Times: Clegg to overhaul Lib Dem structure

by Stephen Tall on July 16, 2008

It looks like ‘well-placed sources’ have given The Times a sneak preview of reforms Nick Clegg wants to adopt streamline/centralise* decision-making within the Lib Dems:

He is determined to overhaul an internal structure that allies say severely curtails the powers of the leader and splits internal controls between a series of committees.
Mr Clegg, who became leader in December, plans to turn the party’s traditional structure on its head, centralising all decision-making under a new “chief officers group” and diluting the roles of its committees. Sources said that the move risks causing a serious rift between Mr Clegg and Lord Rennard, the party’s chief executive and the man in overall charge of the Liberal Democrats’ election campaigns. Under the shake-up Lord Rennard will become a non-voting member of the group and will report to the party leader.

Mr Clegg is understood to believe that the existing mesh of committees is too unwieldy and needs to be streamlined if the party is to have any chance of meeting its goals, chief among them doubling the number of Liberal Democrat MPs in the next two elections. “There is a multiplicity of committees in the name of transparency, but ultimately what happens is you don’t get any decisions being made at all,” one senior party insider said yesterday. “There are no clear lines of responsibility and accountability,” the source added. …

Sources said that the aim was to introduce the new structure on a “suck it and see” basis, as an interim solution between now and the next general election. That way it can be introduced quickly as opposed to implementing the change via an amendment of the party’s underlying constitution. “The new group will decide everything. In one sense, it may be overkill, but the basic thrust of it is right,” the source said.

The full report is here.

* delete according to taste.

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Hmm. Could someone more familiar with the party’s workings explain exactly *which* committees we’re talking about here; it’s not clear to me from the article.

by Andy Hinton on July 16, 2008 at 11:19 am. Reply #

Rennard already is a non-voting member of the FE. Staff are generally non-voting within the party’s democratic structures.

by Graeme on July 16, 2008 at 11:32 am. Reply #

I too get perplexed at the number of committees and what they do. Working and policy groups i can understand.

Yes we need a more dynamic flexible structure – and yes we need more mentors and policy advisers at hand helping those with particular issues.

For instance, I want to research something about head leases on terraced properties and get a considered policy and political response. You’d think it easy for the party to find a property lawyer to help me with this and allow me to own the process. I think it would be a votewinner but I wouldn’t know where to turn to.

by John Abrams on July 16, 2008 at 11:45 am. Reply #

‘Agreed’

We need to get a bit more focused on the main task, which is winning elections. Anything which moves us in that direction is to be welcomed.

Can anyone who wishes to posit a philosophical objection to the mooted proposals clarify why we should not be aiming to be a bit ‘tighter’ in our organisation and seeking more electoral success.

by wit and wisdom on July 16, 2008 at 11:45 am. Reply #

wit and wisdom:
“Can anyone who wishes to posit a philosophical objection to the mooted proposals clarify why we should not be aiming to be a bit ‘tighter’ in our organisation and seeking more electoral success.”

Talk about loaded questions! Would you like a clarification of why those objecting are against motherhood and apple pie at the same time?

If the report is accurate, it’s a move in the direction of centralising power, and in particular concentrating it in the hands of one man. It seems a bit rich, when we are supposedly all in favour of decentralisation and localism.

And can anyone explain the bit about the plans to do this without amending the constitution?

by Anonymous on July 16, 2008 at 12:16 pm. Reply #

Electoral success is the means to the end of extending the implementation of our values and principles. Doesn’t this proposed move fly in the face of some of our cherrished shibboleths?
It does from my view. If we want centralist, top-down dictates, there are other places to go.

by Ian Stewart on July 16, 2008 at 12:28 pm. Reply #

Nick may of course encounter the same problem as his predecessor who I believe also had ambitions to reform party structures. The federal nature of our constitution means that the amount of influence the leader can have on organisational issues is limited when compared to Labour and the Tories. I do not believe that he would want or be able to change that constitutional position.

by Peter Black on July 16, 2008 at 12:44 pm. Reply #

And perhaps he will get just as fed-up as his predecessor at the inability of Party structures to deliver electoral success for just the shibboleths it treasures…..

by Charles on July 16, 2008 at 12:49 pm. Reply #

…long overdue in my mind…its always been one our party’s weaknesses..we put in hours and days into endless committee meetings at all levels of the party structure whilst our political competitors are busy getting their message out…they question is could we be using our ‘time’ resource more effectively?

the problem with all these committees is that they’re a great excuse to have a continuing dialogue with ourselves rather than the electorate..

by jamess on July 16, 2008 at 12:51 pm. Reply #

Doesn’t this review just create another committee though and leave the FE as even more of talking shop. Shouldn’t setting examples of delivering open and accountable decissions be something a liberal party aspires to and at the moment we are failing.

