This morning, a version of the Lib Dems’ General Election review was finally published. At some 23 pages long, it is a fuller document than many in the party will have feared; however, it is still not the full version (which it is believed will be circulated on a limited basis).
At a first read it appears to be aimed at offering reassurance for campaigners that the rigid, dirigiste approach of the Campaigns and Elections Department will be dropped. The successor to the outgoing Hilary Stephenson will presumably welcome this clear steer. However, in many other places the report (or rather the sanitised, published version) lacks something.
Here is a quick guide to some of the missing sections.
The first section contains this fascinating finding:-
‘The Federal CEO should be directly answerable to both the Party President and the Federal Executive’.
No supporting text is given to explain this. However, in the aftermath of the 2014 election debacle Party Chief Executive Tim Gordon was charged with implementing the findings of the [still unpublished] report summarising the failings of that campaign. Whatever the Federal Executive was told was sharply at odds with reality, the results of which can be seen in the blurred reporting lines and lack of feedback loop in the 2015 operation.
Secondly, although it is probably outwith the group’s remit, the report nonetheless refers to ‘wider policy issues’, and names three fiascos of ‘Secret Courts’, cuts to legal aid and the ‘Bedroom Tax’. What it does not then outline is how these were tackled; while the report talks about positions taken by the leadership out of step with party policy, it does not tackle how to reconcile this. It does refer, though, to the blurring of lines between Special Advisors and party staff. The most egregious example of these, the appearances of a Clegg SpAd at FCC to try and suppress debate of critical motions at Conference, is only hinted at.
There is then a strange section about the relationship between party volunteers and staff. It alleges in a general way that ‘committee members’ are regularly abusive to staff, which is nonsense. It apparently relates to issues with the candidate selection process and demands placed by English Party and regional officers on staff. The wording seems to reflect pressure from HQ to assert their supremacy over the democratic parts of the party.
Other sections, such as the section on polling, are interesting especially when read alongside other contemporary accounts. The campaigning sections are admirably frank. The absence of a successful political narrative is freely admitted. The story of the ‘Wheelhouse’ organisation comes across as a product of organisational weakness, rather than a cause of it.
But to go back to the first point. It is evident that while the big mistakes by the leadership were done, the failings of 2014 could have led to change and not repeated. It is evident reading through the report that the failures in messaging, the lack of feedback and the top-down, one-size-fits-all approach to campaigning were retained despite being widely known, and accountability was sidestepped. One person was responsible for failing to change the organisation. For this reason, it is now absolutely time for Tim Gordon to step aside as party Chief Executive so the party can move forward. Indeed, he should already have accepted responsibility and led by example by stepping aside in the restructuring he orchestrated in the autumn.