Liberal Democrats

Charles Kennedy

Given the number of tributes there have been to Charles it seems unnecessary to do one of my own, but as I woke up to hear about his sad death yesterday there were a few things I wanted to set down in writing.

I didn’t know him personally but he was leader for eight of the 19 years I’ve been a party member and so has in many ways been a leading figure in my life.  Back in the very late 1990s I was on the executive of the Liberal Democrat Youth and Students (LDYS) and my first job after being elected as its Youth Development Officer was collecting Charles Kennedy from the local railway station and walking him to Staffordshire University nearby where we were holding our conference.  He had yet to be elected leader but it was at a time when I’d still get quite starstruck about meeting well known political figures.  The only thing I remember of our conversation on that walk however was him telling me about the importance of the current Countryside Alliance march and how it wasn’t all about hunting but protecting the rural way of life.  Something that was undoubtedly important to him.

I was unusual amongst the group of friends I had in the party at the time that I voted for Charles to be leader.  I think most people felt he was too much the establishment choice, were slightly suspicious of his SDP roots, and didn’t seem enough as being either a grassroots campaigner or political thinker.  That may have been true, but then (as it has been at every leadership election) my choice was about who I thought would be the best figurehead that could get our message across to the public.  I do remember however chatting to a lobbyist at the subsequent federal conference who told me “He won’t be a great leader, but it’ll be fun as a member having him as your leader.”  In hindsight, although without really answering the question, I suppose it’s how you judge a great leader.  One thing I certainly loved was Charles’ conference speeches which always appeared fresh and passionate in a way that I think no leader before or since has quite managed, and made me leave conference enthused.

My only other personal connection with Charles was shortly after he became our leader.  One of his first acts – and one that we were impressed by as we weren’t aware that anyone else had done it – was to invite the LDYS executive round to his flat in Victoria to discuss LDYS issues.  We were all a bit nervous about impressing him but his quip when someone accidentally kicked his coffee table “don’t worry about it, it’s only a family heirloom” relaxed us all.  He certainly knew the way to student hearts and gave us all a beer and then asked us lots about what he could do to help us.  It certainly improved his reputation with those who didn’t vote for him.

Obviously what most people loved about Charles was his reputation as someone normal and unvarnished.  Whilst this can be over exaggerated and many leaders with that reputation have actively cultivated it, with Charles it never really seemed an act.  Everyone knew he didn’t live the healthiest of lifestyles (in a bizarre appointment he was for a time the party’s health spokesman during which he was once overheard outside a healthy eating event saying “well that’s enough health for one day, I need a fag”) although the issue of his drinking was downplayed by many until his notorious Paxman interview and his subsequent admission when his leadership was challenged.  Personally, I think it was right for Charles to retire when he did even if the way it was done seemed brutal.  Although he still seemed on top form to the public; party staff and MPs found him difficult to work with.  But despite this it felt a shame that he never had time as a minister in the last government to show what else he could do.

For me, Charles embodied something that I feel other people have struggled to convey.  The sense that you can be equally passionate about your local roots, your national pride and your Europeanism and internationalism.  In Charles’ case it was as a Highlander, a Scotsman, being British, European and wanting to be significant on the international stage.  Whilst it is true that Charles had to be persuaded in to opposing the war in Iraq, it fits absolutely with him wanting the party he led to be seen as positively internationalist rather than his country ignoring international law and reverting to the British warlike jingoism of the past.  His pro-Europeanism is something that people outside of politics don’t readily associate with Charles, but for me it was one of his greatest attributes.  To me, his greatest victory was not achieving the highest number of seats the party had won since merger (many at the time believed we should have done far better in 2005) but leading us to victory in the 2003 Brent East by-election.  It is a by-election in which I played a very active role and that I absolutely loved being a part of.  It was the perfect embodiment of Charles in his leading role in the anti-war movement and as a positive down to earth figure that people could relate to and whose cause they could rally to in a constituency that was not at all natural territory for us.

I believed that at the recent General Election, Charles was one of the few MPs in Scotland who could resist the SNP tide.  He couldn’t, and so who knows what role he would have continued to play in the future?  Instead he will now join the ranks of those popular charismatic political figures such as Robin Cook, Mo Mowlam and John Smith, who were taken too early and never quite fulfilled their potential.  I didn’t shed a tear yesterday, but I did have a wee dram to remember him by.

Preview of English Lib Dem Executive – 30th May 2015

This Saturday is the first English Lib Dems Executive meeting since the General and Local Elections.  For that reason the focus is partly about reviewing the election just gone but in particular looking at where we go from here (the Strategic Review), which is what will take up all of the second half of the meeting.

The first half of the meeting consists of the usual reports back from the officers of the English Party and the representatives to other party committees.  There’s nothing worse at a committee meeting than people who read out the report that we’ve all already had in writing, and this bit of the agenda is increasingly being focused on questions or detailed discussion on one bit of someone’s report.

