The party President writes…Key party decisions coming up at the Federal Board meetings next week

How do we improve as a party and achieve greater success in future elections? That’s the theme running through the bumper set of key decisions the Federal Board is looking at next week at our meeting. (Or rather meetings, as to avoid Zoom fatigue, we’re splitting one long meeting into halves on consecutive nights.)

Included in that will be the Board’s first considerations of the independent election review, headed up by Dorothy Thornhill and coming out later today. Thank you for all their hard work to her, her colleagues and everyone who contributed evidence to the review.

Even without that review, there are some things we already know we need to change, in particular our use of technology. That’s why the Board will also be looking at major plans to overhaul our approach, learning from the best of those outside politics and from politics overseas. A big part of the plan is much better use of volunteer expertise.

In a similar vein, we’ll also be looking at the hard work done by the Federal Conference Committee and conference staff to scope a potential online conference in the autumn. We’ve already put on pause plans for a traditional physical event in September in the light of coronavirus.

Putting on an online event of the scale and complexity of our conferences – which including not only debates in the hall, but keynote speeches, Q+A sessions, fringe meetings, training and more, will not be easy. But I very much hope we’ll be able to find a way to make an online event work. An event that isn’t a weak substitute for what we would have otherwise done. But an event that shows the way to a bigger, more inclusive and more successful hybrid combined offline and online conferences when conditions permit.

Events and technology are not ends in themselves, of course. So, the Board will also be looking at three other pieces of the puzzle for rebuilding the party.

We’ll be looking at how to kick-off revising our party strategy, drawing on the lessons of the election review and also those of the many colleagues who were so spectacularly successful in the council elections last year. Involving members will be key to making this a real strategy for the whole party.

Which leads to perhaps the most important single act of engagement party members can have: choosing our leader.

There’s a diverse and very strongly held set of views on this. Following my request for feedback from members (thank you for all the messages!), around 45% of members have said they want a leadership election now. Most members, around 55%, therefore have a range of other views – from a little later in the year through to a small number wanting to go for next May.

A bigger determining factor for many of those members is what happens, or what people expect will happen, with the lockdown. The Board, therefore, will have much to consider to get the decision right. These are complex judgement calls, about which many have strong feelings, so I will make sure that members are properly informed of whatever we decide.

Alongside that, we’ll also be having the first outing for our regular quarterly reviews of how the federal party is performing against the targets in our previous strategy. We’re developing a dashboard of key metrics to help understand what is and isn’t working, learning from some of the professional performance tracking rigour common amongst large charities and other campaigning bodies similar to our operation.

Of course, not all proposals that go to the Board go through, so remember this is a run-through of what we’ll be discussing rather than exactly what will happen. Views are of course very welcome on all these points.

This was originally posted on Mark’s blog.

* Mark Pack is Party President and is the editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire.

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17 Comments

  • Katharine Pindar 15th May '20 - 10:48am

    I hope that Federal Board will consider whether a largely traditional Conference can still be held in Brighton towards the end of September, rather than just a virtual one with its enormous complications. By that time it appears that most businesses and social meeting venues may have resumed, albeit with social distancing, and it is ;possible to imagine our Conference without the mass rallies, but with some restriction of numbers physically attending the debates, and popular meetings held in the main hall instead of in smaller rooms. Please consider a hybrid event, as is happening now in the House of Commons, with most members who wish to attending physically as usual.

  • Wouldn’t it be much better to focus NOW on having a Leader.
    Anything else is , what’s the word, froth.

  • Katharine’s suggestion is worth considering. We may also need to keep the number of meetings smaller than normal to allow time for experimenting and having more people involved online. Then we would need to consider priorities for the issues to be discussed, focussing on the opportunities for the nation to rethink its priorities regarding the economy, inequality, public services and local government, as well as trade and international cooperation, i.e. the big issues facing the nation. As I have suggested before, we also need much more joined up thinking so we can work towards a simple national message. I am concerned about us having a strategy without including how we work out its purpose for our national message. To say it is about improvement and winning elections is not enough and we may put the cart before the horse.

