Clegg’s COG: now that I have your attention…

My CiF piece yesterday has caused a bit of a stir. Paul Walter suspects that may have been my plan all along – the very idea! Meanwhile Tom Papworth orders me to stop “moaning over our organic, Fairtrade, decaf coffees and get on with selling our party to the electorate.” Frankly, that’s not my job any more. I was asked for my opinion and I gave it (also, I don’t drink coffee).

But there is another strand which is emerging from this debate which I am equally dismissive. That is the “I told you so” response. “Ashamed anonymous” accuses me of voting with my head rather than my heart when I supported Clegg in the leadership election, with Jennie seemingly making a similar point.

I remember things differently. I didn’t vote with my head or my heart in the last leadership election. I found the debate very finely balanced with both candidates having clear strengths and weaknesses. As in all things, I ultimately went with my gut (it’s bigger than the other two combined after all). And despite my criticisms yesterday, I haven’t seen anything to question that. But then, I’ve never personally subscribed to the Sun King theory of leadership. I can cope with Clegg’s occasional cock ups because I view it as an aspect of the job.

My CiF article makes two main criticisms: that internal communication has worsened under Clegg and that the idea of a “Chief Officer’s Group” is wrong headed. I suspect that the former would have been improved with Huhne at the helm simply because he is a more experienced manager. But would Huhne have refrained from setting up something like COG? On that I am more doubtful for the simple reason that it is the culmination of something that has been happening within the party for years now.

I would refer the jury to an article I wrote in 2006 entitled “Sleepwalking to Disaster?” (pdf – pp. 10-11). Back then I was already questioning the centralising trend and put the blame squarely on the activist base which has lost its hunger for actively engaging with the running of the party. Ultimately, I continue to put the blame on their shoulders. If the party decides to this autumn, it could overturn this decision. Even if the FE decides not to make this decision the subject of a business motion at conference, conference could still reject the FE report and it could elect a tranche of new FE members with a specific platform to overturn this decision. My experience in the past however has been that committee reports – a far more important (albeit less exciting) part of conference than policy debates – are only attended by a tiny minority of conference reps.

It’s in recognition of the fact that I’m fundamentally out of kilter with the majority of the party that I have found myself taking a backseat from the party in recent years. I suspect there will be a change of mood, but it is 5-10 years ago. I also, sadly, see it happening as a result of a bad election result.

My problem with Clegg is that he has gone native so soon. Two years of centralising didn’t save Ming. In theory, putting the Parliamentary and Cowley Street staff under one wing should have made communications better: if it has, it’s news to me. Tom Papworth is wrong – and scarily, naively complacent – to say that it has always been thus: a couple of years ago we would never have launched a major publication like Make it Happen without providing parliamentary candidates with a rebuttal guide and further briefing material. The problem is, by restricting all decisions to just a closed circle of people, innovation and a desire to improve on the past are some of the first things that die on their arses.

One thing I am genuinely confused about is why COG has been established while the “Campaigns and Communications Committee” continues to exist (as far as I can tell – again, if you are outside of the charmed circle you have no access to information about how things have been changed. But if the CCC doesn’t exist, then it would appear that Ed Davey, as chair of it, no longer has a job). Yet both do ostensibly the same job, even if the COG is somewhat more wideranging. The CCC is only mentioned by name in the party’s constitution, so if the problem was its composition then the FE could have simply changed it.

I don’t believe this centralising tendency is how business works in the modern world, where the value of autonomous cells is increasingly valued. Looking around the world, I also don’t see it as being at the heart of most political success stories in recent years. The parties which are reinvigorating themselves most successfully at the moment are the ones which are embracing social networking and the power of crowds. The most successful parties always have built wider movements around themselves and this idea is at the heart of the Theory and Practice of Community Politics. Yet centrally the Lib Dems are scared of even having a dynamic party around it.

I don’t believe the Bones Commission managed to come up with an inspiring theory of organisation. My evidence for that is that if it did, the party would already be shouting about it. Either way, given the profound changes which have already been agreed, doesn’t it shock people that the wider party still hasn’t been told?

Ultimately, you should always remember one thing: in the annals of history the two most famous people who “temporarily” suspended democracy for the greater good are Oliver Cromwell and Jar Jar Binks. It isn’t a terribly happy list.


  1. I think your bang on about the activist base. The two traditional voice of the activists/trouble causing organisations – LDYS and ALDC seem to have effectively chosen to neuter themselves which is a bit demonstrative of that problem.

    That has wider problems for the party – would Liberal Youth play such a fundamental role in pushing for a strong position on the Iraq war now? Would ALDC have such a hardline view on voting pilots when several leading Lib Dem councils were taking part in them?

    In both cases the party needed a strong nudge in the right direction.

  2. Definitely intelligent stuff, but I’d be more sympathetic if you replaced ‘blame their’ with ‘blame our’, or it sounds like you’re getting high and might be disassociating yourself with making the change rather than getting on with getting down and dirty.

  3. “I don’t believe this centralising tendency is how business works in the modern world, where the value of autonomous cells is increasingly valued.”

    The whole article is very thoughtful and intelligent, and also very well informed. However, that line is very misleading. Having worked in the business world since 1981, I have detailed knowledge of several blue chip corporations, plus reasonable knowledge of another 20ish. Yes, there are some initiatives (mainly at project level) and some souped-up companies like Google. But basically in UK businesses, and in US ones in the main, the key day-to-day overall top decisions of a company (which are more or less at the level of decision making which the new COG is aimed at) are taken in the CEO’s office.

  4. I agree with Paul there…in my experience of business and especially of implementing transformational change in large, successful blue chip companies is that it’s pretty all top down.

    That’s not to say you can ignore the grass roots but unless it’s led pretty centrally it doesn’t happen.

  5. I think it would have been different with Huhne. He has far more sense of what the party is about and how it works. He is a more experienced leader. He would not have expected to easily grant himself more power and he would not have appointed someone like Chris Bones to rush through change.

    However all of this somewhat misses the point that what matters far more in a political party like ours is clear political leadership. get that right and most else follows.

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