Speaking for England?

The term ‘governance review’ is designed to chill even the most ardent activist. It’s something other than campaigning for election. It seems to have little to do with fighting the Government over tax credits, surveillance or indeed anything else. It’s frankly a bit dull.

But it does matter that we have a Party which works, which costs as little as possible to work and which is accountable to its members.

In 1988 the newly merged ‘Social and Liberal Democrats’ had many more members than we have today. Its institutions were suitable to a wider spread of membership and nodded strongly to the structures in the previous parties which seemed to work for them.

But even in those days there were structures which were more accountable: the key players in the Party in England were the regional chairs (led by the curiously named but nonetheless effective Chair of Chairs). There was a conference for the Party in England where the institutions were held to account. And key decisions were not taken in bodies that no-one had ever heard of.

The current situation is a mess. Most members think they belong to the Federal Party (impossible in fact) and can vote for the committees which look after campaigning (but the Federal Party has no role over candidate approval). They believe that at the next Party Conference in March any member can have a vote – because One Member One Vote arrangements were agreed in September – and so may be baffled to find that local parties in England have been told to elect conference representatives as if nothing has happened.

And English local parties will be horrified to learn that a substantial slug of the membership money on which they had been relying has now been stopped – without consultation.

One of the most useful phrases in life is ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. The structure of the Liberal Democrats (at least in England) is broke.

Some functions performed by the Party in England can be more easily performed by the Federal Party (with Scottish and Welsh opt-outs): membership services, policy over membership rebates, policy in relation to candidate approval (why is there now an exam for those offering to be Police and Crime Commissioner Candidates?) – as well as party disciplinary matters where the whole edifice has failed time and time again.

Much can usefully be performed by the Regions – such as the supervision of candidate selection, localised campaign support.

In the 1990s English Conference was abolished because there were no really English issues in a UK before devolution. The reverse is now true: one thing the Party in England could now do is formulate Liberal democrat policy for England – on schools, devolution, councils, the NHS.
Some say the spring conference could usefully perform this function because, to judge from attendance figures, it is barely a federal conference at all.

If you want to have a say in the governance review, email: [email protected]

* 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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This entry was posted in Party policy and internal matters.


  • Peter Davies 3rd Nov '15 - 11:01am

    We need a federal policy on how we devolve powers (e.g. housing). We need regional policies on how we would use those powers. We really don’t need an English housing policy. Housing issues in the North East are quite similar to those in Scotland. They have almost nothing in common with the housing problems in London. To a lesser extent, most of the powers devolved to Scotland similarly have no single English solution.

  • Good luck!

  • Richard Underhill 3rd Nov '15 - 4:06pm

    All delegares to the first federal conference were provided with copies of the constitution. It provided a role for the Chief Whip on candidate appeals. Since then there have been numerous constitutional amendments, so, hopefully, someone at HQ has an electronic copy of the current constitution. If there is any doubt about that we should write one afresh.
    There was a reasonable expectation of some form of regional government outside London, based on the indirectly elected government bodies which have since been abolished. Maybe we should start afresh.

  • Chris White 4th Nov '15 - 1:07pm

    I can’t see why an exam is reasonable. These are local elections. We don’t make council candidates take an exam.

  • >We don’t make council candidates take an exam.

    Perhaps we should be looking to ask all candidates standing for election to public office to take an exam to indicate that they at least have some basic knowledge relevant to the position being applied for. For PPC’s this could include a section on expenses 🙂

  • Antony Hook Antony Hook 4th Nov '15 - 2:40pm


    “We don’t make council candidates take an exam.”

    No but we do properly test them at an oral interview and PCC candidates will be exposed to far more media interest in their views than a local council candidate.

    I think it is necessary to test whether applicants to be PCC candidates know the basics about policing and are not going to embarrass themselves or the party,

  • SIMON BANKS 4th Nov '15 - 4:28pm

    I absolutely agree that this review is important. The way in which officers can act without accountability and separate bodies largely go their own way reminds me more than anything of the German Imperial government leading up to 1914.

    There are crucial issues covered such as positive action (quotas for executive committees, women-only shortlists), remote voting and the role of the deputy leader if any; and while these cannot be determined without due process at a conference, the response now will set a direction.

    There are 42 questions to be answered, but at least this suggests someone had read Richard Adams.

  • Matt (Bristol) 4th Nov '15 - 4:45pm

    Erm, Douglas Adams….

  • The situation of the English party is anomalous. I was a member in Scotland and attended a Scottish conference. I cannot do that in England, eve if I wanted to. The character of the ‘English party’ is cloudy; it should surely hold sessions in the Federal Conference or have one of its own.

    Paul King.

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