  • The numbers attending Conference in recent years have been quite remarkable and the numbers in rooms at some fringe meetings were probably illegal even in “normal” times.
    In spite of this I support Katherine, knowing that her “hybrid” idea would require some intensive organisation on the part of dedicated workers and volunteers. Most people turn up at Conference with suitable devices for a mixture of participatory modes which ought to help.

  • Mark Blackburn 15th May '20 - 12:34pm

    It is delusional to think we could have any sort of physical conference as soon as September. That is only four months away and it is clear that the Government has got no real grip on the virus and there are still so many unknowns. Best to plan for the best possible virtual conference without the distraction of thinking about a physical conference which then ends up being cancelled. Without a new leader and drifting in the doldrums as we are it would also be rather pointless.

  • Phil Beesley 15th May '20 - 2:55pm

    theakes: “Wouldn’t it be much better to focus NOW on having a Leader.”

    If the Lib Dems elected a new leader in the next few months, the reference points of debate would be confined by our current abnormal politics. They are interesting in that we have to discuss utilitarian and liberal values concurrently. However they might be a distraction, longer term, in picking a liberal to lead the party in a more normal environment.

    Good leaders grab hold of interesting policy ideas, throw them in the air and observe how they settle after robust debate. Leadership candidates have ample opportunity in these times to present themselves as philosophers, pragmatists and down to earth folks. And to embarrass themselves.

    Mark Blackburn: “It is delusional to think we could have any sort of physical conference as soon as September.”

    I’m not aware of any single software ‘conference’ product which would allow:
    * viewing and voting by x,000 members at home
    * interaction between moderators and nominated speakers
    * point of order from a member in Middle of Nowhere

    I appreciate that there are many talented people who may have come up with a web-based conference solution. But it will never have gone live with x,000 Lib Dems who have never used the software before.

    A Festival of Liberalism and Democracy rather than a conference?

  • jonathann Hunt 15th May '20 - 5:48pm

    We must make a decision about the autumn conference next week to minimise losses for both party and delegates.

    It seems highly unlikely that the ban on mass gatherings will be lifted by late September. Virtual zoom-like events should be held over the Saturday and Sunday. Participation preference should be given to registered members. First to those still owed fees from York.

    They would have to choose which debates / discussions t/ consultations they wish to attend. That way we can cover a wide field and hopefully show the voting public how radical and imaginative we are.

    When we can all gather together again, a one-day rally be held in either London or Birmingham. It would obviously be addressed by the leader we elect over the summer. It is only fair to Ed, or whoever, to enjoy the authority of being The leader.

    Any party that goes 18 months without a leader will suffer from widespread derision.

  • Meanwhile, the Government has announced one of the most shameful decisions I have heard for many years.

    “The government will not extend funding to help rough sleepers in England stay off the streets amid the coronavirus pandemic, it has confirmed.” BBC News 30 minutes ago.

    I hope Lib Dem M.P.’s will speak up about this loud and clear.

  • Phil Beesley 15th May '20 - 8:50pm

    “The government will not extend funding to help rough sleepers in England stay off the streets amid the coronavirus pandemic, it has confirmed.”

    Millions for mates and nothing for no mates.

  • If we run a real conference, there will be a risk that an attendee or those working there will become infected. If social distancing etc are required , that serves to underline that risk, which could badly effect 100% of a person’s life. I do not think our deliberations will be important enough to justify that.

  • A leader. We need one now. The party has to have a person who is seen now. Any delay may not look like caution, consideration, and careful judgement, but vague indecision.

  • Sue Sutherland 16th May '20 - 4:38pm

    The party’s election review is quite detailed in its recommendations and also raises the question of whether there should be changes in the way the party is structured. In other words, constitutional change. Wouldn’t it be better to have a conference focussed on these issues, a special conference in fact, rather than the usual speeches and discussions of detailed policies?
    Obviously the role of the Leader and how decisions are made should also be discussed, which has made me think it might be better to have no Leader, no one with a defensive attitude, to muddy those discussions.
    The relationship between members and party groups, committees, the Leader and the President need critiquing too, I believe, and maybe the Chief Executive. It would be good to see a virtual conference in which more members can participate, discussing these issues and focussing on how to turn our rather muddled party into a more disciplined fighting machine.
    The muddle also extends to policy making as many of us have suspected, so this aspect of the reason why we are Liberal Democrats should, of course, be up for discussion too. This would be of far more significance to the party rather than a virtual conference in the same tired old format, wouldn’t it?

