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).


One Response to “My Response to the current review of Lib Dem Governance”

  1. My response to the Liberal Democrats Governance Consultation | Complicity Says:

    […] time left to respond if you wish. You might also want to read the responses of Jennie Rigg and Andy Hinton. (If you know of any more public responses, please let me know and I will list them […]

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