My Response to the current review of Lib Dem Governance

As I did the other day with my response to the Lib Dem policy process review, I am publishing here my response to the party’s Governance review (pdf).

1. Are these still our values?

The preamble seems generally right to me. The only bit that jumps out at me is the final sentence: “The Liberal Democrats consist of women and men…”. This excludes people of other genders; a number of people in the party do not identify as male or female. I’m not sure why we need to specify the genders of the people involved at all (so I would probably favour simply “The Liberal Democrats consist of people…”), but if we do, a more inclusive phrasing should be found.

The other thing which occurs to me is that there isn’t much about civil liberties, which seems a bit odd given the universal acceptance of the importance of this agenda within the party. It might be worth beefing this up, and explicitly committing the party to protecting digital rights.

Also, stylistically, the preamble is a bit mean on paragraphs in places!

2. Are these values embedded into our party structures at all levels, members, volunteers, elected office holders and paid staff?

The structures are hard to ciriticise for not living up to these values, though occasionally the office holders within them do clearly fail, and the party needs better accountability mechanisms to help members keep the actions and policies of the party in line with its values.

The only area where I would suggest that the party structures themselves are questionable is in the case of the English Party. Given the existence under the English party of the regional parties, the need to take decisions at the “most local level which is viable” is fulfilled. It is not clear to me what further purpose the English Party serves, and there is clearly a significant strand of opinion within the party (and, unlike the case of other committees, it includes a number of people who have served on it!) in favour of the abolition of the English Party, or at least of English Council.

3. What does the party do well to live its values?

Conference is a good expression of our values, I feel. The best of our campaigning also embodies the values set out in the preamble.

4. What does it need to improve?

The transparency and accountability of its structures.

5. What should the party stop doing or do less of?

6. What should the party start doing or do more of?

Fundraising. The party has come a long way in the last few years on this front, but without a concerted effort to maintain this forward momentum now, the party will not be able to do any of the other things it needs to continue to do.

7. If we believe in power being exercised at the lowest level possible, how do we make sure that decisions are made as close to members as possible?

We believe in devolving power to the nations and regions where “feasible”, and decisions and delivery at the “most local level which is viable”. Yes, local decision making is a good thing, all other things being equal. But there are obviously a number of areas where all other things are not equal.

For instance, there clearly needs to be a high level of central co-ordination and decision making in a general election campaign. The crucial thing is not to try to devolve things which clearly need to have a national dimension, but to ensure that just because something is centralised, it does not become remote and unresponsive to members.

Making decisions “as close to members as possible” is not just about creating ever more layers of hierarchical bureaucracy in the name of localism; it is more importantly about transparency and accountability, so that members feel involved in, or at least aware of, those decisions.

8. What should our strategic priorities be in determining the party’s structure?

Simplicity, transparency, accountability.

9. What powers or decision making within the party could be placed at a more local level than at present?

Abolish English Council, with a presumption in favour of moving its responsibilities down to the regions, unless there is a good case not to, in which case up to the Federal Party.

10. How can we ensure that there is, in our governance, greater: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty?

Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Far too much in our party is currently hidden behind a wall of foot-dragging excuses like
“commercial sensitivity”, “political sensitivity” and “oh, we don’t really take votes, it’s all very consensual really”. Many decisions taken by Conference are very consensual, but it doesn’t mean we dispense with the formality of taking a vote. That our committees apparently do dispense with it seems awfully convenient.

It is utterly useless to me as a member to be able to vote for the members of FE, FPC and FCC unless I have some way to know whether someone is worth re-electing, or whether I would rather they were replaced by someone else. That means I need some information about their record in that post. Ideally, that information should be objective. Ideally, that would mean both a voting record and some kind of standardised measure of how much actual work that person did as a member of that committee (attendance at meetings is a good start on this, but I would imagine this does not capture the full range of activity involved in being a member of these committees).

Without such information, I don’t feel that the way I cast my votes for these committees is very “objective”, and so we as ordinary members are failing on one of the Nolan Principles!

11. Are there any other principles that should underpin our governance?

Respectful treatment of all members of the party, and all staff.

12. How do we balance the ideal of transparency against the need to prevent information useful to our opponents reaching them?

As a very basic standard, decisions about what information is too “sensitive” should not be in the hands of the person/people who stands to benefit from the reduced accountability that such a decision might afford them. If an Information Commissioner is necessary to uphold the principles of Freedom of Information, we should not expect our own organisation to be any different. What is so frustrating about the thin information we get back from our internal bodies at the moment is that we are simply told to accept their word about what is or is not senstive.

It surely should not be beyond the imagination of people reporting the work of party decision makers to report that, for instance, “targetting decisions for the upcoming general election were taken, based on the criteria of doorstep contacts made, member and helper recruitment, fundraising, etc. As a result of these decisions 5 seats were de-targeted.” without then setting out what decisions those criteria led to?

I also think we should credit our political opponents with some sense. They will quickly infer what decisions we have made by observing their ground-level consequences. Of course we want to retain an edge, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves that it makes all that much difference if our opponents occasionally find things out a little sooner.

Lastly, the political sensitivity of information will usually be short-lived. Surely we could have retrospective reporting of the work
of our decision making bodies once the immediate usefulness to our opponents of those decisions has passed?

13. Which levels of the party should have public-facing activities and which should not? What are these activities?

This seems like a backward question. Surely the right approach is to define the public-facing activities of the party, and decide what level of the party makes the most appropriate home for them?

14. Should the party consider having more direct public (i.e. non-member) input into the organisation, and if so what form would this take?

No, but the party could consider lowering the barriers to entry (i.e. costs) for new members, as part of encouraging input from interested members of the public, at particular times (the obvious ones being high profile selections).

15. Are there some basic principles we should use when amending our governance structure?

All committees should have a duty to report their work to members, including details of votes taken, and if they are currently not taking votes on key decisions, they should be. Exceptions for sensitive information should not be solely in the hands of the committee concerned.

16. Do you want to see minutes of every meeting on the party website, reports on Lib Dem Voice and other blogs of party meetings? How should the party manage this openness of information with the few matters that are genuinely confidential?

Reports should be available only to members, to at least partly protect the information from our opponents. Genuinely confidential matters do, of course, need to remain confidential, but there should be a presumption in favour of at least reporting such matters in an anonymised and/or generalised manner, rather than simply omitting them completely.

17. Should the party devolve more resources to ensure effective capacity-building and campaigning skills in states and regions?

The party should take decisions with the aim of ensuring effective capacity-building and campaigning skills in states and regions. If it is felt that devolving resources can achieve this, then naturally that may be something we wish to do. However, ensuring that we place enough emphasis on these things will not happen automatically as a result of devolution. We need, instead, to shift the culture of the party.

18. Will activists return to a more active role in local parties and regions, and how do we ensure that they have the right skills?

It is worth noting that in many areas without the resources to employ organisers, activists have continued to have these active roles. It is only in our held seats that the hollowing-out of the party’s machinery in favour of paid staff has really occurred.

19. How do we best maximise the wide range of diverse skills which members have?

Encourage local parties to identify for themselves skills which they lack, and to get training where necessary. We also need to be better at actually *asking* our members when we have identified a gap; it may well be the case that there are actually people with relevant skills to be found.

20. Should we look at a clear career pathway and progression for staff, giving them an opportunity to work in a range of areas and fostering transferrable skills?


21. The party has members with a range of skills and experience. How can the party encourage the sharing of knowledge and skills among and between volunteers and staff to ensure that the party and both its paid and volunteer workforce benefit?

For a start, we need to be better at auditing and making use of the skills within the party. A number of other members have already highlighted the need to make use of the results of the survey which took place before the election. I would echo these sentiments. As a London-based sound engineer, it frustrates me to see poorly sound-engineered video material coming from HQ (or indeed at Conference – the London International Gospel Choir would have every right to feel hard done by after the recent rally!). I don’t intend this as a criticism of the staff who have put them together, but this sort of thing does make members feel that HQ does not place a high opinion on the skills which members have self-reported – perhaps with some justification in many cases! We need therefore a better way for HQ to know who genuinely does have the right skills to help them.

