Having given my initial reaction to the Bones Report and highlighted some of the juicy bits – it is now time to have a look at the detail of the report.
I say “report” (and will use that term throughout this article), but we should keep reminding ourselves that what we have is not the full report but an executive summary of the full report. However, it is worth reading in full. Those of you who haven’t yet done so – don’t worry – I’ve read it for you!
But before we get into picking over the bones of .. er .. Bones, first a comment on the style in which the report is written.
One of the problems I have with this “executive summary” of the Bones Report is that it is not an executive summary. It does not condense the full report down to a easily digestible run through of its key points, highlighting the main conclusions, and clearly indicating what further action is needed. It leaves an awful lot of what, we can only assume, is in the full contents of the report a mystery. The detail of the specific proposals, rather than being clarified, are left opaque. It reads more like an introduction than a proper executive summary, and not a particularly well written one at that.
When you get in some consultants to write a report you expect it to be written to some extent in consultant speak. I’ve seen some very bad examples in my time as a councillor. Yet the Liberal Democrats are a political and campaigning organisation and I would of thought we could have expected a higher standard and more attention to plain English than what we get here. I am not sure I want to be part of an organisation that wants to improve its “execution capability”. One particular aspect of the way the report is written is that it constantly talks of “principles” when it means no such thing.
OK, those quibbles aside, here is a look at the report section by section:
Introduction/Building on a History of Success/The Challenge
The first few chapters of the summary report set out that the objective is to recommend changes to our organisation in order to achieve what it calls “the MP goal”. The target of winning 200 Westminster seats over two elections established by Nick Clegg. In doing so it identifies the categories of key seats and target seats. The report is clearly built around the aim of achieving greater electoral success at Westminster.
It is careful not to criticise the past and argues that the Party should be aiming for success on “an altogether more significant scale”. It also recognises the pressing need for far greater funding for the Party.
Achieving coherence, alignment and focused resources
This section of the paper is probably the most important. However, I also found it to be the section with the least clarity and the most difficult to follow.
This confusion is helped by the fact that this section clearly displays the confused attitude to the Constitution of the Liberal Democrats that has been evident throughout the Bones commission process. It states that it is not a constitutional review and is not interested in making changes to the Constitution. But its conclusions logically imply a criticism of the adequacy of the current constitution and even, I believe, in some cases subvert it. It then goes on to say that there may be a need for constitutional changes in the future. To say the least, as a report to the Party of constitutional reform, this is not very coherent.
The main purpose of this section is to call for clarity and simplification within the organisation of the Liberal Democrats. It wants the roles of the different party bodies to be more clearly defined and for decision making to be more transparent. I know very few party members who would disagree with those sentiments. However, I detect in the language with which these arguments are put a concern over the impact of various turf wars, particularly over resources, within the central party.
A key theme of this section is to argue for greater central control over resources. It clearly advocates a shift in decision making over financial resources to the centre. A change in the balance between local parties and the Federal Party, although how this is to be done is not spelt out in detail.
It also argues for a more coherent management of party staff. Although it doesn’t appear to say this explicitly, I take this to include MPs staff as well. Another key theme in this section is that it sees a greater and more proactive role for the regions of the Party. On fundraising it calls for a “radical overhaul” over our approach, although how this is to be done is not detailed. It also introduces the idea of external scrutiny in order to maintain ethical standards.
Finally, this section introduces the idea of the Chief Officers Group (COG). This has probably been so far the most controversial element of Bones and has generated a lot of comment. I have a number of serious issues with both the idea and the way it has been implemented which I discuss in a future post. However, here I want to point out that in many ways the introduction of the COG directly contradicts many of things that this section argues for. While Bones wants a simpler organisation, a clarity of roles, and transparency of decision making I suspect that the COG will end up providing the opposite.
Building a network party not just a membership party
This section focuses on our need to better support and value the people that make up the Party. This is a necessary and unarguable objective, but it is one that the Party has too often only paid lip service to. So I hope that in this area the ideas in Bones Report brings a new impetus to making the Party take seriously the need to look after our members and supporters.
It argues that we need to develop a better membership package with a greater range of benefits. Alongside this it makes some fairly specific recommendations about the need for an increase in the minimum membership fee. I know that some people have some strong and long standing objections to such a move, but I believe Bones is right in this being something that we do need to look at again.
It argues that we should treat our volunteers better and that we should work with a wider conception of who are people are and embrace the idea of the “supporter”. The Party should have better ways for working with those who support us but do not wish to go as far as party membership.
The concept this section introduces of developing a “network party” is an interesting one, but not an idea that I felt was sufficiently explored. It does talk about us developing our “engagement capability” yet I wasn’t left feeling entirely clear about what they meant by this.
It does argue for the creation of a Technology Board which I think is an interesting idea and one that should be looked at further. The Liberal Democrats have a record of being innovative with technology. But this has tended to take place over the years in a rather haphazard manner, something I’ve seen with my past involvement with Liberal Democrats Online. There could be some real potential benefits in formalising the importance of technical innovation within the Party structure in this manner.
