Why we need the English State Party of the Liberal Democrats

Is there any point to the English State Party of the Liberal Democrats?”

A recent article asked this question, and it’s a good question, and one asked by many people over the years.

In some ways the English layer of the Lib Dems is there because we are a Federal Party with the Party in Scotland and Wales who are the constituent parts of the party, and there has to be something at an English level.

For the last three months I’ve been Chair of the Party in England. I don’t like calling it the English Party, as one of our Bangladeshi members in Portsmouth saw that I had got this new role and was worried that I had joined some right wing fringe party.

The Party in England has done good, behind the scenes work, over the last few years. It provides the framework for the approval and selection of parliamentary candidates so that we have the same standards across England. It has also run the disciplinary function in England for many years. For individual members this is now being done by the Federal Party, whilst the Party in England will try to resolve problems in Local Parties and Council Groups.

There are many functions that the Party in England could do, but it has decided its better done at a different layer of the Party. During the Covid 19 crisis we have seen the different nations of the UK make different decisions on lockdown etc. That’s because health is a devolved issue. The list of functions that the UK wide Government does are limited. Defence, foreign affairs, pensions, social security and abortion rights. So policy on education, transport, farming, environment, energy, health etc are all decided at the state level (Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England). So developing policy on these areas should be done by the Party in England as it is by the Scottish and Welsh Lib Dems. But we have taken the pragmatic decision that we will leave the policy creation work for these devolved subject areas with the Federal Party HQ. So there is no English Policy Committee, as this would be duplication. The same is true of the bits of Party Conference looking at devolved issues etc.

So what does the Party in England do? In my view no institution has the right to exist unless it is doing something useful and adding value.

In the three months I have been Chair of the Party in England I’ve seen the main benefit being that we bring together all the Regional Chairs, so we can help Regions work better, so they can help Local Parties work better. Ten days ago the Party in England sent out advice to Local Parties on how to do selections for the 2021 council election candidates (and what to do with candidates from the postponed 2020 council elections) during the lockdown, so that every Local Party has some guidance and doesn’t have to make it up from scratch.

We have debated and approved an Organisational Strategy Paper. This sets out our objective to support and empower Regions to help get Local Parties to work in a more efficient and effective way. To skill up Local Parties so that they are able to campaign on the ground in a more effective way, and in more places and therefore win more seats.

Many Regions now have Regional Development Officers working to skill up volunteers in Local Parties so they can campaign better and more effectively. I have just finished my term as Regional Chair in South Central Region and we have gone down this route, and it has shown how well this works. ALDC provide professional line management and support for around half these posts.

More and more Regions are looking at doing something like this, and the job of the Party in England is to spread best practice and help all Regions and Local Parties become better campaigning organisations. But there are other areas too. Getting more members in each Region involved in thinking about and developing policy. Helping Treasurers and Data Officers know their roles and do them well so we avoid trouble with the Electoral Commission and make the most of the money and the data we collect.

Over the last 10 years we have been hollowed out as a Party on the ground. Places that used to have strong and effective organisations have withered and contracted. Some so much so that we have lost all of our councillor base. If we are to rebuild that grassroots on the ground presence then someone needs to lead this in England, and this is the role I think the Party in England has chosen. To help support Regions and Local Parties to be more active in more places and win in more places.

So the Party in England exists because we are a federal party by nature. But it also exists to do this vital work of helping to rebuild our grassroots campaigning structure and to skill up the volunteers that are at the heart of our Party. I think that is a worthwhile role.

* Gerald Vernon-Jackson is leader of Portsmouth City Council, Lib Dem Leader at the Local Government Association and Chair of the English State Party of the Liberal Democrats

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17 Comments

  • Richard Underhill 31st May '20 - 9:12am

    Although the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland is a liberal party, their former leader David Ford told me that belonging to the Liberal Democrats is also allowed providing that there are no electoral contests. https://www.britannica.com/biography/David-Ford.

  • Peter Davies 31st May '20 - 10:20am

    “In some ways the English layer of the Lib Dems is there because we are a Federal Party with the Party in Scotland and Wales who are the constituent parts of the party, and there has to be something at an English level.”

    So it is essentially there to give the Scottish and Welsh Parties a sense of superiority over mere regions.

  • Declaration: as regional chair for the North East, I sit on the English State Party executive committee (chaired by Gerald).

    The simple way to understand the English State Party is that it exists to deal with the administration of the party in England, covering the nuts and bolts of governance, PPERA and GDPR compliance, candidate selection processes, membership, disciplinary processes and oversight of local and regional parties.