22. What do members and the party need to do to increase the level of skills of activists?

Stop being so cringingly apologetic to people who don’t want to engage with the party’s generally pretty good online resources, and stop humouring Connect refuseniks in particular! The fact is that the party does not have the resources to do everything it might like on this front, and it wastes a lot of time on people who seem mostly to want to give its trainers a hard time.

23. What more do we need to do to embed a new culture within the party?

Start placing a higher value on respectful interactions. In the same way that banks which are “too big to fail” are a problem in and of themselves, people who are “too useful” to be called out on disrespectful behaviour, or too well loved by the old guard of the party, are also a problem which should not be swept under the carpet and ignored.

There is also probably a case to be made for training about respect for personal boundaries and avoiding behaviour which can be read as harrassment for people in influential positions.

24. Should we change the way our discipline structures work to streamline and simplify them?

Probably, but the key needs to be in ensuring that their enforcement is consistent and firm.

25. How do we make sure that systems of accountability are properly in place at a local, regional, state and federal level, so that reporting and monitoring procedures work for members?

To some extent, the members need to be empowered to enforce this themselves – the party does not have the resources to do so itself. To that end, decision making bodies should not be too many steps away from direct accountability to the membership.

26. What do members want from the complaints and disciplinary processes? Should there be a stronger focus on early mediation and speedier resolution of problems?

I want a robust and responsive process, which takes complaints seriously and does not disregard consistent complaints from multiple independent complainants even when they are hard to prove. Early mediation and resolution of problems is obviously desirable, but since things only tend to get reported when they have reached a crisis, may be hard to pursue.

27. What can members and the party do to embed our values about diversity into the party?

Local parties whose membership does not reflect the demographics of their local area could be incentivised to improve this.

On a personal note: staff working for the party in the stress of an election can perhaps be forgiven for “banter” amongst themselves which is ill-chosen, but it does not create a welcoming atmosphere to newcomers who do not quite know what to make of it.

28. What more should the party do to support and help those from groups with protected characteristics and those underrepresented in parliament?

The party needs to develop a bit less of a culture of “the world is run by the people who turn up”, and recognise the role that various forms of privilege play in determining who turns up, and who feels confident enough to speak up, or apply for positions. Active attempts to mitigate this are necessary.

29. What should the party do to make this happen?

Take seriously the recommendations of diversity experts, even when they do not feel instinctively “right” to a liberal sensibility.

30. Should the party look at specific arrangements to ensure that party bodies, candidates and the leadership of the party are more diverse?

Yes, but it needs to be careful that in doing so it does not create “diversity ghettos”. For instance, the recent conference debate on the proposed rule changes to create a national “Deputy Leader” were problematic, to my mind. The *only* reasons given for the creation of such a position were so that it could widen the diversity of the leadership. Alongside the complete lack of any explanation of a separate job and skillset which this position would entail, therefore, it represented simply the creation of a token diversity opportunity, and was rightly defeated. Had it gone forward, I suspect it would have led to a situation where our leader was always a cisgender white middle-class man, and our deputy leader was then allowed to be, at the very least, female. This is not my idea of diversity at the top of the party, especially when no particular powers and responsibilities were
being handed to the Deputy post.

Another area which was picked up at conference was the question of BAME candidates in areas with larger BAME populations. I agree with the comments made at conference on this: BAME candidates need to be selected in winnable seats, not just seats where they might best be representative of the local population, if we are to actually improve levels of BAME representation in our elected representatives.

Zipping for list elections seems to have worked well for the party, so I see no reason not to return to it.

31. Should the party ensure diversity in the senior leadership roles of Leader, President and Deputy Leader?

For the most part it is hard to see how this could be done without excessive intrusion into the democracy of the party. However, I think there is a good case to be made for Leader and Deputy Leader to be a joint ticket, both because it would allow the creation of a more diverse ticket, but also because it would help to avoid the scenario where a Deputy Leader had widely differing views from the Leader. Where there is a need for a differing view from the Leader to be voiced, particularly if it represents a majority of the membership, then the President already exists, and is already understood to have a role which would allow this.

32. If yes, should this just reflect gender diversity, or other under-represented characteristics as well?

It is hard to see how joint tickets could be mandated to address all characteristics, without creating a scenario where people were being selected largely on the basis of their characteristics, and not their suitability for the job. I think the best course of action would simply be to let the formation of joint tickets be done without restrictions (except perhaps to mandate the inclusion of at least one woman), and allow the membership to judge whether they feel that the ticket brings a good range of positions, skills and representativeness to the table.

33. Should a deputy leader be elected by the members or appointed by the Party Leader?

Elected on a joint ticket.

34. If the Deputy Leader is elected, should the election for Leader and Deputy Leader be on a joint-ticket basis where possible?


35. Should remuneration and expenses be made available to the President and/or Deputy Leader?

Yes, ideally to both, but certainly to the Deputy Leader, to enable at least one position at the top of the party to be realistically open to someone who is not a parliamentarian.

36. Are party committees organised in such a way that all members who want to are able to take part? Can we use technology to help (as with telephone conferencing or Skype)?

Since there a number of people in the party who say they would like to but cannot, clearly the answer is no.

Committees need to be able to conduct their business effectively, so it may well be that there is a trade-off with the imperative to widen participation. That said, we need to become much less inclined to find reasons why not, and a bit more determined to find solutions to obstacles. Discussions of greater use of email, video conferencing, etc. have been long-running within the party; the problem is not lack of consideration given, it is with a lack of will to make it work on the part of the current incumbent elite. The right solution will probably always include at least some face-to-face meetings, but these could be minimised using email and Skype.

37. Should we highlight the areas of responsibility for certain committees more clearly, and encourage members standing for committees to highlight their expertise in those areas, rather than the tendency to focus on campaigning experience?

Yes. Not least because a better understanding of what it actually is that our committees do would be a good thing in itself, but also for the reason given.

38. Should we actively encourage progression in party roles, especially for those from underrepresented groups?

Not sure, what sort of “progression” is meant here?

39. If you have never stood for a committee, please tell us why.

Since I work predominantly in theatre, I work hours which I suspect would be incompatible with the majority of other members of a committee, and would not be able to commit to being available for a full term length (I might at some point be offered a tour, for instance, and therefore be away for an extended period).

40. Should we consider reducing the tiers of structures to simplify accountability? Should members be more than two steps away from voting for representatives? … Without going in to proposals for cutting specific committees, what should the basic principles be?

Yes, we should reduce tiers as far as possible. Equivalent units within the party should represent similar sized components; the
populations covered by the Welsh and Scottish parties make the English party a bizarre anomaly, which I suspect has a lot to do with the resentment felt towards English Council, and the apparent need for regional parties within the English party.

41. Should terms of office be streamlined, so that they are consistent within the party? If yes, what should the term be?

I suppose so, but it has never struck me before as a pressing concern. I do think that staggered elections (like the US Senate) for party committees might be an interesting idea to look at, though.

42. Should all elected officers and committee members have a time limit before they have to stand down for a period before putting themselves up for election again, or be time limited?

Not at levels of the party where finding good, committed office-holders is often a struggle, but towards the top of the party, there is a good case for this (and indeed, this is often already the case).

My Response the current review of the Lib Dem Policy Process

I have just emailed in to respond to the consultation paper of the aforementioned Review (pdf).  I at least partly based my responses on comments made at the recent consultative session at Bournemouth Conference, so they may make more sense to readers who also attended that, but they shouldn’t be incomprehensible to those who didn’t.

1. How can we involve a much larger proportion, and a much more diverse range, of our members, in policy discussion within the party?

Firstly, we need to stop wringing our hands about the potential downsides of new ideas, whilst pretending that the status quo does not have problems of its own. Indeed, in some cases, the problems cited about new ideas are *the same* problems that the status quo already has, as Paul Walter’s contribution to the consultation session ably demonstrated; I completely agree with Paul that people not listening to debates but turning up to vote is already an issue with the way our conference operates, and should not be taken as a reason why we couldn’t possibly extend conference online, etc.

Secondly, as a general principle, it should be clear to members how their decision to spend their time engaging with the policy process in some way or other actually leads to an outcome. I will return to this principle in some of my answers below, but to condense it into a rule of thumb: if any proposals come back from this review which talk about members or local parties nebulously “feeding in” their comments, without specifying precisely how this happens (and can be seen to have happened), I will be very disappointed! Where at all possible, pyramid-like structures involving “feeding in” to the next level up need to be flattened.

