Sunday, November 02, 2014

An undecided voter muses over the Party Presidency...

My ballot paper arrived yesterday (although the household's former Party President hasn't had hers yet...), accompanied by three manifestos all quite different in message and pitch. So, what to do with it?

Well, perhaps I ought to consider the role of the Party President first, if my decision is to be an informed one. And, having witnessed the Presidency up close for two years, and seen some of the issues that arise, I perhaps flatter myself that, on this particular subject, I am more informed than some, perhaps most.

So, what did I learn?

Firstly, the job of Party President is all about soft power, as James Graham so astutely noted in 2008. There are very few decisions, if any, that are made by the President in isolation, and progress depends on the ability to persuade others to agree with him/her (actually, I'll stick with her from hereon in, given that all three candidates are women). So, having, or establishing credibility with those who must be influenced or persuaded is key, I suggest. And they're an interesting bunch - State and Regional Parties, obscure committees, some elected, some appointed. The checks and balances that are built into the Party constitution usually require diplomacy, rather than the use of a 'bully pulpit', if progress is to be made.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceChairing Federal Executive seems like a pretty dull, fairly straightforward job, but it is, nonetheless, a critical one. If Federal Executive is to run the Party efficiently, it must prioritise its work so as to allow proper debate of key issues. And, as Gordon Lishman notes, it has seldom been done well in recent years (and I do appreciate that he makes one exception...). A good Chair will anticipate problems, build coalitions of interest where they can be found, and ensure focus on the things that she thinks really matter whilst responding to those who may see things differently. She will also organise meetings so that members are properly briefed in advance of any debate. As a result, meetings won't end up making hasty decisions because members want/have to go home...

The Party President is, or should be, a bridge from the members and activists to the Leader and, from time to time, the Parliamentary Parties, and not necessarily the other way round. The Leader has many ways to reach members, but the reverse is not true. There are risks in being too close to the Leader (are you really able to convey hard messages to him/her?) or in being too distant (are you going to get enough opportunities to convey any message at all?)

A Party President is most effective when she is able to gauge the temperature of the Party in the country, be it via social media or by regular visits to Local Parties or Regional Conferences. My gut feeling is that it should be a combination of both, as very little beats 'being there', even if social media is less resource intensive. And, if I might add a personal note here, the time spent on the road can be a bit lonely and will almost certainly keep you away from your loved ones.

Finally, for now at least, a Party President must have some strategic vision and, ideally, some thought through ideas of how to deliver upon it. Where does the Party want/need to be in five or ten years, and what needs to happen to get it there? What structural changes are required, who needs to make those changes and how can they be persuaded? As noted above, there are no levers to be pulled that make things happen.

From an utterly personal perspective, the candidates this time will be viewed through the perspective of my experience of Ros's term of office, which is possibly unfair but, you know, life is unfair like that sometimes. But, for the time being, my ballot paper lies in my in-tray, awaiting my attention. It will probably wait for a while yet...

1 comment:

Gordon Lishman said...

Well said, Mark. As well as Ros, I would commend Diana Maddock as a thoughtful, competent President who took her primary duties seriously at a difficult time. I also think (in retrospect) that Ian Wrigglesworth did a good job as our first President.
I think there is a strong case for ruling MPs out of consideration for the Presidency - particularly any who might have Leadership ambitions, which has been the case for 8 of the last 10 years.
There might also be a good case, as in the LD parties in Scotland and Wales, for dividing the role between a President and a Chair/convenor of the lead coordinating committee.n
The emphasis on the President's "soft" power might be diminished by recognising the potential importance of the (constitutional) role with the FPC and FCC of the President's membership of both those bodies. Done competently, it can be translated into some quite hard power and authority.