The four things the new party Chief Executive must prioritise

Dear Tim,

Congratulations on your appointment as Chief Executive of the Liberal Democrats. You take up the post in tough but exciting times.

Even if you were not one person but a superhuman army of fifty you would not be able to do all the things party members and staff are saying they want from the new Chief Executive. As you are but one person (I hold out hope on the superhuman front) you will inevitably have to pass up on many of these demands.

Picking the right priorities will be central to being a successful Chief Executive and so here are the four priorities I think you should pick.

Sorting the party’s message

There will be more people telling you that you need to sort out the party’s message than I’ve eaten chocolates in the last year.

They’re right that the party’s messaging needs sorting.

But you should ignore them. It shouldn’t be your job.

More than one of your predecessors tried to run the party’s messaging and the result was disaster.

Unless you are Chris Rennard, trying to run the party’s messaging and tell ministers, MPs, the Federal Policy Committee and the Campaigns Department what they should be saying will wreck your time in post, distract from what you could be achieving and end in failure just as it has done for others. More than once.

Perhaps after a few years in the job you will become a new Chris Rennard, but at the moment – sorry, Tim you’re no Chris.

What you can – and must – do is get the party’s ability to send a coordinated message sorted. Leave it to others to sort out what the message is, but make sure that whatever it is, the party is in a fit state to communicate it consistently, incessantly and effectively.

It isn’t just the absurd inconsistencies of different messages from ministers in the same conference pack that needs fixing. It is also the hugely wasteful duplication that goes on with at times every staff member – not only federally, but in constituencies too – apparently wanting to choose their own fonts, their own colour schemes and their own layouts. People work all sorts of silly hours, saying how busy they are – but promptly waste hours time after time coming up with their own versions of what should be said and what publications should look like.

Get to grips with this wasteful inconsistency and you will not only make the party’s communication efforts better, you will even save that most precious of resources in the process – staff time.


As Stephen Tall has documented, the long-term trend of fund-raising by the party has been on an impressive upward path. The Liberal Democrats are now even consistently raising more from individual and corporation donations above the declarable thresholds than the Labour Party.

The loss of Short Money makes that growth pleasing, but insufficient. Quite simply, the party needs more money and you need to be central to that.

The party’s central fundraising has been most effective when Chief Executives have given direct personal attention to it – including the time to meet donors and would-be donors. Learn from what your predecessors got right and allocate your time accordingly.

Enlist supporters in the fight for liberalism

The party is not exactly short of opponents to overcome when it comes to implementing Liberal Democrat beliefs in government, yet we are not using the party’s grassroots strengths to help win those struggles. Although our ideology is one of empowering individuals, at a national level we treat members and supporters often as passive spectators, to be told (sometimes, intermittently) what the party is up to in their name rather than engaging them as active allies in the struggle for a liberal society.

Even when government ministers fret about individual public consultations that are being carried out, or think carefully about how to handle their results, we don’t ask members to take part in them (with the honourable exception of Willie Rennie).

What I wrote last December still stands:

Looking back through the emails I have received from the party centrally since the formation of the coalition, very few have asked me to do anything. Some have asked for money, requested I come to conference or suggested I go and help in elections – but even those, whilst being good stuff, have been drawn from a very narrow conception of what members and supporters can do. When it comes to policy areas, campaigning disappears and it is nearly all top-down broadcast mode communication telling me what someone has done.

Those communications are important (as I’ve said before) but should be only part of a wider ambition. It is as if all a local councillor did was tell people what has happened after a planning committee has ruled, rather than telling them in advance what is going to happen and how they can influence it.

The party is not exactly short of opponents to overcome when it comes to implementing Liberal Democrat beliefs in government, yet we are not using the party’s grassroots strengths to help win those struggles.

Write an email, once a fortnight

I suspect you’ll write more than just the one. But once a fortnight you should make a few minutes in your diary to write an update for party activists. Also commit to reading all the replies you get, however briefly and however brutally you devolve replying to others.

Don’t stress about exactly who it goes to or how skimpy the content may be given the pressures of your schedule. Simply regularly communicating and reading the responses will work wonders for helping you understand what people in the party are thinking and for improving communications, building up the bank of good will that at some point you will need to pillage remorselessly.

Best of luck – and have fun!


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

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This entry was posted in Op-eds and Party policy and internal matters.


  • Tony Dawson 1st Jan '12 - 12:57pm

    @Mark Pack:

    “They’re right that the party’s messaging needs sorting.

