My response to the Liberal Democrats Governance Consultation

The Liberal Democrats are currently conducting a consultation on governance, the details of which can be found here. (PDF Link) As I bang on repeatedly about transparency and accountability in my response, it seems appropriate to make my response public – but be warned, at 3,800 words it’s quite long! I have been a little tardy submitting this as the deadline for responses is noon tomorrow, but there is still time left to respond if you wish. You might also want to read the responses of Jennie Rigg and Andy Hinton. (If you know of any more public responses, please let me know and I will list them here)

Although I wrote the response, Sarah Brown offered some input and endorses the points below.

Party Values
Q1 Are these still our values?

The language is a little dated in places, and most notably the list of protected characteristics is missing “gender identity”, but yes.

Q2 Are these values embedded into our party structure at all levels, members, volunteers, elected office holders and paid staff?
Belief in these values is embedded at all levels. Execution, as with many organisations of any size, can fall short.

Q3 What does the party do well to live its values?
Doing the right thing, not the politically expedient thing. Examples of this are legion, so I will not list them here.

Q4 What does it need to improve?
Communication and transparency. It should not be unexpected that overworked staff and volunteers usually have concerns other than communicating the results of meetings that, on the whole, will be dealing with routine and mundane matters. The only way this can happen is by elected office holders continuously pushing for more openness.

Q5 What should the party stop doing or do less of?
Poorly (If at all) communicated decisions. The externally-facing party may have a PR and communications machine, but those of us on internal committees do not. There is sometimes a reluctance to share some conversations that need not remain private because the public may see them badly, but if the party PR machine and Federal Executive have concerns about internal committee decisions being communicated accurately then resource needs to be assigned to this in just the same was as it is to, for example, conference motions.

The party also often tries to do things centrally, such as diversity, that those involved have limited experience and training on. The General Election 2015 campaign was a good example of this.

Q6 What should the party start doing or do more of?
Two-way communication with members. All-members emails giving the agenda for an upcoming sub-committee of the Federal Executive would clearly be excessive, but at least some of that that information should be online where interested members know to look. Two prominent examples where things need improvement are that the full results of previous committee elections are only available via a member’s web site and that the contact details of federal committee members are not made available, even if the committee members would be quite happy for details to be available to other members.

Committee membership pages need to be kept up to date and more complete. Several entries on the pages for the FE, FCC and FPC are incomplete and contain no text or photo or have information that is months or years out of date.

There is merit in establishing a part-time post whose role is internal communication – not of the Ad Lib or Newsletter variety, but responsible for updating the web site with all these details and minutes of meeting. I appreciate that funding such a post would be nearly impossible in current circumstances.

Q7 If we believe in power being exercised at the lowest level possible, how do we make sure that decisions are made as close to members as possible?
By letting members know that a decision will be taken in the first place, or that is has been taken so that it can properly be scrutinised. We have a hierarchical system with local parties at the bottom, but if local parties do not know what those at HQ are doing they are not able to influence the outcome. We already have consultations, such as this one, on major issues but very little information is available on who is making day-to-day decisions or will be voting at various Federal Committees.

Whilst opportunities for new Liberal Democrat peers will be limited at best in this parliament, thought should also be given to re-introducing Interim Peers List elections. At absolute worst it shows we are taking the problems seriously, but in better times will ensure that the House of Lords is kept supplied with an influx of members who are in-touch with the wider membership.

Governance Values
Q8 What should our strategic priorities be in determining the party’s structure?

Re-evaluation of the powers and role of some of the “middle-management” committees with a view to creating a more accountable and transparent structure. At the moment, some of these committees make decisions that can end up being the focus of internal party controversy when little is known about the membership of the committees and where there is no opportunity for the wider membership to hold them to account. Troubles in recent years with, to pick just two examples, the FFAC and English Council have often led to choruses of “Who are they?” and “Who sits on them?”. In the case of the FFAC, it is not even listed on the party’s web site.

Q9 What powers or decision making within the party could be placed at a more local level than at present?
A review of some of the “middle-management” committees could push power more towards regional parties – who can be held to account by their regional conferences.

Q10 How can we ensure that there is, in our governance, greater: a) selflessness, b) integrity, c) objectivity, d) accountability, e) openness, f) honesty?
More openness will inevitable lead to more of the other.

Q11 Are there any other principles that should underpin our governance?
I will simply quote Jennie Rigg’s one-word response to this question: “Justice”.

