Friday, July 21, 2023

Federal Council: Standing Orders cometh...

When last I wrote about Federal Council, I was perhaps slightly unfair to my colleagues and their failure to adopt Standing Orders after three meetings.

Having reflected on the matter somewhat, it seems reasonable to ponder upon the question of, when founding a new organisation, who should take responsibility for producing Standing Orders and ensuring compliance withy the constitutional niceties.

The previous constitutional review, during the Presidency of Sal Brinton, established a requirement for each committee to provide its own secretariat, and I do wonder whether or not this was brought to the attention of the new Federal Council after it was elected. That said, it would have required someone to volunteer to take on the role, knowing what was likely to be required, and acting upon that. And, having fulfilled that role myself when Federal International Relations Committee was formed, I did have the advantage that we were a continuation rather than a founding.

But, we are where we are, and given that the Party's Company Secretary effectively acts as our Secretariat, managing meetings, supplying documents and suchlike, it was entirely understandable that there was a hesitancy to act. Besides, very few people join Party committees to act as "house bureaucrat"...

And so, Federal Council meets on Sunday to consider the work of a small working group tasked with drafting our Standing Orders. My sense is that they've done a pretty good job, reflecting the constitutional restrictions placed upon Council, although, like with most rulebooks, you only really know how good they are once someone has decided to test them. So, my working position is to adopt them, on the basis that, if there are any serious oversights or omissions, they'll emerge over time.

We have been given some choices though, and I thought that I might explain them and indicate how, and why, I'm planning to vote as I am.

The first question is related to Paragraph 2.9:

The Chair will share with the President and the Federal Council any reasons given by those members who requested a matter is called in and…

OPTION A: will respect and uphold a request by any member to keep confidential that they have or have not requested a call-in.

OPTION B: will, if a matter is called in following the request of 13 member, share with the Council a list of those members who requested the call-in. 

My personal sense is that, if I am to be held accountable by those who elected me to Federal Council, there should be a record of my actions (or lack of them). I acknowledge that there may be individuals who would rather not have their identity revealed, and I respect their preference, but I tend towards transparency and, if my choices are out of line with the membership, it is right that they have more than just a manifesto to go on. So, I'll be supporting OPTION B.

The second question is related to Paragraph 2.11:

A member may…

OPTION A: withdraw their call-in request before the meeting of the Federal Council at which the decision is to be considered by informing the Chair. If a withdrawal reduces the number of requests to fewer than 13 then the decision ceases to be called in (i.e. there cannot be a motion to overturn it) but may remain on the agenda as an item for discussion.

OPTION B: not withdraw their request to call-in a decision after the Chair has notified the President and Council that a decision is to be called in.

This is a somewhat more difficult question. Prior to our last meeting, a decision of the Federal Board had been called in by the required thirteen members (and no more). Accordingly, the President was invited to prepare and make a presentation to the Council in relation to that decision, requiring expenditure of time and resource to do so. Subsequently, one of the thirteen withdrew their request, making that item unnecessary.

On the one hand, before indicating that you wish to call-in a decision, you are beholden to your colleagues and to the wider Party to obtain as many facts as you can prior to submitting that call-in. On the other, more information may emerge after the deadline which satisfies you and gives you grounds not the want such a call-in.

However, I'm minded to choose OPTION B because, I think, having required a response from Federal Board, we should treat that response, and the effort expended in providing it, with the respect that it deserves. It also acts to focus minds and discourage "frivolous" call-in requests (I'm not entirely happy with the word "frivolous" in this context, but a better word escapes me for the moment).

And finally, perhaps the least contentious of the three choices is over whether to have one or two Vice-Chairs. I think that, as a means of encouraging a more diverse leadership of Federal Council, I'd plump for two, with some requirement to seek diversity amongst the three leadership roles. That shouldn't be taken as a criticism of the current leadership - I don't have cause for concern about the current team - but more a marker for future choices.

Hopefully, our meeting on Sunday will be uncontentious, although you don't always get what you want, and whether or not my preferred options are the ones chosen, ultimately, I'll be voting to accept the Standing Orders in their final version. Committees need a framework and rules to live by, and Federal Council is not exception.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

NALC National Assembly - a reminder that my colleagues have legs…

It is occasionally hard to believe how long I’ve been a member of the National Assembly of the National Association of Local Councils - more than two and a half years now - and today I met my colleagues “in the flesh” for the first time.

There’s little doubt that meeting in person comes with certain advantages. For example, you can read a room rather better and decide whether or not you really need to add your voice to a debate - and the answer is often… well, no, not really. And you can exchange muttered comments with those around you, which offers a degree of entertainment and amusement.

