What is the English Party?

If you’ve seen the recent Election Review, you’ll have read that the Lib Dems have obscure processes and committees that seem to get in the way of democracy and/or effectiveness. In this, we’re probably not much different to many other parties and groups but if we want liberalism to flourish we should probably aim to liberate our party from such things where possible. As a new member, I thought I’d try to work out the makeup of the party and hit a wall: the English Party. What is it? Who runs it? What do they do?

Google indicates that the English Party, unlike other state parties and regional parties, doesn’t have a website of its own, or Twitter or Facebook accounts. Instead, there is a brief mention that an English Party exists on the main ‘Federal’ website but that’s about it. This is quite astonishing in the year 2021. To paraphrase the Zen masters, if an organization is organizing in the woods but doesn’t tweet about it, have they organized anything at all?

It’s also not very transparent. This, I believe, puts the English Party at odds with its own constitution (which can be found if you are already searching for the Federal Party’s constitution.) Liberal Democrats exist to build… an open society, the constitutions declare. Not open enough to have a website with a list of office holders, contact details or work done it seems.

Before writing this article I thought I’d look up Lib Dem Voice to see if I could piece together any more information about this elusive bureaucracy. Back in 2012, someone was tasked with reporting on the English Council’s activities but that seems to have lasted for only a year. Subsequently there was a governance review which seems to have produced some very clear instructions on total overhaul of the English Party committee system which seems to have been accepted wholeheartedly. And yet, going by what’s available online, nothing has changed.

Of course things might have changed but, I return to my point about lack of transparency and openness. This isn’t actually reported or broadcast anywhere, the constitution doesn’t seem to reflect those changes but perhaps the Federal Party website is out of date – who knows?

On the other hand, perhaps this is what is meant in the Election Review where it says, “Our governance structures are a mess and don’t do what they are supposed to!” or even, “[our desire] masquerades as ‘democracy’, when in reality accountability is unclear and decision-making obscure.”

Who knows what the English Party currently does? Going by this article from 2012, it seems that it (rightly) leaves policy to the Federal Conference and then Regional Parties do almost everything that any other State Party would do e.g. run a local conference, administrate membership rules, candidate selections and training and boost coordination amongst local parties. The English Party, it seems, is primarily an extra layer of bureaucracy and an enormous committee of 150+ people with the apparent, sole aim of entrenching the notion of an English border (I’m being deliberately confrontational here but, I can find no transparent evidence to the contrary.)

If this is the case then it hardly seems like we’re living our liberal or federal values. If we did manage to federalise Britain tomorrow, would we actually want multi-tiered hierarchies and layers of bureaucracy and enormous ‘councils’ of hundreds of people or would we not just have a flat hierarchy of something like ‘regions’ (or even counties) with localised empowerment and representation with clear and direct lines to an overarching federal body?

Curiously, it seems a Regional Party can request to be made a State Party at Federal Conference. If say, East of England Lib Dems successfully pursued this… what would the English Party be for then?

* Dr Rob Davidson is a Lib Dem member, data scientist and digital campaigns expert. He co-founded Scientists for EU, NHS for a People's Vote and was a founding member of the People's Vote campaign. Currently he is in the process of founding Liberationinc.co.uk - an incubator for liberal startups.

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20 Comments

  • George Potter 20th May '20 - 9:53am

    What if a region were to exercise it’s right to become a state party?

    The North West region tried this a few years ago. It got nowhere because federal conference never got round to ratifying it.

  • neil sandison 20th May '20 - 10:13am

    George Potter if at first you don’t succeed try ,try again .The party is in the mood for change and the regions have been a good mainstay in difficult times .

  • Rob Davidson:
    You should have looked a little more carefully.
    Admitedly things are not always easy to find on the party website, but that isn’t a problem limited to the English Party.
    https://englishlibdems.org/en/

  • Rob Davidson 20th May '20 - 4:38pm

    @Margaret- I searched for a website for the english party using the well known search engine, Google, and the highly appropriate search term “English Lib Dems”. I think it should be clear from the article that I did dig around for info on this issue.
    I have now repeated the search and discovered the English Party website on page 4 of Google’s results. That is telling.

    This is not some mystical tech problem that only digital wizards could solve. It indicates that the website doesnt really cover the topic of “English Lib Dems” well enough for Google to think it ranks as the definitive reference for that subject- despite the website address being “english lib dems”!