Transparency and Accountability
Q12 How do we balance the ideal of transparency against the need to prevent information useful to our opponents reaching them?

This question needs to be asked, but it troubles me that it needs to be asked in a party that is full of serving and ex-councillors and MPs for whom this should be second nature. Very little information is genuinely of value to political opponents and it makes up a small proportion of the information that should not be public – for example, future campaigns, the detail of any disciplinary hearings or the location of future conference venues which could cause personal embarrassment or financial issues for members if made public. If members of committees and groups are in the habit of flagging which agenda items and papers are confidential versus public, as often happens in council meetings, that will make the work of those who have been elected on a platform of transparency and openness that much easier.

Q13 Which levels of the party should have public-facing activities and which should not? What are these activities?
“Public facing” seems to mean “employs staff to handle PR”. It should be up to each organisation within the party to determine if it needs to do this, on the understanding that lack of a PR function does not mean that decisions made by that organisation should not be communicated to members.

Q14 Should the party consider having more direct public (i.e. non-member) input into the organisation, and if so what form would this take?
Outside of policy working group consultations, where it already happens, no.

Q15 Are there some basic principles we should use when amending our governance structure? Please note this is not a request for which committee to abolish! We want to understand what members want to know or monitor, and how you can feel that this is your party.
Review the process of electing members to committees where the electorate is not party-wide. Even committees that are not entirely appointed are made up of reserved places from other groups and “representatives” from other committees to the point that – on the FE – directed elected members are barely in the majority. These posts should be kept to an absolute minimum or abolished and power handed to the democratically elected members of the committee to co-opt suitable members, should they feel the need.

Whilst expanding the committee system would not be helpful right now, we should absolutely not be looking to abolish, reduce or limit the powers of the directly elected federal committees. That would concentrate too much power in too few hands, many of whom will be excellent, talented and well meaning people but still not accountable to the membership.

Q16 Do you want to see minutes of every meeting on the party website, reports on Lib Dem Voice and other blogs of party meetings? How should the party manage this openness of information with the few matters that are genuinely confidential?
I appreciate that there will be meetings whose topics will be entirely confidential but these should be the minority and certainly want to see us head in the direction of publishing more details. I am pleased to have been able to do this for Federal Conference Committee. Credit is also due to Mary Reid from LDV who has helped make this possible.

Unfortunately, continuing the theme of lack of details on the party web site mentioned earlier, even when minutes have been sent to HQ by the chair of committees it has been many months before they have been put up because this is not a staff priority.

I have skipped Q17-Q23 as I do not feel I have anything constructive to add that others have not already said better than I.

Respect for each other
Q24 Should we change the way our discipline structures work to streamline and simplify them?

To the extent that it is possible to do so whilst maintaining trust and integrity, yes. I am aware of cases where the party disciplinary procedure has been used, typically by those outside the party, to harass prominent members of the party who are also members of marginalised groups and where members have been subject to double jeopardy on procedural grounds. Opportunities to use our disciplinary system against us for less-than-honest purposes should be kept to a minimum, where that is compatible with justice, and members should never face double jeopardy except in the most serious cases.

On any topic that involves members of marginalised groups and sub-cultures, input should be sought from an appropriate body (Often AO or SAOs) as early as possible to ensure sensitive handling.

Q25 How do we make sure that systems of accountability are properly in place at a local, regional, state and federal level, so that reporting and monitoring procedures work for members?
Reporting back in an anonymous fashion, perhaps to regional conferences that investigations are taking place. For example: (And this is entirely fictional) “Fred Bloggs was appointed to lead an investigation following complaints of harassment made against a local party chair in Essex. The complaints were made by one member of the public, and the investigation concluded no further action was required”. Some councils do this well (Including my own council, Cambridge City) and their example cam be followed.

This will indicate to the membership that these issues are being taken seriously and investigated, because at the moment many are unaware that investigations happen at all.

Q26 What do members what from the complaints and disciplinary processes? Should there be a stronger focus on early mediation and speedier resolution of problems?
That justice is done and that it is done in a way that people have trust in. On speedy resolution, see my answer to Q24.

Diversity
The figures presented on page 11 of the consultation paper are misleading at best and it concerns me that this table has now been published widely across the party without giving (S)AOs the chance to check the figures for accuracy.