by Annoymous on July 16, 2008 at 1:55 pm. Reply #

Yes, the question is whether this is centralising or ‘streamlining’. For instance, we could no doubt put even more committees in place below the ones that already exist and increase the vetoing and amending. This would undoubtably make it more decentralised, but would it make it so dispersed as to be meaningless? Can we have a more streamlined system while still having checks and balances? Before we know the detail, we probably can’t suggest the answer.

by Simon on July 16, 2008 at 2:10 pm. Reply #

Odd article and so lacking in detail of the Changes it dificult to comment on them. I always ask “Cui Bono ?” when I read unattributed comments like this. Superficially it looks like a leadership trying to get a preemptive strike in in support of its policy. Nothing Wrong with that. However this is conflated with a fairly concrete allegatio that Rennard is opposing this move so it becomes a “Splits” story. Elements of it also seem to tap into the “strong leader” mythos. Picking a fight with your own party is a leadership archetype.

Then it says that FE has signed off the plan and its going out to consultation. n which case why are we discusing a garbled press report? and how does this link to the Bone Comission ?

All in All its garbled proces story whic will “Bono” no one.

by David Morton on July 16, 2008 at 2:20 pm. Reply #

Jamess is spot on.

Henley is a good example where a little more ‘dirigisme’ might have helped. I understand that the decision to bring in a candidate from a long way away was seen as a ‘limitation’ by the campaign team and it might perhaps have benefited us all had someone been able to veto this/suggest a rethink?

I know we’re all fluffy and consultative and that’s good. Policy should always come from conference for example but someone has to drive the organisation and take important decisions – and be given the power to do so when necessary.

by wit and wisdom on July 16, 2008 at 2:36 pm. Reply #

“… someone has to drive the organisation and take important decisions – and be given the power to do so when necessary”

Does it really not occur to you that precisely the same argument could be made against all our policies on decentralisation and localism in government?

by Anonymous on July 16, 2008 at 2:42 pm. Reply #

Anonymous- but it would be wrong. We want things done on the appropriate level. For example, we wouldn’t propose that each county procure their own defence equipment. The question is ‘are there things done at a committee and lower level that should be being down at the higher level’? In fact, you could use the analogy of the nation state and the EU if we wanted to use imperfect analogies to make the point…

by Simon on July 16, 2008 at 2:58 pm. Reply #

Wit….I would agree that somebody does have to drive the descisions and lead and we have to give them space to do that but they do so as representative of the organisation as a whole, accountable to that organisation…..

It’s really impossible to say much on this until the detail is seen though….

by Darrell on July 16, 2008 at 3:00 pm. Reply #

Simon

“but it would be wrong”

So why isn’t it wrong when applied to the governance of a national political party?

by Anonymous on July 16, 2008 at 3:06 pm. Reply #

I thought that was what my comment was about?? We are not in favour of decentralisation for its own sake- we are in favour of devolving power to the lowest correct level. Things which should be done higher up, should be done higher up. Things which should be done lower down, should be done lower down. The EU Commission should be thinking about climate change and not rubbish collection in Stockton-on-Tees. That’s the principle.

Now, Clegg’s view [if the article is to be believed and taken at face value] is to say that too many decisions are being taken in unweildy committees which should be being decided elsewhere (in this new committee, or in Cabinet, or in Cowley St, or in the Leader’s Office). Until we know the details, we don’t know. But to say that some powers should go up and some down is as uncontroversial as anything.

by Simon on July 16, 2008 at 3:12 pm. Reply #

good to see that the leadership’s chosen avenue for announcing THEIR plans for OUR party is through the Murdoch press.

by anonymous on July 16, 2008 at 3:17 pm. Reply #

David Morton; surely this is a leak of the Bone commission?

by Charles on July 16, 2008 at 3:31 pm. Reply #

WIt & Wisdom at 2.36pm.

My experience of the by-election selection process is that a panel which usually incudes someone from the campaigns dept at Cowley St, an MP and a number of other great and good, whittle down the local parties short list into an even shorter list which then goes on to the hustings. I would therefore suggest that anyone from the campaigns team who found a non local candidate a ‘limitation’ was being a bit disingenous.

David Morton – my guess that it is the Bones Commission, which has understaken a wide consultation across the party. See some of the comments on my post: http://jochristiesmith.blogspot.com/2008/07/whats-happening-with-party-reform.html

So, Anon at 3.17pm…it’s not necessarily THEIR plans but quite possibly OUR plans.

