Just whose side is Bones on?

That is the question I constantly find myself returning to when I consider the Bones Report. The quandary can best be summed up by the paper’s claim that “across the whole party we have expenditure of £15m, yet only just over 10% of that was campaign expenditure through the main Federal Party budget.” You could be forgiven for thinking that 90% of campaign expenditure is controlled locally and regionally. Is then, the main agenda of Bones to centralise the party still further or democratise that which is already centralised? The answer seems to be a bit of both, but I’m concerned about the practicalities of either of them.

My fundamental problem is that there is nothing, or at least very little, to object to in the Executive Summary and I doubt many people within the party would disagree with it either. It isn’t paranoid to view such soft soaping with suspicion – only good common sense. What it does not answer is how the Commission proposes to do, pretty much anything.

First of all, let’s not kid ourselves that this is the first time the party has attempted to do anything like this. Back in 1998, the party unveiled what it called the “Mid Term Review.” We had a big debate about it at party conference. It included a number of proposals, the one which I most clearly remember being the idea that the party should move towards 4-5 year budgeting over the Parliamentary cycle, rather than the annual process. Proposal adopted but never happened. Many of the proposals I remember seem remarkably similar to these ones.

I’m sure I could quote you at length a whole series of other proposals found in the MTR, but for one problem: I don’t have a copy (or rather, I might have a copy in my parents’ loft but I couldn’t find it last time I looked). Back when I was on the party’s Federal Executive, I asked for a copy only to be told that Cowley Street did not have one either.

Back in 2002, the then Chief Executive Hugh Rickard drew up what was then dubbed a business plan for the party. At the very first FE meeting I attended, this paper was passed (nem con if I recall) by the FE, with the promise that there would be six monthly progress reports to ensure that it was carried out. Six months later, the first one didn’t happen. Eighteen months later, I was brusquely informed that the business plan had been dropped (and that the Mid-Term Review had been quietly dropped as well). Given that the committee as a whole did not object to this analysis, it is fair to say that in effect this did indeed happen, but there was no discussion and, prior to that, no attempt to implement either plan had ever been made.

I relate all this to set the context of this new report. Regardless of the details, within the next six months, the process leading up to the final recommendations of this Commission will have been completed (I’m genuinely confused as to whether or not the Commission’s work has already finished – we have what appears to be a final report yet there is to be a consultation at conference). What happens next is what is important. If the party’s various committees and sub-committees then proceed to carry on regardless then the whole process will have been a massive waste of time, even if a couple of the ideas which are in the final report end up going ahead anyway. It will only have been worthwhile if it results in a plan to which all the various bodies are signed up to, and progress is checked regularly against it.

It is clear that the authors intend for it to work in that way, but do they really understand why it hasn’t worked in that way in the past? Speaking as the individual who was, post-Donnachadh McCarthy, regarded as the chief troublemaker on the FE (a position I never sought but found I had inherited by accident), my recollection was that the party bigwigs were quite happy with the lack of clear delineation between the management and governance functions of the party. This was not because they enjoyed the FE interfering with management (which was always slapped down ruthlessly) but because it allowed them to interfere with the governance side. The unilateral dropping of business plans is one example. The constant refusal to budget for projects which had been agreed by Conference and the FE was another. The people who got singled out and marked as troublemakers on the committee were the people who tended to read their papers. Scrutiny was a dirty word, yet does Bones deal with this?

The lack of a clear plan in the Executive Summary concerns me greatly. Indeed, I question whether the term “Executive Summary” can be fairly used to describe it. It is a 20 page document, which is far too long to be a summary, and yet the number of executable actions within it are extremely small. Some action points are highlighted in bold, some aren’t, so you have to read extremely carefully even to get a gist of what is being proposed. Some sections are so vague as to be essentially meaningless, such as:

We therefore believe that post the general election there needs to be a radical overhaul of resource allocation in the professional party to improve regional impact, the management and development of staff in local parties and to support the capacity development that regions will have to deliver if we are to succeed. Significantly we propose a radical revision of the campaigns activity which will have to double in size if we are to succeed with a split between a central strategic organisation and regional execution activity.

This may mean more central co-ordination of best practice across and within regions and certainly does not imply simply providing more money to regional parties. If we are to provide more money to regions, it must be to those regions where we have the greatest prospect of electoral advancement and where funding can make the greatest difference. This may mean that some regions should not expect so much.