  • Sources are not given, but there have been a number of studies conducted by the ONS that a 2% LGB figure could have been taken from. However, the sexual identity figures are considered experimental by the ONS and have attracted criticism from many organisations and activists. Confusion arises by taking only those individuals who were willing to out themselves as part of the survey and state that they were LGB and ignores the high levels of “Don’t know” (3.6%) and “Other” (0.4%) responses and those who were unable or unwilling to answer. (0.7%) A detailed discussion of the problems with LGB population estimates would be too lengthy to include here, but a figure of 6% – which was also used by the DTI in costing the introduction of civil partnerships – is often used.
  • The 2% ONS figure has been quoted in the paper as covering LGBT+, whereas the ONS data only covers LGB. Although overlap between various groups means that simple addition is not possible, EHRC figures show that as much as 1% of the population falls under the protected characteristic of “Gender Reassignment” (with lower numbers actually identifying as trans*) and up to 0.4% identify to some degree as non-binary. Additionally, 1-2% of the population have intersex variations, covered under the “+” of LGBT+.
  • It is unclear what is meant by “Federal Conference” or “Regional Conference”. (Those registered to attend or voting reps? How was this data collected?) Although, based on data collected by LGBT+ Liberal Democrats prior to the election, the figure of 6% for LGB&T candidates is accurate the 18% given for Local Party Officers is surprising and without more evidence I would have to say unbelievable. No current or former Local Party Officers or conference representatives I have spoken to can recall ever having completed an equalities monitoring form.
  • There is insufficient breakdown to produce any useful analysis and basing decisions on the aggregate numbers risks making an already unequal situation worse. For example, we know that LGBT+ Westminster candidates are overwhelmingly white, cisgendered gay men – of 38 known LGB candidates, 36 (95%) were men. Similar breakdown is needed for all other figures – as an example of good practice, the Workforce Reports submitted to Cambridge City Council’s Equalities Panel, of which I am a member, includes 19 categories of “ethnic origin”. This allows the council to see if certain minorities within minorities are under represented, even if the overall figure looks healthy – as is the case with lesbian and bisexual women within the party hierarchy.

Q27 What can members and the party do to embed our values about diversity into the party?
Let (S)AOs, who are usually the subject matter experts on these topics, have input into areas that affect them at the point where consultations and manifestos are written not when they are published. HQ staff do not have the time to do this properly and doing it badly is worse than leaving it to (S)AOs and party members. I have expressed elsewhere my concerns about how diversity issues were handled during the general election campaign in particular and those concerns still stand.

In short, “Nothing about us, without us”.

Q28 What more should the party do to support and help those from groups with protected characteristics and those under represented in parliament?
and
Q29 What should the party do to make this happen?
These questions are difficult to answer well in an environment where we are not winning new Commons seats, nor are we likely to be awash with appointments to the House of Lords. Largely, see the answers to Q27 above and Q7 on the Interim Peers List. The Leadership Programme also worked well, but should not be seen as the only way for members of under-represented groups to be selected to winnable seats. At times, during the run-up to the last parliament, it felt as if members of diversity groups only counted if they came from the leadership programme. Where we stand members of marginalised groups we should also take steps to ensure they represent the diversity within marginalised communities rather than just the more “acceptable” fringes

Ensure that any positive action or publicity does not lose sight of diversity-within-diversity, as outlined above under 4. (Insufficient breakdown of figures)

Q30 Should the party look at specific arrangements to ensure that party bodies, candidates and the leadership of the party are more diverse?
(a) For example, should the party ensure that committees at all levels have at least one third women members, and a percentage of BAME members that reflect the community at that level?

The one-third quota for each (binary) gender on committees seems to work well. I am not sure that this approach would work for groups that are much smaller than 50%, and if the party includes BAME there will inevitably be an outcry from disability and LGBT+ groups. It also runs the very real risk of under-represented minorities-within-minorities losing out. Given the complexity surrounding internationality (i.e. the proportions of under-represented groups added together can equal more than 100%) it is entirely possible to create a situation where every member of a committee would need to be from an under-represented group. This is clearly undemocratic.

(b) Should the party return to the ‘zipping’ mechanisms for list elections used in England and Wales for the European elections in 1998, which gave us 50-50 gender breakdown in the European Parliament?
Yes. Zipping should be reserved for special circumstances rather than the norm, but I believe the current situation qualifies.

(c) Should the party look at all women shortlists, and BAME shortlists in areas with higher levels of BAME residents?
No. I am generally opposed to all-women short-lists, on the grounds that they are neither a very liberal nor democratic (at a local level) solution and these risk locking out other marginalised groups, in particular non-binary-identified individuals. An all-underrepresented-groups shortlist would be the least-worst option. Also see my answer for (a) above.