  • Callum Robertson 20th May '20 - 5:06pm

    Rob, thank you for articulating my view so well.

    Please can you drop me an email: [email protected]

    I’m interested in furthering this at East of England level

  • ‘the English Party. What is it? Who runs it? What do they do?’

    Fewer people understand that than could answer the Schleswieg-Holstein question.

  • Some years ago I received a phone call, out of the blue, from (I think) the Chair of the English Lib Dem’s.
    He wanted me to and sort out problems in a constituency in a neighbouring region in the run up to a general election, these problems I now believe to have been Personality clashes, and possibly leading to disciplinary measures – although that would have been beyond my remit.
    I turned the request down, as my negotiating skills are doubtful.
    But to be honest that’s my only involvement with them, and I’ve been around since pre merger days.
    So are they really just there as a disciplinary unit across England. Or perhaps just to ensure there is a clear differentiation between state and regional organisations within the party?

  • Rob: a great article. You’ve articulated what I’ve been trying to grapple with for many years, and I agree with many of the comments. Let’s hope post review steps will be taken to sort out the different councils, committees, etc (and I wonder how many people ever turn up at them, or believe they can make contribution). We need massive structural change to make us more effective and fleet of foot.

  • lloyd harris 21st May '20 - 11:03am

    Ah this age old argument – I put a motion to an East of England regional conference some years ago to start the process to make it a ‘state’ when I was a regional officer, however it didn’t pass. If it did as North West found there are lots of hurdles in the way that can knock it stone dead.

    A review was put before English Council to reform and open up the English Party, introduce an English Conference, one member one vote etc. However the Council rejected the proposals so we are left with the same indirect democratic institutions.

    So it you want to participate in the English state you first need to be elected at your regional conference as a rep so you then you become part of English Council the following year. So a rep elected in 2019 becomes a council member in 2020.
    The Council members then elect the officers and committee members for the following year so a 2020 council member elects these posts for 2021. (assuming there is an election). So it is democratic, but more like the way you choose a pope than direct democracy.

    One thing to note, the English party pays the Federal party to do a lot of its admin, finance & membership are two examples of what the English party contracts out to the Federal party.

  • Dear colleagues, being in my third year as regional chair of the East of England Lib Dems I’m ex officio on the English Council Executive. I’m also a fan of federalism and its close relative, subsidiarity, which are enshrined in our aims and objects. And being interested in history, I’m aware that England was preceded by regional kingdoms, such as East Anglia where I’m from. From time to time I ask myself the questions Rob Davidson asks, as have others before him. What is the point of the English Party? I’d welcome views on this and on whether the East of England Region should become a State Party. If there is support, we can have a special virtual conference to debate it. Please email me on [email protected] and let me know what you think.

  • Correction: I’m in my fourth and final year as regional chair of East of England and the two-year term for chair, officers and Executive expires on 31st December. Anyone interested in serving at regional level is most welcome to contact me. I also look forward to people’s comments on the State Party issue. Email [email protected]

  • David Craddock 22nd May '20 - 9:02am

    Lib Dems should walk the talk and organise themselves along Federal lines with Regions at the heart. There is a real opportunty following the GE review to consider this seriously now.

  • As every company knows, from time to time you have to ask yourself – are we structured the most efficient and effective way? What does this or that committee do and could it be done better or more efficiently by another committee, or not done at all?

    My observation about the English party is that encompasses 30 or more people and looks after near 85% of the Federal party. That doesn’t sound effective or efficient.

  • Rob Davidson 22nd May '20 - 12:54pm

    @Linda Chung – thanks for the kind comment.
    I fear that no change will happen to the English Party because the Federal Party (perhaps rightly) would not dictate a constitutional change. At the same time internal change appears doomed to failure. As partly described in my article, in 2016 a governance review was ordered by the English Party Executive, options were presented, the members were surveyed and agreed with change and then some major proposals were put forward and reportedly voted for by the English Council… and then NOTHING HAPPENED.

    I suspect that this will be the same fate that befalls any attempts to streamline a council of 150+ members. Critical mass has become critical inertia.

    Sadly, while I’ve suggested that regional parties could push past the English Party and get direct access to the Federation in a flatter structure, it appears that this was attempted by North West region, who voted for it in 2016 and then seemingly didn’t get a hearing at Federal Conference. So the Fed Party appears not to be blameless either.