One aspect that I give an unqualified welcome to is the proposal that all elected Liberal Democrats should tithe to the Party. It is common practice in the most successful of our council groups for councillors to pay a regular amount of money from their allowances into Party coffers. However, foolishly there are too many council groups who do not do this. Ensuring that this practice happens across the Party is extremely sensible.
Reaching out beyond our traditional support
For many this will be the real heart of the report as it is here that Bones deals with the adjustment of our targeting strategy. I won’t say too much about this as it is a big topic on its own and better dealt with elsewhere. However, I do think what Bones says about this issue is a sensible approach to a critical change that the Party needs to make.
This section also tackles a number of other issues related to winning new support to the Liberal Democrat cause. I strongly welcome the emphasis placed on supporting local leadership of campaigning. Bones rightly says the “key to success is identifying someone with leadership skills who wants to do something locally”. Bones appears to argue for a more “hands-on” role in the development of seats and campaigning capacity by the central party. If the sensible ideas, like the creation of a Federal “roving campaign team”, are taken up we will see a welcome, and in many places sorely needed, pro-active approach to working with the grass roots helping them to campaign better.
There is some discussion of the need for a new style of communication but it doesn’t give details of what is meant by this. It also suggests possible changes to conference but again doesn’t say what these are. I also found the remarks made about targeting the youth vote extremely unclear. It welcomes the creation of Liberal Youth but then it seems to suggest giving up on the youth vote as a possible source of new voters because “the youth vote will not vote, or if it does will look for parties of protest”. I may have misunderstood what they mean, but in this case I think that is the fault of the authors rather than my capacity to grasp these things.
This section also deals with what they call the “diversity agenda”. Their suggestion that because of our limited resources attempts to improve diversity within the Liberal Democrats should focus only on the diversity of our candidates and that we should not do any work on other areas. They are quite strong on this point saying “if what is proposed isn’t directly achieving the candidate goals, don’t do it.” I happen to think this is wrong headed on a number of levels but at least, unlike the point above, they are clear about what they mean. It is here that they propose the £10k ‘diversity premium’ for seats that select a BME candidate.
Redefining Community Politics
This section makes the elementary, if all too common within the Liberal Democrats, mistake of seeing community politics as purely a campaigning technique rather than the wider approach to politics that its originators intended. It also makes the allied mistake of seeing community politics as synonymous with local government, and then compounds this by only really talking about local government in the context of getting more MPs. It is disappointing that the authors do not appear to be aware of the wider concept of community politics or want to acknowledge that Liberal Democrat achievement in local government can be an end in itself.
However, it does say a number things about local government that are spot on. In particular I would strongly support the sentiments expressed in the following passage;
“Where we have resisted and held control is where we have had councils who have actively applied our political values and philosophy and who have created a coherent political movement at a local level. Where we fall victim and lose is where we fail to differentiate ourselves and look just like the others, where candidates are put up who are not aligned to our values and where once in office we have little vision and become managerial rather than political leaders.”
In response to this it argues for a number of measures that we should welcome. Its talk of wanting to strengthen the capabilities of local politicians, to support and work with the leaders of Liberal Democrat run councils better, and improving local government candidate selection and discipline is right but yet again the report lacks details. I particularly liked its emphasis on spreading best practice both to council groups and to the campaigning activities of local parties.
Widening and deepening the candidate pool
I am choosing not to go into the section looking at parliamentary candidates in much detail as I think others are better placed to discuss this aspect. However, it is notable that Bones places an emphasis on getting more flexibility in to the candidate system for “outstanding candidates”. My reading of the proposals as a whole gave me an impression that if they were implemented we would end up with what would be in effect a Liberal Democrat version of the Tory ‘A’ list system. I am not strongly against such an idea, it has its merits, but it will need to be thoroughly debated within the Party before such a system is adopted.
Investing in leadership, candidate and execution capability
Other than introducing me to the jargon that is “execution capability” the main idea in this section is the use of a “leadership academy” to take control of an improved training and development programme. While I am not entirely sure about this model, I think a greater emphasis on training is right. However, again the report displays a bias towards parliamentary candidates. I agree that the training of PPCs is of critical importance but I do not know whether or not it is in our candidates or in other areas where we have the greatest skills gaps.
Building a 21st Century Political Movement
While this section has a suitably bold title I did think that the report had a rather limited view of what a “movement” actually is. As the report has no real discussion of how to go about building a wider liberal movement it would have been wiser to talk more accurately about a campaigning political organisation. Here it talks of the need to win the “air war” as well as the “ground war”. It calls for the Party to develop greater clarity in its message but doesn’t really say how this should be done. Again this section lacks specific details, an exception being the welcome proposal for an enhanced network of regional press officers managed centrally.
I am not sure that the “conclusion” actually is much of a conclusion. I found the way it is written raised as many questions as it answered. For example there is the following;
“What holds us back is not our policies, nor our values. It is our structures, our culture and our decision-making processes.”
As a statement that has a degree of rhetorical power, and a significant element of truth, but is it entirely true? Discuss.
So, that was a quick run through of what the report says, at least from my perspective. Yet, I’ve only really scratched the surface of the many issues and questions that Bones raises. My thoughts on some of these aspects to come in future posts.
This content was originally posted on my old Process Guy blog.