Further reflections on the English Party

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Recently, as a new member, I became flummoxed when trying to work out what the English Party is, does and who makes up its committees. I wrote up my frustrations here at Lib Dem Voice. Having started with no axe to grind, I have become near axe-wielding now that responses have come in from that article. Members of as long as thirty-five years have admitted not knowing anything about the English Party and others have pointed out how it resists change or even blocks progress. Yet, there is an alternative and one that may help kick-start the reform that our recent Election Review has called for.

My main gripe with the English Party had been that they didn’t appear to have a website (it turns out that they do but it says so little about what the English Party is and does that in Google rankings terms, it’s basically on the ‘dark web.’) And they didn’t have social media or the other indicators of transparency and openness one might expect from a liberal, political institution.

But since then I’ve learned that it’s more broken than just ‘poor comms.’ There was a governance review in 2016-17 with support for change from members, clear proposals for reform that were accepted by the English Party’s enormous committee and then… nothing happened!

The Election Review, that started me on my investigation, is clear that our broken, bureaucratic structures are a longer-lived problem and more damaging than any poor decisions made for GE2019. It is not a leap of imagination to say that the English Party, as an uber-committee that cannot implement reform, is part of that structural problem.

But if it cannot reform itself, what to do?

In my previous article I pointed out that it is possible for regional parties to elevate themselves to the position of ‘State Party’ and thus bypass the English Party altogether (article 4.12 of the English Party constitution.)

In other words, a region like Yorkshire and the Humber with a population and GDP similar to Scotland can decide, “we don’t want our voice diluted and obscured by the English Party any more, we want to be on a level platform with Scotland and Wales.”

I’ve since discovered that the North West region attempted this in 2016, voted in favour of the change at their Spring conference and then didn’t get a ratification hearing at Federal Conference. It seems that resistance to change is a problem at all levels of our party.

I’ve also discovered that there is considerable interest in pursuing this option in my own region of the East of England. In fact, there are now tentative plans in development to try to hold a special conference (virtually) in order to debate and vote on the relevant constitutional changes in the next couple of months.

Will this improve things? It certainly doesn’t seem like it will hurt. But more positively, will a flatter structure with more direct, transparent links between regions and the UK-wide federal body, help our party reform and improve itself? I think so. Could it even help the Federal Party develop a vision and message that appeals not just to the Urban Metropolitans but also rural, seaside and small towns? We must try.

Surely it is more in keeping with our liberal and federal values to get past the outmoded concept of kingdoms and to work on a flattened hierarchy of similar-sized, equal and diverse regions?

It certainly suggests so in our constitution! If we believe in liberalism and federalism, then let’s live our values.

* Dr Rob Davidson is a Lib Dem member, data scientist and digital campaigns expert. He co-founded Scientists for EU, NHS for a People's Vote and was a founding member of the People's Vote campaign. Currently he is in the process of founding Liberationinc.co.uk - an incubator for liberal startups.

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23 Comments

  • Rob, thanks for raising this about the English Party. It’s about the unnecessary time, effort and bureaucracy it imposes on the party and should be abolished quickly. I had not realised it has 150 members; think of the human power it spends that is needed in local campaigning. Several years ago I was on the West Midlands Regional Committee and there were occasions when we were very active and needed to meet to plan these activities, but had problems finding time because a few of the essential members had to attend English Party meetings. That convinced me it was time to abolish it.
    As Michael Meadowcroft stated on LDV, our local organisations viewed across the country is weak and the sooner we cut down on committees the better.
    At a meeting of candidates I attended just after the last GE, one person rightly said, we are organised as if we are a big successful party that can afford lots of committees when we are not.
    I know an active member who joined the party just a few years ago; that person has expressed surprise at the lack of localism within the party when it was assumed that we are a party that believes in localism as well as internationalism. Even after the GE review, we seem to be a party unwilling to change.

  • James Belchamber 26th May '20 - 12:12pm

    Agreed. We need to have some internal activism aimed at abolishing the English Party – it’s an unnecessary and cryptic layer of bureaucracy that smothers efforts to improve the party.

    The suggestion to get regions to declare their independence is probably the best route forward.

  • Rob Davidson 26th May '20 - 12:42pm

    @Nigel – it is not ceasing to amaze me how many people have a grievance against the structure and bureaucracy of the English Party. What is incredible is just how stagnant and bureaucratic this ‘liberal’ party is in practice.
    @James – given that the English Party commissioned a governance review, people spent time coming up with options, the members voted for change, the proposals were agreed by the English Council… and then it collapsed into inertia, it seems that internal activism within the English Party system is a dead end. I strongly believe that having (english) Regional Parties step up to the same level as Scotland and Wales is the only way to effectively cut out the English Party AND to flatten, equalise and diversify our primary party structure.
    For East of England, it only took 10 signatures to request a special (virtual) conference and then you need 2/3rds majority to vote in favour of the motion at that conference. That’s a relatively low bar and could be happening across the country right now if we wanted it to.

