The Election Review: Hardly News!

I welcome the Election Review and most of its analysis and recommendations. That’s not surprising: I decided last year that I could no longer stand the frustration of being involved with the Party’s governance bodies and stood down (after, believe or not, 50 years of pretty constant engagement).

My main concern about the Review is that it sees governance in terms of formal structures. That’s a mistake – most organisations function reasonably with almost any structure as long as they get right the other elements of governance. Just look at the NHS! That’s why, writing 9 months ago in Liberator, I said:

The Party needs urgently to address the ways in which its leadership, governance and management work. That includes changing relationships, processes, accountability and communication, shared leadership responsibilities and structures to make it fit for its twenty-first century purpose and opportunities.

I revised that article with more detail and shared it via a widely-disregarded email to Leadership and Presidential candidates and Chief Executives.

There should be a troika at the top of the Party structure consisting of the Leader, President and Chief Executive sharing a clear idea of direction and how jointly to lead and manage all the resources of the Federal Party. That model has worked well whether New Labour’s three-person leadership to 1997 or indeed the Liberal Party of 1905. It can work without a strong President, but not without the Leader’s strong engagement. The members don’t have to like each other (although that helps), but they need to share mutual trust and confidence and understand each others’ roles and abilities. Above all, they need to talk frequently together about where the Party is going and how to maintain coherent, targeted messages, direction and strategic vision.

There are also underlying questions about how strategy is made and delivered. Why doesn’t it strike anyone as odd that the Party’s formally agreed “strategy” was never mentioned in the Federal Board or elsewhere, much less deliberately changed, through all the period and with all the changes of direction recounted by the Review?

A couple of years ago, a few of us with long experience of the Party prepared a constitutional amendment to split the role of President – in the event, it never made it to Conference. Our initiative came because it’s an impossible job for one person and 33 years of experience have demonstrated that no one person can fulfil all the demands and expectations. Two jobs would offer more chance of getting it right: probably a public figure and a Chair of the Board/Party manager.

I hope that would-be Party Leaders are challenged on these matters and made to commit themselves clearly to effective partnerships with the Federal and State Parties to avoid these problems happening again. Last time, when I asked the question (via the SLF questionnaire to candidates), the response was a firm commitment to keep heads below parapets, powder dry and options open. Next time, we’ll demand better.

* Gordon Lishman is over 70 and has campaigned for older people and on issues concerned with ageing societies for about 50 years.  Nowadays, he does it with more feeling!

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  • Jane Ann Liston 20th May '20 - 12:46pm

    Er – isn’t a troika a kind of sledge?

  • Matthew Green 20th May '20 - 12:57pm

    Funnily enough when hearing Dorothy Thornhill explaining the report she that the big problem was culture rather than structures, just as you are saying. I would go as far as to say that if the party launches hurriedly into a restructure it has missed the point. Let’s hope this time it is different.

  • Laurence Cox 20th May '20 - 4:41pm

    I’ve no doubt that if you had a troika with people who had the characteristics of saints, you could make any system work, but as Kant said “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” This is why structures are still important and we cannot simply assume that putting three people at the top of the party, any three mutually trusting people, is guaranteed to work. Indeed, the lack of structure implied leaves us open to groupthink amongst the three chosen ones. Your Liberator article (Issue 397) in fact calls for the role of the Party President to be split into two: one to be the public face of the Party (surely duplicating the Leader) and one to chair FB. So we have not a troika but a quadriga.

  • Andrew Tampion 20th May '20 - 4:42pm

    This all seems reasonable but I don’t understand about splitting the Presidents role. Isn’t the Party Leader supposed to be the public face of the Party and the Chief Executive the Party Manager? The President should represent the rank and file members in the same way a Chairman of the Board should represent the stakeholders in a company.

  • Gordon Lishman 21st May '20 - 8:42am

    Laurence: I am not advocating “a lack of structure” although I do think we need less of it. I am saying that we also need an emphasis on the other aspects of good governance.
    I do not propose that a public facing President should command resources and therefore be a member of the core leadership Group.
    Andrew: models drawn from other areas – public, private, voluntary – can’t simply be applied n politics. The Leader’s role is not simply that or a Chair overseeing a chief executive who is in Effective charge.

  • Peter Hirst 21st May '20 - 1:13pm

    A stronger public face for the CE is sound though we also need The Treasurer to have significant input – is 4 a crowd? Mark has helped some of us know more about what is going on. We need a replacement for Ad Lib in electronic form that goes to all members and supporters regularly. You cannot expect help if you are not candid about what is going on.

