Unfinished business from Governance Review
There are three significant pieces of unfinished business from the Governance Review which was voted through at the federal autumn conference in Brighton.
One is simply that changing rules does not in itself change that much. People need to follow them. They need to be implemented with enthusiasm, competence and a clear purpose. Cultural change does not automatically follow.
So whilst there is much good in the Governance Review, including the improvements to the way the party makes strategy, as I wrote in the last Liberal Democrat Newswire, it is crucial we get the right people elected to the Federal Board and other committees to properly implement the changes. (That’s also why this time round rather than running for the Federal Policy Committee again, I’ll be running for the Federal Board. Here’s a flavour of what I’d be pushing for on the body.)
English Party reform
The second is the problem that is currently the English Party. Tactically it made absolute sense for Party President Sal Brinton and others to pursue a package of reform which could be voted through by federal conference alone. But that meant no changes to the relative powers of the state parties, as that would have also required votes of agreement in their own bodies too.
Hence that meant very little to address the multiple issues around the English Party such as its hugely indirect version of democracy, the deeply ingrained culture of barely communicating with members and the way it can in effect unilaterally force decisions on Scotland and Wales.
It’s significant, therefore, than in her Facebook posting setting out priorities for re-election as Party President, Sal Brinton put reform of the English Party down as one of her three priorities. Meanwhile, the English Party itself recently put off its latest reform package pending further thought, with a plan to come back with new reform plans of its own next year.
Ken Macdonald to review disciplinary process
Then thirdly there is the problem with the party’s disciplinary processes. These are numerous in form, but really boil down to two, one widely acknowledged and one which is usually overlooked.
The widely acknowledged one is that when put to the test in a controversial case, the processes have often resulted in rulings being made and then overturned on grounds of flawed procedure. That ends up with long-drawn out sagas without closure. They serve all sides badly, and the party itself too.
Therefore the news that the former Director of Public Prosecutions, Ken Macdonald, is to head up a review is very good.
Two traditions Lib Dems need to abandon
It will be important that the review includes the area which is usually overlooked. It is that the party’s disciplinary processes have their roots in two basic approaches, both of which have become frayed and neither of which are appropriate now, even if they ever were.
One is that the decision for Liberal Democrat groups about who can have the party’s whip are decisions for that group alone. That is deeply problematic because who holds the Liberal Democrat whip is about who has the right to use the party’s name in public – and that is a matter for the whole party, not just the particular group of councillors, Parliamentarians or others to whom that specific whip applies.
Traditionally the Liberal Democrats have left the decision about who gets to call themselves a Liberal Democrat after election to the rest of the group to which they’ve been elected or, in the case of the House of Lords, appointed. Someone can stand as a Liberal Democrat with the party’s backing, but it’s up to the colleagues in their group as to whether they can continue to act as a Liberal Democrat once there.
Given the experience of the Labour Party in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it is understandable how many of those involved in forming the merged party were happy to stick with tradition – a tradition that the Liberal Party too had followed.
But politics has moved on from the battles of the early 1980s, and we face new problems now.
As an embarrassingly large number of cases have demonstrated in the last few years, leaving decisions over who gets the whip to a smaller group has served the party, its elected/appointed representatives and people with a complaint against them all badly.
One problem is one of power. The smaller the group, the easier it is for someone to exercise disproportionate and undue influence over their colleagues. The smaller the group, the bigger the risk that decisions about who should or should not have the whip are not decisions made well or in line with our values.
Another is that the Liberal Democrats are one organisation in the eyes of the public. Although the public does not hold the behaviour of every individual against the party as whole, it does do so to some degree an awful lot. The decision that one group makes has an impact on the rest of us too.
The other problematic tradition is the idea that outside of giving/withholding the whip, the only level of sanction in the party is to expel someone from membership. That also really doesn’t work because it is far from unknown for party members to do something wrong that fall short of explusion level of offence but also should not be left completely unpunished:
Partly at my instigation the English Party a few years ago introduced a wider range of more modest sanctions, such as banning people from holding office in the party, which could be applied in some cases. For example, if a local party treasurer regularly failed to file regulatory reports on time, expelling them from the party might be too harsh but banning them from being a local party officer appropriate. (Indeed, my involvement in instigating this change came from frustration at seeing several people who had behaved wrongly not facing sanction because the only sanction available was too severe.)
A sensible … review of the party’s expected standards of its members and disciplinary rules should include expanding that range of ‘not serious enough for expulsion but serious enough for other sanction’ offences.
It would need to be clearly defined, so it isn’t used as an excuse to, for example, exclude out of favour troublemakers from a party committee, but it would also be the right thing to do.
Only if the Macdonald review also tackles these two long-standing traditions will it have a fighting chance of producing the sort of new processes which are fair to all sides and which protect the party’s own reputation – a key part of its electoral appeal.