Time to reform the English Party

At the English Council tomorrow (Saturday 5th Dec) Callum Robertson (incoming joint Chair of the Young Liberals ) and I will be proposing a motion which seeks some substantial changes in the way the English Party is run.

That sentence probably prompts questions among LDV readers: what is the English Council and how does it relate to the rest of the Party?

In most of the Party – local associations, regional parties and the Scots and Welsh State parties and the Federal Party the governance structure is based on One Member One Vote, but the English Party has a system of indirect elections. The way it works is that at the same time as regional elections people elect members from that region of the English Council – a group of 150 people (which also include reps of the Young Liberals) which meets twice a year.

The functions of the English Council are set out in the Constitution (Section 5 and 6) but it is the sovereign body of the Party in England (though it has agreed that policy is dealt with by the Federal Conference).

So how well does this work? The vast majority of party members in England seem unaware of this structure. In many cases there is no contest for members of the English Council and some regions have not appointed their full quota of members.

The time has come for change. I realised when trying to explain the structure of the English Party to a newish member who asked how people are elected that I simply could not justify the way we currently work. The  motion has two parts:

  • Elect the officers of the English Party, the members of the English Exec (apart from the Regional Chairs who are already elected by members ) and the English members of Federal Committees by OMOV
  • Replace the English Council with a virtual Conference. I have been opposed to replacing the Council with a Conference open to all members in the past as I thought it would either be another expense for people with travel etc costs or tacked on to main conference for a couple of hours. But we now know that we can have highly effective virtual conferences which we can use to hold people accountable and make decisions.

These are decisions in principle – the motion asks the English Council Executive to draw up the appropriate constitutional changes for approval at the next Council meeting.

The response I am sure of some people reading this article will be a simplistic ‘abolish the English Party’ and hand power to the regions, but that would be a mistake. One of the decisions being taken by the English Council on Saturday is to agree the rules for selecting PPCs so that local parties can get on with this as soon as possible in the New year. Would it really make sense to have 11 different sets of rules, one for each region?

The real reason why I hope these proposals are agreed on is simple – it isn’t right that the vast majority of party members in England reading this are not able to do anything about it – whether they support or disagree. That goes against the whole spirt of our Party.

* Simon McGrath is a councillor in Wimbledon and a member of the board of Liberal Reform.

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  • James Belchamber 4th Dec '20 - 11:01am

    I’m glad to see reform being pushed again for the English Party, whose “democracy” reminds me of the rungs of hierarchical elections we see e.g. in China (minus the “approved” parties.. maybe).

    I still think we should abolish it – and the example of PPCs, we shouldn’t have 11 sets of rules, we should just have one. For the whole of the UK.

  • Jack Worrall 4th Dec '20 - 12:24pm

    I am going to vote in favour of this motion tomorrow. I think we will have a mammoth task of reimagining the role of an English Conference vs the role of the English Council Executive when it does pass.

    I also think there is an argument to increase the time folk are elected for if we are using OMOV. The great thing about OMOV is that it’ll produce much more turnover. The bad thing is that will have an impact on institutional memory and it could mean that folk elected spend a 3 months learning what role they signed up to do, 6 months of actually doing the role and 3 months of campaigning to keep it. In my view that is probably not a great system and we should look into extending the term of elected members/officers to 2 years and recognising that regional chairs will come in every year as they always do. It would also cut the cost of administering an OMOV election down substantially.

  • Callum Robertson 4th Dec '20 - 1:53pm

    Richard, you are entirely incorrect that it becomes an either/or choice when it comes to financing people.

    Hopin was something that we licensed for a period of time and there’s no additional cost implications for a second meeting on there.

    Additionally if you changed the terms of office and held elections at the same time as Federal elections you’d be avoiding significant additional expenditure.

    All of that seems self evidently better than the current system

  • Callum Robertson 4th Dec '20 - 2:53pm

    That’s not what I’m saying at all.

    Tacking it onto conference or using a preexisting license is comparatively cheap and wouldn’t result in people losing their jobs.

  • Matt McLaren 4th Dec '20 - 3:16pm

    Alas I’m not sure I agree with this proposal (I’m not sure I entirely disagree either, so if I was serving on the English Council this year I’d have to listen intently to the arguments as presented tomorrow and make my mind up which way to vote on the the day). Here’s some initial thoughts, though.

