I was very pleased with Nick Clegg’s decision to set up the Party Reform Commission under Chris Bones. It is an indication that Clegg has an awareness of the importance of party management and that he recognises the need for change. Both of which I warmly welcome. But, and you knew there was going to be a but, I do have some significant reservations about the exercise.
Given the lack of recent posts on this blog you won’t be surprised to learn that, despite good intentions, I failed to put together a written submission by the 8th February deadline. An annoyance as I was keen to have my say. I also have wanted to write much more about issues relating to the internal workings of the Liberal Democrats here over the last couple of months than I have been able to do. I have taken a long-standing interest in party management, developing some fairly strongly held views, and there has been some significant developments in that time.
A can of worms
The challenge that the Party Reform Commission has been tasked with is huge;
“Our leader has spoken about our target of reaching more than 150 MPs in two elections and increase our representation at every level across the UK whilst ensuring a congruent and cohesive party. The job of this commission if to ensure the party has the organizational ability to deliver it.”
Plus the detail of the remit it has been given ranges over a wide area, is I think somewhat ill-defined, and in places contradictory. On top of that they are working to extremely tight timescale. While I understand the desire not to waste time with an over lengthy process I seriously doubt that they can do what they have been asked to do in the time available.
There is also I believe a significant danger that the setting up of the commission will have raised expectations amongst groups and individuals within the party, who naturally will be looking for their particular issues and pet hates to be dealt with, which could easily be disappointed. If that does happen the resulting disenchantment could actually result in setting back moves for party reform rather than progressing them.
If you look at the long list of questions that they have asked members to respond to in their consultation you will get a sense of the breadth of the issues that they will have to grapple with. And that ignores an equally long list of issues that they haven’t mentioned but that others will want to talk to them about. Establishing the commission has opened a rather large can of worms. So, how the Commission goes about interpreting its remit will be critical.
I do fear that some may have developed the notion that the way to fix what is wrong with the organisation of the party is by inviting some experts to come in to draw up, in the space of a few months, a blueprint for change. This means that then, providing we work through the list of fixes that they suggest, we will not have to worry about serious issues of party management for the foreseeable future.
This approach would be a big mistake, so I hope I am wrong, but the recent history of leadership inspired attempts at party reform doesn’t inspire me with much confidence. If the party leadership believe that implementing the necessary party reforms can be achieved through a simple one off review exercise then they are deluding themselves. We shouldn’t underestimate just how much hard work and change will be needed if the party is to achieve “the stretch goal articulated by the leader”.
A starting point, not a finished article
I don’t want to appear too cynical and negative about what is a very welcome initiative. So I ought to set out some positive suggestions. Given that I believe how the Commission goes about interpreting its remit is critical I would like to suggest what I believe to be the best approach. My advice would be for them to see their role as being the start of an ongoing process of organisational development.
If they were to concentrate on developing a few specific recommendations designed to act as a catalyst start a wider process of party reform and to ensure that this process sets off in the right direction then they will have achieved what we need. Ideally the work of the commission should be to establish a framework within which the party collectively can tackle the many long-standing and neglected structural and organisational issues that are holding us back.
Criticisms of this approach
Now, I suspect that the approach I am advocating is likely to be criticised on two grounds. Firstly, I am focusing too much on process and not enough on outcomes. Secondly, that more debate and internal discussion about rules and regulations and structures and constitutions is the last thing the party needs. It will be a distraction from the real business of winning votes.
To the first charge I would say, read the name of this blog! To paraphrase the Bishop of Southwark, “I am Process Guy. It’s what I do”. But, as ever I am concerned about process only to ensure that we get the best possible outcomes.
For me the second criticism is somewhat akin to those who criticised the introduction of Japanese manufacturing methods into British industry in the 70’s and 80’s as a distraction from the proper conduct of business. To say “Why waste time on all this process re-engineering nonsense when what we should be doing is getting out there and selling our goods?” was to entirely miss the point. The failure to constantly analyse and improve on how you do things will make a company uncompetitive. The same I suspect goes for political parties.
For too long those who have argued that to spend time and energy on all this internal organisational stuff was wasteful have got their way. This shortsightedness is partly responsible for the degree of stagnation the party is experiencing. Our organisational capacity has not grown as the party has grown because we have not cared enough about nurturing it and this is now a barrier to our future progress.
While the Party Reform Commission is a welcome recognition of the need to do something about this it cannot be the solution on its own. The problem is too big. What is needed is a sustained period of conscious effort put into organisational change and capacity building. I hope to post some ideas on what this would look like, but my key message here is that the party as a whole needs to start caring much more than it currently does about this stuff.
In short, when the Party Reform Commission reports, it should be the beginning of something, not the end.
This content was originally posted on my old Process Guy blog.