In the run up to this year’s Spring Federal Conference I wrote an number of articles about party management and in particular one for Liberal Democrat Voice outlining my opposition to the proposed constitutional amendment which would remove the requirement for the Party President to Chair the Federal Executive.
At Conference I was able to carry that opposition through to the debate as I was called to speak. Whether that speech helped or hindered I don’t know, but the result was the amendment failed to secure the 2/3rds majority it needed and so failed to pass.
Yet, I don’t regard that as the end of the matter. It still leaves open the question of what to do with the role of President of the Liberal Democrats. Now, I know many people find this stuff rather dull, but how we organise ourselves does effect how successful we are, so I make no apologies for returning to this subject, if a little later than I had intended.
It seemed that the key argument made in favour of the constitutional change concerned problems with practicalities. This was very clearly summed up by Duncan Brack in response to my LDV post:
“the current role of President in practice encompasses two entirely different jobs: (a) being the voice of the membership at the centre of the party, morale-raising, etc., etc.; and (b) overseeing the work of the federal party and coordinating its committees. I think it’s almost impossible to do both of them satisfactorily, and they demand different sets of skills and personalities.”
Essentially there is too much for the President to do and something has to give.
By and large I accept this analysis. I am perfectly willing to accept that the Party may have difficulties in getting the practical arrangements of this role right. These things aren’t easy, particularly with the lack of resources we operate under. So I am equally willing to accept that some change in how we do things may be necessary. The question is what change.
Duncan, who drafted the amendment for the FE, says he suggested two options and that the FE “went for the less radical option”. His other option, while I still think it is flawed, certainly seems more coherent than what was offered to conference. I still find it curious that those who advocated this change presented a case that seemed to prioritise what are the essentially ceremonial parts of the job over the organisational.
Yet, I am totally unpersuaded that these changes require a constitutional change of any kind.
Yes there may be significant problems with the way the Presidency operates but re-writing the fundamentals of the Party’s Constitution as a way to solve these problems does seem a little like overkill. It is surely possible to arrange things so that the role of the President can be made to work better within the terms of the existing Constitution.
For example, the Constitution already says that the existing deputy chair of the Federal Executive can chair meetings “at the request of the President”. So surely a President whose strengths do not lie in the realms of Party management could ensure that a competent and trusted person is elected as deputy chair of the FE and authority given to them to act on behalf of the President. With a little imagination and political insight solutions can be found to these practical problems that do not require diluting the critical feature of the role of President, their accountability to the wider Party.
For me the most important aspect of the role of the President is that they are the only party office, other than the Leader, elected by the whole party. I would hope that no one who calls themselves a Liberal Democrat could object to the idea that those that have the responsibility for running the Party should be accountable to the members of the Party. Operating in an accountable and democratic manner is at the very heart of what being a Liberal Democrat is all about. The question is how best we can make that democratic accountability work.
I would not claim that the current arrangements for ensuring democratic accountability are perfect. Far from it. One of my concerns is that in many ways we actually have too little internal party democracy at the moment. But it was clear that to have accepted this constitutional change would have further diminished the democratic accountability within the structures of the Party.
I have come to the conclusion that the real problem with the role of the President of the Liberal Democrats is not one of practicalities. It is the fundamental mismatch between on one hand the role as specified in the constitution and the potential inherent in the authority it gets from being accountable to the whole membership and on the other hand the conception of the role as ‘ceremonial’ that so many in the Party have, including those at senior level.
In itself this doesn’t matter much. But if you accept my argument that the Party has a serious problem with a lack of organisational leadership, then the failure of the Presidency to live up to its potential is, at the very least, a missed opportunity.
It looks like we are going to have a contested election for the next Federal President. I hope that in the coming campaign, whoever the candidates are, they clearly set out their objectives for their Presidency and how they will both overcome the practical difficulties in operating that role effectively and make it a real force for Party reform.
This content was originally posted on my old Process Guy blog.