Arriving early in the North West yesterday gave me a chance to catch up on English Party politics, and it seems that there will be a contest for Chair of the English Party this year. As Brian Orrell is term-limited after three years in the job, there will be a new Chair regardless, and the two candidates are Paul Clark, currently Chair of the East of England Liberal Democrats, and Jonathan Davies, formerly Treasurer of the English Party.
In truth, many people will know little about the two candidates, although I consider both of them to be friends. And as I am no longer a voting member of English Council, I won't be called upon to cast my ballot one way or the other. However, this is important. Why? Because the winner will have tremendous amounts of influence on the organisational direction of the Party.
In amongst the constitutional structure of the Liberal Democrats, the English Party has a key role. Naturally, most of the members of the Party live in England, so financial considerations are important. Also, in a federal structure, the State Parties have the ability to delay structural change. Perhaps of more relevance to the wider membership, the English Party is responsible for all issues related to membership and candidate approval and selection in England. That's right, not the Federal Party, the English Party (the same situation applies in Scotland and Wales).
Despite this, questions of accountability and transparency have always lingered. The officers of the English Party are elected by, and from, English Council, a body whose membership is usually made up of a very small number of people (one member for every 500 members of the Regional Party, rounded up). Often, those people are elected without a contest and a minority are found by a process of arm-twisting and persuasion. After all, English Council is seldom exciting, or even interesting, it meets but twice a year (in London), and is mostly a talking shop.
The 'interesting' bit is what membership of English Council opens up. There are places on the Federal Executive and Federal Policy and Conference Committees, the committee that decides on G8 grants for local election campaigns and five places on the English Candidates Committee. But it's the Chair which intrigues...
Oh yes, the Chair. Of course, being Chair of the English Party gets you a seat on the Federal Executive, and the Constitution of the English Party specifies that you become one of the three Vice Presidents of the Federal Party. It also gets you a seat on the Chief Officers Group which, under the current arrangements, is a very big deal indeed.
So, whilst Jonathan Davies versus Paul Clark might not sound like a contest to spark the imagination, there is an awful lot riding on the outcome. Let's just hope that the seventy or so people likely to cast a ballot choose wisely...