Strategic review

The English Lib Dems agreed at its March meeting that after the General Election there would be a review to make proposals for the “future role of the English party and the English regional parties in the rebuilding and future development of the party, including the structure.”  This plan was agreed before the result was known, but the rebuilding process is more significant than most of us anticipated.  The idea is to prepare some initial questions and thoughts for the English Council meeting on 13th June, and this will then be worked up to become final proposals for the November English Council and English regional conferences to consider.  In between times the English Party will be consulting with members to get their views and ideas.

Those members who have been around a while will remember the Party Reform Commission (or Bones Report from c. 2008) and there’s a risk that it repeats the same job.  However, the impression I get is that there is an increasing willingness to look afresh at a lot of things and with the devastating General Election result there will be a need for more dramatic change.  There is a danger that the review will become fixated with structure and the clear desire of many people to scrap the English Party altogether, however it is certainly my view that if the party is to be a success it needs to look at what it wants to be and then design the structures appropriately to support that objective.  That may or may not mean keeping a similar structure to the one we have at present, but that isn’t where we should start. (more…)

Where we go from here: some thoughts for the Liberal Democrats

When I joined the Liberal Democrats towards the end of 1995 it had 24 MPs. I’ve often said that fortunately I wouldn’t see that few Lib Dem MPs again. Even reading the worst opinion polls for the party over the last parliament I didn’t believe I would see that few. Yet here we are, on just eight MPs.

One of the things that’s been hard over this parliament has been to see all the electoral progress that has been made by the party over the 19 years I’ve been a member fall apart. For some people, the successes of the opposition parties has galvanised their resolve and made them want to fight harder. For me, it’s taken some of the fight out of me and made me thoroughly depressed, although there is more to that than just the party’s electoral performance, but that’s another post. I sort of assumed that if the results were absolutely awful it would be time for me to gradually walk away and do something else with the next 19 years even though I’d continue to stay on as a member as it is too engrained in my DNA now.

What I’ve found remarkable however is how that’s not been my reaction. Perhaps it’s been the realisation that all Lib Dems have been hit by the result, not just a handful. Perhaps it’s been the reminder of how awful majority Conservative government is going to be, just as it was when I first joined the party, and that there’s a real need now to stick up for the things that I think are important and that they don’t. I think the surge in party membership has also helped give me some real optimism about the party’s future. Plus the discussion from many people in the party on Twitter, Facebook and on blogs about where we go next has made me find that my thoughts are not heading towards giving up but towards where we go next. So in that spirit, here are a few random collected thoughts from me on that subject.

This was intended to be a brief summary, but on each point it became quite lengthy, so apologies for that. The list is not comprehensive, and I expect I’ll come back to some ideas that are missing or not properly explained. It’s certainly not fully thought through, nor is it all original, but it’s my bit of putting on record what I have going round and round in my mind at the moment and what I’d like to see from the party and whoever we elect as our new leader. (more…)

Preview of English Lib Dem Executive – 24th Jan 2015

A belated report but it’s been a slightly manic week.  Tomorrow it’s time for the first English Liberal Democrats Executive (ECE) of 2015, and perhaps unsurprisingly with the general election around the corner there are few major new projects underway but instead it’s largely about updates on ongoing day to day stuff.  As with all party committees this doesn’t of course mean that the meeting will move rapidly through the agenda finishing early.  One thing that is both a positive and a negative with ECE is that it spends a lot of time discussing each issue, but also in its role as a collective voice for the English regional parties, other issues will always be raised by regional chairs that everyone will want to discuss.

Chair’s report

This meeting is also the first with its new chair Steve Jarvis at the head of the table.  One thing that has particularly pleased me from his first report is that he will be making full contact details for the members of ECE along with agendas and a summary of decisions available in the members’ area of the party website.  So no sooner do I start blogging each meeting then perhaps my reports will become superfluous.  Otherwise his report is largely about the committee’s work programme for the year, with the tasks before the election being about getting people elected in May and the second half about the inevitable post-election review which increasingly seems as though it will include a review of the party’s structure and governance. (more…)

Preview of English Lib Dem Executive – 13th Dec 2014

One commitment I made when I stood for election to the English Liberal Democrats Executive (ECE) was that I’d write on this blog about what was coming up at each meeting, and then do a post summarising what was discussed or decided after the event.  I was pleased to be elected back on to ECE for 2015 (I currently sit on it as Chair of Yorkshire and the Humber Lib Dems) and so here’s my first of these posts.  I warn people who have no interest in internal committees of political parties, especially those that deal with internal issues, that this will be very long and very dull and that is largely why I’ve inserted a ‘read more’ tag to the article!  I will endeavour to be much shorter in future, but as this is the first one I need to explain the background to more things.

This is the last meeting of ECE of 2014 and is taking place a few weeks later than usual to allow the newly elected regional chairs and directly-elected committee members to attend, along with the existing members from 2014.  If the meeting had taken place on the usual date the election results wouldn’t have been announced in time for that to be possible.  The benefit of this is to allow elections for those positions that are elected by the other members of the ECE to be held before the New Year and to take office alongside the new chair (Steve Jarvis) on 1st January.  The full set of positions to be elected are – treasurer, vice-chair, four members of the Finance and Administration Committee (EFAC), four members of the Regional Parties’ Committee (RPC), a rep to the International Relations Committee and the English Diversity Champion.

