Nearly three years on, how does the Bones Report look?

Back in 2008 the Report of the Party Reform Commission to the Federal Executive was published, more commonly known as the Bones Report after its Chair, Chris Bones. Both the process for drawing up the report and the report itself was not without its critics at the time (e.g. see here and here) but since then it has been a topic only rarely talked about, even amongst party administration insiders.

So how does it looking, approaching its third anniversary, and does it set the right or wrong course for the party organisationally – or has it become an irrelevance?

In one respect, the passage of time has not been kind to the report because the party’s biggest organisational challenge – losing Short Money on going into coalition government – was not considered or planned for, even though the report’s aim, doubling the number of Liberal Democrat MPs, implied a hung Parliament being very likely. It would be wrong to blame Chris Bones and his colleagues too much for that omission, because I cannot recall any of the report’s critics raising the issue either. A collective mistake it clearly was though.

In another respect, the report has aged extremely well. It created the “Chief Officers Group” which was intended, depending on your viewpoint, either to streamline horribly complex internal administration or to centralise power in the party. After being created, the COG got on with its work with rarely much of a controversy – a good sign of an administrative change that has largely worked out well.

Superficially, losing seats at the 2010 election rather goes against the grain of the report’s aim to double the number and to support a stronger, broader grassroots. However, the 2010 election campaign did include a record number of key seats (even pre-Cleggmania) and also a level of direct mail and phone support that was well beyond what the party managed before. The Bones report and others (especially Chris Rennard’s successful large-scale fundraising campaign in the first half of the last Parliament) delivered a bigger campaign infrastructure for the 2010 election, covering a larger number of seats, than ever before. The problem was that it didn’t deliver constituency victories. The reasons for that are many, but it is was not for want of scale of operation.

The Bones report also called for a significant improvement in the party’s technology infrastructure. Some have been delivered, including the Membership Secreatiers’ Website (now known as MDO – Membership Data Online). For EARS, the party did try with paying for some extra development via central funds – a far from wholly happy episode as deadlines repeatedly were delayed and the set of features promised for the 2009 European elections were only partly delivered. However, since the 2010 general election the issue has been returned to, and with the plans to introduce VAN shortly, much of what Bones talked about is likely to be in place before the next general election.

The Bones report also gave a further impetus to the idea that those elected as Liberal Democrats should, subject to their personal financial situation, make a contribution back to help pay for the work that got them elected. On this it was successful, with not only such schemes spreading further amongst local government but also now in place for ministers. Progress too has also been made on the proposals to give extra support to help generate a more diverse set of candidates (once conference finally found a set of detailed plans it could vote for).

Some aspects of the report have been rather overtaken by events – such as the questions of communication, both internal and external. But most striking reading through the report now is what it says about the need to build a party in which supporters are more involved, members play an active role in campaigning locally and online to supplement the party’s national and central activities and in which community politics once again becomes “at the heart of our ‘war on the ground’ activity … not just through reconnecting local parties with best practice already out there but also be piloting and evaluating radically different ways of engaging locally”.

All aims that are as important, if not more important, now than in 2008 as regular readers will know from my comments about community politics and treating supporters as active participants rather than passive spectators. And yet they are also aims on which the Bones Reports ended up producing very little in the way of progress or experimentation (even allowing for the brief consideration to setting up a “Liberal Britain” online campaign group to bring together liberal campaigners inside and outside the party).

One general election on, the need to remedy that is all the more pressing, especially given the long-term trend in the party’s local government base. That’s why I’ve been co-authoring a new guide to local campaigning (which will appear any day now, hint hint ALDC), for example. But it’s only one small contribution to a bigger challenge we all need to play our part in.

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