So, I set off from my small, but perfectly formed, village on the Connecting Communities bus at a rather civilised 8 a.m. to catch the first off-peak train to London and, after a perfectly relaxed journey, I eventually found the new NALC headquarters between Holborn and Tottenham Court Road in time for a cup of coffee and an 11 a.m. start.

The meeting itself was an efficient one. Having dealt with minutes of our last meeting, we discussed our leadership and committee structures in the hope of encouraging both members of the National Assembly and the wider Parish and Town Council community to serve on our various committees. I admit that, to some extent, I’ve been guilty of standing back a bit, working on the basis that I don’t have a firm enough grasp of the inner workings of NALC to add value. There are, in all likelihood, people who have probably have more useful experiences or skills, or are more ambitious, and I’ve not been minded to stand in their way. 

However, there were vacancies on a number of committees that needed filling, and I concluded that, perhaps, my stance wasn’t sustainable any more, so I’d put myself forward to serve on the Smaller Councils Committee - they don’t get much smaller than Creeting St Peter, and I feel that the perspective of “micro-Parishes” can easily be lost amidst the talk of service provision and project funding. Our needs are less complex for the most part but, when we need help, it can feel a bit overwhelming. Large infrastructure projects, complex planning applications, these are often a major challenge to a small group of inexperienced volunteers with little professional resource to call upon. And so, I’ve got my first meeting of Smaller Councils Committee next Tuesday…

Our Chief Executive, Jonathan Owen, updated us next on some of the strategic work that is being done, both internally and externally. The Levelling Up Bill has allowed NALC to make some progress on its goals for the sector, enabling stronger ties with our Parochial Church Councils and allowing local councils to make Dependent Carer Allowance payments. Our President* and Vice Presidents have been extremely active in promoting our agenda in Parliament and achieved some success in persuading Ministers that we offer some quick, easy wins in terms of their agenda too, and the professional team who “provide the bullets for Parliamentarians to fire” can and should take pride in that success.

We also took a look at how the organisation is led and managed to ensure that we reflect the needs of our member councils and the County Associations. So, did we need to create new structures or tweak the existing ones, and how do we engage with a wider cross section of our members?

The pre-lunch session ended with a pleasantly brisk run through of a series of constitutional changes. And yes, many of them were tidying exercises, reflecting changes in the local government ecosystem, but nonetheless necessary. But my surprise was reserved for the adoption of STV for our internal elections going forward. There had been an attempt to make such a change earlier this year, which fell despite achieving a simple majority, and I expected some meaningful dissent, but it was passed with little opposition.

Lunch gave me an opportunity to tag along with a building tour to show a small group of National Assembly members the office space and the building facilities in NALC’s “new crib”, following the disposal of its old headquarters building. I’m of the view that, not only are the financial implications important, but the impact on our professional team is too. Does a hybrid working arrangement work for them? Are we taking advantage of the opportunities on offer? I also asked if an ergonomic assessment had been carried out because working on fixed desks with laptops doesn’t always work, especially for those of us who are, and I put this politely, more advanced in years and vulnerable to musculoskeletal problems.

The afternoon was occupied with presentations linked to our Net Zero agenda, talking about some of the actions our sector is, and will be, taking to support it. Given that even a micro-Parish without premises can make a contribution to the Net Zero agenda - Creeting St Peter recently replaced its ten aging streetlights with new LED ones which use far less electricity, cause less light pollution and reduce our expenditure significantly - our sector should play its part where possible, setting an example for those we serve.

The afternoon continued with a series of committee reports, culminating in a very detailed and thorough financial report. I’d been surprised by the relatively ad hoc nature of financial reporting when I first joined the National Assembly but must acknowledge that my concerns were not only listened to but acted upon, and I’m now comfortable that I can properly fulfil my scrutiny function based on the information at my disposal.

We ended our meeting with a discussion of a proposal from the Devon Association of Local Councils to produce a medal that might be awarded to long-serving Parish Councillors in recognition of their commitment to their communities. I’d consulted my County colleagues, who had mixed feelings about the idea, and it seemed that they weren’t alone. We agreed that this sort of recognition might be more effective coming from a county level, and thus County Associations might consider acting upon the idea.

And with that, we were done. A few of us retreated for drinks and an opportunity to reflect on what had happened, which I found particularly useful and interesting. One of the problems of operating in effective isolation from those you work with is that you lose the spontaneity and occasionally random conversations that add context to our efforts, especially if you’re relatively new to an organisation, as I am in this instance.