    Policy and campaigning sit elsewhere in the party structures, although we are seeking greater collaboration between HQ campaigns team and regional parties on campaign strategy. We also work to share good practice on local party capacity building and support effective training, internal communications and the equalities / diversity agenda in local and regional parties.

    As Gerald notes, local party capacity has diminished in some areas and it’s important the party works to address this. ESP is supporting the appointment of regional development officers to work with local parties to build capacity and effectiveness.

    I am aware some have called for regions to take on these powers and remove the English State Party tier. As chair of the smallest region (fewer than 2500 members), I don’t believe this is a viable strategy for my region, and I consider it is sensible for this to be administered by the ESP – under the oversight of an executive committee comprising regional party chairs and directly elected reps, together with English Council as a plenary of regional party delegates twice a year.

  • Gwyn Williams 31st May '20 - 12:24pm

    Thank you to @Gerald Vernon Jackson for explaining the current role of the Party in England. When 30 years ago we created a Federal Party with State and Regional Parties there were no democratic devolved institutions functioning in the UK. It would have been far more efficient and cheaper to have a single, command and control HQ based in London. We expressed our political desire for a devolved UK through our Party structures.

    Although Scotland,Wales, Northern Ireland and London have devolved parliaments and assemblies, the rest of England does not. New Labour’s devolution programme foundered at the Referendum in the North East of England.Our policy of “devolution on demand” has been in place for the best part of 20 years. It is hardly an aspiration let alone an inspiring statement of beliefs. We do not have a radical answer to the UK’s asymmetric devolution settlement. We have to look forward to the next 30 years not just tinker with our internal mechanism. Is our Party structure merely a campaigning machine or is it a reflection of how we want the UK to develop?

  • Tony Greaves 31st May '20 - 9:21pm

    No.

  • Simon Wilson 1st Jun '20 - 2:37am

    Richard Underhill
    Many Liberal Democrats are members of the Alliance Party and vice versa

  • Andy Hinton 1st Jun '20 - 10:30am

    Greg: “I consider it is sensible for this to be administered by the ESP – under the oversight of an executive committee comprising regional party chairs and directly elected reps…”

    This must be some new definition of “directly elected” that I hadn’t previously been aware of. From context, I’m guessing it means “elected by people who themselves had to be elected in a regional ballot before they even knew who the candidates for ECE were, and then wait a year before the elections for ECE come round again”.

    Ah, the firm smack of democratic accountability!

  • Peter Hirst 1st Jun '20 - 1:11pm

    What about reforming the English Party as a Party of the English Regions with a modified remit?

  • I’m getting a little tired of party officers telling us how our local parties are greatly reduced, etc.etc. We in North Somerset increased our local councillors five-fold at the elections last May. Then our candidate at the General Election in December, Ashley Cartman, increased his share of the vote significantly, far above the country’s average. Yet the “Party” had told us to go and help out in a neighbouring constituency who had no greater chance of success than we had. No wonder we are a little discouraged. National and regional committees are only effective if they really know what’s going on in local parties.

  • Julian Tisi 1st Jun '20 - 3:25pm

    “In some ways the English layer of the Lib Dems is there because we are a Federal Party with the Party in Scotland and Wales who are the constituent parts of the party, and there has to be something at an English level.”

    If that’s a main reason then the English Party has to go. This isn’t enough to justify a layer of bureaucracy and another set of meetings (and the opportunity cost of that). The activities of the English party can, by the sound of it, be transferred either to the Federal or regional parties or not done at all.

  • David Craddock 1st Jun '20 - 4:10pm

    Federalism is about a form of Governance that has Regions at its heart. I think we are confusing nation states in the UK and regions here. The Lib Dems haven’t yet established a true Federal structure and would benefit from it in my view. We are a party of localism and enterprise and need to consider how we can better fund and empower local parties and regions. Lets recognise and appreciate our place and our differences with a more devolved and less centralised approach.

  • George Potter 7th Jun '20 - 5:08pm

    Unfortunately there is nothing listed in this article as things the English Party does which aren’t already being done (often more quickly and much more effectively) by the regional parties.

    If this is the only answer to the question “what is the point of the English party?” then apparently the answer is “none”.

  • So I think the real problem with the English Party is its remoteness from any kind of accountability. Elections to EC are an afterthought to regional committee elections which are themselves hardly relevant to much of what an activist might take interest in.

    You want a party organisation for England? Forget the regions. Give each local party a rep, buddying up the smaller ones if necessary.

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