The 12 Op-Eds of Xmas (Day 5)

Throughout the festive season, LDV is offering our readers a load of repeats another chance to read the 12 most popular opinion articles which have appeared on the blog since 1st January, 2008. Fifth in the series is this posting by Christopher Bones, which appeared on LDV on 12th February…

Chris Bones writes… The Party Reform Commission – taking the Lib Dems forward

At the beginning of the year Nick Clegg as Leader, Simon Hughes as Party President, and Chris Rennard as Chief Executive asked me and my colleagues, Cllr Duncan Greenland, Kate Parminter and Paul Burstow MP, to produce a report into how the Liberal Democrats’ internal organisation could be built upon to double our number of MPs over the next two general elections. I was delighted to have this opportunity to serve the party, which I have supported for nearly 30 years, in this way. The process has been hard work, frustrating at times, surprising – but in the end rewarding.

All conference delegates should have received the executive summary of our work. An electronic version of both the executive summary and the full report, which runs to over 90 pages, will be available later today for party members in the members-only section of Liberal Democrat Voice. There will be an email from the Party President going out to all members later this week drawing their attention to our work as well as a number of articles in this week’s Lib Dem News.

I know that many Liberal Democrat bloggers, including Stephen Tall here on Lib Dem Voice, have expressed some concerns about how the distribution of the report has been handled. I understand and to some extent share those concerns. Communication in these circumstances is a problem straight out of the management textbooks, and unlike the answers in the textbooks I have to take issue with those of you out there who believe there is one right way of doing things.

Whilst the way we organise decision making and at times shroud it in unnecessary mystery is an area we take on in our report and address through some very direct proposals for streamlining and opening up party structures and processes, there was a very real dilemma in the way we rolled out the full report. The problem with resolving a dilemma is that, whatever you do, some people are not going to be happy and I take accountability for the decisions made on communication given the structures and processes we employ today.

Under our current setup we felt it would be wrong for affected party bodies and committees, and indeed potentially affected individuals, to read about our proposals for their futures at the same time as the mass of the party membership. Had we done this we would have faced equally powerful criticism from those who believe that the democratically elected bodies that run the party should be communicated to and consulted with first.

We as a Commission tried to ensure that we spoke to those who would be most affected by our proposals first, and explain our thinking to them and engage in dialogue with them – a process which is currently ongoing with, amongst others, the Federal Executive and the English Council Executive. Additionally we have had to present to the Federal Conference Committee, to the parliamentary parties in Westminster, and (rightly) to staff, many of whose roles are affected by the review. We have still to hold reviews with the party in Scotland and Wales, and no doubt there will be others along the way who want their say.

In addition we have the environmental dilemma of printing off a 90-plus page full report for every conference delegate or, as we eventually decided, to agree a shorter executive summary and issue the full report online, drawing as much attention to it as possible through channels such as LDV, Lib Dem News and others.

Finally, there was the issue of timing the release of the full report: August, when everyone is away on holiday, or wait till the first week of September when Lib Dem News re-starts, and we can get as much publicity for it as possible.

This may sound defensive – it isn’t meant to be: it is an explanation of the real dilemmas that face any leadership in how to communicate proposals for change. It is a shame that for a small minority the process of communication has led to entirely inaccurate speculations about motivations, hidden agendas and internal politics.

However, I can appreciate that from the outside the to-ing fro-ing between various opaque party committees and the communication dilemmas on timing may have looked somewhat unaccountable and undemocratic. Whilst the communication issues are real and sensitivities need managing in any organization, the to-ing and fro-ing does need challenging and changed for the better.

I believe that the whole process therefore made it clear that we a need a much more transparent and accountable decision making process for issues such as this report. And that, happily, is precisely what this report is proposing.

In coming to our conclusions we heard from hundreds of party members and local parties, spoke to many leading figures in the party with a diverse range of experience and knowledge and consulted widely with party bodies and committees. We received a great response from the party as a whole, which was characterised by consistency in the issues being raised.