I think that I’m going to have to come to a few more of these…

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

ALDE Party Congress - is your journey strictly necessary, sir?

I am not a morning person, as Ros will testify. And so, rather than catch the very early morning flight on the Friday, I’d booked myself onto the mid-afternoon flight the previous day, allowing myself a leisurely journey from the Gipping Valley to Heathrow’s Terminal 5, plus a decent night’s sleep in Stockholm prior to the Congress.

And all had gone well, to the extent that I arrived more than four hours before my flight, having stopped at Westfield Stratford to buy a hat, leaving me time to have lunch (and perhaps a glass of something sparkling) in the British Airways lounge. I was settled and relaxed.

That is, I was, until 3.30, when there was a flurry of activity and the announcement that the 4.40 to Stockholm had been cancelled for reasons unknown. It suddenly became a bit chaotic, as we were first directed towards a gate and then advised to leave the airport.

So, what was a bureaucrat to do?

The first priority was to rebook my flight but, with thousands of people trying the same thing, and the British Airways app rather out of commission, I rang their call centre, taking advantage of my Silver status. They weren't able to get me on the evening flight, but there was a seat on the (horribly early) 7.05 the next morning.

Next priority, a room for the night. The Intercontinental Hotels Group app came up with a hotel within a short bus ride of Terminal 5 at a rate I was willing to pay, so I could then inform the hotel in Stockholm that I would be a day late.

And finally, clothes, given that my luggage was trapped somewhere in Terminal 5's baggage handling system. A quick trip to Richmond and a raid of Marks & Spencer did the trick before dinner and a gentle bus ride or two to my hotel.

I awoke early the next morning, far too early, and set off to the airport for attempt number 2. As advised, I called in at the assistance desk, arranged for my luggage to be linked to the new flight and checked in. Back to the lounge for breakfast and a glass of consolatory prosecco, and fingers crossed.

My expectations were not great but, with some good fortune, I arrived in Stockholm pretty much on time, as did my luggage, giving me time to get to my hotel and arrive at the Waterfront Congress Centre just in time for our first delegation meeting.

It was time to get to work...

Monday, June 12, 2023

Post-Federal Council, some musings on internal Party democracy and accountability

At the end of Federal Council last week, I raised with my new colleagues the question of reporting back - how, and to whom. I wasn’t trying to start a debate, more an attempt to give them something to dwell on.

My personal view is that, having been elected by the members (at least, those engaged enough to want to take part), I have some obligation to tell them what I’ve done and why, so far as is appropriate. Naturally, I will do that in my own mostly light-hearted way - I’ve never been one to take myself too seriously - but I will respect the responsibility that has been placed upon me.

That isn’t always easy. There have been those, many on the committees concerned, who are uncomfortable with transparency, and I do get that. Indeed, I take the view that there are some things too sensitive to be aired publicly, in which case I will not mention them or do so in a neutral manner designed to indicate that the subject has been discussed but no more.

I will also adhere to whatever rules that Federal Council decides upon in terms of confidentiality. There are some issues that require discretion, especially where they relate to individuals, in particular, staff. As a Federal Council member, I have an obligation to treat others with respect and courtesy, as made clear by the Member Code of Conduct.

This disappoints some people, who think that liberal principles require us to be utterly transparent. I judge that to be naïve, knowing as I do that our opponents would never make the same mistake. And, given that our strengths include hard work and an element of surprise, why give anything away that might jeopardise either?

My personal policy has survived the best part of two decades now, from my time on the London Liberal Democrats Regional Executive, its East of England equivalent, via English Candidates Committee to Federal International Relations Committee, and I’ve tried to be pretty consistent throughout.

That means that my reports aren’t “official” - that would require me to be the Chair, which I’m not. And they represent my perspective, based on what I know, which means that they might not be perfect - I may have missed nuance, or be unaware of institutional history/memory. But they’re mine, and I’m accountable for them.

So, when (or if) I choose to run for re-election, voters will have rather more than a brief, carefully curated, manifesto upon which to judge my worth. It is for my colleagues to decide how, and if, they do something similar, and I wouldn’t criticise their decision either way - they’re busy people with their own priorities and personal styles. Some will be more restrained, others not used to blogging or other social media. We are all different.

Sunday, June 11, 2023

ALDE Party Congress - where your correspondent did go to the (meat)ball…

The world turns, and things change.

For many years, going to an ALDE event meant being led by the suave, and occasionally cynical, Robert Woodthorpe Browne, whose almost legendary ability to cut deals meant that our influence somewhat outweighed our numerical strength. And now, we have a new leader, David Chalmers, whose first Congress this was.