2. How can we best encourage informal policy discussion to be much more widespread in local parties?

I would like to take issue with some comments made at the consultation session. Several remarks were made to the effect that we (ie. members of political parties) all enjoy talking about policy, and that opportunities to do this were a good thing in and of themselves. I do not see it that way. Personally, I can’t say I enjoy talking about policy; I am a member of a political party because I want to actually see things *change*, which is not achieved simply by talking, though of course discussion is a vital part of policy formation.

Local party policy discussions may be a laudable aim, but we should be clear what they are for. My past experience of local party policy discussion has not encouraged me to do it more often. For one thing, there is not the level of expertise and therefore quality of discussion to be had in a local party as there is in, say, a conference debate.

Another issue is this: having given up some of my spare time to attend, I might make some suggestion at a policy discussion which I think is rather good. At this discussion, there may be someone designated to “feed in” our comments. *IF* that person agrees with me that it was good, they might include my remark in any synthesis of the “outcome” of the meeting which they write. Presumably they then send their writings to a designated recipient of such “feedings in” from all over the country. This person, *IF* they are similarly taken with my idea, might actually take it up and use it in their policy working group discussions. So that’s at least two hurdles before anything I say at a local party discussion would have any impact whatsoever on the wider policy process.

Crucially, *I have no way of knowing* if my idea has succesfully cleared these hurdles! Unless and until something that looks like my idea comes out the other end of the policy sausage machine, I have no idea whether it was worth my time and effort attending the discussion. On the other hand, I can write directly to a working group, or I can just put motions to conference (or sign other people’s motions), and go to conference and vote. These are concrete actions with a predictable, observable and quantifiable impact on the wider process. For that reason, I am much more interested in spending my time doing them.

A number of mentions of the “Calderdale model” were made at the consultation session. As someone who is not a Calderdale member, what I like about the Calderdale model is that it is reasonably apparent what comes of it: Calderdale local party’s name is often all over the conference agenda, in a way that allows us all to see in precisely what direction they are collectively pushing.

3. Is it as easy as it should be, for a new member wanting to participate in policy discussion, to do so? If not, what we can best to do make it so?

It will always be intimidating for a new member to participate in almost anything the party does. We should, of course, do what we can to minimise this, but I’m not sure it can ever be eliminated. I think personally, I would have found ways to participate in policy development online to be helpful.

My experience of being a new member is of being a young person in an area where the local party was relatively old, and fairly unknown to me (I joined for national reasons, not because anyone local asked me to), so opportunities to hang out with my local party were not all that attractive to me (especially when they came in the form of coffee mornings and not pub meets!). Conversely, there were a number of Lib Dem bloggers around at the time who seemed a lot more on my wavelength. What made me feel at home in the party was being a part of that online community, not being a part of my local party.

We, as a party, need to build our party in such a way as to allow this kind of member, without telling them that they are wrong and they are just going to have to learn to love their local party. Any solutions which this review arrives at which are dependent on local parties will almost certainly fail to engage this type of new member.

4. What practical ways can we use to make some policy discussion, especially working groups, much less South East-centric?

I would like to echo comments made at the consultation session. David Grace’s point about a travel pool for meeting attendance was good, but does still require that people have enough free time to travel to participate. I think, inferior in some ways as it may be, that online discussion, either by email or by Skype etc., needs to become a larger part of the working of a working group, so that face-to-face meetings are less frequent.

5. What are the best practical ways to make use of modern technology to engage many more party members, and more frequently?

There exist today good mechanisms for the online crowdsourcing of ideas and the harnessing of the “wisdom of crowds”. A policy suggestion and discussion site which allows nested discussions (so that people can respond to and follow particular lines of argument) could lead to good, detailed discussions which are simply not possible in the constrained timescale of a general discussion or consultation at conference.

I would suggest that such a forum incorporate the ability to up/down vote particular comments, and I would especially cite the way that comments work on Slashdot as an example of good practice: comments can be scored by other readers, and then the viewer can decide how much they wish to dig into the lower-rated comments. As was discussed in the consultation session, such a forum would need to be heavily moderated to ensure that it remained a civil and respectful space for discussion, but I would question whether this absolutely *had* to mean paid staff to perform this function. A volunteer team might be able to fulfil this function, provided that it was managed appropriately: rota-ed slots for being “on duty”, so that it could be ensured that someone was on duty at all times (and if there was not, then the site could be closed to comments until a mod was back on duty, which might serve as a good incentive to others to volunteer for moderating duties!).

In this way, working groups would be able to draw on much more well-developed suggestions from members. Perhaps there could even be a mechanism for the submission of motions to conference via a wiki-like group editing process? Even if this was not a formal mechanism, if the site worked well it would almost certainly lead to the submission of motions arising from discussion on the site.

6. Do we need to make formal party policy-making procedures more visible to members? If so, what are the best ways of doing that?

Perhaps some discussions of policy working groups could be made public – video them and stick it on YouTube, or elsewhere if you want to keep it “members only”, so that the rest of us have a better idea what the formal policy process entails.

In addition, the general response of the party’s internal committees to Mark Pack and others’ push for better reporting of their workings has been foot-dragging and stonewalling. In particular, the response that “often committees work by consensus, there are fewer formal votes than people might imagine” seems awfully convenient to me. Perhaps there *should* be more votes than members of these committees might imagine, if only to actually give the electorate which put them there a handle on whether they want to re-elect them. If parliament operated in the way that our internal committees do (very cursory summaries of their discussions, and an insistence that they needn’t report any votes because it’s actually mostly consensual), it would be considered a democratic outrage. Either these committees make decisions that are controversial enough to require democratic oversight, or they don’t, in which case why elect them at all?

7. How can we make engaging in policy discussion, in whatever forum, more attractive to members?

I have addressed this already, so I will simply repeat: Concrete and transparent ways for members to be able to see that their participation is actually having a meaningful impact on the wider process.

8. Should finding ways for all party members to be able to vote remotely, following live-streamed debates at conference, be a priority?

I would like to see it happen, but I’m not sure it’s “a priority” if that means that other areas of the process are left in the long grass. A number of things would also need to be worked out about conference. For instance, once there were online members voting alongside members in the conference hall, it would probably become necessary to count every vote. This would become impractically time consuming without a form of electronic voting in the hall, registered to the particular party member (otherwise there would be no way to ensure that people were not voting twice: once in the hall, and once online using a tablet or similar). Meanwhile, if votes still took place immediately after a debate concluded, then conference would not have been widened to the greatest possible participation. Yes, it would include some members who could not afford to travel and accommodate themselves to come to conference physically, but it would still exclude those members who simply could not secure time off work to attend conference even electronically.

For that reason, if we are to widen conference with an online dimension, I think we need to break the assumption that a vote takes place immediately after a conference debate has taken place. Instead, voting could be opened immediately following the debate, but be open for a given window of time. How long this window would be is obviously a matter for discussion, but I would suggest that it should be at least 24 hours, to enable members who work to participate, whatever
pattern of work they have.

9. Should the fundamental principles of conference making policy, supported by a policy committee, be changed? If so, how?

Conference’s sovereignty should not be changed, but I do think the “Standing Panels” idea might be a worthwhile alteration to the working of Policy Committee.

10. How can we best ensure ongoing effective co-ordination between the party’s formal policy-making structures, and MPs, Peers, MSPs, AMs and MEPs?

It occurs to me (and I surely can’t be the only one?!) that section 4.1 (Standing Panels) and 4.3 (Parliamentary Party Committees) of the consultation document cover overlapping territories, and should probably be merged into a single proposal. If MPs, Peers, etc., were ex-officio members of the Standing Panels relevant to their allocated policy areas (and allowed access to others), this would be a good way for them to be connected to the party’s structures.

13. What else about our policy process is it important that we improve?

Some conventions of the way that conference operates, particularly the “2 year rule”, are sensible in opposition, but came to be used to stifle conference’s ability to contribute to the debate on government policy as it developed whilst we were in government. Perhaps we should draw on the experience of the last five years to develop a different set of conventions for the operation of the party’s structures in government, whilst retaining conventions more like our existing ones for times when we are in opposition.

