Reporting back from the English Council

The English Council, the governing body of the Liberal Democrats in England, meets twice a year to consider matters of importance to the English Party. The first of its meetings for 2012 took place at University College London last Saturday.

The meeting was brisk and business like — it ran a little over time but not unreasonably so — and had something of a studious atmosphere. This might have had something to do with the impressive environment of the Gustave Tuck Lecture Theatre. Then again it could have been the presence of one of England’s greatest philosophers in the hall where the representatives ate their lunch (see right).

The first items of business was to take reports from the officers of the English Party; Chair, Vice Chair, Treasurer and from the Candidates Committee. Unfortunately, the proposed open Q&A with the English Party Officers and representatives on other committees was taken off the agenda because nobody had submitted any questions by the deadline.

This was then followed by an emergency motion, submitted by three members from the South Central region, expressing concerns about the Party’s progress in training new returning officers to operate the candidate selection process. I thought the discussion on this motion neatly demonstrated the tension that exists between the self-evident need for candidate selection to be professional, comply with the law, protect the party, and result in good candidates; and the dependence of the Party in achieving this, almost wholly, on volunteers. The English Council Executive seemed to take the criticisms expressed squarely on the chin and the motion was approved.

Then Simon Hughes MP arrived, on time, to give the keynote speech. This was a good, and typically wide-ranging, restatement of the reasons why entering the coalition, despite the difficulties, was the right thing to do; and a look at the future challenges the Party faces. While a few of the things he said were for Party members ears only, the gist was very similar to what he had said in his recent interview in The House magazine.

The reorganisation of Local Party boundaries

After lunch we got on to the main item of business — passing an amendment to the Constitution of the Liberal Democrats in England that helps to prepare the way for a potential major reorganisation of the structure of local parties. I have written about the background to this in a previous post.

Sefton councillor Nigel Ashton, who had headed up the working group that looked at this, reported back on the results of a consultation on the changes. There had been 118 responses from a mix of local parties, individuals and the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors. The overwhelming response was that there should be a greater choice in deciding the area that a local party covers and that they should no longer be restricted to being based purely on parliamentary constituency boundaries.

  • Roughly 20% had wanted the status quo
  • Another 20% wanted to base local parties on local government boundaries only
  • And 60% went for the hybrid option that was the approach of the constitutional amendment

In the discussion that followed it was clear that members generally accepted the principles of the change but had a number of concerns over the implementation. The new rules will cause a few headaches for regional party officers as the regions will be the key decision making bodies under the new arrangements. It was stressed that the objective of these changes is to improve campaigning on the ground and that special care will be taken when looking at held or target seats. There will not be change for changes sake.

The constitutional amendment (and the changes to the ‘model constitution for local parties’ that follow on from it) was passed with only a few people present dissenting.

The utility of the English party

The final items of business was a presentation from Hilary Stephenson, the Party’s Director of Elections & Skills, and Gerald Vernon-Jackson, the Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group on the Local Government Association, on forthcoming elections; a presentation on the Government’s policy agenda from Neil Sherlock, Director of Government Relations in the Deputy Prime Minister’s Office; and the reports from the English Council’s representatives on Federal Party Committees.

Did this meeting help me to get nearer an answer to my question: What does the English Council do?.

Well it seems that key to the role of the English Party is its relationship with the various regional parties. The English Council is the place where issues common to the regions are discussed and decided upon. If the English Council were to be abolished then the regional parties would need to take up most of the work that it currently does. The issue then becomes whether all regional parties are in a position to do that.

So maybe the answer to my question is that the role of the English Council is to achieve the greatest happiness of the greatest number of regional party chairs.

* Andy Strange is a member of the Lib Dems' English Council. He blogs at Strange Thoughts.

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  • – but you don’t answer the question ‘does English Council need to exist?’ or ‘could we save time and effort, and be a more effective organisation if our Regions took on the role of English Council, removing a tier of administration?’. Given, as you say, that we rely heavily on volunteers for the party organisation, would it not make sense to to ease the burden of the few and devolve powers to the regions?

  • Andy Strange 2nd Jul '12 - 9:19pm

    Peter, no I don’t answer that question! My objective here is more to raise awareness and to help more members get a feel for the work of the English Party.

    I know there is a view amongst some that we should look at abolishing the English Council and I can understand the rationale for that. I am have my own views, although they are still developing, but the key point I am making in my conclusion is that without the EC “the burden” would be passed to our regional structures. Those who argue for abolition need to be confident that English regional parties are able to take this on, and crucially, have mechanisms in place to coordinate with each other.

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