Naturally, David operates rather differently, although he clearly gets that, in a post-Brexit environment, Liberal Democrats have to work harder (and smarter) to get things done. And, whilst he’s still trying to assess the strengths and weaknesses of his core delegation, and work out whether or not individuals can be trusted, he’s being cautious in terms of how much room for manoeuvre he can grant us. Discipline is the watchword.

There is a logic to that, in that we’re obviously not in a position to freelance - we’re bound by Party policy, of course, and there are relationships with other sister parties that we want to maintain.

In truth, it affects me less than some. I’m not much of a policy wonk, at least I know that I’m not expert enough to assert much. And my “specialist subject”, i.e. the inner workings of the ALDE Party, is seldom of critical import, or, if I’m frank, of interest to my colleagues. Except when it is…

And this Congress was one of those rare events, with some rather significant proposals on representation of non-EU member parties, the abolition of the Individual Members in their current form, and a clearer structure for the appointment of future Secretary Generals. Having served on a small working group appointed by the Bureau to look at the Individual Members and Secretary General issues, I at least had a grasp of what was happening and the background before it.

There were a lot of policy resolutions - forty-three in total, plus six urgency resolutions - far too many to allow any meaningful discussion, although they had been ranked in order of perceived significance to ensure that some of the most far reaching ones got debated.

But I did at least have a job of sorts. There was a time when Returning Officers mattered. With paper ballots, a count was required and ALDE’s somewhat bizarre elections rules - first past the post but with a stipulation that voters must vote for as many candidates as there are vacancies - meant that you did at least have to think a bit. Now, with electronic voting, once polls close, the ballot technician pushes a button, the results are displayed, and that’s it.

But the rules still state that a Returning Officer is necessary, and my German colleague, Daniel Obst, and myself are apparently acceptable to the Secretariat - I don’t imagine that the Bureau care much - and so we are informally approached in advance, agree to resume our double act and all is well.

All that was required was to get to Stockholm…

Monday, May 08, 2023

Mid Suffolk elections 2023 - if you thought that 2019 was bad for the Tories...

The 2019 District Council elections saw our local Conservatives take something of a hiding but, with the aid of the friendly "Independent" from Combs Ford, they retained control of Mid Suffolk District Council on the casting vote of the Chair.

Now you might have thought that they would then display a degree of humility and at least show some respect for the combined opposition parties following such losses but alas, it was not to be. And thus, on Thursday, they paid the price, courtesy of our local Greens.

In truth, everything favoured the Greens in Mid Suffolk, with an invisible Labour Party fielding just eight sacrificial lambs in predominantly unwinnable wards at the best of times, and the Liberal Democrats effectively trying to do little more than retain their five seats won in 2019 under the disadvantage of losing four incumbents to well-deserved retirement. And, apart from two Reform UK candidates who barely stirred public consciousness, that left twenty-nine Greens facing twenty-eight Conservatives.

And, when an early result saw the demise of the Conservative Group Leader in the Stonhams, Friday promised to be grim for Mid Suffolk Conservatives. As it turned out, grim really wasn't sufficient to describe their fate.

Stowmarket went from three Conservatives, two Greens, a Liberal Democrat and an Independent to six Greens and a Liberal Democrat, whilst Conservative councillors were also ousted in Claydon & Barham, Debenham, Eye, Palgrave, Thurston and Walsham-le-Willows.

Amongst the Conservative losers were Tim Passmore, the County Police and Crime Commissioner, despite moving to Palgrave from Claydon and Barham, and Nick Gowrley, the former Group Leader, who lost his Combs Ford seat in 2019 and re-appeared in Claydon & Barham in an attempt to return. The Deputy Group Leader bit the dust too, effectively decapitating the Conservative Group. 

From a Liberal Democrat perspective, the loss of one of two seats in Needham Market (to a Green) means that the town has a non-Liberal Democrat District Councillor for the first time since 1991, when Ros was elected as a rookie councillor.

So, Mid Suffolk ended up:
    • Greens - 24 seats (up 12)
    • Conservatives - 6 seats (down 10)
    • Liberal Democrats - 4 seats (down 1)
    • Independents - no seats (down 1)
which makes it the first Green majority administration in the Northern Hemisphere and only the second globally.

It will be interesting to see what they do with power, having very little experience of it anywhere, and having never had to have sole responsibility for decision making. If I were a member of the Liberal Democrat Group, the prospect of constructive opposition to a ruling Group with whom relations are good would be a potentially enticing one, offering a possibility of gains for those we represent that probably didn't exist under the Conservatives.

