Many proposals for Lib Dem party reform would make matters worse, not better, for staff

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.

10 responses to “Many proposals for Lib Dem party reform would make matters worse, not better, for staff”

  1. Absolutely agree with you that fragmentation of employment amongst multiple local and regional parties, resulting in many not well resourced employers, carries potential dangers vis a vis good employment practice.

    However, the question of who staff are answerable to begs the question of who the employer is and who the employer is answerable to, when the employer is a political party, which is a highly distributed entity.

    In my limited experience the ‘beefs’ are about: where attention and energy of HQ employees are focused – a matter surely that requires wider consultation; and actual standards of competence and quality of output, which is a core responsibility of the employer to determine and manage (in the context of the more widely agreed requirements).

  2. I am considering here, based on the excellent training by Jeanne Tarrant, if we need to consider safe-guarding with an added does of some HR training regionally, putting those central office staff in contact with someone locally who has had the training to be able to support those members as necessary, as well as deliver training. I’m absolutely positive we could either support members interested to deliver safe-guarding and equality/diversity training plus some necessary HR training, as well as using the skills of existing members. Some of our central staff and volunteers can be put in a very vulnerable and isolated position when they are sent out to constituency parties and we should be mindful of that.

  3. In many ways I agree with this, Mark. I am one of many people across the country who has not shown the best management of employees, partly because it’s not what I’m good at and partly because I am a part-time volunteer. We have just lost a staff member who I helped employ and who I know was let down by all of us in our constituency.

    The problem is, constituencies without MPs but with council groups have to have some staff, not just for campaigns but for day to day council work. They struggle for the funds and so often can only afford one, poorly paid staff member. They then land everything on the poor soul and complain when the impossible is not being done. The staff member lacks direction from above because his/her bosses are also part-timers, struggling to keep up. It’s deeply frustrating for everyone.

    Your suggestion does not seem to offer a solution to this. Constituency parties with substantial council groups at unitary, city or county level cannot rely on staff from central office. Individual local staff cannot handle the workload, especially when, as over the last year, there were three elections / referendums.

    Some way or another, all constituencies need a management structure and with the largest party membership in our history, that must surely include a huge amount of talent in many fields. I have worked in three different local party executives and all of them suffered an introspective management style. There was a fear of handing over the reins to newbies, even if they had years of experience. There was a reticence to carry out a proper skills audit of the membership and act upon it. And there was exhaustion after the last few years of campaigning for such small beer.

    I laud your voicing concerns about this, but centralisation alone is not the answer. Head Office is already depleted and overwhelmed. Our communications systems are patchy. Our messaging poor and demoralising. We have the troops. Among them we need to find and train the officer class to lead us.

    • Neville, you’ve nailed it, particularly in your penultimate paragraph. In the atmosphere you have described there are a couple of questions anyone working with colleagues could keep asking themselves: Why am I treating this person badly? Why am I not receptive to this new idea? And, if I reversed my attitude, would it be more fruitful for all involved? There needs to be more mentoring and encouraging and less shouting and defending of corners which appears embedded in the Liberal Democrat DNA.

  4. There is an issue here about staff who work for MPs but who liase with local party members (and often work with them in their non-employment capacity). It becomes very difficult when those relationships break down (or to be less diplomatic the local party members are a combination of sociopaths and bullies). It reached a point where I was taking medical advice and walked away from the campaign for a day about a week before polling day just for my own health & well being (I think those who know me would recognise just how bad things must have got for me to be doing that!)

    I reached a point where the only thing I felt I could do was resign from the party – the other option being resign my job which I ultimately did but wasn’t a wise spontaneous decision to take. I always had a good relationship with my employer (ie the MP) who never treated me in any way inappropriately. Party members less so.

    The party’s complaints process is pretty unsuited to deal with this – but I didn’t feel well supported by the systems there are and felt the Pastoral Care officer seemed uninterested when I didn’t want to pursue any formal complaint.

  5. During the 2015 elections I had an intern stay with me so she could be nearer to the constituency she was helping in. She worked many more hours than she was paid (minimum wage) for. She had an ongoing back problem and sometimes would be in incredible amounts of pain. She kept going because if she didn’t her share of work would fall on her fellow organisers who were working similar hours. She raised her concerns with someone more senior to her and was told she could leave if she didn’t like it as she was only an intern!
    Many young graduates are intelligent, articulate and enthusiastic. They obviously lack work experience but with the right management structure and support would probably remain an asset to the party for years after their employment ends. Sadly this often does not happen and it is the party which looses out.

  6. Mark, you argue for having campaign staff employed through HQ, but I think that what we really need is a matrix management structure. One company that I worked for was quite successful in implementing this, having project management as one axis of the matrix, while the other axis (which included the line management function) was concerned with professional development. We can think of campaigning as being akin to projects and it is essential that there is local control here; one fast way to turn off the members, who are volunteers, is if they feel that they have no place in deciding the direction of the campaign. At the same time, HQ is the natural location for the professional development side.

    As far as the staff of Parliamentarians are concerned, for reasons of transparency I think that we need to argue for them being formally employed by the Houses of Parliament itself, if simply to remove the possibility of unfair practices if they are employed by a political party. Imagine if there was an allegation against Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn or Vince Cable; it would be difficult to convince those outside that there had been no unfair practices if it was dealt with within the party.

  7. The invention (re) of wheels springs to mind. Charities with a federal structure and local volunteers have been doing this for ever, and tackling the challenge of central v local. Asking a few of them would be useful. The issue is partly cultural – with an organisation already called a ‘party’, people don’t always treat other people or the objectives as requiring professionalism, as they would in a company or public body. And many see it as their family, social life and spiritual home as well, creating awkward juxtapositions that need exceptional management.

  8. It is perfectly possible for posts to exist where the employer is one body and the employee is responsible to another. After all, that’s what happens every time someone is seconded from a big organisation to a small one. Body B (a regional party, say) sets out a work programme for the staff member and monitors how it’s going; but if anything goes wrong, Body A (the English or Federal Party, say) steps in. I’ve seen such arrangements a number of times. Where they demand to go wrong is where the lines of responsibility, appraisal arrangements and so on are vague or where Body A, despite agreeing that Body B will set the person’s work, also does so itself. Those problems can be avoided relatively easily. The problem about centralising is what we’re reportedly already seeing: people not only employed by Party HQ but under HQ instructions sent out to work in a region, quite possibly duplicating or contradicting what the Regional Exec is doing.

    I agree absolutely about poor employment practice, but while local parties may struggle to get things right on such a matter – and not always to the employee’s disbenefit, as where the local party keeps employing someone it can no longer afford because it knows and likes him/her – at regional level there are bound to be people with employment expertise. Where people are locally or regionally employed, HQ could require that there be clear, non-discriminatory PS and JD and appraisal and disciplinary procedures: in fact for the last two they could be laid down across the party.

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