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