The emphasis is mine. Leaving aside the shocking standard of English, what does “regional impact” mean? And does it mean certain regions getting less money or not? What all these “may”s? If it “certainly does not imply simply providing more money to regional parties” then what does it mean? Spit it out for God’s sake! And this is one of the prescriptive paragraphs!

What this section might mean is that as part of the need for an increased number of target seats across the country, we will need to allocate more resources regionally but that those resources will largely be controlled from the centre. These resources will be focussed on target seats, meaning that some regions will receive more investment while others will receive less. But if that is what it means (and by all means put me out of my misery in the comments below), why spend two paragraphs saying what can be said in two sentences? And why couch it in so many weasel words?

Another great example is this set of proposals in the section on “building a network”. Much of it will sound familiar – be nice to volunteers, build up our supporters’ network, introduce a members’ “package” – none of this is new. The pertinent questions are “how?” and “what?” It wasn’t that long ago that the party decided to scrap its existing package to members (proposed in the MTR) in favour of sending them a couple of all-member issues of Lib Dem News. What does “ways of engaging that are more than just leafleting and donating cash” mean? A couple of examples maybe? Superficially, we already offer a range of extra ways to engage people, such as flocktogether and consult.libdems.org.uk. No one would dream of saying these are perfect, but how would the Bones approach differ?

The executive summary also lacks anything resembling costings or a timetable. This is crucial for its bigger ideas such as the “Leadership Academy.” Two different sources have told me that as part of the detailed plans that we mere mortals are not privy to, the existing candidate approval process is to be replaced by a system by which individuals wanting to be considered as target seat candidates will be expected to attend six weekend training sessions. In principle this is a good idea – replace a system which puts so much focus on experience with a system that develops and assesses the candidates at the same time. Potentially, this could significantly expand the pool from which we draw our candidates.

But how much is this to cost and who is going to pay? Assuming as the paper does that the party is to adopt 200 key seats, we will need 200 individuals to go through this system at a bare minimum (yes, 60 out of 200 of those seats are currently held but you have to allow for a small amount of wastage and individuals who will end up with nothing – in reality the figure is likely to be higher). Are we going to train all 200 up at once over six different weekends? More likely there will have to be multiple weekends – 4 at least. 4 x 6 = 24 weekends which means a heck of a lot of organising and a heck of a lot of trainers. If the party is going to pay for all this it will have to identify resources that currently do not exist, or it is going to have to rely on the participants themselves to foot the bill. Of course, making the prospective candidates pay will rule out a lot of people. Is there going to be a hardship fund? On all these questions the Executive Summary is utterly silent.

It also poses the question, is this really a problem that needs solving? Certainly, a more formalised process would benefit some people, but are there not plenty of people out there who merely require assessment? It is like an company employing drivers and then insisting that all applicants pass their own private driving test irrespective of whether or not they can already drive.

I and others have already gone on endlessly about the plans for a Chief Officers Group and how it is so parliamentarian-heavy. Suffice to say that the one thing that most confuses me about this is why it is intended to be in addition to the existing Campaigns and Communications Committee (which was established to solve the same alleged problem if I recall) rather an in replacement of it. To do so would not require a constitutional change and would meet the spirit of the Commission’s goal of simplifying how we make decisions. Yet only problem with this of course would be that it would force the FE to scrap a committee to which it sends representatives (politically tricky) and would bring into question the role of the Campaigns and Communications Committee Chair and whether it is really needed.

I could go on (for example I could question how the formation of Liberal Youth is “a step in the right direction” when, nice party a few months ago aside, it doesn’t appear to have halted the backwards drift that LDYS was experiencing before it – it’s website doesn’t even mention the new executive, two months after taking office), but I’ll leave it there. Fundamentally, my sincerely advise to my fellow Liberal Democrats is to be deeply sceptical of any “executive report” that:

  • Can’t be summed up in two pages (max);
  • Calls for a simplification of decision-making while simultaneously adds extra layers of bureaucracy.
  • Is so bereft of specifics, costings and timetabling; and (of course)
  • You aren’t allowed to read the full report it apparently summarises.

These are all danger signs and suggest a report that has been written by committee. My sneaking suspicion is that its only lasting legacy will be the COG. And then, in another ten years time, some bright spark will come up with the idea of adding yet another – even more centralised – layer of bureaucracy on top of that.

1 comment

  1. *Phew!*

    Brilliant stuff James. Very good read, and your conclusions are pretty much what I feared would be the end result of the BC recommendations.

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