    But you should ignore them. It shouldn’t be your job.”

    Mark is totally right. I am amazed that anyone should think that any party employee, however able, should do this. What he should do is make sure that the democratic senior bodies of the Party and the parliamentary party and Cabinet Lib Dems do thrash this out, since they do not appear to be at the moment. The message is like a new food which a child refuses to taste. Constantly put it back on the children’s table till they eat it!

    I am not too sure about the fonts/colours stuff though Mark. Sounds a little OCD. You get good work out of volunteers as well as employees when you give them ownership of their products. Give them a little ‘head’!

    Mark is totally right though about government consultations. Tomorrow is the deadline for an important NHS consultation.

    Did you know about it? There was also a previous consultation about the format of the new ‘Healthwatch’ proposals. As the originator of the name ‘Healthwatch’ within the British NHS, I might like to have been informed of this directly (along with thousands of other Lib Dems) byan e-mail from a Lib Dem minister.

    PS you also repeat my own mistake of talking about the ‘Campaigns Department’.

    If the Chief Executive does not tell the Department of ‘Elections and Skills’ what the party expects from them, and monitor the performance, who does?

  • John Carlisle 1st Jan '12 - 2:37pm

    You left out a clear micro-economic (business and growth) policy. How could you?

  • Tony Dawson 1st Jan '12 - 11:44pm

    Dave, your proposed jobs for the Chief Executive are mostly jobs for the responsible democratic bodies of this party, not their chief employee. We are not North Korea.

  • The emphasis on the regular e mails is spot on, but only as Mark says if any replies are read and answered.

  • Dave Warren 2nd Jan '12 - 7:46am

    Yes right an email once a fortnight what great advice.

    Lets hope its taken up because currently two way communications with HQ are virtually non existent.

  • A 5th thing – fix MDO & RDO or replace them with something that works

  • Tony Dawson 2nd Jan '12 - 11:28am

    @Dave page:

    “Federal party staff have an employee management chain that goes directly to the Chief Executive, and he is responsible for decisions about staff working locations and conditions.”

    Quite right, hence see my earlier posting about management of Election & Skills Dept. But management requires ensuring policy decisions are being implemented, not making the policy (on anything other than purely operational matters).

    As to your comments upon the present communication regime, I could not comment, I have only been Local Party chair for 2 days so am waiting to be bombarded with ideas and support from the Strategic Seats team as well as everybody else in Grate George Street.

  • peter tyzack 2nd Jan '12 - 6:30pm

    Tony D, don’t hold your breath;
    Lloyd, what is MDO/RDO,? it clearly isn’t working…;
    Dave W. one -way communication would be a start!.. By that I mean, stop assuming that the membership exist to be milked for money but otherwise ignored, so called ‘newsletters’ ie thinly disguised begging letters don’t cut it. Isn’t it time we had a regular Membership Newsletter (oh yes, I nearly forgot, we have LD News, but that only goes to the exclusive few) Most rely(sic) on the media for news of their party. Members need to feel they are part of something, and to be ‘part of’ they need to feel involved. I think of the years I have been a member, and a regular conference attendee, but have never been specifically asked about an issue that I might know a great deal about, because nobody has ever done an audit of members to find out what skills and knowledge we have amongst us, which is there for the asking. Too much reliance on those who self appoint to things, those who can afford to attend things, can actually get to things.. and too much reliance upon ‘oh it’s on the website’.. blah-blah.

  • Hear hear, Peter Tyzack!

    Mark, I think it was largely Chris Rennard’s entry into the CE role which mucked things up – he tried to do those things you caution Tim Gordon against, and it didn’t work. No-one doubts Chris’s complete mastery of the campaigning field, but the main issue with modern British politics is the attempt to shoehorn all messages into the campaigning role, ie you commission polls, focus groups etc, and then try to insist those policies showing up as “popular” in the results are what is included in the manifestos and highlighted in the campaigning, and not other areas which are deeply embedded in the philosophy and ideology of a party. If you do not say what is deep down felt, you ultimately mislead people, and that is a key factor in disillusion with politics.
    Managerialism should NOT rule OK!

  • Roger Roberts 3rd Jan '12 - 10:38am

    Best wishes to all Lib Dems at the start of 2012.
    The complaint that I hear very often is that people at the top are not listening or heeding the concerns of the ordinary membership. To be the true “party of the people” we must, to coin a phrase be all “in this together” !
    What is to stop a regular email – survey style – to all members to get our/their opinions on policies and attitudes ?

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