  • James Belchamber 26th May '20 - 2:40pm

    @Rob Davidson then let’s do it

  • Simon McGrath 26th May '20 - 3:12pm

    Rob – the governance changes didnt fall into inertia – they were rejected by the English Council as being unworkable

  • Rob Davidson 26th May '20 - 3:56pm

    @Simon – that is not what has been reported here either (https://www.libdemvoice.org/a-way-forward-for-the-english-party-56120.html) or in the comments under my previous article on this subject (https://www.libdemvoice.org/what-is-the-english-party-64600.html – see Sally Symington’s comment, she led the governance review at the time.)
    It seems that the English Council voted in favour of the changes in December 2017, set up a working group to enact them and then… it all fell apart. If that’s not a true account or if there is more to the story then I would sincerely appreciate hearing the full details.

  • Simon McGrath 26th May '20 - 5:24pm

    Rob – happy to have a chat if you want to e mail me – simonmcgrathld at gmail.com

  • Rob

    You make some good points. Actually the English Council Executive recommended the abolition of the English Council not of the whole English Party based on Sally Symington’s report. It also recommended that the ECE should be slimmed down to a coordinating committee of regional chairs and a small number of elected officers. The 12 elected members would have disappeared. This was especially well supported by the regional chairs but directly elected members voted it down at an English Council meeting.
    I think your idea of more “state” parties is a very interesting one to consider – perhaps based on rather larger regions. After all the only reason that I can see for the present regional boundaries is that they coincided with the European Parliament electoral boundaries.
    I hope the review of governance which I understand is to take place following the Thornhill report will look at all these issues with a view to making the whole Party a much more effective campaigning machine.

  • The English Party representative body (English Council – which, by the way, has 150 members elected by the regional parties, as opposed to the English Party which has over 80,000) voted to set up a governance review in 2017, which was led by Sally Symington. Following extensive discussions and consultations (including at Federal Conference fringe meetings) the review group delivered a proposal, which English Council then voted against. As the proposal was not agreed there was nothing to implement.

  • Rob Davidson 26th May '20 - 7:29pm

    @Simon – have emailed, thanks.
    @John and @Margaret – please forgive my loose terminology. The English Executive, English Council and English Party membership are clearly very different blocs of people.
    So – it seems from two comments on this thread that the English Executive asked for a review, the review received some support and then the English Council voted against the changes.
    At the same time – it is clearly reported here, on Lib Dem Voice, at the time that the English Council voted to approve Sally Symington’s group’s proposals in December of 2017. See report: https://www.libdemvoice.org/a-way-forward-for-the-english-party-56120.html
    Perhaps this is not true or perhaps there were subsequent English Council votes on the same proposals. I don’t know. I would love to be pointed to the official record if anyone knows where it might be found.

  • Rob,
    I agree that there is a problem and that “something must be done”. The start is that there is a Federal Party in Great Britain so with parties in Scotland and Wales there must be a structure within England. The problem is that a lot of people feel, based on what happens, that the English Party is subsumed into the Federal Party. They are seen as one and the same thing.
    It is unfair to say that the EP does nothing. For example, the English Candidates Committee is very effective and if the EP was abolished would have to be structured somehow. As a former Regional Candidates Chair in England I can say that it would be impossible for Regions to do this job on their own.
    The reforms put forward in 2017 were rejected because they were seen as completely removing accountability to English members and Regions (yes it could be worse than it is now). One stage managed session at the annual Federal Conference, possibly not even in England, would not cut it.
    I am no longer involved, but was part of the English Council which rejected the changes. One option would be an EP Office, say in Manchester, with its own resources. This would stop the Federal Party behaving in the way it does. My instincts support devolving all the powers to the Regional Parties, but IMO, they don’t all have the capability at the moment.

  • Andy Hinton 26th May '20 - 9:54pm

    My view is that state parties make sense for areas that have elections specific to that nation, hence the Welsh and Scottish parties. There are no equivalent elections in England. I do appreciate that some important organising is done by elements of the English Party, but I’m not clear that there is a compelling reason why these aspects (candidates, etc) *have* to be done at the English level rather than at the Federal or Regional level, both of which levels are much more visible, accountable and accessible to the average member. An outsider looking at the party could be forgiven for thinking that the English party is a layer of organisation retained by The Powers That Be precisely because having a layer of organisation where decisions can be made away from too much daylight is useful to them.

  • Rob Davidson 26th May '20 - 10:45pm

    @Andy- indeed.
    @HughW – I am interested in the view that the English Party must exist to hold back or rein in the Federal Party. I have no idea what grievances people have in this direction but they do seem to pop up. Also, the issue of whether regions could sufficiently cover the role of the English Party. Of course, some regions might not be sufficiently resourced. Would this “market demand” lead to more support from the overall party? It seems to me like there could be an English Cooperative that represented smaller or less resourced regions while other regions stood on their own feet in the federation. A hybrid approach?

