.

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