Anon at 3.06. The Liberal Democrats is a single organisation, not a system of government. You are conflating the two.

by Jo Christie-Smith on July 16, 2008 at 3:40 pm. Reply #

I bloody well hate this assumption which is taken as gospel that the constitution of the old Liberal Party was a pile of poo. (The Times’ insinuation/out-and-out statement is that the bits of the current Lib Dem constitution in need of ‘reform’ are those left hanging over from the old Liberal Party). Actually there were lots of open, democratic not to mention commonsensical elements of the Liberal Party constitution which, lest we forget, served that party well for decades, accommodating reforms along the way. Drives me nuts that this idea has become accepted as gospel.
*seethes quietly at keyboard*

by Andy H on July 16, 2008 at 3:42 pm. Reply #

“And can anyone explain the bit about the plans to do this without amending the constitution?”

The constitution only requires 3 Federal committees (Executive, Policy & Conference) with a fourth established by the FE (FFAC). Many of the other committees can therefore be changed with altering the constitution.

It’s also probably open to the FE to discharge it’s responsibilities by setting up a separate committee and the FE is usually compliant enough to go along with the leader’s wishes.

Whether it is a good idea to do this is a different matter.

by Hywel Morgan on July 16, 2008 at 3:45 pm. Reply #

Simon

Exactly. We don’t know the details.

But as our policy is generally in favour of decentralisation and localism, surely any proposal to centralise power and to place much more of it in the hands of the leader is going to require very strong justification. Certainly stronger justification than “Nick Clegg’s view is that …”

And stronger than “someone has to drive the organisation and take important decisions”. My point is that anyone who wants to centralise power further can say that. Without justification it’s meaningless.

by Anonymous on July 16, 2008 at 3:55 pm. Reply #

Jo Christie-Smith

“The Liberal Democrats is a single organisation, not a system of government. You are conflating the two.”

I wrote _governance_, not _government_!

If you haven’t met the word before, you should be able to find it in most dictionaries.

by Anonymous on July 16, 2008 at 3:58 pm. Reply #

Hywel Morgan

Thanks, but what I really didn’t understand was the apparent implication that if it was done as a trial interim measure it wouldn’t need an amendment of the constitution. Presumably implying the converse.

by Anonymous on July 16, 2008 at 4:01 pm. Reply #

Anon at 3.58pm

How perfectly comfortable you seem dispensing sarcasm behind your veil of anonymity! How very unpleasant. If it were me posting without putting my name up, I would make sure I was even more polite to people, given the advantage I was given myself. If I knew your name, I might make a note to myself to steer well clear of you in real life.

Still, originally I did put governance instead of government but I changed my mind. I still think you are trying to apply one way of doing things to two very different things.

But since you ask, I do know the difference between the two and in fact deal with governance, and more particularly poor governance, within organisations daily as part of my job.

Attempting to get anything done differently in the Liberal Democrats is a bit like wading through treacle. We all elect a leader and then make it near impossible for him (or perhaps, one day, her)to do so. Checks & balances are one thing but the tension between many of our committees and other roles wihtin the party is hardly healthy.

by Jo Christie-Smith on July 16, 2008 at 4:18 pm. Reply #

Anon at 3:55

Quite agree- we wait for the details. I would imagine that it would need some justification- yes. However, we are also not a conservative party and are not scared of reform. So, we should judge what powers will move where on very pragmatic grounds. It does make the story a lot less sexy, but it makes it much more likely that we reach the right structure… As it is, in the world of 24 hour news, we might need to be slightly more fleet of foot. We’ll see what the proposals are- no point prejudging stuff now because of some predetermined idea to be ‘anti-leader’s office’ or ‘back Clegg thoughtlessly’.

by Simon on July 16, 2008 at 4:50 pm. Reply #

I agree with all those who say we must wait for the details. However, my experience as a Local Executive Member and one time Vice-Chair of Leeds North West Liberal Democrats is that the party is too decentralised to the point where its parts (i.e. branch parties, local parties) are involved in intense rivalry with each other. This is unhealthy because it prevents the party as a whole coming together and speaking with one voice at a time when its most needed (i.e. in the run-up to and during election campaigns when work is required through the whole constituency or ward and not just parts of it). The result, that we fail to win in these instances by a few tens or hundreds of votes because activists cannot or will not work together.

Streamlining the democratic process should end this rivalry because decisions will be made quicker and in a more efficient way allowing more time for campaigning, as opposed to just talking about campaigning, thus giving a greater purpose to the Liberal Democrats as a whole.

by Richard Whelan on July 16, 2008 at 5:40 pm. Reply #

Jo

“Still, originally I did put governance instead of government but I changed my mind.”

?

An odd thing to do.

You must understand that if you _deliberately_ misrepresent what people say, they are likely to be even less well pleased than if you do it inadvertently…

by Anonymous on July 16, 2008 at 5:58 pm. Reply #

I think it’s a bit hard to make any outright comments about any proposed reforms based on What The Times Says.

