What’s the point of the English Party?

You could perhaps be forgiven for not knowing that the English Party even exists. Unlike Regional Parties in England, which have a direct relationship with members and are consequently well-understood; the all-England level of the party lies veiled in a murky labyrinth of internal organisation generally understood only by those initiated into the hidden secrets of its bureaucracy. Or at least that’s how it appears to most ordinary members (and even many longstanding activists!)

Nevertheless, the internal party matters reserved for England level (as opposed to being devolved to Regional Parties) are all pretty important. From approval and selection rules for parliamentary candidates, to setting the budget which determines how much Regions and Local Parties get from membership subscriptions and how much is available to be spent centrally to fund field-based Regional Development Officers, to setting the overall standards for operational and governance decisions at lower levels (such as rules applying to local agreements to work with other parties, how to settle membership disputes, and how Council Groups need to operate in order to be officially recognised etc.)

It might all sound a bit dull, but it’s absolutely crucial work that has to be done. Certainly when it comes to the work of the oft-maligned English Council itself (the governing body of the Liberal Democrats in England, made up of the Regional Chairs plus directly elected representatives from each Region), none of this work could easily be performed by Regional Parties acting autonomously. And were it to be, that would undoubtedly create an unmanageable patchwork of different rules and process from region to region which – certainly when it comes to things like PPC selections – would be extremely difficult if not practically impossible for participants to navigate.

The problem with the English Council, if I may say so, is not what it does but rather 𝘩𝘰𝘸 it does it. With what is in theory supposed to be a representative and accountable body in practice being almost entirely self-selecting, shrouded in misunderstanding or complete ignorance as to its role, and totally unaccountable as a result.

I am on a mission to change that – seeking to massively improve channels of communication between those sitting on the Council and ordinary English Party members and between its leadership on the Council’s Executive and the crucial volunteers running Local & Regional Parties. But it’s not easy and I keep encountering serious roadblocks. Since late December I have been trying to find a way to send out a detailed report back on the English Council’s important December 18th meeting to members in my own Region, only to be thwarted at every turn. Perhaps not unreasonably, as existing channels of communication are perhaps better focused on traditional things like campaigns updates etc., but there really should be some mechanism for the Region’s elected representatives to be able to report back to and be held accountably by the members that elect them regarding their work on the Council. Clearly no such mechanism currently exists.

That is why I have now started a new email bulletin – my own, informal English Party Newsletter – to which any member in England can signup to receive news, updates and comment on the internal operations and management of the Party in England as well as my work as the English Party’s representative on the Federal Conference Committee (you can subscribe to just the English Council news, or just the Conference updates, or both). My hope is that by doing my bit and working with others to share much more widely what happens at the England level, members will become more engaged, new people will seek to stand for English Council (perhaps even leading to some welcome contested elections for such a strategically important body), and the shroud of mystery and inscrutability of the English Party may permanently be lifted.

You can signup for this newsletter here: www.libdemenglishparty-news.mattjmclaren.com

Thankfully, at least for the roles on the Council’s Executive, there was indeed recently a seriously contested election, one in which I was myself a candidate. So let me take this opportunity thank all those English Council members who voted for me – thank you so much and I am enormously grateful to have been elected. I stood on a clear platform of significantly improving communication between the English Party and ordinary members (plus other organs of the party), as well as making supporting Regional and Local Parties our highest priority. Throughout my term I shall endeavour to advance these agendas and, if you would like to keep up to date with progress on this, please do sign up to my newsletter.

* Matt McLaren is an elected member of the English Party Executive and the English Party’s representative on the Federal Conference Committee. In London Region, he is Vice-Chair of Enfield Liberal Democrats, a member of its Local Parties Committee and one of its elected representatives on the English Council. Matt is also currently a Liberal Democrat candidate for Enfield Council, standing in his home ward of Winchmore Hill.

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  • William (he/him) 20th Jan '22 - 10:14am

    I must say that I’ve been amazed how much the English party has improved over the last few months – pretty much since Alison Rouse became chair. Communications seem a lot clearer, and the body seems more approachable. Hopefully your newsletter will support the team in continuing that trend.

  • Charley Hasted Charley Hasted 20th Jan '22 - 10:53am

    This appears to be a very long advert rather than an article. Nevertheless good luck with your newsletter.

    I’m not sure I agree with your assessment that regional parties are better understood than state parties I think it’s probably about equal tbh but there we go.

    I’ve been critical of the English party in the past but I definitely agree with William that it does seem to have become dramatically better under Alison’s chairship.

  • Richard Flowers 20th Jan '22 - 11:07am

    Hello Matt,

    Just to correct an error of fact: the Regional Development Officers are – as the name suggests – under the direction of the Regions, not centrally.

    The RDOs do have line management either from HQ or ALDC (at the choice of the region) for HR support. But there is quite broad freedom for the regional execs to choose how they direct their RDO to the best use for delivering the overall strategy of developing local parties and increasing diversity.

    And that freedom for the regions has seen some great successes, particularly in the North East and North West Regions.

