This post first appeared on Liberal Democrat Voice Most participants in the post-election debate have concentrated on specific changes they want now: the Leader, his advisers, the communications team, the detail of policy issues etc. I firmly believe that the underlying issues are systemic rather than one-off and that we should use the opportunity to establish structures for the future which minimise the likelihood of problems arising and improve our capacity as a democratic Party for dealing with them. Some key targets:
- Agreement by the Party in advance on the elements which underpin construction of a coalition agreement: what are the elements to build into any future agreement about separate identity, resolving policy differences (or not), when and how to go beyond an agreement, responding to immediate challenges (e.g. in foreign policy)? The fixed term Parliament was an example. The time of negotiation, when a potential partner is eager for government, is the time to write on these conditions.
- The President: her/his role as “principal spokesperson of the Party” has been sidelined. The next Presidential election creates an opportunity to spell out that responsibility and to get any and all candidates to sign up to an explicit job description, including the President’s role on behalf of the Party in negotiations, during coalition, and in relations with the Leader. The job is not a stepping-stone to the Leadership; nor is it a role for representing the Leadership to the Party rather than the other way round; nor is it about being any sort of figurehead or symbol. The President has the position and the power and should have the authority to speak the Party’s truth to the Party’s leadership.
- The supine nature of the current FE is scandalous. It has a central position in the Party (NOT just one particular role in relation to organisation matters, but across the Board). Its key role is governance (in the context of the Constitution, which is both federal and has some separation of powers). Its responsibility, often through the President, who should be its creature, is to ensure that the whole structure comes together, problems and tensions are resolved and the Party’s staff carry out the Party’s will.
- Something that happens to all parties in elected assemblies (parliaments; councils, etc) is that the short-term agenda and timetable of those bodies takes over the party’s policy priorities. All parties in government become even more obsessed with short-term policy choices as formulated by departments of state. It’s inevitable and necessary; but it means that a strong party needs strong, independent machinery, outside assembly members and government, to build its own ideas, directions and policies.
- There is the belief, nurtured by the broadcast and print media, that a political party has “bosses” and that theLeader is the boss of bosses, the “capo de tutti capi”. It’s the Leader’s responsibility to respond immediately to any challenge to the party by “ordering” an enquiry or a set of actions, regardless of whether the Leader has the power, the responsibility or even the knowledge. Disagreement is reported as treason; argument is a “rift” or a “challenge”. Any attempt at open debate is judged by which side a Leader is on. What egregious nonsense! In fact, Liberal and Liberal Democrat Leaders have managed to hold out better than most against this corrupting influence, but it’s hard when the principles and dynamics have not been thought through and accepted in advance. The answer is not simply to have a different Leader – it is to ensure that any Leader is constrained, checked and balanced in an open, democratic, vibrant party.
- Over the next five years, the party will have to re-establish its long-term activist base – where will we find those people, what is needed to give them the long-term motivation that underpins long-term commitment, what are we asking them to do – certainly not just doing what they are told by a cadre of campaign technicians?
- The community politics idea is not just about using technical skills to get elected and then faithfully representing their views, prejudices and fears, while dealing with casework. It is about helping people in their communities to take and use power. That means engaging with them from the base of our own beliefs and philosophy and therefore a commitment to a revived political discourse at every level, but crucially based on starting from where people are and moving on from that.
- A Party which is strong and sure in its core beliefs and the policies which give them effect can rightly be confident that its leaders will articulate those beliefs. Increasingly, we have substituted specific policies for basic beliefs in our debates. Where are the fora in which those ideas are formulated, rehearsed, articulated and developed so that all members understand and are comfortable with their creed?