Unsolicited advice: What @timfarron should have said to Cathy Newman

Since I haven’t blogged about Tim at all yet, I should probably begin (just to be clear where I’m coming from) by saying that I voted for Tim, and I was thrilled that he won the leadership contest. I think Tim will be a fantastic asset to the party during his tenure as leader.

Anyhoo, last night he gave an interview to Channel 4 News’s Cathy Newman (reported here under the bizarrely self-referential headline “Tim Farron asked three times if gay sex is a sin”) which has caused some uproar amongst some within the party, not least those with doubts about Tim’s ability to separate his faith from his role as an MP legislating for people of all faiths and none.

Norman Lamb’s leadership campaign (ultimately unsuccessful, but nevertheless quite effective, having narrowed the expected margin between the two contenders substantially) played quite heavily on these doubts, and certainly made misgivings about Tim’s faith more of a live issue within the party. In my own case, feeling like I know reasonably well who Tim is, and, as a bisexual man, feeling like I am quite capable of evaluating his record on LGBT rights for myself, the Lamb campaign’s dog whistling proved counter-productive, making me if anything more inclined to support Tim. Given the reactions last night of a number of friends, acquaintances, and fellow LGBT+ folk who I’ve not yet met, I suspect I wasn’t the only one.

As ever, the news media like to tug at anything they perceive as a loose thread, to see what might unravel. I don’t think it’s entirely fair, though, to blame Norman’s campaign for this line of questioning. As many people who had doubts about Tim argued, it’s not just that he’s a Christian, it’s that his voting record in some areas is sufficiently out of line with the majority of the party, and in ways which, superficially, fit into a standard “traditional Christian” frame. As such, the question of whether his faith determines his actions as a politician is a legitimate one, and one of which we probably haven’t heard the last. It’s for that reason that I’m writing about this, rather than just ignoring it and hoping we all move onto something more interesting, much as I’d like to.

The general objection to last night’s interview was that Tim sounded shifty and evasive, and I’ve seen a number of comments about last night’s interview along the lines of “Tim needs to have a better, sharper answer to questions like this”, but not many suggestions as to what that answer should be. After all, the consensus seems to be that a straight “yes” or “no” answer wouldn’t help either, leading inevitably to more questions; to return to the “loose thread” metaphor, once they start pulling on it, where does it stop? So I thought I’d have a go at figuring out what the problem with Tim’s answers actually is, and what the right answer might look like. Firstly, here’s what actually was said in the interview:

CN: You’ve abstained during votes on Same Sex Marriage in the past. You’ve said recently that, politically, you regret that. Personally, though, do you think, as a Christian, that homosexual sex is a sin?

TF: Well I think that, first of all, I mean, somebody who is a Christian does not then go enforcing their views on other people. And it’s not our issues, our views on personal morality that matter, what matters is do we go out there and fight for the freedom of every single individual to be who they wish to be –

CN: OK, I take your point –

TF: That’s what makes a liberal.

CN: OK, but I’m asking for your personal view, do you personally, as a Christian, believe that homosexual sex is a sin?

TF: To understand Christianity is to understand that we are all sinners, and perhaps the Bible phrase that I use most with my kids, but actually on myself, is that you don’t pick out the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye, when there is a plank in your own. The reality is, to understand the Bible, and if perhaps another time you want a long theological discussion, the – my understanding is – well, my firm belief is that we are all sinners.

CN: OK, but when the Bible says “you shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female, it is an abomination” you don’t have any problem with that?

TF: Well look, I mean, so – fundamentally, my faith is based upon my belief that Jesus Christ is who he said he is. But, again, Cathy, you know, this is a very interesting discussion, it’s important to me, but I’ve not just been –

CN: But it’s important to your party as well, because these are values that I appreciate are your personal values, but they’re not very liberal values, are they?

TF: I mean, come off it, we’ve just been led, or at least we were for seven years during, you know, the early part of this last decade, by a Roman Catholic for seven years; Charles Kennedy who led us so passionately against the appalling Blair/Bush Iraq war, and who built us up to our strongest point in our recent history. We were led, admittedly a century and a bit ago, by Gladstone, arguably our most successful leader ever. This is the party that is based upon religious tolerance, and indeed the tolerance of people who are not religious at all, and defending the rights of every individual, whether they be a member of a minority or not. It’s a peculiar thing to say that somebody who happens to belong to a religious group, who’s a Christian, can’t be a liberal. It’s exactly the opposite: to be a member of a minority group of any kind, is to understand in a very clear way, why it is that every minority, every individual’s rights matter. My rights are your rights, whatever you believe, whatever I believe.

What strikes me immediately about those answers is that, much as Tim has felt it unfair that he is asked such faith-based questions, his instinct is always to answer them “as a Christian” first, and “as a Liberal” second. Each time Newman asks him whether he thinks “homosexual sex is a sin”, the first substantive things he says are, respectively:

“somebody who is a Christian does not…”

“To understand Christianity…”

“fundamentally, my faith is based upon…”

The first and last time, he does manage to work his way around to how that fits into the picture of his liberalism:

“…That’s what makes a liberal.”

“… It’s exactly the opposite: to be a member of a minority group of any kind, is to understand in a very clear way, why it is that every minority, every individual’s rights matter.”

It is precisely because Tim offers answers to such questions which do explore his views on faith that he will keep getting asked them. I assume that this is not accidental, that Tim has consciously decided that it is important to him not to hide his faith, and indeed to take opportunities to affirm publicly his “belief that Jesus Christ is who he said he is”, etc. It’s not a view I share (I’m an atheist), but I can empathise with it, given the basic parameters of a Christian faith. I’d love to figure out a response to Newman’s questions which is compatible with that urge and doesn’t open a can of worms, but I have to admit I’m a bit stumped.

Nonetheless, the honesty which is at the heart of Tim’s apparent shiftiness here (he refuses to say something which he doesn’t really feel, even if it might be a more expedient answer) is an asset, not a liability. The willingness to actually engage with a question which Tim shows here is laudable, it’s just that he needs to remember what his priorities are when being interviewed as leader of the Liberal Democrats, not as “Tim Farron, Christian”. Whilst being mindful of the need to “let Bartlet be Bartlet“, then, my conclusion is that the best way for Tim to conduct himself as leader of the party is to train himself to make sure that the first words out of his mouth in response to such questions are always “Liberal-first”. What might that look like? I’d love to hear other suggestions, but here’s my stab at it:

CN: You’ve abstained during votes on Same Sex Marriage in the past. You’ve said recently that, politically, you regret that. Personally, though, do you think, as a Christian, that homosexual sex is a sin?

TF: First of all, Cathy, I voted in favour of Same Sex Marriage at Second Reading, the kind of “broad principle” stage of the legislative process. I abstained at Third Reading, the “nitty-gritty details” stage of the process, because I did feel there were areas of the bill which were insufficiently liberal. One of those areas was on conscience protections for registrars, which is about freedom of religion, a key liberal principle. Another area was on the spousal veto, an area of the bill which was (and still is) of great concern to many trans people. What I regret is that people have read that abstention as me being opposed to Same Sex Marriage, which I am not. What matters here is not my own personal faith, what matters is how I do my job as a liberal.

CN: OK, I take your point, but I’m asking for your personal view, do you personally, as a Christian, believe that homosexual sex is a sin?

TF: Look, I’m not going to answer that directly, Cathy, and let me explain why. As a Liberal, I believe in the separation of Church and State, and my role, the reason I’m on your programme tonight, is that I lead a political party – I am very much on the “State” side of that separation. I don’t think it’s particularly helpful in a secular democracy for our politicians to start pontificating about their own personal views on faith, so I’m not going to do it now, no matter how many times you ask me. The question is not what I might think is a sin or not, the question is where the law should stand, and what rights and protections people should have. As a Liberal, my instinct on that question is to protect individuals rights and freedoms, whether that is the freedom to love who you love, or the freedom to believe what you believe.

CN: OK, but when the Bible says “you shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female, it is an abomination” you don’t have any problem with that?

TF: Well look, I am not here to lead a theological discussion about individual verses in the Bible. As important as that is to me, it isn’t my job as leader of the Liberal Democrats. If you want a range of considered views on that question I suggest you take it up with the clergy.

