Opinion: What’s the point of the Party President?

Before I start, let me make one thing clear. This is not about Simon Hughes. It may or may not be useful to ask “What is the point of Simon Hughes?” but that is not what I am doing here.

No, I am concerned with the office and not the man. I want to question the nature of the role that the post of President of the Liberal Democrats plays within the Party. I want to know why we have a President of the Party.

Well, come on. Why do we?

Other than the Leader, it is the only post elected by an all member ballot, on those rare occasions when we have more than one candidate that is, so it must have a pretty important purpose. But what is it?

I suspect that every active Liberal Democrat you ask that question of, if they have ever thought about it at all, will have a different idea about what the job of the President is. Each of the different people who have held the post over the years also seem to have had a different take on what the role was about. It seems to me that as a Party we are remarkably unclear about what the President is for.

Does looking at the Federal Constitution of the Liberal Democrats help? Actually it has very little to say about the purpose of the President. It says even less about the job of the Leader, but I think we all have a good idea of what the Leader is for. The only things it specifies are that the President “shall be the principal public representative of the Party and shall chair the Federal Executive.”

I’m not really sure what the first of those means. But the second task gives us a clue about what the great sages from the SDP and the Liberal Party were trying to do when, in the negotiations of 20 years ago, they bequeathed to us our current party structures. The Federal Executive is, or is at least supposed to be, “responsible for directing, co-ordinating and implementing the work of the Federal Party”. By putting the President, elected by the whole Party, in charge of it makes me believe that they saw him or her as the person with primary responsibility for leading the party organisation.

Whereas the Leader is the captain on the bridge of the great ship Lib Dem, the President should be down in the engine room making sure we have power and momentum. Being Scotty to the Leader’s Kirk, as it were.

If the post of President has a purpose surely that must be it?

In recent weeks I’ve been blogging about party reform, and how many of the problems the Liberal Democrats are facing are down to our lack of effective organisational leadership. I would argue that a biggest single reason for this is that the post of President, over many years, has failed to fulfil the role that the Constitution has set out for it. This has led to a vacuum within the Party organisation. Naturally then I also believe that the Presidency could be key to fixing those problems.

However, it is likely to get worse rather than better. A little noticed item on the agenda for Conference this weekend is a constitutional amendment to remove the requirement from the President to chair the Federal Executive. It introduces a new post of Chair of the FE as a replacement.

I am not at all clear why we are being asked to agree to this but, if we are confused about the purpose of the President now, this will not help. If passed this amendment will remove the key constitutional responsibility of the Presidency. It will be left as little more than an honorary position.

If Conference passes this amendment on Saturday afternoon then the answer to the question “What’s the point of the Party President?” will surely have to be “Not a lot”.

* Andy Strange is a councillor in Luton and blogs at Process Guy.

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  • If we do adopt the FE ammedment to let them elect their Chair (I think they have a reasonable case) – it would be interesting to hear from Lembitt and Simon who at the time of the last Presidential election were strong supporters of the status quo. What do they think now? Of course the President could still be elected Chair of the FE by the FE.

    If the ammedment goes through surely the President should then make sure they are a voice for the whole party membership on the committees and in public.

    Having regional chairs and presidents seems to work well. Certainly when I was on the Yorkshire and Humber Exec John Smithson and William Wallace were both excellent as Chair and President respectivly.

  • Iain Roberts 6th Mar '08 - 4:14pm

    It makes sense to have two different people performing two top roles of selling the party to others and organising the party internally.

    The two require very different skills; I doubt many people are blessed with the ability to do both effectively, certainly not at the same time.

    Since the leader is obviously the external role, the president ought to be the internal organiser, a role any political party needs to be done and done well.

  • Martin Pantling 6th Mar '08 - 4:35pm

    What’s the point of debating what the point of the Party president is, if they seem to be pointless to start with? Or is that the point?

    Oh alright, I’m being facetious. Amid such high-minded debate, someone has to do it.

  • I suspect that the founders of the SDP took the idea of having separate posts of “Leader” and “President” from the German SPD where the office of “President” is a very powerful one.

    If the role of the President is to enthuse the membership and beef up the organisation, all have failed thus far.

    Simon was going to double the membership, CK boozed and puffed his way from chat show to chat show. Shirley Williams did OK, provided she caught her trains on time.

    Chris Rennard can win byelection after byelection (basically, anything he turns his hand to), but what he cannot do is provide political leadership. That is something only a politician can deliver.

  • Duncan Brack 6th Mar '08 - 7:01pm

    Actually I drafted the amendment for the FE, at the Chief Officers’ Group’s request, and gave them two options. The one they didn’t go for would have created a new post of ‘Chair of the Federal Party’ to chair the FE and be a member of all the other federal committees (in place of the President).

    The rationale was that the current role of President in practice encompasses two entirely different jobs: (a) being the voice of the membership at the centre of the party, morale-raising, etc., etc.; and (b) overseeing the work of the federal party and coordinating its committees. I think it’s almost impossible to do both of them satisfactorily, and they demand different sets of skills and personalities. Most Presidents over the last twenty years haven’t even tried to do the second job, and those that have, like Simon, have really not had the time or resources to do both as well as they could be done.

    The new post would have been elected by conference reps at the same time as the directly elected members of the federal committees; I argued that only a position that is separately elected, explicitly to oversee the organisation of the Federal Party, would have the authority and status necessary to play a difficult organisational and coordinating role.

    But the FE went for the less radical option of having the possibility of appointing someone else to chair its own meetings. In reality I doubt it will have much impact, since if a newly elected President says they want to chair the FE, I bet none of its members would disagree. But at least it’s an option.

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