    Firstly, let’s look at the argument as presented (and as often presented by those who dislike the current English State Party setup): that the vast majority of Party members don’t know or understand what the English Council is or does, and therefore pay little attention to internal elections for its members. Well I’m afraid that this state of affairs is true for many institutions, including local government itself.

    In my experience (and I would imagine surveys have confirmed this fact, though I’m open to being disproved on this point), most voters don’t know or understand what their local council actually does, where its responsibilities lie vs. central government, and who its members and leadership actually are. Participation in local elections is way down at the c.30-40% mark when not paired with a national or more high profile contest, indicating voters lack of understanding or lack of interest in local government. And many voters who do take part in local elections consistently tell canvassers and pollsters that they vote based on national issues and leaders, not local ones actually being decided by the election.

    Should we therefore abolish local government in favour of more clearly understood central government? Or, more in line with the prescription for the English Party here, should we replace local councils with systems of direct democracy on every issue locally where every local citizen gets a say and an issue-by-issue vote? No doubt all Liberal Democrats would completely reject the first option, but some may favour the apparent increased democracy of the second (personally I wouldn’t want to embrace something so likely to usher in wholesale populism at the local level, not to mention the fact that we have representative democracy for a reason – it has a lot going for it, but I digress)…

  • Matt McLaren 4th Dec '20 - 3:17pm

    …My point here is only to say that to require most Party members to fully understand, embrace and engage with the system in order for that system to have legitimacy is to impose an ultra-high standard not even met by that most beloved of Lib Dem institutions: local government, an institution which (unlike others we dislike and want to change in our politics) we are not proposing to radically alter (beyond the introduction of STV for its elections which, despite its many merits, will hardly serve to increase popular understanding of the institution and local accountability for and within it).

    Closer to home, there are numerous (very powerful!) decision making bodies within the Party which many don’t understand or engage with as Party members, such as the English Appeals Panel, Federal Elections & Communications Committee, or (within London’s Regional Party) Local Parties Committee. None of these lack legitimacy or democratic accountability though.

    Turning to the specific case of the English Party, I have much sympathy with what our State Treasurer Richard Flowers has said above. The financial considerations are a genuine cause for concern, for whilst Hopin may currently be licenced, we’re talking about a constitutional change which would hold for all eventualities, not just current circumstances. So we’d be resting our hopes on taking advantage without cost of an expense incurred by the Federal Party, assuming they wish some virtual element to all future Federal Conferences long after the pandemic is over (hoping that what they opt for and licence would be compatible with an all-virtual English Conference) or risking major expenditure from the limited State budget…

  • Matt McLaren 4th Dec '20 - 3:18pm

    …More importantly, though, Richard points out the unique circumstances of the English State Party within the Liberal Democrats, itself being a federation of regions (which no other State Party is, and, obviously, nor is any Regional Party).

    As Liberal Democrats, we often rail against a ‘one size fits all’ approach, generally arguing that local and unique circumstances should be taken into account in designing or adapting decision-making systems. Surely then we should want the unique circumstances of the English State Party to be considered and not just say that, because all others use OMOV, so should England.

    As I say, I am not definitively against these proposals nor am I unambiguously for the present setup. I just think big constitutional changes such as this deserve full scrutiny and ample consideration, and that this particular change is perhaps not quite as self-evidently justified as some may claim.


  • Mary Regnier-Wilson 4th Dec '20 - 4:17pm

    Why not keep the English council, and instead abolish Regional parties? I mean, many of the same criticisms can be levied at them- unopposed elections, unknown by many activists, inefficient practices. And now that we don’t have European elections, they are not needed for elections.
    Get rid of regions, replace them with electoral areas (the places people need to work together to win mayors/PCC’s/counties) and have OMOV to an English council with a zipping system to ensure representation from around the country.

    No need for a conference – examples from local govt and webinars have shown that Meetings can be held online (with council members participating and everyone else able to watch and ask questions via text

    (This is a thrown out idea for discussion not a fully worked out proposal or motion so I am perfectly prepared to be told by the better informed why it shouldn’t be countenanced)

  • @Mary Regnier-Wilson. We would still need London Region – we have our own Assembly and a population that is approaching the size of Wales, Scotland and NI taken together!