CN: But it’s important to your party as well, because these are values that I appreciate are your personal values, but they’re not very liberal values, are they?

TF: I think that’s a fundamental misreading of what liberalism is. This is the party that is based upon religious tolerance, and indeed the tolerance of people who are not religious at all, and defending the rights of every individual, whether they be a member of a minority or not. “Liberal values” are not about what positions people may or may not hold as a matter of personal faith, “liberal values” are about tolerating others who you don’t agree with, and protecting each others’ rights to live our lives as we choose to, so long as we aren’t harming anyone else. It’s a peculiar thing to say that somebody who happens to belong to a religious group, who’s a Christian, can’t be a liberal. It’s exactly the opposite: to be a member of a minority group of any kind, is to understand in a very clear way, why it is that every minority, every individual’s rights matter. My rights are your rights, whatever you believe, whatever I believe.

Anyone got a better idea?

Lib Dem Year Zero?

I suspect that the current flurry of posts about where the party goes from here are as much about helping their authors get their own thoughts straight as they are about joining an internal party debate, and if so then what follows shares that characteristic. I mention that at the start by way of an apology to anyone who feels I’m simply regurgitating something they have already said; I have read some other views on this already, and agree with a good deal of them. I include at the end of this post some links to posts with which I (at least partly) agree.


Moving Forward

The first thing is to say that the party needs, quite quickly, to establish that it can build from here and ensure that the media doesn’t simply erase us from the picture, leading to a loss of momentum and steady slide into irrelevance. Of course, frustrating experience as a party member has shown us all that trying to ensure that the media do anything is easier said than done, but we need to take every opportunity to stake out liberal territory and make the running on particular issues. I suspect that there will be opportunities, particularly in areas where we, and not Labour, have traditionally been the more consistent opponents of a particular Tory policy, such as the Snooper’s Charter and repeal of the Human Rights Act. This is especially true whilst the frame of “things the Tories can now do because the Lib Dems can’t stop them” is relevant and fresh in people’s minds. As the years of government roll on, this frame will be supplanted by a more general “things the government want to do, and the opposition say are bad”, and the default voices of opposition will be Labour ones.

Whilst the party doesn’t have a new leader, it will be all too tempting for Nick Clegg to be the voice which makes such arguments from opposition, but I think we need to resist this temptation. Nick’s brand over the last five years was clearly not a popular one, and I think one of the key errors we made as a party was to stubbornly present to the public a face who they had made very clear they were at best unenthusiastic about. That’s a mistake that I think Labour equally made, but I digress…

For that reason, I can understand Greg Mulholland’s impatience to have a new leader in place, but actually I do think a leadership contest is the key context in which a genuine post-mortem of the last five years can take place. Once a new leader is in place, whoever that is, any internal review will be bounded and steered somewhat by them. Therefore, I fall more on Mark Pack’s side the argument, and I’m happy that the FE’s timetable for the election of a new leader does leave the time for a certain amount of internal debate to take place, albeit not extensive.


For what it’s worth, I tend to agree with Greg’s assertion that the party would do best to move on and heal the sense of betrayal over tuition fees by electing a leader who did keep his pledge. I also agree with Jennie that we need to “get rid of the stupid managerial centrism and go back to being actual liberals and democrats now“, and David Boyle’s view that “the trauma of coalition moulded the party into a deeply pragmatic force, provided them with the dullest manifesto in political history“.

Whilst I can’t especially prove it right now, I think one of the core reasons for the softness of our vote on Thursday was that we weren’t presenting, at least nationally, much of a concrete sense of who we were or why people should vote for us. Tactical calculations about how best to influence the makeup of a government evidently weren’t what the public were looking for in a decision on how to vote – especially from a leader who had demonstrated that he was prepared to compromise on almost anything in the pursuit of the more grown up, consensual politics that he believed in.

Before the 2010 election, what people liked about Clegg was that he was a good communicator, and he had a spiky Liberal instinct that led to him promise, for instance, that he would rather go to jail than carry an ID card. I still think those qualities are valuable, but I suspect Clegg’s spiky liberalism was in reality an extension of his communication skills – a calculated position which suited him at the time. We later saw that, faced with the first draft of the Snooper’s Charter, Clegg and his circle in government initially didn’t see much wrong with the proposals, only hardening their line in response to the immediate reaction it provoked in the wider party.

So in this leadership election, I will be looking for a leader who abandons the definition of our party in reference to the positions of the other two, and focuses on giving the voting public a clear understanding of their brand of liberalism. I will be looking for a leader who gives the impression of having a political philosophy of his own, not a series of negotiating positions. And I will be looking for a leader whose instinct is to listen to the party, not to manage them.

In short, I’m not saying that I’m definitely voting for Farron, but I am saying that any other candidate is going to have an uphill struggle to convince me that they are a better fit for the criteria above.


I am usually instinctively suspicious of calls for unity. That it became one of our campaign slogans in the last couple of weeks now seems to be almost universally agreed as a mis-step, and yet some people have still been calling for unity and being terribly nice to each other in the wake of the result. I think I hold a middle ground here, but I must say my sympathies are more on the Alix Mortimer side of this one. Obviously a circular firing squad is counter-productive, but in the wake of a result like Thursday’s, I think we do need to be painfully honest with ourselves as a party. As ever, the secret lies in criticising actions taken and decisions made, but trying not to impugn the motivations and character of the people involved, I suppose.

Hitting the Reset Switch

Of course, for a working political party, there is never any such thing as down-time. We still have 8 MPs, 5 AMs, 5 MSPs, 1 MEP, 2257 Councillors, and so on. For the reasons I set out at the start of this post, it is vital that we don’t simply shut down for a few months of navel gazing.


The party’s current situation does call for some kind of reboot, and this is the closest thing to a suitable time to remake the party as we are likely to ever have, so we might as well grasp the opportunity for a genuine root-and-branch remodelling of the party. Not so much of its policies, as its internal structures. One of the less controversial statements to make about the federal Lib Dem party in recent years is that its interal structures are over-complicated and secretive. The Morrisey Report into the party’s processes and structures highlighted this:

An organogram of the Lib Dems internal organisation.

An organogram of the Lib Dems internal organisation.

The arguments over whether all of these bodies are really necessary are complex, and in many cases, if we were to sit down with a blank sheet of paper and start from the first principles of democracy, accountability and efficiency, we might well end up reinventing some of the above. But the point is, some of it we wouldn’t. Now is a great time to undertake that exercise. For that reason, I completely agree with Jennie’s call for a constitutional convention at Autumn Conference (and see the comments to that post for some interesting discussion as to how to go about it).


Of course, the party’s internal structures aren’t the only thing which need a review. There will inevitably be lessons to be learned from the campaigns of the last few years, particularly the general election. Now that we have freed ourselves from the need to keep our heads down and keep going whilst we were in government, we can be really honest with ourselves about the questions that need answering. A few years ago, in the thick of the coalition, Tim Farron gave a conference speech which has resonated for longer than most. For one thing, it was The Cockroach Speech (and by the way, go buy one of Sarah Brown’s fab t-shirts). But actually, more of it deserves to be remembered. In the speech, Tim called for “a renewal of the theory and practice of community politics”.

It was the right prescription, but perhaps the wrong timing. While we were on the treadmill of government, the party only had the mental space to take this on board superficially. Now, we need to renew our whole campaigning style. Not necessarily because what we have right now is wrong, but because it is associated with the Liberal Democrats of the last five years. Jennie’s post calls for a “rebrand”, which is a word which can provoke suspicion in some. The best rebrands flow on from genuine renewal of the underlying product. I suspect that renaming the party isn’t the answer, but rather rebuilding our modus operandi. The theory and practice of community politics is still very relevant, as Tim pointed out, and of course there is baby to be retained as we seek to indentify the bathwater.

But as The Theory and Practice of Community Politics itself argued, “[campaign] techniques are a means to an end. If they become an end in themselves, the ideas they were designed to promote will have been lost.” We don’t cease to be Liberal Democrats if we re-examine our campaign methods. If we were designing our campaigns from scratch today, what would they look like? Focus leaflets and fakey newspapers? Well, maybe, but let’s ask the questions. In particular, we need to actually properly embed the advances that technology has ennabled us to make.

