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Future of the Federal Board: what members say they want

January 13, 2022 4:14 PM
Originally published by UK Liberal Democrats

After the disappointment and failure of the 2019 general election, an independent post-mortem was carried out into what went wrong. The findings of the Thornhill Review set a broad and challenging reform agenda for the party, which we've made good progress on implementing so far.

On the role of the Federal Board itself, the Thornhill Review found that:

The lack of connection between operational, political and governing parts of the party has created structures which foster a lack of collaboration and isolated decision making. (p.35)

A fragmented organisation led to low collaboration and isolated decision making. (p.33)

There is no clear 'leadership team' where the three pillars of the party - political, operational, federal - can make cohesive decisions, simply, quickly, and effectively. The Federal Board - 40+ members - is not, cannot, and should not be that team. (p.34)

The Federal Board was often a 'rubber-stamp' and is too large a group to be a realistic decision-making body. (p.22)

Having a well-functioning Board is not only crucial therefore to our future successes. It's also crucial to make our internal democracy work - because when committees aren't working well, power seeps away into unaccountable corners, behind the scenes.

That's why the Federal Board has run a series of consultation sessions at conferences in 2020 and 2021 on possible reforms, and then carried out a more detailed and specific consultation survey before Christmas.

What members were asked

That survey included questions about what size people think a Board should be. It also put forward a series of reform options which came out of the earlier consultations:

  • A smaller, hybrid Board (hybrid as in being a mix of party office holders, such as Party President, and also a group of people elected by party members to a non-portfolio role on the Board);
  • A Board made up only of people with specific roles;
  • A role-based Board as above, but with in addition a new scrutiny committee to add accountability and oversight in-between conferences;
  • A role-based Board as above, but with a new Federal Council rather than a new scrutiny committee;
  • A Board made up only of people with non-portfolio roles; or
  • The status quo.

People were given the opportunity to suggest other models, but there was no significant support for any other option to add in.

Around 500 members responded to the survey before Christmas (which, for example, is double the number of people who voted at our last conference on how the Board works).

Thank you to everyone who took the time to respond to the survey and the previous rounds of consultation.

Strong support for a smaller Board

Asked about their preferred size of Board, there was very strong support for a smaller Board, with nearly three quarters picking 20 or fewer:

  • 9% said the Board should be 31 or greater
  • 19% picked 21-30
  • 52% said the Board should be 10-20 in size
  • 21% picked under 10

Smaller hybrid the most popular option

When it came to the different options for structuring the Board, there was a clear winner both on first preferences and after transfers.

The first preferences were:

  • 32% - smaller hybrid Board
  • 18% - role-based Board, with a scrutiny committee
  • 18% - role-based Board, with a full council
  • 13% - role-based Board
  • 13% - non-role based Board
  • 6% - status quo

After transfers, eliminating the least popular option in turn, the top three were:

  • 52% - smaller hybrid Board
  • 25% - role-based Board, with a scrutiny committee
  • 23% - role-based Board, with a full council

The gap between the second and third options was small and so should be taken more as indicative rather than conclusive. However, helpfully on both measures there was a clear gap between the top three and the others.

Therefore, the Board has submitted a motion for Spring conference that will give members the chance to choose between those top three options. At the request of some Board members, the motion also includes the status quo as a fourth option.

The details of the motion, such as which posts to include in a smaller hybrid Board, draw on the responses to the other questions in the consultation. This includes a provision to make it clear that the Board will invite other people to take part in relevant discussions, so that a reformed Board is at the heart of key decision making that draws on expertise from across the party.

Additional reforms

In addition, the motions (a constitutional amendment and a linked standing order amendment) improve accountability to conference, such as by having our elections committee in future report to conference. Given the importance of elections to our very reason for existing as a political party, that would be a sensible re-focusing of our priorities as well as making some of the key decision makers in the party more accountable to members.

There is also a proposed new power to no confidence the President. This is something I'm personally very keen on. If I, or a successor, go off the rails, at the moment there is very little anyone can do about it. Instead, the party would have to suffer the damage wreaked. So there's a new power to no confidence the President being proposed, with a safety net that members could choose to re-elect a no confidenced President.

That balances the need to be protected from a wayward President with preserving the ultimate power of choice for members, where it should be.