  • Katharine Pindar 17th May '20 - 9:37am

    I am unconvinced that a physical conference by late September is ‘delusory’, Mark Blackburn. By then it is quite likely that pubs and restaurants and big gatherings of one sort or another will be happening, because everyone will have become used to living with risk mitigated by social distancing. Perhaps musical and theatrical events will be happening, with audiences spread out, and maybe football matches too – half the usual attendance allowed. I suppose we could also reduce the risk, in a conference of our own, by asking those attending to have taken the test to check that they are not carrying the virus.

    I imagine that the Brighton Conference Centre was booked last year. Hotels and guest houses will be looking for business. Organising a hybrid conference should be no more difficult, I would have thought easier in fact, than trying to organise an enormous virtual one – see Phil Beesley’s comment.

    I like Nigel Jones’ suggestions for what the Conference should focus on. Sue, reading the Review made me think that perhaps well-reputed management consultants should be brought in to study and recommend on structural reorganisation for our party, which is failing as a business, rather than our own people trying to do it once again.

  • Richard Underhill 17th May '20 - 12:37pm

    I have voted for this President and would like to vote for the next leader, but we do need an enquiry in why we lost the 2016 referendum, having won in 1975 and been among the winners in 2014.
    At a fringe meeting at federal conference I counted 600 attendees. The number of sceptics was less than one. So, was there a lack of energy? or, prioritisation of other issues?
    If you’re Liberal you’re international. You cannot be one without the other.

  • Phil Beesley 17th May '20 - 1:01pm

    Katharine Pindar: “I am unconvinced that a physical conference by late September is ‘delusory’”

    I think a conference would be regarded as mistaken or misguided. It is arrogant to suggest that x,000 Lib Dems from across the country should congregate in a town for a long weekend.

    Other European countries in more or less the same pickle as the UK are picking their way out of lockdown. UK government is sort of picking a way out. And it appears that UK is not very good at this sort of thing.

    It is about how you handle unknown risk. If you want to climb a mountain, the risk is on yourself. If you climb a public building in the middle of a city, your actions may affect other people.

    Where we are today, there are loads of unknown factors about Covid-19. We do not know enough about Covid-19 to determine how particular actions and behaviour affect other people.

  • Sue Sutherland 17th May '20 - 3:42pm

    Katharine, that may be necessary, but I’m not sure whether there are any who would understand our requirement for member involvement? I’ve worked with some consultants from a well known company when setting up a Housing Association. They understood our requirement for tenants being members of the Board but it was mostly about meeting legal requirements, if I remember correctly.
    Sorry too many requirements in the above but my energy is low today.

  • Katharine Pindar 17th May '20 - 4:37pm

    Sue, thank you for that reply – and I hope your energy will soon pick up, because you are such a valuable contributor to these discussions. I haven’t commented on the thread about the Review, having no managerial experience myself, but I do remember how our excellent Sal Brinton carried through a reorganisation of our central structures which seemed good at the time. The Thornhill Review is such a wake-up call about their actual deficiencies that I feel we can now only call in experts in organisational management, and let them consider the difficulties of how our democratic needs can be combined with some new degree of efficiency.

    ‘A conference would be considered as mistaken or misguided.’ By whom, Phil Beesley, and whose ‘arrogance’? The facts are, surely, that our country will, like all the other countries, gradually return to what was normality, and economic needs will speed the process. In the absence of a vaccine (not impossible, however) the much-delayed testing and tracing will have given some degree of reassurance, which, backed with continued social distancing and therefore reduced attendances, should enable fairly large-scale meetings to happen again. I think that this could well be the case by October, and the Liberal Democrats could lead the way in restoring this aspect of normalisation near the end of September. If responsibly handled, our live Conference could attract unusual admiration, in showing that Lib Dems are determined to go on very visibly with our needful work of seeking to promote the country’s wellbeing.

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