Connect is a wonderful tool, but currently we spend a lot of time trying to make it fit around our established ways of doing things, rather than renewing our established ways of doing things to take full advantage of the opportunities it offers. Too many of our canvassers are unaware of its underlying mechanics and therefore fill in canvass cards as though the data was destined for EARS still. Having spent the last few months doing quite a bit of data entry in a target seat, I could count the number of tags I applied to people in Connect that might have actually been useful to Operation Manatee (at least in the way that its operation has been described) on the fingers of one hand. In part, that’s also because there are pretty limited ways of recording the nature of conversations which have been had on doorsteps. MiniVAN has also been depressingly under-exploited so far.

I’ve just seen Anders’s post, which shares some ground with the above, but I hadn’t seen it when I wrote this, honest! I’ve actually just deleted a section about updating our understanding of “communities” as more than just geographical, because Anders seems to have been thinking along much the same lines as me, and expressed it rather better than I had! I’d also like to add that whilst I sympathise with his trying to defend the party’s structures as being less complex than the diagram I quoted above would suggest, I still think it is revealing that someone who presumably sat down to try to make a clear and simple representation of how the party works apparently couldn’t do better than that diagram!


Lastly, I think it’s worth saying that the sovereignty of conference as a policy-setting body needs to be re-embedded as part of the consitutional renewal mentioned above. The best of the party’s achievements over the last five years have come off the back of policy which came from conference, and the party’s uniquely ground-up policy structure. We are happy to celebrate the wisdom of conference when it suits the leadership. When conference reps clearly wished to use conference to kick the leadership (on the Health and Social Care Act, Bedroom Tax, etc.), they were generally also right with hindsight, and the leadership wrong. And yet, too often during the last five years, it has felt like attempts by party members to use conference to sound the alarm on impending disasters were being, if not suppressed, then managed. Avoiding embarassment for the leader at conference, or respecting “the two year rule” should not be more important than ennabling the expression of the concerns of a good many people.


As Liberals, we all love a bit of navel-gazing and agonising about process, and many of us have learned to try to control that urge. But sometimes, that kind of renewal is exactly what is needed. It’s notable that there appears to be a good deal of consensus around some of this in the posts which I’ll be linking below, which is encouraging. I’ll be reading further posts with interest, and hoping to hear some engagement with this discussion from the leadership candidates.


Jennie Rigg’s Where Do We Go From Here?

Alix Mortimer’s Five things the Lib Dems should do now that nobody else has suggested

David Howarth’s Thoughts on the Way Forward

Greg Mulholland’s Tweets, particularly this one

Mark Pack’s The Liberal Democrats need a leadership contest, not a coronation

David Boyle’s My traumatised Liberal Democrat party must rediscover its radical heart

Anders Hanson’s Where We Go From Here

Nick Barlow’s Thoughts on the Lib Dems: Past, present and (hopefully) future

What My Vote Achieved

…in the Lib Dem internal elections (of course!).
I won’t bore you with a full rundown of where all my prefs went, but my first prefs were allocated as follows:
Fed. Executive: Caron Lindsay

Fed. Policy Comm.: Richard Flowers

Fed. Conference Comm.: Zoe O’Connell

International Relations Comm.: Nasser Butt

ELDR Delegation: Aliss Moss


And here is what my votes ended up supporting:


Fed. Executive: Caron Lindsay elected

Fed. Policy Comm.: Gareth Epps elected

Fed. Conference Comm.: Justine McGuinness elected

International Relations Comm.: Gordon Lishman elected

ELDR Delegation: Aliss Moss elected


So, not quite what I most wanted, but thanks to STV I can point to someone on each of the committees, and say “I helped put them there.”

Which is pretty nifty.

Conference Accreditation: What do FE Candidates Think?

Jennie Rigg has been doing some great work recently, posing questions to candidates for FPC and FCC in the upcoming Lib Dem internal elections. In an effort to compliment her efforts, I wanted to plug one of the gaps which this has left, however. In the light of Jon Ball’s response to Jennie’s question on police accreditation for conference-goers, it seems that it might well be very relevant to know what candidates for FE think about the subject, as well as candidates for FCC.

I have therefore emailed (or failing that, tweeted) as many of the candidates as I could find contact details for, either from within their statements for the election to FE, or via a quick Google. I did not include those who have already been asked to give their views as part of their responses to Jennie, as a couple of people who are also standing for FCC have been. You can see the responses which I received below.

For the sake of transparency, here is the specific email they were responding to (except for the ones who replied to a tweet, which was necessarily shorter!):

Dear all,

I realise you possibly weren’t expecting to field many questions on this subject in the course of standing for FE, but since Federal Appeals Panel has (apparently) ruled that police accreditation for federal conference is an FE matter, not FCC, I’m afraid I’d like to ask you about it! Apologies if I’ve missed a previous pronouncement of yours on the subject.

Could you tell me what your position on accreditation is?

Many thanks,
Andy Hinton
(Voting Rep)

Robert Adamson:
-Has responded to Jennie here.

Qassim Afzal:
-Not emailed, since he will already have had the opportunity to respond to Jennie.

Elaine Bagshaw:
Tweeted back:

It needs to be evidence-based and to date I haven’t seen any that’s justified the policy.

Prue Bray:

In an ideal world accreditation would not be necessary. However, we don’t have an ideal world, so it is necessary. It is not realistic to suppose we could have a conference without it, because we wouldn’t get insurance and the venues wouldn’t take us. If someone could prove that is not true it would be great. But I think if they could prove it, they would have done so already, given the amount of upset accreditation has caused.

There are some issues for people who for whatever reason have not always had the same identity (or indeed, to a lesser extent, for people who have lives which don’t fit having passports or national insurance numbers or stable addresses) At the moment, this is being dealt with by a fudge involving a couple of people reviewing applications on a case by case basis. It relies on individuals knowing that the fudge exists, and trusting it. That is not brilliant. If you have a better idea, I’d be prepared to listen.

I don’t like accreditation, but you can’t always have what you want. Any ideas for improving it?

Kristin Castle:
-No reply at this time.

Daisy Cooper:

In short, I’m opposed to conference accreditation. There is no evidence that accreditation makes people any safer. It is possible to enter Parliament, and major international events (such as the Olympics) and venues, with nothing more than an airport style security check at the door – something which we already have at conference.

Moreover, I think that the way the debate has been framed is unhelpful. There is a suggestion that insurance is not possible without accreditation, so no accreditation means no insurance.

I simply don’t believe this. If there are additional security concerns now that our party is in government, then there is a case for additional security measures, but these need not infringe upon our civil liberties. The insurance company could request additional scanners, increasing the distance between the scanners and the venue, and/or request additional security sweeps of the venue(s) in the preceding days of and during the conference itself. These kinds of measures would probably be more effective anyway!

Sean Davey:
-No reply at this time.

Jonathan Davies:

I have been a member of FFAC for the last four years, and so participated in FFAC’s decision to agree accreditation, which was then also agreed by FE.

FFAC did not call in this matter or seek to impose a decision on the Conference Committee. FFAC was told that whilst FCC considered that accreditation was unacceptable, FCC recognised given the potential issues for the party and the FFAC’s responsibility for financial issues, it was not a decision that FCC could take. A buck seemed to be being passed.

The Party has a duty to take reasonable care for the Health and Safety of its staff and the staff of many other organisations who attend conference. Faced with strong advice from the police that accreditation was a necessary precaution, I felt it would be very difficult, and in breach of the Party’s health and safety duties, not to accept that advice. Given the threat level to the high profile autumn conference, there’s an obvious strong security benefit in knowing the identity of everyone coming within the security cordon.

Ramesh Dewan:

All my Liberal values make me come out against accreditation, particularly because I am not aware of any evidence that tells me that accreditation makes us safer.

Sue Doughty:

My answer below is in a personal capacity.

The matter was referred to the Federal Finance and Administration Committee which is a sub committee of FE. Accordingly when they had reviewed the situation it then went to FE for acceptance.