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Why I’m standing for the English Lib Dem Executive

The ballot papers will be arriving shortly for the English Party Elections, and as I’m standing for election to the English Liberal Democrat Executive Committee (ECE) I thought I should explain in a bit more detail why I’m standing. If you want to know what the ECE does then I’ve written a summary here.

Firstly, there are three particular things I want to do if I’m elected.

Supporting regional parties

I’ve spent the last year as Chair of Yorkshire and the Humber Liberal Democrats. The English Executive has been really useful as a place for swapping best practice and finding out what other people are doing so you don’t need to keep re-inventing the wheel. This is something that it has got a lot better at over the last few years, but there’s much more that could be done. Despite spending three years on my own regional executive it wasn’t until I became its chair that I fully appreciated the amount of time and the demands on resources that running a good regional party involves. I’d now like to use that experience and knowledge to get the English Party to do even more to help strengthen regional parties so they are better able to take on the different roles they have. Some people style the English Lib Dems as the “English Party of the Regions” and that is probably the most important role that it has.

Openness

As with most party committees, the English Executive has been poor at communicating what it does and why it is doing it. With the major issues its had to deal with over the last year or two, this has come in to focus even more, and has led to a lot of misunderstandings as well as some mistrust. If I’m elected to the English Executive I’ll use this blog to let people know what it is planning to discuss and what happens at its meetings. But I’m also clear that a party committee shouldn’t have to rely on a third party blog to communicate what it is doing, and so I will also press for it to be a lot more open using official party channels. Although there is inevitably some need for confidentiality and discretion, I’m firmly of the view that there is actually very little that is truly secret.

Not just about two meetings

Although the English Executive meets roughly every two months, the full English Council only gets together twice a year, and both of those meetings are in the second half of the year. Whilst I wouldn’t want to bring in yet more meetings, there’s a real need to keep members of English Council engaged throughout the rest of the year. This would allow us to stop using just the ‘usual suspects’ for any work that needs to be done, and it would allow us to address issues as they come up through the year rather than all the focus being on just two already busy meetings that end up full of reports. English Council is the way that members from all English regions come together to discuss the party, but you shouldn’t have to wait several months to be able to do that.

But when standing for a party committee, there’s always some personal reasons for standing on top of the key things you want to get done and here’s mine:

Whoever is elected as Chair of the English Party this year, (I’m not aware of there ever having previously been a four-way contest for it before), is going to be dealing with a real desire to shake things up and improve the party’s effectiveness. Many would say it’s about time too although there is also a lot that’s already good about it and that’s why I enjoy being a part of this committee. A key part of what is good about it is the people involved and the way that it is the only committee that I’ve been on that has full, frank and detailed discussions on a host of party issues without grandstanding and with members who are fully engaged in the party and what the committee itself is there to do. I’m very keen for the party to look at ways in which it can be more effective, (and I have no set view on how that should be done), but I’m also very clear that it isn’t just about changing structures. There’s three things that the English Party should do now to improve using the existing skills and enthusiasm that it has, and that’s why I’ve outlined them above and I will try and make them happen if I’m elected.

Finally, if you want to know more about me in general, then the About page on this blog should help.

You can also view a PDF of my A5 ‘official manifesto’ here.

A short guide to ECE

ECE as it’s abbreviated is variously known as the English Executive Committee or English Council Executive and the committee that has day to day responsibility for the work of the English Liberal Democrats. As a federal party everyone is a member of both a state party and the federal party, and so we also have executive committees for each of the three states – Scotland, Wales and England – and although the first two have quite extensive functions, the English Party has passed some of these up to the federal level.

The main responsibilities that the English Party has retained are parliamentary candidate selection and approval rules (for Westminster, Europe, PCCs and Directly-Elected Mayors), co-ordinating selections (although each region manages the process for its own seats), membership rules and systems, disciplinary rules, updating regional parties on how they and local parties are complying with PPERA rules, the basic principles and rules for constitutions for local and regional parties along with providing model constitutions, representing the English regions to the federal committees and providing communication between them, funding various initiatives such as the G8 grants scheme and the current membership incentive schemes, co-ordinating and promoting best practice between the English Regions and as the main way that the federal party communicates with regional parties as a group. It was once graphically described by a former English Party Chair as “plumbing, maintenance and sewage”, i.e. creating rules to make the party function, maintaining the systems they create and dealing with the fall out from when people break them or bend them.

ECE is made up of each of the eleven regional chairs as well as a Chair, Candidates’ Chair, representatives to federal committees and eleven directly-elected members who are all elected by members of English Council. There are 150 members of English Council who are elected as representatives of their region or Liberal Youth at their conferences. ECE meets roughly every two months, and English Council meets twice a year in June and November.