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Radical Bulletin 327 – August 2008
20 July 2008 (17:02:27)

LEADING FROM THE CENTRE

Nick Clegg has set himself up as the scourge of central control, arguing that, in particular in the National Health Service, it is both wrong and ineffective.

This admirable stance does not though apply to his own party, in which Clegg has just effected a power grab courtesy of the hand-picked Bones Commission (Liberator 325).

It was chaired by management consultant Chris Bones, and other members included chief whip Paul Burstow, who runs the Parliamentary Office of the Liberal Democrats – the vehicle through which funding for parliamentary activity is handled – and Duncan Greenland, chair of the Federal Finance and Administration Committee.

Unsurprisingly, it concluded that Messrs Clegg, Burstow and Greenland should all become far more powerful.

Its central idea is that a Chief Officers Group (COG) should take over the running of the party’s finances and management.

Its members would be Clegg, president Simon Hughes, leaders in Scotland and Wales, English party chair Brian Orrell, Burstow, Greenland, the leaders in the Lords and Europe, the conference and campaigns committee chairs, the leader’s chief of staff, the treasurer, a council group leader and chief executive Chris Rennard.

Its formal role would be to set strategic objectives for the party, prepare for elections, supervise media relations, run budgets and administration, and oversee Rennard.

Alert readers will have spotted the fatal flaw that has eluded Bones for all his expertise – any body top heavy with parliamentarians will perennially suffer from most of them not turning up and being primarily exercised about their own hobbyhorses when they do.

Even more alert ones will wonder what has happened to the Federal Executive, a body partly elected by conference and enshrined in the constitution.

It still exists but was persuaded to cede its powers to COG for an, allegedly, experimental period until the next general election.

The FE is reduced to the ‘oversight’ status of a council scrutiny committee, which means it will be become completely, as opposed to almost completely, pointless.

FE members were of course presented with copies of the full Bones reports, but only after they had voted for the COG. Before that they had only summaries.

In the final vote, only Erlend Watson opposed COG, though former MP David Rendel and a few others abstained.

This result was, though, achieved only after former MEP Robin Teverson had successfully moved an amendment to set up an FE working party, which can in theory negotiate changes in relations and responsibilities with the COG. The group comprises Teverson, James Gurling, Meral Ece, Jonathan Davies and Roy Thompson.

Davies and others had proposed an amendment that nothing should happen until all the bodies affected by the creation of COG had debated the matter, a move that brought Clegg to near apoplexy and was defeated.

As Liberator went to press, there was the prospect of a row at the English party executive, which may prove less supine than the FE about surrendering, in particular, its budget powers.

Much of Bones is sensible. Its central thrust seeks to deliver Clegg’s incautious commitment to get 150 MPs by the election after next. Its warning that resources need to be poured into a second tier of 200-odd winnable seats will be widely welcomed, in particular by critics of the current targeting strategy.

It also, at least in theory, calls for a substantially greater role for the English regions and has resisted pressure to either abolish the English party or strip local parties of their powers.

However, the way in which Bones has so far been implemented does not bode well. Not even FE members were trusted with copies until it was too late, and the first most party members knew about it was a story in the Times (16 July) that posited a rift between Clegg and Rennard, an unlikely eventuality given that Rennard is treated as semi-divine by most party members.

Next time they hear Clegg inveigh against secrecy and centralisation, they may though be less inclined to believe his sincerity.

Also in Radical Bulletin 327:

  • IN NEED OF TUITION
  • LOCAL DIFFICULTY
  • THE COMPANY HE KEEPS
  • ALL THEIR OWN WORK
  • DINNER FOR 51

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