    Hopefully your potential readers will be understanding that you are very new on ECE and didn’t know this.

    Maybe you could start on improving communications by talking to the officers and other members of the ECE. We are more than happy to help with projects like this. And you could get your facts straight by asking.

    Best of luck with your newsletter.

  • Jennie (she/her) 20th Jan '22 - 11:21am

    Would agree very much with Will, Alison’s stewardship has changed me from being an English party abolitionist. Will be interesting to see how you add to that, Matt.

  • I know the English Council was due to make some important decisions affecting Council Groups and Local Parties on 18th Dec.

    However, despite being a Local Party Officer and Leader of a large Council Group I have not yet seen any informattion about what they actually decided. So I do sympathise very much with Matt McLaren’s observations about the difficulties of getting information about the opaque operations of the English Party. Poor communication has always been a major problem and I have seen no improvement at all.

  • Mick Taylor 20th Jan '22 - 1:02pm

    Careful Rigg. Changing your mind when the facts change! Dangerous Liberal stuff.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 20th Jan '22 - 1:05pm

    Good to see this from Matt.

    I am not surprised about what Jennie says, a shout out from her and William, for Alison Rouse. Have known her for years as she is a veteran of the Nottingham party. She is truly dedicated, as well as efficient and able. I favour keeping an English party, and am glad others are ensuring it serves a purpose, at least more than previously.

    Thus, concerned to read what another local veteran writes. Paul, have you made these points widely?

    Anyone who can simplify things in our party gets my support! Bureaucracy, is the antithisis of Liberalising and democratising!

  • Jennie (she/her) 20th Jan '22 - 1:44pm

    Don’t make me come over there, Taylor, you know what’ll happen!
    (Emptying of your liquor cabinet most likely)

    I do mourn the fact of the pandemic means you and Ruth have not yet been to visit our “new” house 🙁

    *cough *

    Oh heck I’m off topic. Erm. Enjoy the meeting on Saturday, Matt.

  • Jennie (she/her) 20th Jan '22 - 5:23pm

    If only there was a slack workgroup set up for English Council purposes that people could use….

  • Matt McLaren 20th Jan '22 - 5:37pm

    Thanks for the reminder Jennie. I’m more than happy to use Slack, but it was flagged up at English Council’s meeting in December that many EC members are not on there. There is also no ECE channel I have access to (yet that is, I’m sure some of these things will no doubt be discussed at ECE’s first meeting of the year on Saturday).

  • Richard Flowers 20th Jan '22 - 6:17pm

    Matt, you said:

    “how much is available to be spent centrally to fund field-based Regional Development Officers”

    Other people can decide for themselves whether that sounds more like the RDOs are directed centrally or regionally. I felt it was sufficiently ambiguous to need a clarification.

    If you are genuinely interested in promoting communication, then you should let other people make their points in their own way too, rather than attacking them.

    Otherwise, all you are doing is publishing spin.

    You say you are disappointed. Well, you could have brought this idea to the ECE – the first meeting is on Saturday, so that’s only 2 days to wait – and got other people involved, made it a positive part of the work that you know the Party in England is already doing.

    Instead you have made it all about you. That is not a good way to promote collegiate working. That’s why I’m disappointed in you. That’s why I suggested you should try talking to other people. Other people might want to take part in getting the news about what we are doing to an audience. A genuine joint effort to improve things, rather than just you putting your spin on things.

    It’s not too late to start again. Try communicating with us. We are here to help, after all.

  • Matt McLaren 20th Jan '22 - 7:29pm

    Thanks for your thoughts Richard. As you say, others will make their own judgements about what is said above.

    I’m very keen to work with others to improve things. I’ve made it very clear in my Newsletter already that any legitimate concern expressed by me about party processes or outcomes is not criticism of individuals. I’d like to reiterate that point here – we are all volunteers and we all want to see the party succeed.

    As for ECE’s meeting on Saturday, I’d welcome the chance to discuss communication and other matters at this meeting. As I mentioned, I have been in touch with both the Chair and Vice-Chair in advance of Saturday’s meeting and asked about a couple of points for discussion on Saturday. I have very much been given the impression that there isn’t room on the agenda to discuss any of the matters I’ve raised.

  • Peter Hirst 21st Jan '22 - 1:37pm

    I am yet to be convinced that the tasks you mentioned cannot be better done by more resourced regional parties and a committee of their Chairs.

  • You’re right Matt that comms could be better. When I was regional chair, I took notes on my iPad during the ECE meetings and emailed to activists, though others have not carried that on. But I would share some of Richard F’s concerns above that this should have been raised in ECE, given that the (newish) Chair has done a lot to be more transparent (e.g. the website) and would welcome ideas (and in particular offers to help!!)

    As mentioned above, there is Slack (which Alison was keen to push). Any new tool can be hindered by lack of acceptance – people need to be encouraged onto the platform by email, system invite etc. etc. My local party and council group couldn’t function as well as we do without it. MUCH better than email.

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