Time to debate policy whilst the house burns down? Perhaps we should smash the boards instead

That the decision by the Federal Board to delay the leadership contest to 2021 was controversial amongst members is itself a non-controversial statement. WhatsApp groups and email chains have been filled with sometimes sweary complaints regarding the decision, comments about dissatisfied members at risk of leaving the party, and an overall despair at the lethargic and doubt-ridden approach the party has taken to 2020.

That the report into the 2019 General Election car crash was hard-hitting and well-sourced is also non-controversial. It is a good bit of commentary on the reasoning behind the weakening of the Lib Dems since around the time of Kennedy’s removal as leader. It covers a lot of topics familiar both to those who have observed Lib Dem fortunes academically and have had to deal with those fortunes on the ground.

The consistent underpinning theme of the report is the institutional rot that has occurred in party infrastructure, which has been aided – but critically, not caused by – political decisions by various leadership members during the last fifteen years or so.

This is why the U-turn by the Federal Board this week, to take a panicked approach to the leadership election, replacing a longer-term strategic decision which was well articulated by the Party President and others in several places, is so exceptionally concerning. It illustrates the dysfunction outlined by the report perfectly, and does nothing but, at best, delay real action and debate on the report’s themes until the autumn.

What is clearly needed during this extended stint in the political wilderness is time for the lessons of 2019 to fully sink in, and for an empowered President, new CEO and an acting leader (without the distractions of enacting a mandate) to action the recommendations of the report. It requires a strategic approach, not a tactical one.

Any leadership debate in 2020 is going to be dominated by the Covid-19 crisis. No Liberal Democrat is going to find “Tories bad, Lib Dems good” a difficult line to swallow at an online husting. We are largely in agreement about policy – although I foresee a nasty argument about re-joining the EU occurring in a few years – and our political positioning as a centre-left, socially liberal, localist, green, and anti-authoritarian party is secure. Yet going over policy and positioning is what we will do in a leadership contest, when instead the debate should be on the roles and practices of almost everyone in the Lib Dems who is not the party leader.

At the digital conference this Autumn, I would hope that we do not allow ourselves as Lib Dems to get distracted by political speeches and policy minutia. Instead, we must find a way of simplifying party structure, give power to individuals to enact change, and redefine the three-legged stool that should be running this party. I suspect that I am not the only one that suspects a good place to start would be the dramatic reduction in scale and scope of committees like the Federal Board itself.

The leader of the Lib Dems is not a messiah. He or she does not have power remotely equivalent to other British political leaders. Crucially, he or she cannot fix the rot within the infrastructure of the party single-handed. Only time and effort by far more than a singular MP can do that, and today’s decision illustrates that the party infrastructure is too addicted to a panic-driven approach to firefighting to have any view on affairs outside its own burning house. We can, and must, do better.

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3 Comments

  • Congratulations, Huw, for an excellent and well argued article. I, too, am very disappointed at the decision of the Federal Board to reverse its strategic decision because of vocal lobbying from some members (including on Lib Dem Voice).

    The Preamble to the Constitution states: “The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.” It does not exist for the benefit of its members – though obviously its members must derive some benefit from joining.

    The argument has been made that our Leader is somehow weaker through being ‘interim’ – but that argument is self-fulfilling. The reason why the Lib Dems have not been visible is not the status of our Leader but the current environment, where the daily press briefings by the Government and First Ministers are the top stories, and it is difficult (and often not appropriate) for other parties to comment in a newsworthy way.

    As Huw says, we need a streamlined party structure that is capable of making difficult strategic decisions – and for a membership that respects the party bodies and their decisions.

  • This article is both right and wrong.

    Right, in that the Board has clearly thrown the party a leadership election in the hope that this distracts from its own now revealed inadequacy and unfitness for purpose.

    But wrong, in that until the question of the leadership is resolved, we will remain in limbo.

    We need BOTH a leadership election and for the party’s decision-making structures to be sorted out. The current labyrinth of interlocking committees, each able to nominate extra members to the others, weighed down by nominee appointments and with elections handicapped by the absurd diversity provisions, could have been designed to ensure that whatever is the accepted status quo always gets nodded through, as we have just seen in action.

  • It was ruled that the Board does not have an unfettered discretion to defer the leadership election timetable. (I suggest it would be extremely worrying if it did have; and if some members thought it did, that’s worrying too.) Therefore, what you describe as the “longer-term, strategic” decision to defer the leadership election until May 2021 could not be defended. And the main plank of your argument collapses. The decision exceeded the Federal Board’s powers. That was enough to strike it down, but it was also intolerable for clashing with our Party’s democratic values by blocking the grassroots members’ exercise of their right to choose the Leader by vote.
    The Federal Board’s new decision does not delay action on the election review recommendations. It would be a bold leadership candidate who differed from the strong statements from Ed Davey of resolve to implement the recommendations.
    Where an early leadership election does make a difference is in the timescale for the Federal Board to prepare a document outlining the Party strategy. This must be done “in conjunction with the Leader’s political strategy” (Federal Constitution article 5.1) which cannot be done if there is no Leader. The joint acting leaders are not the same as the Leader.
    Finally could I remind colleagues that the Leader does not decide the Party‘s policies, so it’d be a shame if the leadership election focused on policies instead of the qualities required of the next Leader.

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