We went to considerable efforts to encourage contributions from across the party. Many individuals and bodies did engage with us, and we have used their ideas and suggestions a great deal in our work. Indeed we engaged in a second round of consultations – directly with local parties – precisely because there was a clear desire amongst many in the party to be part of looking for new ideas to help take us forward.

It is inevitable that when change is proposed it generates criticism: if this report didn’t get criticized then I don’t think we would have done our job properly: it is disappointing that some of this criticism is based on hearsay, assumptions and assertion as to our intentions rather than on the content: on the whole this is not a helpful approach. On the other hand we have had some thoughtful and engaging criticism based on the detail of the report which I believe will add significantly to any final decision.

I hope all interested party members will take the time to read the report, either the summary or, if they are feeling brave as it is fairly lengthy, the full report and then come to their own conclusions and views.

I am sure that we haven’t got it all right; equally I am sure that with further debate and discussion what will emerge as final detailed solutions will be developments from the direction of travel that the report lays out. What I am certain of is that without addressing the issues we raise and without adopting the broad thrust of the changes we are proposing we will not reach anything like our full political potential.

As a former constituency chair, a candidate in local government elections, and a still active member of my local party I would feel let down if those who lead our party, federally and at state and regional levels do not grasp the nettle and lead the changes required: looking at the bulk of the submissions and engaging with a wide range of members I don’t think I am in the minority in hoping that the change agenda is delivered rather than debated at length.

There will of course be a chance to debate the report at conference, an opportunity I am very much looking forward to. However before then for those with questions or comments I’m happy to answer them. LDV has kindly agreed to use the members-only section of this website as a forum for the asking and answering of those questions. If you put your questions in there over the next week or so I will reply to them all – if they get there before conference, they will be replied to before conference.

Our recommendations are aimed at creating the conditions for continued and increasing success at the next general election and beyond. Too often in our party we can agree on a desired outcome, for example success in local elections in key areas, but following through on this is a difficult and tortuous process. Moving resources, both people and money, requires lengthy and passionate debate which often delays or even prevents us doing what is required to win. This inhibits us and must change.

To set our federal budget currently requires nearly 20 meetings of five different committees. We must ask ourselves: is this really the most efficient method of working; is this the method most likely to ensure we are all working towards the same political strategy and allocating our precious resources correctly?

Our recommendations call for significant changes from all sections of the party: its leadership, its professional organisation, states, regions and local parties. These recommendations do not just reflect our values, but also reflect the belief we heard so often when we consulted with the party that we must change the way we do business. Our key proposals include:

• Empowering our leadership to deliver its strategic aims through a new management board responsible for setting and delivering the party’s overall political strategy and budget;
• Ensuring accountability and transparency in decision making by clarifying the role of party committees to ensure that we have real democratic accountability in our party;
• An audit board which will ensure that we hold ourselves to the highest possible standards in public life;
• Broadening the political battlefield by strengthening regions and local parties and developing newly winnable seats;
• Rapid improvement in our use of technology to ensure that we stay at the cutting edges of campaigning;
• A suggestion that those who are elected on the Liberal Democrat ticket should contribute back financially to the party;
• Improving internal communications between the ‘Westminster’ party and the wider party, especially our local government base;
• Changing and improving the way the party interacts with its members and volunteers – so that there are more opportunities for involvement in the party than just delivering leaflets or donating money;
• Taking steps to encourage highly talented candidates, especially those from non-traditional backgrounds, to become PPCs in winnable seats and working to do all we can to get them elected;
• Introducing a Leadership Academy to oversee training and development of parliamentarians, candidates, staff and volunteers.

If we want to take our party forward and deliver on our leader’s aim to double our number of MPs we must up our game. Our work has outlined a path by which we can do this. It is now up to the party as a whole to deliver it.

* Professor Christopher Bones is Dean of Henley Business School at the University of Reading, and chaired the Liberal Democrats’ Party Reform Commission.

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