(d) How do we encourage, mentor and support people from underrepresented groups in politics to put themselves forward for roles in the party?
By creating role models, which can be done by both the methods outlined in (b) and by appointing more people openly or visibly diverse people to leaderships roles. I believe the party has done reasonably well on this in recent years.

(e) How do we make democracy in the party available to all members? (For example some local parties provide grants to members on low incomes to help them attend conference; in the past grants have also been available for disabled people to help with the extra cost of accessible hotel rooms)
By making democracy more transparent – see answers earlier. Some people will be so disadvantaged or just at the wrong point in their lives so that attending conference is completely untenable, so simply adding more funding can never be a complete fix.

(f) How can the party best use former MPs, candidates and Leadership Programme members to improve the public perception of diversity in the party?
We should not worry too much about former MPs and candidates, but focus instead on those coming up.

Q31 Should the party ensure diversity in the senior leadership roles of Leader, President and Deputy Leader?
Given the Leader and President are elected independently of each other, I am not sure how this would possible. I remain unconvinced that the role of Deputy Leader – handy though it may be for parliamentary procedure – is particularly relevant to the media or wider party.

Q32 If yes, should this just reflect gender diversity, or other under-represented characteristics as well.
As with shortlists, if diversity is imposed it should be all under represented groups.

Q33 Should a Deputy Leader be elected by the members or appointed by the Party Leader?
The role of Deputy Leader and the pool of candidates (MPs? All parliamentarians? All members?) needs to be better defined before this question can be answered.

Q34 If the Deputy Leader is elected, should the election for Leader and Deputy Leader be on a joint-ticket basis where possible?
If a decision is taken to impose diversity, I believe this is the only way of achieving it. (i.e. At least one of the two posts must be a member of an under-represented group)

Q35 Should remuneration and expenses be made available to the President and/or Deputy Leader?
Most certainly. Guaranteeing staff time and an income for the president (i.e. Unpaid for MPs, a top-up for Lords who I understand are paid less for their parliamentary role and full pay for non-parliamentarians) would go some way to making the post more accessible to those who lack either the wealth or an existing parliamentary seat.

Q36 Are party committees organised in such a way that all members who want to are able to take part? Can we use technology to help (as with telephone conferencing or Skype)?
Not well, and committees (And policy working groups) tend to be dominated by those inside the M25 as a result. Telephone conferencing works to an extent for meetings held in LDHQ but is usually unsatisfactory for meetings in Portcullis House or the Palace of Westminster and fails to communicate body language. I have worked for more than one international company which relies on Video Conferencing – often Skype, due to cost – for it’s internal communication. There is a cost associated with this for hardware of an appropriate standard but it is not prohibitively expensive. (Around £1,000)

Q37 Should we highlight the areas of responsibility for certain committees more clearly, and encourage members standing for committees to highlight their expertise in those areas, rather than the tendency to focus on campaigning experience?
Successful candidates will highlight in their election material the areas that members feel are important – transparency into the work of the committees will result in a more informed electorate and is likely to result in election material changing. Steps to enforce inclusion of certain details into election material feels undemocratic.

Q38 Should we actively encourage progression in party roles, especially for those from under represented groups?
Yes, but at the moment many are unaware of the work of the committees so do not see the benefit in standing.

(Q39 is “If you have never stood for a committee, please tell us why.”, so I am not answering it!)

Q40 Should we consider reducing the tiers of structures to simplify accountability?
Yes, as long as we are not eliminating directly-elected posts. See answers to earlier questions.

Q41 Should terms of office be streamlined, so that they are consistent within the party? If yes, what should the term be?
Committees do different jobs and members have varying levels of power, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Two years feels about the right length of time for a federal committee post as it balances the need for change, perhaps within a single parliament, with giving people the chance to learn the ropes. The same could be said for local party posts but two years may be too much of a commitment for many members to feel happy taking on the role.

Q42 Should all elected officers and committee members have a time limit before they have to stand down for a period before putting themselves up for election again, or be time limited?
Term limiting unique and powerful posts such as the President and at a local level, local party/(S)AO chair makes sense but term-limiting individual federal committee membership is less attractive and would result in the “usual suspects” committee-swapping and potentially a churn in experienced members.

Term-limiting local party/(S)AO posts other than chair could lead to smaller organisations collapsing due to lack of people willing to take on posts.

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