  • Gordon Lishman 21st May '20 - 3:36pm

    Thanks, Peter.
    In my Liberator piece, I argued for a core group of people in the Party to co-ordinate and manage its direction. The Finance Chair (Registered Treasurer for Electoral Commission purposes) would be a key member of that group. It is comparable to the early Ashdown “Board” which had that role. It was not a formal body with direct power; its members had to take their organisations and parts of the Party with them and remained accountable to them (in my case, ALDC).
    The troika I propose isn’t a formal or structural unit. It is a relationship between people who have enough mutual trust and respect to share thoughts and offer joined-up leadership to the whole party.
    That relationship fails if the President sees that role as a stepping-stone to becoming Leader or if he or she isn’t seen as sufficiently strong or authoritative (I recently came across a confidential letter from Paddy about his view of that problem). It fails if the Leader believes he or she is in charge, particularly during a demanding election campaign, or doesn’t understand or have an interest in how the Party works. It is diminished if the Chief Executive is seen as a second-tier manager, only there to tell Federal Party staff what to do.
    I have seen all those problems in our Party in the past. I want to see an emphasis on making relationships and processes work with a simple, accountable structure.
    I am not optimistic.

  • “There should be a troika at the top of the Party structure consisting of the Leader, President and Chief Executive sharing a clear idea of direction and how jointly to lead and manage…”

    I’m with Lawrence Cox here: this implies saints, but they are rare; finding one would be astonishing, finding two let alone three isn’t going to happen.

    Moreover, the downside is epic. Those who go into front-line politics are rarely shy, retiring types (!) so what happens if two (or three) co-leaders with big egos don’t get on? Those of us who were around at the time of the SDP-Liberal Alliance will never forget the horrendous shambles it turned into when David Owen became SDP leader. He and David Steel differed in just about every possible way and it showed.

    Worse still, neither could defeat the other to unite the party (or most of it) as they each stood at the head of a separate party and power structure. The result was prolonged civil war at the top.

    Those who are neither saints nor particularly ill-suited would rub along well enough and compromise as necessary but, even if they were all saints AND had great personal chemistry AND were strategic geniuses, there would necessarily be compromises, compounded by misunderstandings since operating at the edge of the known and familiar means fumbling towards new ideas that are felt long before they can be adequately articulated.

    This implies that a single leader should have sole responsibility for the political direction of the party but – and this is crucial – only while they retain the trust of key groups – members like MPs. So, with great power must go great insecurity; leaders can and should be deposed the moment they lose the confidence of either MPs or members. The bird who wants to sing from the top of the tree must accept it is also the most exposed position so it may be blown off. That is representative democracy.

    LDs complicate things by using a half-baked form of direct democracy that elects as many people to as many committees as possible. That leads to multiple power centres – and even with the best will in the world each creates a faint echo of the Steel/Own conflict of the Alliance era.

  • It pains me to say so, but the Tories have got party organisation right; it’s a major reason they have dominated the last 100 years.

    It is also why they ran rigs around the hapless LDs in Coalition. The excuse of disparity of numbers doesn’t wash – the smaller ERG wagged the dog when it was blue on blue. As the marginal votes, Coalition LDs should have done the same but the then leader could ignore the mood of the party knowing there was neither the institutional framework nor the cultural inclination, to control him.

    The contrast reminds of the tongue-in-cheek history of England, ‘1066 and al that’ which summarised the two sides in the English Civil War, the Cavaliers and Roundheads respectively, as; “wrong but wromantic; right but repulsive”

    The Conservatives Party Constitution sets out responsibilities with admirable clarity, for instance:
    ‘The Leader shall determine the political direction of the party having regard to the views of Party Members and the Conservative Policy Forum’. [Bold added]

    That’s it! Short and sweet and, as we know, the ‘having regard…’ bit really matters. Most Tory leaders eventually fall either because they can’t take the members with them or (effectively the same thing) the members lose confidence in them.

    The Constitution specifies the Board’s role:
    ’[The Board] shall be the supreme decision-making body in matters of party organisation and management. [Bold added]
    Again, all admirably clear. There are up to 20 plus secretary comprised as follows:
    • Chairman – appointed by the Leader (who may attend)
    • 2x Deputy Chairs – 1 Chair of Conservative Convention (Constituency party chairs & others), 1 appointed by Leader
    • 4x members elected by the Conservative Convention
    • Chair of the 1922 Committee (backbenchers)
    • Chair of Tory Peers
    • Deputy Chair of Scottish Tories
    • Chair of Welsh Tories
    • Chair of Tory Councillors Assoc.
    • Party Treasurer
    • Up to 1 nominated by the Leader subject to endorsement by the Board
    • 1 senior member of staff nominated by the Chair
    • 1 more, appointed subject to Leader’s approval
    • 3x MPs
    I read that as bringing together the key groups/perspectives needed to a) keep in touch with members & MPs, and b) run the party effectively.

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