In those moments when I’ve run out of important things to do, such as playing Brick Breaker on my BlackBerry™, or dreaming of cheese (and I really like cheese), my mind turns to the Liberal Democrat equivalent of herding cats, i.e. whipping London’s English Council delegation. Now I freely admit that the notion of whipping is a bit of an alien concept but, for the purposes of the exercise, bear in mind that this simply means ensuring that the delegation turn up, as well as arranging substitutes for those unable to do so.
And I do occasionally find myself wondering why I bother. English Council is, effectively, a figleaf, maintaining the concept of a truly federal Party without providing a meaningful platform for English policy making in a post-devolution environment. Meetings, and there are only two of them each year, consist predominantly of a series of reports from the great and the good, with the occasional opportunity to argue about changes to candidate selection rules, most of which are of no interest, and even less comprehension, to many present. There are no policy discussions, many key decisions require ratification by the Federal Conference, and the whole affair is symbolised by the almost total lack of interest in its discussions from the Parliamentary Party. The one thing going for it is, for those who know little about the Party beyond the borders of their own patch, it is quite enlightening for a meeting or two. Beyond that though, interest tends to wither.
Membership of English Council is gained through Regional elections for delegates, each Region getting one delegate for each 500 members or part thereof, plus the Regional Chair. My experience in London, and I gather that this is shared elsewhere, is that interest is generally low (London and South Central both have vacancies, if you’re interested/desperate), and a number of those who do run, do so for the sole purpose of getting elected to something else. For example, English Council elects a representative to the Federal Policy Committee and Federal Conference Committee. Also, only members of English Council can run for the six places on English Candidates Committee set aside for non-Regional Candidates Chairs. Three members of the committee that decides G8 grants also come from the ranks of English Council.
One of my problems with the way the party operates is the overriding urge to pander to sectional interests, which leads to a stack of committees who are populated by people determined to defend the people who put them there, regardless of the greater Party good. Worst of all, most of them have little opportunity to properly consult with those they supposedly represent, and even less in the way of means, thus leaving the decision-making in the hands of an increasingly remote group of semi-professional Party apparatchiks. In such ways are decisions made that cause no end of irritation to campaigners, Parliamentarians and anyone with much in the way of common sense.
Perhaps it is therefore time to abolish English Council and reinstitute the English Conference. And, while we’re at it, streamline many of the Party’s committees. Some work quite well, like English Candidates Committee, made up for the most part of Regional Candidates Chairs, who are elected by their Regional Conferences, are directly accountable to their members, and who have day to day involvement in the processes of both approval and selection. The Regional Treasurers meet twice a year, at Federal Conference, to discuss key issues, and are serviced by the English Party Administrator, Paul Rustad (a thoroughly decent guy, by the way) and David Allworthy who, despite his occasional flare-up, really knows his stuff, and is always happy to help when he can (I know, I’ve needed his support on more than one occasion). Others, well, perhaps I’m not so convinced…
We also need far better communication, and that is something that could be addressed by having the Chair of the English Party report to Regional and Local Parties on a monthly or quarterly basis (I would prefer monthly, if truth be told), providing diary dates, information about what the English Party has done, is doing, and proposes to do and consulting on issues ahead of us. Such a report could be issued, by e-mail for the most part, to the Secretary of each Regional and Local Party (that’s what we’re there for, according to the various constitutions).
Do these things, and I could return to stroking my cats, rather than maintain a futile effort to persuade people to attend a meeting that has precious little to commend it.