I am already familiar with the requirements for visitors to government offices and indeed for meetings there now you need to be pre booked. This is based on an agreed security risk and I believe that as members of the government we have found ourselves in a position of accepting joint responsibility for our foreign policy even if it may not be our Lib Dem policy. I have also, in a professional capacity, visited the Labour party conference when they were in office and had to go through facial recognition. Given that I was representing an organisation campaigning on environmental issues my responsibility was to attend specific meetings in order to make the case with senior party members.

In Guildford I have strongly campaigned against the unnecessary collection of personal information, in particular children’s thumb prints used to authorise payments for school meals and library withdrawals.

I do believe that the party has a corporate responsibility to assess all risk to members attending conference – not only on a security basis, but the more usual risks – fire, health and safety etc and to ensure that we meet reasonable recommendations.

Regarding accreditation I am satisfied that although the police have access to the names of applicants for conference registration where a question has arisen about a particular individual, this has been referred to the party president and then enquiries are made locally to identify whether there is any supporting evidence which might be of concern. The final decision lies with the party and not with the police. In practice this is more likely to result in additional information being provided which supports the application going forward. Of course there are sometimes queries about change of name (for example an individual in a witness protection programme or escaping a violent past) or even gender which could be inconsistent with past information. The party has put in place separate procedures so that information provided is not held post registration.

I have not been able to ascertain how many, if any, people have been prevented from attending conference due to the accreditation process and of course would like to hear of any such cases from either people who have had their applications refused on the basis of security recommendations or who have had sufficient concerns that they have chosen not to apply for registration at conference. I am not aware of any.

In closing, I recognise that provision of such information is of deep concern to Liberal Democrats but as a member of the Federal Executive I also share a corporate responsibility for the safety and security of all members, staff and visitors. I feel that the arrangements at present are strong in terms of security, but the right balance has been made in leaving the final decision about individual registrations with the party and not with the police.

Neville Farmer:

In principle, I hate any “big brother” intrusion on the party but I’m also aware of the police concerns and think we must be realistic about finding a working compromise. I also believe that if we are to suffer this intrusion, it could be handled with more respect and less bureaucracy.

I accept the need for a level of accreditation but this should certainly not contravene our own Liberal Democrat principles as it clearly did there.It was clear at the Birmingham conference last year, that the police had gone far too far in its demands and the party had acquiesced too easily. Since then, things seem to have improved but I was very unhappy with the party’s responses to complaints at the time and I would seek to change that culture if elected.

There are a few lines in the sand that should not be crossed…

It is absolutely unacceptable for the police to hold onto data beyond the conference.

Gender change or name change should never be a cause of denial of access.

The parameters the police use to recommend denial of access should be seriously re-considered if they have not been already.

These parameters should be made clear to the membership, so they can decide whether they wish to be put through it or not.

Jock Gallagher:

I was a BBC journalist covering the Tory’s 1984 conference in Brighton.
I’m afraid, therefore, I have little hesitation in accepting the need for additional checks on all
those attending our conference.
My liberal instincts are, in this instance, over-taken by a concern for all those attending the conference.

Sarah Green:
-No contact details, if you have any contact details for Sarah please let me know.

James Gurling:

I wasn’t aware of an FAP ruling on this issue – which is odd as I am also the FE rep on FCC. Perhaps Monday evening’s FE will shed some light on this matter – it is also a shame as I am a great supporter of the notion that FCC has responsibility for conference matters.

Whatever the case FE’s involvement in this matter came as a consequence of the profound financial risk that not having a conference, or being open to challenge after the fact, would have on the Party as a whole. In that regard the FE was certainly right to note the decision of the FFAC.

In true Lib Dem tradition, the very acceptable compromise arrived at by the Party President made sure the accreditation system as applied to both Tory and Labour conference goers was amended. This compromise ensured that there is review by Party appointees and made possible the exemption of certain categories of Lib Dem Party members from the accreditation process.

I voted for accreditation (with the caveats) in order to ensure conference registrations could start for Party members (commercial ones etc had already started) to minimise financial risk, with regard to police advice, safety of both guests and staff etc.

David Hall-Matthews:

On principle I believe that:
1) No-one outside the party should decide who comes to conference.
2) Those within the party who make decisions should be fully transparent about the decisions they make.
3) No-one should be obliged to reveal personal information unless it can be shown that there are security concerns.

Frank Hindle:

I don’t like the police accreditation requirement, but it is always difficult to ignore or go against police advice. I’m not currently on FE so haven’t seen the detailed reports that FE (presumably!) had before agreeing to police accreditation, but the explanation that the financial risks of not going along with accreditation are too great strikes me as plausible – for example, I don’t know exactly what the implications would be with the party’s insurance policies for conference, but I would think that our insurer’s would be very unhappy and at the very least hike up the premiums, and maybe refuse to insure. So, with regret, I think we are stuck with some sort of accreditation for now.

However, back in May when the FE agreed to accreditation for Brighton, I understand that there was a commitment to work with LGBT+ and others with particular concerns about accreditation. I don’t know how far this progressed and whether any exemption or alternative arrangements were implemented but I do think there should be some way of providing an alternative process for those with concerns about police accreditation. When looking at the impact of accreditation it is not enough to simply consider the number of conference reps where the police raised a concern, we also need to remember that the use of a police accreditation process may itself deter some members from even considering going to conference.

Not related to accreditation, but very relevant to party democracy, is the cost of going to conference, and I think more needs to be done to reduce this, and to enable a greater range of members to be involved in the party’s decision making.”

Antony Hook:
-No reply at this time.

Keith House:
-No reply at this time.

Susan Juned:
-No reply at this time.

Bill Le Breton:

Totally unnecessary and an illiberal intrusion on the workings of the Liberal Democrat ‘family’.

Happy to field any question you have.

I recall that Paddy always refused unnecessary security.

Caron Lindsay:

Briefly, I am totally opposed to accreditation which I think is both illiberal and unconstitutional.

There is no evidence accreditation would make anyone any safer & I believe that we would be able to obtain insurance.

As a member of the Federal Finance & Administration Committee (as Scottish party treasurer), I was the only person to vote against accreditation.

I could go on about this all day as I feel very strongly about it. However, I’ll give you the choice about whether you read more. This is a link to a blog post I wrote on the subject in April.

You may be interested to know that our Scottish conference has as many Cabinet ministers as the Federal event with no accreditation.

Please feel free to come back to me if you have any further questions.

Gordon Lishman:

The FAP ruling and the FE discussion both seem to have passed me by, which is odd given that I haven’t missed a meeting.

I think there is a reasonable case, in terms of security  and insurance cover, for enabling a check.  I think that the Party botched the process, including safeguards and overall control.

I try not to make pronouncements, but I’m happy to comment.

Lembit Opik:
Tweeted back.

Joe Otten:

I believe the accreditation system is over the top for the party’s security requirements. It has been a significant obstacle for a number of people who are perfectly safe and entitled to attend. However I am not clear that this is a battle we can win.

There is a broader question here, that the police are used to being in the position that they can give ‘advice’ and the practical consequence of this is that the recipient of the advice has no choice. This is due to a combination of factors including insurance, and the policies of partner organisations – “we always follow police advice”.

This is more about people covering their backsides than getting the right security system for our conference.

Candy Piercy:

My position is that I voted in favour of accreditation because of the advice received by the FE accreditation was necessary in order to make sure conference could go ahead.

I was very much in favour of adopting additional safeguards that some individuals needed.

I believe the fundamental issue is that we have to make sure our conferences can go ahead successfully and safely.

I think it is now a good time to find out more about the background issues around conference accreditation and change/adjust this process depending on properly established facts.

If accreditation does prove necessary then we need to look again at how we can make sure that this is a fair process. If members are facing problems as a result of the accreditation process then we need to adapt it. Naturally LGBT (and any other relevant bodies) should be properly consulted about what needs to be done to safeguard individuals who may be put at risk by the process.

David Rendel:
-No reply at this time.

Jo Shaw:

My position, which I have had throughout, is that I want Conference to go ahead. The advice we have had from the police is that accreditation is needed for the autumn conference and we have also been told that if we refuse to comply with the police recommendations that might invalidate our insurance or mean that venues would refuse to host us. The police also require security checks to be made of all staff at conference venues, and all attendees who are not party members. It would seem deeply unfair if party members could claim special treatment (ie avoid accreditation) because of being members.

