Warning: this post is about the internal workings of the British Liberal Democrats. To anybody not a party member this will be of no interest, unless you want to draw some general ideas on how, or how not, to manage a political party.
Yesterday the Liberal Democrat English Council (EC) rejected a motion to implement a new constitution for the Liberal Democrats English Party, which, among other things, would have abolished the EC. I am a member of the EC and voted against the proposed new constitution. This deserves some explanation..
What is the EC? It is a group of representatives from across the party in England. Each regional party is entitled to a number of representatives based on the size of its membership. These are supposedly elected by the members of the regions, but in fact there a generally fewer volunteers than places, so it is mostly self-selected. The gathering amounts to fewer than 100 people (about 70 on this occasion), meeting twice a year in London (by the choice of its members a few years ago) for a 5 hour session. Its job is to take reports from, and put questions to, the officers of the English party, and to approve the administrative rules by which the party runs itself. It does not deal with matters of public policy because there is no English Parliament. Another party body, the overarching Federal Party, through various directly elected committees, a twice annual conference and an executive arm of paid employees, handles English policy issues.
Why have an English Party at all? The party has Scottish and Welsh “State” parties, following a long tradition in the party and its Liberal forerunner of supporting devolution to these nations (and before that to Ireland, a much more divisive issue in its time). When that devolution happened, with Scottish and Welsh parliaments, autonomous organisations in the two nations made even more sense – these entities could take on serious policy issues too. But that left an England-shaped hole in the party’s set-up, just as it does in the British constitution. The party, when it put together its constitution in the late 1980s, filled it with two levels of organisation: regional parties and the English party. The regional boundaries largely followed the arbitrary administrative concoctions the UK government used, which also became constituencies in the European Parliament. These convene twice-yearly conferences and elect executive committees. There is little policy work to do; only in London is there any kind of regional devolution to bodies that follow these regional boundaries. New “city regions” are emerging, but not in the sort of tidy way that can be used to carve up the country as a whole. The regions are of equivalent population size to Wales and Scotland (with London region being bigger, though more compact, than Scotland).
So why not give these English regions to the status of State Parties? Firstly because the Scottish and Welsh parties take great offence to the idea that English regions might have a similar status to their nations. Also because the administrative infrastructure required to keep regions on top of their responsibilities would be quite high. The Lib Dems cannot afford much in the way of professional administration staff, while the regulatory burden, from the Electoral Commission and data protection in particular, gets ever greater. And so we have the English State Party, which does things like set rules for candidate selection and disciplinary processes, and represents the English organisation in Federal Committees alongside the Scottish and Welsh parties.
And so how to ensure appropriate scrutiny of English Party officers, and represent English regions and local parties in big decisions? The regions and the Federal Party were already holding conferences twice a year, and besides such conferences often do a poor job in that sort of technical function. What is needed is something more like a local government scrutiny committee. The EC was the solution hit upon.
This leaves the party with an administrative structure that few members understand. The English party structure (and the English regions) are useless as a vehicle for promoting a serious political career, and so are left to backroom types with skills in administration but not salesmanship and explaining themselves. Every so often these structures come under criticism for being opaque and unaccountable. Following the calamity of the 2015 General Election, it was decided to review the whole thing, following an extensive consultation exercise with members. This job fell on the usual worthy suspects who did their best.
What was the aim of the review? Beyond being an expression of angst, this was never very clear. We had the usual sweet nothings about having something simpler and clearer which would allow activists to spend more time on campaigning. The proposal was to abolish the EC and its executive and replace them with committees composed mainly of regional officers, and an annual or twice-annual annual conference open to all members lasting about an hour, held in close proximity to the Federal Conference. This amounted to a gutting of the English Party and its powers being taken over by the Federal Party and the regions.
How did this look to EC members like me? It looked as if its sole purpose was to abolish the EC as an end in itself rather than to achieve any wider goal. It was very hard to see how the regions would be empowered as a result, and easy to see how the officers of the Federal Party would be. The ability of the committees and the new conference to act as scrutineers looked laughable compared to the admittedly flawed EC. So lots of people spoke against the proposal; people from further-flung regional parties (in the north and west) sounded particularly aggrieved – even those who had been part of the consultation process. The new constitution’s supporters offered no serious arguments in support of it, beyond it being a bit embarrassing if the thing was voted down. The motion needed a two-thirds majority, and it failed even to get a majority. No effort had been made in advance to sell the new constitution, or wheel in respected names to support it, or indeed to provide any supporting speakers beyond the proposer and seconder. It was a study in political ineptitude.
In that it was pretty typical of the Lib Dem English party. Nobody important in the party takes it seriously, and so it is left to hard-working but worthy types, with limited political skill. This is surely an inevitability. I personally think that the current constitution is the least bad of the options in the circumstances, and that a proper case had not been made for the new one. With constitutions it is best to be conservative, and weight towards the status quo. If that leaves the structure messy and opaque, we might reflect that in politics only dictatorships are clear and tidy.
Which does not mean that things can’t be improved. The disciplinary processes in particular need some careful thought. The working of the party as a whole could do with rethinking. But I don’t think the intermediate structures are a major part of the problem. It is dealing with the weaknesses of many struggling local parties in an unforgiving regulatory environment; and it is trying to improve the accountability of the Federal Party, while still giving it some room for manoeuvre. The former problem is the more urgent. The Federal structures have been overhauled recently, and it is too early to write them off.
Meanwhile learn this. If you want the turkeys to vote for Christmas, you had best give them a good reason.