A constant theme in the sort of semi-public debates about how the Liberal Democrats are organised that you encounter at party conferences or in Facebook groups is that the party’s staffing structures are too centralised. Most often in the last decade it has been the party’s employed campaign staff who feature with variants on ‘we’d have done better at the last election if staff had been answerable to us rather than following foolish orders from central HQ’.
It is, in passing, a remarkable coincidence, how often the answers to the party’s problems are always to simplify our organisation by abolishing a committee you are not on and by giving more power to the one that you are on.
There is, however, a rather more serious side to this pattern, and one to which the still unfolding scandals over sexual harassment should give pause for very serious thought.
Many Liberal Democrat staff love their time working for the party, and some even keep on coming back for more. But that’s only part of the picture.
Collectively as a party we are not good at treating staff well. Reviews of elections, analysis of exit interviews and other systematic data have consistently backed up what knowing a few current or former members of staff often also painfully reveals.
A major cause of these problems is that being a good employer and a good manager isn’t quick or easy. We end up with far too many people who take on such tasks yet are ill suited, ill prepared, ill supported or even all three. Best of intentions – which nearly all such people most definitely have – don’t get you very far in the fact of those problems.
That’s why some of the worst sections of party reports I’ve had the misfortune to read over the years have been about treatment of staff. The lesson I draw from this? That we need better employers in the party, and the way to do that is to have fewer employers.
That does not require decision making over how staff time is used to be locked away in a distant and central ivory tower. Yet what it does mean is that having campaigns staff employed through party HQ, for example, gives a much better chance of getting it right than having their employment and management fragmented across a dozen or more places across the party, especially when those other places do very little employment themselves.
This is a point given all the more importance given the side-story of employment practices through many of the current sexual harassment stories. The power imbalances and lack of appropriate procedures are more likely to be a problem when employment is being done across multiple different, small-scale employers without much experience of getting it right. One form of that is the way MPs individually employ their staff, but the lesson is just as applicable to the Liberal Democrats outside Parliament. Complaining about your boss is easier the larger the organisation you’re in. Getting procedures right is easier the more experienced the organisation is at doing employment.
It is hard enough for the experienced employer to get complaints procedures right and recruitment processes free of implicit bias. It’s not a criticism of the inexperienced, part-time employers to admit that they’re very likely to stumble into one of these or many other available problems.
Which is why one – of very many – lessons the Liberal Democrats should learn from the current scandals is the danger of that popular standby of party reform demands, namely to fragment employment amongst multiple local and regional parties. As I’ve highlighted previously for other reasons too, that’s the route to making things worse, not better.
What we need to do is to bring staff together into more consistent employment practices and into structures which give even a solitary member of staff in one role a part of a larger organisation with the HR and management backup and safety nets that should come with that.
UPDATE: Well, that was some response to this post (especially over on Facebook). The obvious next step looks to me to be to ensure that someone (or some body) in the party is charged with drawing up and sharing standard contracts and terms of employment for use across the party – including provision for proper complaints procedures accessible to all staff.