Why Conference should vote against the Board Reform proposals

Over the last few weeks virtually everyone who might be expected to carry weight with Conference delegates has been getting calls from the Party President asking them to come out in favour of the reforms to structure of the Federal Board. There has been a string of LDV and social media articles explaining why we need a smaller board. I imagine on Friday evening we will see a string of Party dignitaries speaking in favour of the reform proposals.

There has been a fair amount of circularity in the argument put forward to support this. Mark Pack having convinced the Thornhill review team that the size of the Board was the major contributor to the General Election debacle, now quotes the same report as evidence. But re-reading the report its clear that the disaster had little to do with the Board and much more to do with an over centralised campaign based around the Leader and a small team of advisers combined with an unwillingness to listen or challenge.

People may be surprised to know that the Board didn’t (and shouldn’t) get involved with the detail of our GE campaigns. That is constitutionally the role of the Federal Campaigns and Elections committee – though it’s not clear whether they were allowed to exercise that role in 2019.

There is a case for a smaller Board – but the proposed ‘reforms’ go about it in the least helpful way for a Party with our traditions. Having only 3 directly elected members seems extraordinary in for a Party which prides itself on its democracy. A Board made up of people elected to other roles – Chairs of various party committees and the like is likely to have a remarkable homogeneity of thought. To make it worse three of the proposed members – the Chairs of the Finance Committee, People Development Committee and Campaigns and Elections Committee are themselves elected by the Federal Board: it all encourages a uniformity of thinking which will lead to poor decision making.

As well as a lack of diversity in thinking there will be an absence of ethnic minority representation. If the top three candidates in the last Board election were to be on this board together with the current holders of other positions there would be only one ethnic minority member – the VP elected to work with ethnic minority communities.

One thing that has been very little discussed is that we actually have tried the new model Board: for a year there was a Board ‘Steering Committee’ with virtually the same composition as is proposed for the new Board: it made no discernible difference to the quality of decisions being made.

There is an alternative to this approach – one with a smaller board but with most of them directly elected by members. That does not mean that for example the Chairs of Federal Committees should not be invited to Board meetings when appropriate – just that they would be there to advise. It’s a pity the FCC did not give conference the opportunity to debate amendments which called for more directly elected members but they did not choose any for debate.

I will be voting to reject or refer back these proposals. Let’s have recommendation for change which align with our party’s values – not ones which go against the grain, have already been tried without making any difference and will end up having to be changed in short order.

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

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  • It is not often that I find myself agreeing with Simon, but I do on this. He is entirely right that the best way to shrink the board is to keep the directly elected list members and remove the voting rights of all who sit on it by virtue of being in charge somewhere else.

    I’ll also be voting for a reference back and against the motion if necessary, I hope others will too.

  • Just as Olly said, it’s not very often that I find myself agreeing with Simon – which suggests that when we do find ourselves in agreement, it must be in response to a significant problem! This is an excellent article that cuts to the heart of the flaws of the proposed Board reforms – whatever the merits or otherwise of a smaller Board (and I’m not all that convinced of those merits when, as Simon notes, so many of the errors blamed on the structure of the current Board have little to do with it), these proposals are entirely the wrong way to go about reducing the Board’s size, undermine the party’s tradition of internal democracy, and harm the party’s efforts to improve diversity in committees. I’ll be voting against the changes, and I hope others will join me.

  • Mark Johnston 10th Mar '22 - 11:31am

    Thanks Simon. I support this.

  • Jennie (she/her) 10th Mar '22 - 11:31am

    While Simon and I rarely agree on policy priorities, I find he is often completely right on admin and governance. And he has a LOT of experience of working on and with federal committees, including Board which has been his home for some time. He deserves to be taken very seriously on this.

  • Gordon Lishman 10th Mar '22 - 11:36am

    I also agree with Simon for reasons I have explained before.

    The basic problem has little to do with structure and the size of the Board. Like Simon, I have supported a “Steering Committee” or similar which involves a leadership team, guiding and making joined-up recommendations to the bodies which make decisions. I served (as ALDC Chair) on the group which Paddy used for that purpose in his early years as Leader and saw both David Steel and Charles Kennedy use such groups to enable coherence of decision-making in the service of a clear political strategy.

    My greatest objection to the current proposals that they distract attention from much bigger weaknesses in governance – most of which have little to do with formal organisational structures.

    In response to Olly, I also disagree with Simon on some important matters, notably economic policy. On the other hand, he and I have often been in agreement (sometimes lonely) on matters of governance and party democracy where Simon’s core, instinctive liberalism shines through. I also welcome his Socratic tendency to challenge easy assumptions and conventional wisdom.

