Five things the Federal Executive should learn from its mistakes

Hercule Poirot - YouTube screenshot

There are almost as many versions of who did – or didn’t – do what and when over the one-member one-vote and gender quota gaffes by the Liberal Democrat Federal Executive (FE) as there are FE members.

It would take the detective skills of Hercule Poirot combined with the phone and email databases of GCHQ to definitively cast a verdict on individual responsibilities, but take a step back from the individuals and there’s a clear pattern of collective failure.

In short, the FE has been poor at getting administrative details correct. Where the final responsibility for agreeing those details rests with the FE, that’s a problem.

It’s not only motions to conference where the failure to get detail right shows through. Take as another example the Code of Conduct for Liberal Democrat Members, which the FE amended and had the chance to amend further (even though it is badged with an English Party logo).

It doesn’t mention sexual harassment directly – a strange omission given the circumstances which led to its creation. And it does mention that breaking the law “will constitute bringing the party into disrepute”.

On a quick reading in a rushed meeting you can see why this could have slipped through. Yet, as Lib Dem peer Tony Greaves has pointed out, on occasion breaking the law is fully consistent with liberal values. When running for leader, Nick Clegg promised to break the law personally if ID Cards were introduced. Does the party really want to say that in future it would expel any leader who made and then fulfilled a similar statement?

The lessons from all this are:

  1. The party’s internal structure is far too complicated, making it too difficult and taking up too much time especially from hard-pressed staff, for people to be able to run all its parts successfully. Reform is needed, especially of the English Party.
  2. Responsibility and accountability for internal party administration is too fragmented and opaque – leading to lower quality administration. That’s a problem now and will be an even bigger problem when the electorate for party committees is increased twenty-fold when one-member one-vote (OMOV) comes in.
  3. Not enough drafts are consulted on widely in advance. Neither the Federal Conference Committee (FCC) nor the Federal Policy Committee (FPC) are perfect – but they do have the advantage over the FE that if they get wording wrong, there is almost always an opportunity for someone in the party to spot this and fix it via conference. Much of the FE’s work doesn’t have this safety net. There is one solution for much of this: get into the habit of circulating drafts widely within the party before decisions.
  4. Mend bridges with other federal committees and its own members. The FE and FCC in particular have not been getting along well with each other, not only in the run-up to and at Glasgow conference.* It was there too in the spring, for example, with the interim peers panel reforms not getting timetabled for debate. Even amongst FE member there is plenty of disquiet – some it very public, far more in private – of how the committee works and how involved is members really are in its decisions.
  5. Meet the commitments made on OMOV, quotas and the interim peers panel. The interim peers panel reforms are pending further action and need to come to a future conference.** Those reforms shouldn’t be forgotten, nor the business passed in Glasgow that requires the FE to think further on what quotas to have for future party elections and the steps it needs to go through to introduce OMOV. Done well, this package need not be massively time consuming and will significantly enhance internal party democracy and the involvement of members. Done well that is – which means done differently from what we’ve seen so far this year.

* As an aside, FE members bemoaning the FCC’s decision to reject the FE’s attempt to amend their own OMOV amendments in Glasgow have it wrong. Even those amended amendments were still broken. The FCC did the FE a favour there by reducing the amount of public egg on faces.

** Updated to correct an earlier factual error.

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