Finally, these elections results represent an outcome that the "Local Conservatives" thoroughly deserved. They don't campaign in any meaningful way, relying solely on the historic record of Suffolk voting Conservative. And even though they knew that the Greens were coming for them, they still seemingly couldn't be bothered to do anything about it. If the Greens dig in as I expect them to, whilst they'll probably lose seats in 2027, they may not face much organised opposition.

Indeed, the best prospect for a Conservative recovery in four years time is for the national party to be thrashed in the next General Election and for an unpopular Labour administration to emerge from it. But I sense that it will come despite the quality of local Conservatives rather than because of it.

Saturday, May 06, 2023

Now that we've found Federal Council, what are we gonna do... with it?

Well, I've now been a member of Federal Council for more than a fortnight and, due to the small matter of some local elections, not much has happened. I've got a meeting pencilled in for 8 June and I'm assuming that there's an outline meeting schedule for the rest of 2023 but other than that, Federal Council remains a bit of a mystery.

It's not as if I've not got a bunch of other things to do, so I can at least be more sanguine about this. In the meantime, I've read the Federal Constitution, which says of Federal Council:

9.12 There shall be a Federal Council which shall consist of the following voting members:

a. Twenty-one people who shall be party members elected by all members of the Party except that persons who, at the date of the close of nominations for election under this paragraph, are members of Parliamentary Parties set out in Article 17 shall not be eligible to be candidates for election under this paragraph. Casual vacancies amongst this group shall be filled in accordance with the election regulations;

b. Three members from each State Party, elected according to their own procedures;

c. Three principal local authority councillors, elected Mayors or Police and Crime Commissioners, elected by the principal local authority councillors, elected Mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners of the Party;

d. Three members of the Young Liberals, elected according to their own procedures;

e. Three representatives of the Parliamentary Group as set out in Article 17.5; and

f. The Chair of the Federal Audit and Scrutiny Committee.

9.13 The Chair of the Federal Council shall be elected by its members.

9.14 Members of the Federal Board may attend and speak at meetings of the Federal Council but may not be voting members of the Federal Council.

9.15 The Council shall be responsible for scrutinising the work of the Federal Board, including ensuring that decisions are being taken in line with the party strategy as voted for by Conference, and may require a response on any issue from the Board.

9.16 The members of the Federal Council shall be sent the Board agenda, decisions and relevant papers. Within five working days of the publication of the decisions any 13 members can request that the Chair of the Federal Council call in any decision by the Federal Board to a meeting of the full Federal Council. The President of the Party will be required to attend this meeting and can bring any others they feel relevant in order to speak in favour of the decision. Any decision of the Federal Board called in can be overturned by a vote in favour by at least 27 members of the Federal Council.

9.17 The Council shall be considered to be a Committee of the Federal Party for the purposes of Articles 2.5, 2.6, 2.7, 8.2, 8.5, 8.8 and 8.9.

I've also looked to see, as far as I can, who got elected to serve on it and whilst I have worked with some of them, or know them because of Ros, there are others who, to be honest, are more of a social media presence. That doesn't entirely surprise me, given that I've kept a relatively low profile within the wider Party for a while now.

And, finally, I've re-read my manifesto. This is what I said I would try to achieve if elected...

But what are my ambitions if elected to serve?

  • Establish the Federal Council as an effective scrutiny body, engaging all of its members in its work and using their strengths to establish its credibility
  • Build a relationship with the Federal Board based on mutual understanding and respect
  • Represent and engage with groups across the Party and Federal Conference to ensure that we focus on what matters to members rather than simply promoting any narrow agenda
  • Create reporting channels that allow members to hold us accountable

So, no great challenge there...

And on reflection, that did look rather like a manifesto for Chair of Federal Council, rather than an ordinary member. So, perhaps I ought to scale back my ambitions a little. How about this:

  • Work with fellow Council members to establish the Federal Council as an effective scrutiny tool
  • Engage with groups across the Party to ensure that I focus on what matters to members rather than simply promoting a narrow agenda
  • Report back using my blog and, if appropriate, Liberal Democrat Voice

There are some things that matter to me - good governance, the Town and Parish Council sector, the Party's international work, for example - which I hope to promote during the next two and a half years. But I like to think of myself as being fairly open minded, willing to hear and consider the arguments whilst not assuming that anyone in a position of authority in the Party has a secret agenda that I should be deeply suspicious of.

And so it begins...