  • Interesting contribution Simon, and a very strong and persuasive argument. Having not taken much notice of this until now, I find myself agreeing that the proposals are likely to have unintended but significant ramifications. They also appear to lose sight of what the real problems are, which is of particular concern.

    I hope conference rejects this motion.

  • lynne featherstone 10th Mar '22 - 11:52am

    I disagree completely. We have a number of issues as a party – one of which is coming to Conference. I very much want change for the better in our party – but it is always the same – and in my view stops us evolving and moving forward. If we were doing brilliantly with things as they are – then you might have a point. We are not!

  • lynne featherstone 10th Mar '22 - 11:53am

    I hope Conference votes overwhelmingly for it!! If you don’t change anything – nothing changes.

  • Simon, you are right about what went wrong in 2019.

    Reforming the board structure will in no way reduce the risk of the leader and close supporters adopting a self-defeating and inept electoral strategy.

    It will also not prevent internal critics from being silenced and not listened to again.

    Sadly, such behaviour can arise in any organisation and is really down to the individuals concerned. There is no structural solution.

    Current electoral strategy is on the right track.

    Secondly, the board should be much smaller, but the reforms as they stand are very poor from the point of view of internal democracy.

  • I think we can probably all agree that the problem with FB is that it doesn’t have more people who think like we do. And we would all be wrong.

  • Lets be clear about this – “directly Elected by members” actually means ” elected by a small minority of Members” in most cases.

    This article seems like an excuse to do nothing & stick with the comfortable status quo.

  • Jennie (she/her) 10th Mar '22 - 12:36pm

    I love you Lynne, but “something must be done, this is something, let’s do this” is not an argument that’s ever going to persuade me.

  • Nonconformistradical 10th Mar '22 - 1:15pm

    @Lynne Featherstone
    “If you don’t change anything – nothing changes.”
    We need to make the right reform! Not any old reform because it happens to be suppported by the powers that be who appear have been lettting us down.

    Change for change’s sake changes nothing fundamental in the end.

    It’s clear from the comments in various LDV threads that there is significant concern about these proposals.

    Quoting from the OP
    “It’s a pity the FCC did not give conference the opportunity to debate amendments which called for more directly elected members but they did not choose any for debate.”
    Couldn’t agree more! The hybrid board proposals on offer just give a choice between those proposals and leaving things as they are! Not good enough!

  • Candy Piercy 10th Mar '22 - 1:17pm

    Like many people I want to streamline the way the Federal Board works. But this is not the way to do it. I think this reduces the democratic quality of the Board with less representation of the views of ordinary members.
    As a member of the current FB I supported the setting up of the Steering Group pilot project. I was surprised adn disappointed that it did not work well. For one very good reason – Chairs of big Party Committees are too busy already, running their own committees.
    Anyone who knows one of the Federal Committee chairs knows just how hard they work and how time consuming those roles are. So it is the directly elected members of the FB who pick up the slack. They are the people who run the host of other projects that the Board is responsible for.
    I am very uneasy about the impact of getting rid of most of the directly elected members of the Federal Board. If we do this it will reduce democratic oversight of the Party leadership and of HQ.
    My other big objection to these proposals is that it reduces diversity and reduces the opportunity for new and exciting voices to get onto the Board.
    I fear that these proposals will lead to a very few individuals having a greater say and control of the way the Party is run. To me that is neither liberal nor democratic.

  • Jason Connor 10th Mar '22 - 2:06pm

    I tend to agree with the author of this article but do not know much about the Federal Board. However my main concern is that there is a body of Social Liberals on said board and not just the other type.

  • Callum Robertson 10th Mar '22 - 2:11pm

    Simon and I have worked together a lot and he knows I greatly respect his opinion on many matters.

    However, in this particular area I come to a completely different conclusion.

    The changes which Simon is worried will shut out the membership, are *actually* supported by the membership!

  • Richard Cole 10th Mar '22 - 2:12pm

    Simon, you are correct. The FCEC was actually cut out of decision making in the last GE.

    I, also, have no problem with a smaller board but it must maintain a fifty percent elected element. There were two amendments proposed to do just that but our Party President lobbied FCC members to make sure neither was taken.

  • Charley Hasted Charley Hasted 10th Mar '22 - 3:54pm

    Simon and I have had some fairly harsh disagreements over the years but he is utterly and completely correct on this especially as we absolute cannot have an active working group looking at Equality Issues at the same time as voting for reforms that will actively decrease the diversity of an already pretty undiverse body. It would be extremely hypocritical. We need to vote this down and if the party wants a smaller board it needs to explain how diversity will be ensured now not as an afterthought.

