A regular theme running through my posts about how the Liberal Democrats are run is the paucity of communication within the party over how the party is run. Perhaps the best example of that recently was the English Party’s strategy paper which set out to completely change the way the party’s membership system work and campaign staffing is structured yet neither consulted widely amongst members before coming to conclusions nor then communicated widely about them.
Nearly every member of the English Party was never asked for their view nor told what was decided in their name. Even the controversy that resulted in the strategy only getting through the key vote by just four did not trigger a plan for wide communication about what is going on.
That is not just about structures, it is also about culture. The current very narrow and indirect method of election for the English Party ruling bodies and posts certainly doesn’t help. But even a dictator for life who came to power thanks to a dawn raid seizing control of a the nation’s biggest barchart warehouse and 37 different Risos around the country can consult and communicate widely if they wish. Whatever the rules, people can still choose to go for ‘ask and tell’ rather than ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’.
Which is why English Council Executive member Anders Hanson is one of the stars of the English Party because he does report back publicly on key parts of what the English Party is doing. He’s not part of the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ culture and with today being a meeting of the English Council Executive (ECE), he’s written up the key headlines.
I’ve reported how plans for all-women shortlists in limited circumstances are being put on the agenda for the Liberal Democrat conference in York. Here’s more from Anders:
Diversity motion to conference – this is to improve diversity within the parliamentary party by allowing any local party to request an all-women or all-disabled shortlist for selections or to have reserved places on it for specific groups, and to require all local parties with retiring MPs to choose from an all-woman shortlist and similar provisions for a specific proportion of seats that achieved above particular levels of support at the 2015 General Election. Although candidates are the responsibility of each state not the federal party, there is clearly a desire from many for conference to take another view on positive discrimination, with states then expected to come up with the rules to make this happen.
One of the flaws with the English Party’s plans is its intentions for party campaign staff. As I wrote at the time of the English Party strategy paper:
Devolving power to the lowest level possible is a normal Liberal Democrat instinct. Add to that the combination of a highly centralised target seat operation in May and only a single digit haul of MPs, and it is easy to see why the English Party’s strategy paper wants to break up the current federal campaigns structure so that “the limited resources available [are] placed as near to the ground as possible”. The English Party wants an end to the pattern of centrally employed campaigns officers in favour of “every region in England to have at least one full time campaigns officer whose work will be directed by that region”. Moreover targeting decisions should become “the accountability of regional executives”.
Easy to see why that is proposed, but is it wise? In short: no, because it runs counter to the lessons of not only 2015 but also of previous general elections.
The party used to have pretty much just such a regionally based structure. (For shorthand I am using regions here to mean regions in England plus the nations of Scotland and Wales.)
Back in the 1990s this was the norm and the party deliberately moved away from it to a centrally employed team along with a centrally agreed targeting plan for a multiplicity of reasons which are still very applicable.
Employing staff well is not trivial and it requires both technical skills and significant time. It turned out to be much more effective to share these services centrally rather than fragment them across the regions. One central team also made it much easier to train staff, provide a degree of career progression and provide mutual support. It also reduced hugely the amount of time spent in meetings discussing staff budgets and plans – a non-trivial issue given quite how time consuming that was at times, and how badly staff were sometimes treated.
Of course it is possible that devolving / fragmenting the party’s campaign staff structure to replicate what was previously abandoned could be done much better this time. Disappointingly, however, that English Party strategy paper does not go through the lessons from the past and how to learn from them. Rather, it does not mention them – a very risky approach to take.
Moreover, there are two specific lessons from May 2015 which the fragmentation plan runs exactly counter to. First, it is clear from the results that the party had too broad a targeting strategy even though – most unusually – several held seats had been written off long before polling day. Were English regions the champion of tighter targeting and the central team foolishly ignoring them? No. It was the central team that was pushing for tighter targeting and the more anyone else was involved, the wider the targeting got.
Of course, we all make mistakes, and the wiser of us learn from them. So the fact that – for example – in Cornwall regional funds were heavily spent in seats which Great George Street had given up on (and in which we crashed to distant defeat) does not mean that regions or others might not get it right in the future.
But again the English Party’s strategy review seems to be curiously silent on the past. Coming off an election where the regions overall were more wrong than party HQ in London makes the idea that more power should go to the regions in future a “brave” decision. Possibly right – but again, as with fragmenting the staff structure, what is striking about the strategy paper is that it neither states nor addresses the problem. A very risky approach, once again.
