A major restructure at Liberal Democrat headquarters in Great George Street, London, is current underway. Having been agreed in outline through the party’s democratic channels, the details of it are now being worked through with staff. It is meant to be about both reshaping the party’s HQ operations to fit Tim Farron’s plans and to save sufficient money to maintain the long-term health of the party’s finances.
Until all the details are settled and the names in place and public, and that is unlikely for a good few weeks given the time needed for consultations and so on, it can be hard to properly judge how a restructure is really panning out, so here for the moment are five tests by which to judge it by.
1. Have the mistakes of the 2010-15 restructures been learnt?
One of the lesser noticed contributory factors to the poor Liberal Democrat general election result in May was the loss of many experienced and talented staff after a controversial restructure in the last Parliament – a restructure which was subsequently largely undone, but which undoing of course didn’t undo the loss of experience and talent. I’ve written more about this in my piece for the Journal of Liberal History special edition on the coalition (which you can read here) and some staff uneasiness is inevitable with a big restructure. But that isn’t to say that problems of the scale we had last time round are inevitable.
So test one – has the staff relations side been properly handled this time round?
2. Does the new structure put 100,000 members at the core of HQ’s activity?Tim Farron’s bold bid to get the party to 100,000 members from the current 60,000 plus only has a chance of being achieved if it is central to how the party operates from top to bottom.
So test two – is growing the party’s membership at the core of the new structure?
3. Is digital at the top table?
Some cliches achieve that status because they are right. That’s the case with the cliche that to be taken seriously, digital has to be at the top table in organisations, both commercial and non-commercial, both staff-led and volunteer-led.
To be properly embraced as a way of doing more, doing it better and doing it for less, it cuts across most traditional organisational dividing lines and requires widespread cultural and organisational change. That can only be done when led from the top.
So test three – is the digital leadership in the senior management team or not?
4. Is diversity an afterthought?
Traditionally the Liberal Democrat approach to diversity staffing at party HQ has been for it to be an add-on to another operation. Most obviously, the party for many years had a candidates (mostly Westminster candidates) operation which then had some diversity support added in to it.
That’s no criticism of the staff involved either in or out of diversity roles. But there is a certain inevitability of outcome which flows from decisions on what to given predominance and priority to in staffing structures.Treating diversity as an adjunct to something else in this way undervalues its importance, and might be justifiable if the party’s overall performance on diversity was so good that just a little guiding hand now and again was needed.
We’re a very long way from that. Again, if Tim Farron’s impressive plans are to become a reality, a part of that needs to be giving them the right structure and priority from party HQ.
So test four – is improving the party’s diversity treated as a junior adjunct to another part of the operation or as a major strand in its own right?
5. What’s the plan for campaigns?
This is a tough one. Doing the restructure before the outcome of the general election review risks making the restructure less permanent than is usually desirable, especially given how whatever that review ends up recommending it is hard to see how it can avoid addressing senior staffing structure issues given the problem with the general election campaign of too many separate silos of staff being responsible for their own bit but no-one in overall charge of coordinating them all (and that wasn’t Paddy Ashdown’s role either).
It’s also a tough one because the party is still very much working out how to campaign in an environment where it has only 8 MPs and has lost its ability to significantly buck the national trends in Westminster constituency contests.
That’s a far, far bigger issue than can reasonably be expected to be solved by one staff team in one office.
But campaigning and electoral success are a necessary symbiotic ingredient for much of the above, including membership and diversity. Yet past leaders have often had would-be advisers who don’t understand how central political campaigning in a grassroots, electoral context is.
So test five – is a modernised form of campaigning which can lead to target ward and target seat success still a priority?
As I said at the top, fully judging a restructure best waits for the outcome at the very least – and there is also going to be uneasiness when there is major change afoot. What is good so far is that the action is being taken early in the Parliament and gives a chance to turn Tim Farron’s words about what he wants doing to the party into effective action. So far… and let’s hope the answer to these five tests does not change that.