    I am a new member who had no bones to pick with any echelon of the party prior to ‘having a look’ just last week. The more I learn, the more irksome bones I find. It seems like everyone I speak to knows that the party structures are broken, ineffectual, obscure and overly bureaucratic. Yet everyone just assumes that nothing will change.

    In the meantime, Johnson is in power and rapidly pursuing Viktor Orban’s “illiberal democracy” model. Maybe we should incorporate another council to consider that.

  • Sally Symington 23rd May '20 - 10:27am

    @Rob Davidson I chaired the so-called 2016-17 English (Party) Review Group as the East of England representative and relative outsider (ie not a member of regional, English or Federal party execs). The group comprised representatives from all 11 regions with views that varied from abolishing the EP, allowing regions to become ‘state parties’ through to maintaining the status quo with tweaks. The compromise was to agree a streamlined and more accountable English Party structure. This was agreed and passed at English Council in December 2017. The group was disbanded by the then Chair of the English Party and a small group enlisted to draft the constitutional changes required to enact the proposals. In the intervening six months, with no further intra-region communication, the consensus built up carefully over many months fell apart; so much so that members of the original group who had bought into and supported the proposed changes, ended up voting against them. As you correctly identify, to the detriment of the party, nothing has changed.
    The silver lining is that as a party we now have the opportunity to go much further with our structural reforms; the bonds of the Union are significantly weaker than even a few years ago and the pressure for localism and regional devolution all the greater. We need to grasp that opportunity, learn from the lessons of previous failed reviews and rebuild our party in the image we want for the future. If you’d like further information or just to avoid institutional amnesia, please do email me at [email protected].

  • Laurence Cox 23rd May '20 - 12:55pm

    @Sally

    Thanks for the information on what happened after the Review Group reported, none of which surprises me. There are two big hurdles to English Regional Parties becoming State Parties: the first is opposition from Scotland and Wales, which at present have equal representation at Federal level with the whole of England (Federal Constitution Article 9.2 (i),(j); 10.2 (f); 11.2 (c); 12.2 (d); 13.2 (g); 14.3 (e); 15.2 (c)); the second is that smaller Regions (like, say, the North-East) do not have the resources to take on the responsibilities of State Parties, so we would still need a residual English Party for them.

    I don’t think that individual English Regions going down the State Party route is feasible unless we first make major changes to the Federal Party constitution, which many think we need to do anyway.

  • Rob Davidson 24th May '20 - 6:43pm

    @Sally – thanks! Will email.
    @Laurence Cox, I have only heard this notion by rumour from English people, that Scotland would somehow be aggrieved if English Regions had the same standing as Wales or Scotland. As a Scot, i think this is utterly ridiculous. If anything, having more regional voices around the UK puts Scotland on an even footing with other parts of the federation rather than having a dominant English voice and small appendages.
    However, it may be that small regions with low numbers of members and supporters would not be so sustainable as others. Surely this is what a federation is for?! Why should we add in a layer of English Party bureaucracy when regions could redistribute wealth to other regions via the UK-wide Federal Party? Or, some regions could be supported more by the Federal Party until they grew sufficiently to stand on their own. In either case, there is no need for the defunct notional concept of the Kingdom of England to ensure that smaller regions are supported by larger regions. Kingdoms were never good at that anyway and don’t appear to be good at it now.

  • John Littler 24th May '20 - 9:30pm

    This party was always in favour of devolution to the regions for England in this most over centralised large country in the western world. But it has been quiet on the issue lately.

    Surely the terrible handling of the crisis by Westminster and the better local handling by some Mayors and authorities such as on PPE and testing, shows that much effective government cannot be done centrally and at present there is often nothing between International level government and local service delivery councils for 50 million people

    Starmer is in favour of a Federal Government as the last chance to hold Britain together. I would agree. I just hope he means across English regions, as a single body for England would be just as distant, unrepresentative, unresponsive and useless as present Westminster. That “palace” is already in England and 200 miles away from very much, anyway.

    The North West alone is about twice the Popn. of Scotland and about 9 times that of Wales and the S.East/E.Anglia is even bigger, without London, so lets get away from the pretence that we can set up a body for England and all will be well.

    An English Parliament now would attract all the nationalist fruit cakes who made the Leave vote happen, giving them a national and international stage to strut on while achieving very, very little different to now. Let’s be clear about this as that is what the nationalists want, including those in Scotland in order to drive that final wedge across the country they are looking for.

    Devolution yes please, but an English Parliament would be a big new thing to be able to define Scottish nationalism against.

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