Having argued that the Party Reform Commission should be the catalyst for an ongoing process of party reform and should concentrate its energies on ensuring that this heads in the right direction I should really back that up with some suggestions for how it should go about this.
I am worried that we may end up with a number of, probably quite sensible, suggestions for minor reforms but that the Commission will not be radical enough in tackling the key issues. So it will be important that, rather than looking for ideas to ameliorate the symptoms of our dysfunction, they concentrate on the underlying causes of our organisational weaknesses. I would argue strongly that this is a fundamental structural problem.
A conceptual model of party leadership
At the end of last year I was waffling on about leadership. Making the point that, whoever the new leader turned out to be, their election wouldn’t answer all of the leadership questions that the Liberal Democrats face. That ‘leadership’ within the party goes wider than the single individual who holds the post of Leader and is a collective act that all members of the party share some responsibility for making work.
Well I’ve been doing some further thinking around these ideas and have come up with a conceptual model of the different types of leadership that I believe are required within the Party for it to function and thrive.
Being very much the ‘Process Guy’ I have chosen to present this conceptual model using the diagram below:
The diagram shows the 4 types of leadership that are necessary to ensure the party functions correctly. It also attempts to show in which sphere of activity, whether at the grassroots or the national level, each type of leadership has the most impact.
It should be noted that there are other places where leadership is important within the Liberal Democrats. For example, within our federal structure there is the leadership of the Scottish and Welsh parties. However, given that it would have proved far to complicated to include everything I have chosen to concentrate on the leadership functions of most importance to the federal party as a whole.
Next, I probably need to explain how I define each of the 4 types.
Political and Strategic Leadership
The first type of leadership I have identified is probably the hardest to define but the easiest to recognise. I have used the rather catch-all phrase “political and strategic” to try and encapsulate the leadership functions which are about setting a direction for the Party. This is the leadership which points and says “we will go that way”. It is the leadership which sets the broad national strategy, defines our relationships with other parties, identifies priorities, sets the tone for all that we do, and hopefully provides a sense of vision. It is also leadership which reacts to events and, again hopefully, seizes on opportunities. It seeks to carve out the Liberal Democrats place in the national debate and attempts to get our voice heard.
Leadership of Policy Development
This type of leadership should be fairly simple to recognise. It is the leadership which manages and directs the process by which the party works out what its policies are. It is about identify the key issues of concern to the public, coming up with ideas to deal with them, ensuring that those ideas are realistic and consistent with liberal principles, and making sure that the details are worked out.
Leadership of Campaigning
This type of leadership should also be simple to recognise. This is the leadership which manages and directs the Party’s campaigns. It is most obvious during General Elections and parliamentary by-elections but it also includes ensuring that the party is campaigning on issues such as the ‘Green Tax Switch’ campaign.
Finally, we have the leadership of the Liberal Democrats as an organisation. This encompasses the management and direction of fundraising, membership and recruitment, training, the employment of staff, the finding of candidates, and so on. This leadership takes responsibility for ensuring that the party in the country is solvent, active and responsive. It is tasked with making sure that the sinews of the Party are strong and healthy.
OK, so how good are we?
Now you may be thinking this is all fine and dandy but what is the point?
The reason for developing the conceptual model is to use it to analyse the performance of the Liberal Democrats as an organisation. So we need to ask who is providing the four types of leadership, how good they are at doing so, and what if anything needs to change.
One of the key points I want to get across is that the provision of leadership within the Party is a function which goes wider than just the Leader himself. The person who holds the office of Leader of the Liberal Democrats will naturally be involved in some way in providing all four types of leadership. However, the level of responsibility should vary.
That being said the leadership type which falls most completely into the bailiwick of the Leader of the Party is that of political and strategic leadership. Whether the Party gets good political and strategic leadership or not will depend almost entirely on the performance of the person who is the Leader. So any further discussion around this leadership type will inevitably draw us into considering the record of Kennedy, Campbell and Clegg. That is a big topic! It is not one I want to get into here. The point is really that the provision of this type of leadership is mostly for Nick Clegg to sort out. There are some things that can only be done by the guy at the top.
The leadership of policy development is I think centered around the Federal Policy Committee (FPC) with considerable influence exerted by the Leader, parliamentary spokespeople, and policy staff. While there has recently been some internal discussion about the adequacy of the policy making process, in terms of leadership the last few years has seen a very welcome increase in the level of direction setting. Some within the party haven’t particularly liked which way this direction is moving in. Yet, I am pleased that, unlike some periods in our history, we are actually moving somewhere. So, while the leadership of policy development is far from perfect, it is I think in pretty reasonable shape.
