I spent most of the Lib Dem conference in a cold fury, venting off to journalists, on Comment is Free and on twitter throughout. It is therefore surprising to find that the one thing I’ve had the most stick for is simply encouraging people to ask for a bit of information.
Throughout the week I had a number of party staff and faceless bureaucrats express to my face or indirectly how furious they are at the fact that I managed to get a number of people – my thanks to Jennie Rigg, Jo Christie-Smith and Gareth Epps – to ask a series of questions to the Federal Executive (not being a voting conference rep, I couldn’t ask them myself). There were, to be fair, quite a few. When I approached people to ask them I sent them a brainstorm of possible questions and was expecting people to ask one or two each: I certainly didn’t expect them all to be submitted (not that I’m complaining).
That all of them were submitted suggests that I wasn’t the only person who read the FE report with grave concern. Last year, with great aplomb, the FE published the findings of the “Bones Commission” – a strategic review of how the party is organised. At the time we were assured that this wouldn’t go the same way as all the other strategic reviews in the past and end up gathering dust on a shelf, and indeed it hasn’t, but if you go through the reports to conference this year you will not find a single reference to it.
What has happened is that the party’s internal structures have been totally reorganised, with the “Chief Officers’ Group” sitting at the centre of a spiders’ web of new boards and existing committees. What was unveiled as a means to cut down on bureaucracy, on the face of it, looks like nothing but, yet the FE report included just a couple of lines on the restructure. And there are other proposals from the Bones Commission, such as the plans for a “Leadership Academy” which have apparently vanished without trace.
The purpose of all these questions were to establish a clearer picture about how the party has been restructured, how this is working in practice, and to establish the status of the other major proposals. In a different party with a healthier democratic culture, such questions would be welcomed as an opportunity to correct an oversight. Instead, one senior staffer came up to me spitting about he had “just wasted a week answering your questions,” and I have had about 3 or 4 seperate conversations about how X or Y is furious with me (X or Y not being the President herself incidently, as I have also been told repeatedly).
I’m not naming names because I’ve got no interest to turn this into any more of a silly argument than it is. But the culture at the top really does need to change.
Six years ago, when I was on the party’s Federal Executive, the level of accountability of the party’s Treasurer consisted of him occasionally turning up to meetings and telling us everything was going well, and the Chief Executive shouting down anyone who started asking any pointed questions about how the party was fundraising. 18 months later, the Treasurer resigned under mysterious circumstances and shortly afterwards the party started accepting donations from Michael Brown. It looks as if the party will now escape having to pay any of the Brown money back, but it is a lucky escape for what was an avoidable cock up. Would extra scrutiny have stopped the party from accepting this donation? We’ll never know, but I think there is a certainly an argument that it might have forced them to think through their procedures better and give it more careful thought.
Either way, if you can’t explain clearly how the party’s decision making structures work, then there’s probably something wrong with that. By all means shoot the messenger, but it doesn’t change that fact.