  • lynne featherstone 10th Mar '22 - 3:55pm

    It’s not ‘any change’ – it’s one of four reforms put forward – and we have the chance to vote as to which we think will work best. The Thornhill review was unforgiving of all of our faults – and this proposal is the result of that. And Jennie – thank you for the love – but it’s not a ‘something must be done’ it’s a very specific proposal, giving membership options, and a result of a very studied and much praised report by Dorothy Thornhill and team.

  • lynne featherstone 10th Mar '22 - 3:58pm

    also – there were a number of proposals made in the consultation that we all had the chance to vote on and the four going forward came top out of the ten (I think) we had the choice of

  • It is not often that I disagree with Simon McGrath, but I do on the structure of the Board. I vote for the governing bodies of many organisations – charities, companies, building societies and professional bodies. In no other organisation are the candidates entirely self-selected, where the only information about them is provided by them, in a format that they choose. It sometimes seems that the election is conducted on the quality of the artwork rather than the qualities of the candidate for the role.

    The proposed Board structure will bring together the leaders of the different bodies responsible for delivering the mission of the Lib Dems – which is to get candidates elected so that our objectives can be achieved.

    Direct elections – especially with a large number of candidates – tend to favour candidates with large ‘constituencies’ (such as an associated organisation) or who are well known for completely different roles (and are often then already busy). That is not truly more democratic that the indirect elections of the proposed new structure.

    To reflect on several previous comments, might there be a connection between the zeal within the Party for ‘internal democracy’, and its level of electoral success?

  • Simon McGrath 10th Mar '22 - 5:17pm

    Thanks for all the comments – particularly from those who say they usually disagree with me. I have put in a request for a reference back.

  • lynne featherstone 10th Mar '22 - 5:26pm

    Reading Option 1: 14 out of the 17 board members proposed are elected – either directly onto the board or they are elected by subsets of members. Only 3 are appointed. For info in case of fake news!

  • Nonconformistradical 10th Mar '22 - 6:34pm

    @James Baillie
    “he whole “but they’re elected by subsets of members” argument is flat out silly – indirect elections massively favour existing insiders…”
    This is the key problem with this motion – and we the members aren’t being given any say in the composition of this hybrid board. It’s a take it or leave it situation – not acceptable.

    “it feels very much like we’re attempting a technical rearranging-chairs solution to a much broader problem of working culture, and those tend not to work well.”

    Deckchairs on the Titanic come to mind

  • So I think it is a fair comment that the at large elections are not the greatest example of democracy, and I do think we could do better. But then who are the “unelected” members of FB? They are more of the same sort of people but at one or more steps removed from the same sort of election. How is that an improvement?

    My preference would be a much more radical change than this sweeping away much of the alphabet soup of committees and holding elections in geographical constituencies where there is a better chance for actual knowledge of the candidates to come to bear.

  • Duncan Borrowman 10th Mar '22 - 9:59pm

    Lynne’s argument is like saying “the brakes are broken, replace the gearbox”.
    I am an outsider now, but this looks like no way of getting a body the overseas and scrutinises effectively. If I had a vote I would certainly vote against.

  • Lynne if I vote for someone to FPDC I am voting for them because I think they have the skills to improve the way the party develops people. That in no way indicates I believe they have the skills to have oversight of the entire party. I vote for FCC members who I think have the skills to organise a great conference, FPC members who I think can develop interesting and exciting policy and well you get the idea!

    There is no guarantee I would rank those same individuals in the same way if they stood for FB. It’s disingenuous in the extreme to argue that because Annie, Fred or Abimbola were elected to one committee that the people who voted for them must have intended for them to also sit on FB especially as the membership don’t get to vote for who chairs those committees.

  • My worry now is that Conference will vote for one of the proposed Reforms but fail to get the necessary two-thirds. This would be the worst possible result, wasting time & energy.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 11th Mar '22 - 4:16pm

    I could not care much about this, as in the modst of pandemic and war it seems utterly pointless.

    However, I cannot see why a body of this size and all these committees cannot be reduced and reformed.

    Do away with bureaucracy and have a streamlined way of doing things.

    And stop the cliquism!

  • I can see both sides of this argument, making it difficult to know how to vote, but I don’t think we should knock our leader for the election result. He has since then made a much more public contribution to media debate and publicising the Lib Dems than his predecessors managed to do.

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