Lessons from Rennard #3: the English Party needs reform

I don’t normally like simply saying ‘here’s a problem’ or ‘something must be done’ without also giving an answer. So apologies for departure from normal service, as I’m much surer that something needs to change with the English Party in the Liberal Democrats than about exactly what the solution is.

A slightly unkind, but still mostly true, explanation of why the English Party exists at all is that it was created at the time of the party’s formation in order to keep the Scots and Welsh happy. They insisted on meaningful power being given to the Scottish Liberal Democrats and the Welsh Liberal Democrats, which meant there was a bundle of issues left in England that needed a home – hence the creation of the English Liberal Democrats.

However, members in England identify far less with England as a distinct entity in the party than members in Scotland and Wales do with their own state parties – and all the more so since the creation of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly.

Matters are further exacerbated by the indirect method of election to the English Party’s key committees and posts, along with the frequency with which posts are filled uncontested.

The overall effect is to create a complicated network of power, making working out who is responsible for what and how to change something you see but don’t like rather like trying to untangle a pile of spaghetti. Which keeps on being taken away from you. The result is that the English Party has some significant powers but even many long-time party activists in England feel they don’t really know how it operates, who is in charge or what it is for.

Which is where the Chris Rennard case comes it, for it’s a reminder that decisions made by the English Party (and its Regional Parties Committee) matter. Yet they also feel remote, secretive and unaccountable, despite the good efforts of many decent people involved.

So the solution? Something needs to change. At the very least, stripping how the indirect method of election for the English Party Executive, replacing it instead with direct elections, along with a review of its functions to see what really needs to be done at an English level rather than devolved up or down.

A few years ago, the English Party’s policy making was “devolved”, or sub-contracted really, to the federal party. That made practical sense, as it means one integrated staff team to support policy making and also makes for more sensible business at party conferences. Given how well it has worked, did it really make sense to stop there and go no further?

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