Of course this is deeply unsatisfactory, particularly because of the issues for some trans members who object to accreditation on grounds of personal safety. The measures that have been put in place for some trans members have not been enough and we need to do more to make sure members’ safety is not jeopardised through the accreditation process. However I am clear that I am not prepared to countenance Conference not going ahead, or exposing the party to levels of financial risk, and therefore I have accepted accreditation in the past.

The difficulty we face is the illogical arguments (unchanged) put forward by the police. Why is it we need accreditation for autumn, but not for spring, for example? As yet there does not seem to be any answer to this question from the police.

Adrian Smith:

Not having been on FCC or FE before, my experience of this has largely been from a distance.

You can correct me if I am wrong, but the situation as I understand it is that Autumn conference is subject to full Police accreditation whereas Spring is not, and the reason appears to be because the Home Office will meet the cost of doing so for Autumn but not spring.

The problem with full accreditation is that some delegates find it deeply invasive with regard to their sexuality and gender, and many others simply find it incompatible with liberal values.

In addition, GMP were not exactly a model of efficiency the first time round, though I gather it was better this time.

Have I got that right?

I’m not sure there is an easy solution, because I can understand the arguments for both sides – what I think is absolutely ludicrous is having one set of rules for one conference and one for another, and that I think needs to be addressed first – it arguably endangers Spring conference goers as it is.

Beyond that I would need to acquaint myself more fully with the facts of the problem, though I would always advocate taking a very tough line with the police and home office.

John Smithson:
-No contact details, if you have any contact details for John please let me know.

Tom Stubbs:
-No reply at this time.

Martin Tod:

I haven’t been heavily involved in this issue, but one of the things that has surprised me about the whole discussion on accreditation is how anecdotal the evidence appears to be in support of the restrictions.

I can’t believe it would be that hard to:

Get the Police request in writing – and any rules, guidance or policy used to justify it
Get the specific reaction of the venue and/or the specific terms of booking – again – in writing
Get the specific reaction of our insurers (and possibly the venue’s insurers) – also in writing

Of course, it is vital that Conference goes ahead – we wouldn’t want to jeopardise it to prove a point – but creating extra bureaucracy and intruding on people’s privacy should not be done unless there is a really clear evidence base to show that such steps are necessary and proportionate. I’ve not seen such evidence to date.

Peter Tyzack:

I have seen things about ‘accreditation’, and have yet to really understand what this issue, in particular, is. It would be nice to be able to turn up at the conference doors, show your membership card and walk in, or even have the conference open to the public, but then reality has to kick in.  As the security guy said ‘the terrorist only has to get lucky once in order to wreak havoc, we have to remain vigilant at all times to stop them getting lucky’.

So my answer in relation to generic security, is that it must be realistic and proportionate, reasonable and workable.  It should be no more than the minimum that is needed to protect us from the perceived risk.
In amongst that are personal and individual sensitivities, which need to be accommodated.  But where those individuals form a small part of the whole their concerns should be dealt with on a personal case basis.

Whilst I know that concerns have been raised, perhaps I have been less bothered about understanding, simply because I have not had any problem myself, and have not been involved in having to make any decision about the matter.  We elected a committee to run the Conference and as Reps we should have faith in their ability to do so.  Yes, the FE take responsibility over FCC, and I would assume that they asked the relevant questions to satisfy themselves that security matters had been adequately dealt with.  But, as an ordinary Rep coming and going I have accepted the security regime, as it has evolved, as being what those, in a better position to know than me, felt to be appropriate.

Having been a PPC, and having been at events with Nick when his close protection team were in evidence, I have been quietly impressed by their discreet and coordinated efficiency.  The big expense of that provision is not for fun, nor to make Nick feel important.  The point is, that we are in Govt, and whilst our Leader and his fellow ministers are known to us as normal people, with whom we are able to work and have contact with, they are now public figures who can attract the wrong sort of attention, if not from terrorists or political extremists, from the lunatic who just wants his moment of infamy, or whatever he just wants.

The big difference comes, if you decide to elect me to the FE, what I do then.  In that event, I first want to know what my powers duty and remit are as a member of the FE(and, as an aside, to get the role more clearly defined than the woolly remit FE currently has!).  But when coming to make a decision about or to scrutinise the work being done by others on our behalf, I shall undertake to gain a full understanding of the issues and any opposing points of view before forming a judgement.

I give you that statement as a solemn undertaking, as that is how I act when taking on a new role… determine exactly what the job is, and then do it to the best of my ability.  ‘Wherever a decision is to be taken it must be taken objectively, on the basis of facts; where the facts are inadequate, go out for more information or consultation; where a choice is to be made, do so democratically; and throughout, remember on who’s behalf you serve.’

Thanks for your question, and for making me think it through.  If I am elected, please come back to me.

Gerald Vernon-Jackson:
-No reply at this time.

Erlend Watson:

I have a feeling that my answer will not win votes but I ought to reply.

Initially the FCC mishandled the accreditation issue most specifically over identity issues ( I note transgender and spouse battering as the main ones).

I believe those to be satisfactorily settled now even if trust remains weak.

On the issue of who has the final say it remains with the party.

So I think the current position more or less OK.

I do for the record think it is stupid for the FAP to have passed this to the FE. Any issue including policy could have financial implications. But the constitution says the FCC decides about conference so responsibility belongs there.

Chris White:

I believe it is a necessary step with more than adequate safeguards built in to protect those who might be discriminated against. We have a duty to those who are not party members at conference and the idea that a conference could take place without it does not bear even distant scrutiny.

I have spoken on this matter at conference.

Sir David Williams:
-No contact details, if you have any contact details for Sir David please let me know.

Snooping Proposals

It’s not often that I feel actively obliged to blog about something nowadays. I turn up to conference and vote in the ways I think best, but for the most part, I don’t claim to know how best to navigate the challenges of coalition and apart from a few headline issues like the NHS I’ve been content to leave our ministers to get on with it. It’s not that I’ve been ardently in support of everything the government has done, but on the basis of “if you haven’t got anything nice to say…” I’ve mostly let them get on with it. After all, these are people who I was happy to campaign for before the election, and when they ask me to believe that behind closed doors they are still campaigning for the things our party believes in, I feel I owe them at least some benefit of the doubt.


You knew there was going to be a but, didn’t you?

But I am a liberal first and a Liberal second, and I don’t believe that benefit of the doubt is the same thing as blind faith. If it stops looking to me like our ministers and our leadership deserve the benefit of the doubt, I’m not just going to soldier on.

The recent news reports about potential new extensions of the (already pretty illiberal) RIPA surveillance powers were worrying, and I didn’t entirely share Simon McGrath’s apparent faith in the coalition government, but I took his point and waited to hear a response from the party, or some more details about what was actually proposed.

Today, as the party leadership’s own take on things emerges, I feel I have enough information to go on.

As many other very sensible and considerably more prestigious bloggers than myself have already made clear, this is not an issue like the NHS, where it might have been argued that our 2010 manifesto supported something a bit like the reforms being introduced if you squinted a bit. This is not an issue like tuition fees, where we had conceded before we even began by signing the coalition agreement. This is an issue which is at the core of our party’s beliefs, purports to be at the core of the coalition’s beliefs, and which has so far attracted a pretty unanimous response from all over the customary spectrum of opinion within the party.

I would like to put on record that I join them in condemning the proposals. The technical sleight-of-hand involved in claiming that the government is only interested in communications data, not content, with these proposals, has been covered well elsewhere (although I can’t remember where I read it right now, so no link, sorry – any links in the comments gratefully received). The idea that we weren’t all that keen on RIPA when it came in, but now apparently think it’s fine to want to extend the same system to other media, is absurd. The fact that the party is already lining up a carefully crafted “rebellion”, followed no doubt by suitable “safeguards”, to make a carefully drawn (but nonetheless phoney) distinction between content and communication data so that we can wheel out the “yes this is a bit evil, but not as evil as what Evil Labour tried to do” line is depressing.

This is surely a Red Line issue for the party. It certainly is for me. And let me make this absolutely clear: I have no intention of leaving this party any time soon. But if its parliamentarians and leaders look to me like they’ve forgotten what they went into politics for, I will have no hesitation in calling for them to leave it.

Please, folks. Show me you still deserve the benefit of the doubt.


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