  • So from all of this I conclude that nothing fundamentally has changed since Helena Morrissey’s 2013 report and the ‘organogram’ on page 14. [ https://www.libdemvoice.org/helena-morrissey-report-34896.html ]

    There is a lesson to be learnt here – for lessons to be learnt from (public) inquiries there is a need for timely action on the findings…

  • Philip Knowles 27th May '20 - 8:46am

    Review of the structure is long overdue. Members have enough issues understanding the relationship between branches, local Parties, the Regions and the ‘Party’ without the English Party being thrown into the mix.
    There are vaild arguments for Regional Parties for handling local government elections etc but I do not see the need for another layer above that (in England at least – I’m not sure of the structures in the devolved nations).
    Any layer in an organisation should be an ‘enabler’ – either upwards (Regions to co-ordinate activities which are larger than local Parties) or downwards (break unwieldy layers into controllable ones). The English Party, far from being an enabler, appears t be a disabler.
    As a start there needs to be a clear specification what each layer is responsible for that all members are aware of. As Rob Davidson says, you have to be prepared to do some serious digging (and be prepared to decipher a lot of legalese) to find out who does what an why.
    I’ve been a member for over 10 years. It was a couple of years before I found that I was a member of a Branch (I thought the meetings I was going to were the’Party’) and a further couple of years before I found out what the Regional Party really was.
    Most inactive members don’t know the structure and many active members will struggle to explain what the responsibility of each layer is.
    Fewer layers with devolved responsibilities is the way to go but I suspect entrenched power will be reluctant to let go.

  • Ian Sanderson
    “….England is too large, too populous and too diverse to be run as a single unit. ”

    The totally incompetent way that the Government has handled Covid-19 in England compared with the way it has been handled in countries with more devolved administration e.g. Germany, Denmark, Australia gives us a very good opportunity to reopen and argue the case for devolution to regions which is a core Lib Dem belief.

    If we do that, the Party needs to reflect what we think is good for the country in its own structures. The present structures involve a lot of duplication and wasted money and effort. They need the fresh look and thorough review that Dorothy Thornhill has recommended and I hope that will happen.

    Rob Davidson
    In response to your request for a bit more clarity on what the English Council did about the recommendations for change, I can say that the English Council Executive took recommendations for constitutional change to the English Council meeting on 14 July 2018. Prue Bray made a strong case for the changes on behalf of the ECE but they only secured just less than half of the votes and would have required a two thirds majority anyway. The argument hinged around accountability of the English Party if you didn’t have the English Council and a strong contingent of directly elected members on the ECE. Happy to talk about that if you like to email me at [email protected]

    From this I concluded that change was unlikely to happen unless the regions collectively demanded much more power and authority and the budget to go with it. At the moment the Federal Party keeps 55% of membership fees, the English Party gets 44% and passes roughly 14% to the regions. There are then some complicated adjustments. This balance really does need thorough review in the light of Thornhill if we are to become a more effective campaigning machine.

  • Some of this discussion of the English Party shows how stuck in a rut we are. Thus “The reforms put forward in 2017 were rejected they were seen as completely removing accountability to English members and Regions” (HughW). Surely the local, regional and federal committees are enough to represent members; we do not need yet another layer of people. Clearly it was too much to expect people on the English Party committee to vote to get rid of themselves. Let’s hope as John Kelly says, the review of governance will grasp the nettle and get rid of this extra layer. As Philip Knowles points out ordinary members are not aware of all these layers and many would be horrified if they knew more about them. Then as Andy Hinton says, this extra layers is not visible as well as not necessary. Ian Sanderson rightly says there are English issues, but these get dealt with in our Federal Committees and there is no reason why stronger regional committees cannot more effectively input to these. We seem to be suffering from vested interests of people who like being on committees and are stopping swift and effective change.

  • Rob – I agree. Thank you for your work on unearthing this, and to Roland, for showing the organogram. Now I realise I wasn’t totally stupid in trying to understand whilst feeling as if I was wading through the treacle for rays of light. The opportunity for urgent reform is now?

  • Nonconformistradical 27th May '20 - 11:46am

    ” Clearly it was too much to expect people on the English Party committee to vote to get rid of themselves. ”

    Quite! Turkeys voting for Christmas?

    “Let’s hope as John Kelly says, the review of governance will grasp the nettle and get rid of this extra layer.”

    Seconded.

  • Alison Rouse 28th May '20 - 11:40am

    I agree Rob, I found it odd that there wasn’t more of an online, up-to-date presence. I thought I’d comment on the Website. It has only really just been put up. I volunteered to look into it (mainly because comms is my background) and I’ve just updated the content so that there was somewhere to send a person if they wanted to know 1) who was on the ECE and 2) what the committees were on it, because those were the two things I kept getting asked by people at the time.

    Obviously I don’t own the website or the process, but I see it as more of a small start, a platform to build on and a work in progress rather than one completed, so there’s no SEO or anything done on it yet.

  • Alison Rouse 28th May '20 - 11:50am

    Wasn’t there a membership email about subs a while ago? I don’t know who it went to … I thought they were divided differently: 55% Federal 23% State 15% regional 7% local. (But that didn’t factor in things like the SLA payment or the various recharges)?

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