However, I can see that the internal structure needs tweaking according to the changing demands of the environment and the tasks we set ourselves, and so long as none of the changes are inconsistent with our principles while offering a more appropriate and defined structure which allows for better decisions to be made, and made more easily at that, then few of us will have any complaints whatsoever.

Its a fine line balancing the requirements of any reforms with their consequences and it is right that we should fully scrutinise what is being put on the table in order to contribute to the debate and exert democratic accountability.

If Clegg is able to show that he can manage the dual task of leading while listening it will strengthen his position and enhance his stature both internally and externally.

by Oranjepan on July 16, 2008 at 6:05 pm. Reply #

I agree that we ought to wait and see what is being proposed before leaping to judgement.

I’d also doubt the veracity of the Clegg/Rennard ‘spat’ – the Times is no friend of the party and it’s likely to be pure conjecture – malicious or otherwise.

by Dan on July 16, 2008 at 7:03 pm. Reply #

“The constitution only requires 3 Federal committees (Executive, Policy & Conference) with a fourth established by the FE (FFAC). Many of the other committees can therefore be changed with altering the constitution.”

There are other committees too? What on earth do they all do? How many millions of hours do they all cost?

by Joe Otten on July 16, 2008 at 8:27 pm. Reply #

Joe – other committees could vary from the Campaigns & Communications Committee to ad-hoc things like the IT working party of a few years back.

The point is that these are established by one of the constitutional committees to better discharge their function. Their effectiveness and necessity varies to both ends of the spectrum.

by Hywel Morgan on July 16, 2008 at 8:59 pm. Reply #

Change! Well I find this all hard to understand. But I can see it might be good in making the system, perhaps simpler. I don’t know much about the committees but surely they help in getting important relevant information. Could a centralised system be mor removed from the reality of what happens?

by Alasdair on July 16, 2008 at 9:46 pm. Reply #

The Times knows that if it uses the word “Centralising” it will wind up a lot of Lib Dem activists. After all, we are supposed to be against that kind of thing.
Yet the report does not go into specifics, and I am wondering who is doing the spinning, someone in the Lib Dems or the Times itself?
The way things are, the party seems happy to do whatever Nick Clegg wants it to do.

by Geoffrey Payne on July 16, 2008 at 10:14 pm. Reply #

“The Times knows that if it uses the word “Centralising” it will wind up a lot of Lib Dem activists.”

Especially if those activists are being kept in the dark about what the proposals are, after they’ve been approved, and while they are being implemented.

by Anonymous on July 16, 2008 at 10:58 pm. Reply #

Geoffrey, I think the Times’ spin on this fails to understand that we LibDems recognise the difference between a process and an outcome, so the most it achieves is concentrating its readership on a pro-LibDem, anti-LibDem axis.

This is an interesting development which shows The Times is more interested in providing more coverage for our party as a response to a deeper recognition of our relevance and potential influence.

By growing their insight into the way work we gain the opportunity to show that we can be successful, and thereby in providing this outlet for us they provide us with a means to communicate to a wider audience.

We should give Mr Murdoch the benefit of doubt in this instance because bad journalism is no reason to reject good publicity.

by Oranjepan on July 16, 2008 at 11:03 pm. Reply #

I think we should also recognise that the current set up (FE etc) is hardly a stunning example of effectiveness of strategy making and holding the leadership to account.

by Hywel Morgan on July 16, 2008 at 11:35 pm. Reply #

I’m always interested when ‘sources’ try to announce something before it has happened. It often seems to be aimed at instigating debate on lots of hypotheticals either to vent a lot of the pressure before a controversial announcement, in the hope it which will go through with a lot less adverse comment later; or an attempt to soften things up by going for overkill so that when a slightly less controversial option is actually announced, it will be greeted with relief that it wasn’t quite so bad as expected. Also by naming an individual and portaying them as having a particular position (especailly someone who can’t comment early like Chris Rennard) it can be an attempt to prevent their involvement by hold the entire debate before they can contribute.

I will await events and discuss real proposals and views given by people who are prepared to put their name to things. Until then “Keep your poweer dry!”

by David Evans on July 17, 2008 at 5:41 pm. Reply #

The lack of detail in the blog does make it hard to comment objectively on this entry…

However, I think the party should welcome any moves that allow us greater scope to publicise our ideals and policies. I strongly believe that there are literally hundreds and thousands of people who would vote liberal if they were only given the opportunity – which in reality means hearing and believing in what we have to say. By streamlining our centre surely we make it easier to make decisions and be heard. Surely the best thing for the party?

by freespeaker on July 17, 2008 at 5:57 pm. Reply #

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