  • Nonconformistradical 4th Dec '20 - 4:56pm

    @Matt McLaren
    “most voters don’t know or understand what their local council actually does, where its responsibilities lie vs. central government, and who its members and leadership actually are. ”
    Is that surprising when there is so little emphasis on community in the formation of local government areas?

  • Trevor stables 4th Dec '20 - 6:00pm

    Good first move, next should Be à Leader of Liberal Democrats in England.

  • Oh for the good old days of Albert Ingham and Edward Dunford.

    They knew what they were doing and did it – in the good old Yorkshire Liberal Federation of the 1960’s. Far too many words and blether in modern Lib Dem world – not enough action, and not much evidence of the dynamic charismatic Leadership and radical outlook we enjoyed back in those days.

    I’m given to understand that until very recently, before the days of Zoom and Teams, some folk travelled huge distances to talk to other folk who had travelled huge distances so they could talk to each other about moving imaginary troops around in non-existent manoeuvres.

    Too many Generals ‘flying the flag’ – not enough troops ‘going over the top’, and not much evidence of having learned the lessons of the last Great War (2010-15).

  • Antony Watts 5th Dec '20 - 11:47am

    i understand that some sort of organisation has to be in place. But why not focus this on a government in waiting? All these bodies just create confusion and disputes, not to mention a focus on organising not doing.

    What I look for is simple statements of what Liberals would do in power. And along side that a clear statement about the main current political topics.

    For example where do Lib Dems actually stand on Brexit? Climate change? Government finance and spending

  • @Mary Regnier-Wilson I’m with you. If we were reinventing the party structure from the ground up, there’s no reason we’d create regions based on no-longer-existing EU regions (or subsections of them). The obvious place to start would be the sub-national English levels of government – particularly intermediate tiers (London + counties) – and (possibly) PCC/NHS structures.

  • Nonconformistradical 5th Dec '20 - 4:07pm

    @Martin Tod and @Mary Regnier-Wilson
    What would be the point of messing around with party structures if you/we haven’t first defined and agreed some objectives around what needs – I do mean needs – to be done and then at what level of the party structure does it need to be done? And maybe – since we believe in devolution don’t we? – why it can’t be done at a lower level of the structure?

  • John Marriott 6th Dec '20 - 8:36am

    The world is going to hell in a handcart – pandemics, global warming, wars and famine, to name but a few. And what do Lib Dems do? Argue about the niceties of Party structural reform. Poor old Tom Arms’ latest, highly informative, piece has so far generated one comment.

    Now I know that some of you take party matters really seriously – that’s your right, of course – but, as David Raw opines, is that REALLY what life is about? Those guns are still metaphorically firing in the distance. Time to get marching towards them instead of pontificating?

  • Nonconformistradical 7th Dec '20 - 7:28am

    John Marriott 6th Dec ’20 – 8:36am is making a valid point.

    Simon – perhaps it might be time to stop navel-gazing…. especially if no clear objectives have been discussed and agreed about what the party needs to be doing and what is the lowest level in the structure at which it could/should be done.

    Because while the world is going to hell in a handcart as John puts it you are just wasting everyone’s time discussing party structures.

  • Do we have an update on how the motion went?

  • Peter Hirst 7th Dec '20 - 6:04pm

    Certainly having a list of people for members to vote onto the English Party would raise its image and perhaps lead to more interest in reforming or abolishing it.

  • This sounds like a great idea, but it has to be something that is done by the English, and within England, and not something or someone from the outside who just wants to impose something upon England.

  • John Marriott 8th Dec '20 - 11:01am

    How on earth did you come up with that moniker? I wonder what the great Johann Wolfgang (1749 – 1832) would have made of today’s world? Actually, he had quite a soft spot for the English, Shakespeare in particular. As one of the last Renaissance men he probably would be in despair.

  • @John Marriott
    Thanks for asking. Personally I think there should be greater sovereignty for England within the UK. And although I may not be within England, it is always best to take in opinions from the outside, it provides a good perspective, something about being able to see the trees from the woods.

    As for Goethe, well his poetry is simply amazing, and I have a great liking to German poetry. With the exception of Holderlin, it isn’t as good as English Romantic poetry, but it is the next best thing!

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