All the more so as there is another lesson from the 2015 general election which this fragmentation runs against. It is that there are increasingly advanced, specialist skills which the party is falling behind on.
The problem with having one regionally focused campaigns officer per region is that it forces them into being a jack-of-all-trades, a bit good at everything but not able to specialise in any one area. Yet when it comes to data handling and analysis, direct mail segmentation, online advertising or social media support – to name but four – there are increasingly sophisticated and effective opportunities which require dedicated expertise beyond what someone who is expected to do a bit of everything can manage.
Perhaps there is a way of reconciling geographic coverage with having different staff have their own specialisms via the sort of matrix structures that some organisations use. Making such matrix structures work is no minor task and they can go badly wrong.
So does the English Party strategy paper set out an understanding of the need to address this with its staffing plans and even propose some solutions? No and no.
And finally there is the minor matter of shifting resources. At least one campaigns officer in every region does not equate to the balance of opportunities we have for winning seats in different regions. It would enforce a degree of uniformity out of kilter both with geography (regions vary greatly in size) and out of kilter with that political reality.
It would be a bold move to say we should move away from the idea of concentrating staff resources to reflect the size of regions and the prevalence of winnable seats.
Does the English Party grasp such boldness? Well, not really – because again it goes unsaid, and hence any thought on how to address the downsides of such boldness is missing.
It seems more to be boldness without full thought, and that often ends up being recklessness.
You may notice the theme here: there are many lessons from the recent and not so recent past, not to mention from a look at a map and book of election results, which suggest the English Party’s plans to give its component parts more power at the expense of the federal party would not work.
A really good plan to do that would face up to these points and have credible solutions to them. Alas, the English Party’s strategy paper – in its current incarnation – does neither.
Here is what Anders has to say on the latest:
Regional employment of Campaigns Staff – a source of considerable discussion at the last couple of ECE meetings has been the restructuring of HQ staff that saw all campaigns officers directly employed by Lib Dem HQ rather than any regional involvement as largely happened before. A number of regional parties have been very unhappy about this and been pretty strident about their opposition to it and despite an attempt by the English Party Chair to broker a compromise, this hasn’t been successful. Personally, I think having a centrally employed campaign resource to be deployed where needed is sensible, although I’ve been in a considerable minority on this within ECE. Previously, regional parties were able to have some influence over the work of campaigns staff and able to employ someone specifically for their region by sharing the cost with party HQ. With party HQ employing people directly, it will mean that regions will need to find other ways of funding any campaign posts they create, and I am very much keen to see this progress as building local campaign skills is a good area for regions to work on (in conjunction with my own employers at ALDC).
The Operations Committee
Finally, a lovely example of a piece of news which in a world far removed from the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ culture would have already been spread far and wide. It is a straight forwardly simple and sensible move, and one which as part of a wider pattern of communication would be a nice little extra detail showing how people are trying to move the party in the right direction.
Instead, I suspect this comes as news even to some of the federal committee members whose chairs are now attending a new body:
Operations Committee – this is a new committee that has been created by the Federal Executive to oversee the day-to-day running of the party. This has occasionally existed before in different guises, but has often involved people who are too busy in other roles to do it effectively. Its membership is the chairs of state parties and chairs of the key federal committees. Hopefully this will ensure that the different committees and Lib Dem HQ work together more effectively and talk to each other properly on a regular basis rather than operating in silos and then getting grumpy with each other when they hear about things on the grapevine (which may or may not be true) or after the event.
There is more in Anders’s full post which you can read here and of course to keep in touch with more news about the party there is Liberal Democrat Newswire, called a “must read” by Tim Farron.
More generally, you’ll notice a theme running through the points above: if there was a regular, weekly or fortnightly, communication with interested party members about what was going on in the party it’d be far more likely that people would make the right decisions about communicating with members on these sorts of topics. That could be from Tim Farron’s office, from the Chief Executive (Tim Gordon) or from the Party President (Sal Brinton).
Some of the examples I’ve given in this post are not the responsibility of any of them, and Sal in particular is very good at responding to questions about what is going on. But they are the best placed to lead on fixing things, and where they lead others could be pulled along in their wake by the simple expedient of asking, “so what would you like me to include in this week’s message to members about what you’re up to?” Whoever it was from, it would improve matters hugely.
A footnote about party staff: where by coincidence or design, I’ve noticed a definite upswing recently in party staff engaging productively with party members to ask for views, solicit help and impart information on social media. That’s very welcome.