Where the leadership of campaigning is provided from seems much more confused. There is the Campaigns and Communications Committee (CCC) that theoretically reports to the Federal Executive. The influence of the Campaigns Department in Cowley Street and ALDC in Hebden Bridge is felt in different places across the Party. Then of course there is Chris Rennard who, more by reputation than through his formal post as Chief Executive has been without question a leadership figure in this field.
There has been some recent internal debate about whether our campaigning techniques still have the potency they once did and this has extended to a questioning of aspects of Rennard’s influence. I do think there is a wide spread recognition that our campaigning edge is not as sharp as it should be. However, there is no question that the Liberal Democrats remain capable of being a formidable campaigning machine.
This year, at the same time as setting up the Party Reform Commission, Nick Clegg appointed Chris Rennard to be Chair of the General Election Campaign, Andrew Stunell MP to be Chair of Local Elections, Willie Rennie MP as Chair of Parliamentary Campaigns, and Ed Davey MP as Chair of Campaigns and Communications Committee. While it is good that Clegg wishes to build a strong team to head up our campaigning, and I am pleased that he recognises the need to address the question of leadership in this area, I do have to ask whether 4 campaign chairs isn’t a little bit of overkill. Who is in overall charge? Is that Clegg himself? However, until we see whether these new arrangments will work I would be wary of reccommending any signficant changes be made.
The absence of organisational leadership
Finally we come to organisational leadership. This is where I believe we have a big problem.
In recent months I have seen a number of articles in the media where former leaders of the Liberal Democrats have complained about how the demands of running the party are too burdensome on the party leader and distract him away from focusing outwards on the parliamentary and media battle. Now this could lead us into a legitimate debate about the effectiveness of the former leaders’ approaches to party management. However, I do think that they have a point. I believe that the experience they complain about is indicative of a significant structural weakness within the organisation of the Liberal Democrats. At the heart of the party there is an absence of effective organisational leadership.
While the Leader cannot avoid some involvement in providing this type of leadership it should not be one of their key responsibilities. Formally, that is to say according to the Party’s Federal Constitution, I believe that responsibility for organisational leadership is given to a combination of the Party President and the Federal Executive (FE). However, in practice both of these institutions have failed to provide any real kind of leadership in this area.
In my experience the FE is widely regarded as the least effective of the federal committees. It exerts very little real influence and acts largely as a talking shop. A number of people who have been members of the FE have told me how they quickly became frustrated with their inability to achieve anything through that body. In contrast to the Federal Conference Committee (FCC) and the FPC which are required to produce specific outcomes, it is very difficult to see what the FE actually produces, let alone get a sense that it is driving forwards a particular agenda.
I should clarify that this is not a criticism of the individuals who give up their time to serve on this body. My criticisms of the FE are ones of structure and organisational culture not of personalities. The same point holds for my criticisms of the Party President. I am not interested in attacking the record of the people who have held that post. It is the functioning of the office itself and how it is regarded within the Party that I have a problem with.
I do not believe that the Presidency has ever really fulfilled the role that it should. As the only party office or body elected by the whole Party other than the Leader, the President is clearly at the head of the ‘party in the country’. While it certainly should not be an alternative power centre to the Leader, that mandate gives it considerable authority to push forward an agenda and to shape the Party. Yet while each of the Presidents we have had have brought something different to the role and have had achievements, we can’t I believe say that any of them have done that.
Working together the Party President and the Federal Executive should be providing organisational leadership. They should be a powerful force for driving forward party reform. But in truth they are not. The structures that in theory exist to lead our organisation are not doing their job properly. This has meant that other individuals and bodies have ended up attempting to fill this vacuum. Hence the complaint that too many demands to deal with party management are being placed on the Leader because there is no one else who is taking proper responsibility.
The challenge for the Party Reform Commission
In many ways the setting up of the Party Reform Commission itself is an attempt to fill this vacuum.
Party reform is not happening through the structures we have in place that are supposed to provide organisational leadership. So let us get in some “consultants” to tell us what to do.
If the commission is prepared to be bold and radical and thus really do the Party a service, then they should look to find ways to put right the lack of organisational leadership.
This content was originally posted on my old Process Guy blog.