• Matt McLaren

The byzantine structures of the Liberal Democrats in England - a handy explainer for the uninitiated

As we Liberal Democrats currently find ourselves in the midst of internal election season, I thought it may be helpful - particularly for those less familiar with the complex internal structure of the Party - to provide a helpful guide as to how we organised, especially in England - hopefully providing some context and explanation for what it is I and others may be standing for in the upcoming English and Regional Party elections.


Our Party is a federation of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, Welsh Liberal Democrats, and Liberal Democrats in England - mirroring the federal structure we'd like the United Kingdom itself to exhibit.


In addition to the directly-elected members of the Federal Board, Federal Council (a new body set up to oversee and scrutinise the work of the now slimmed-down Board), and specialist Federal Committees - all of which are currently being elected; each State Party (i.e. England, Scotland & Wales) elect representatives to these UK-wide governing bodies (with the Chair/Convenor of each State Party also being a Federal Vice-President and that State Party's representative on the Federal Board).


Because the English Party is so large, it is itself a federation of smaller Regional Parties - 11 in total - with most State Party functions being exercised by the Regional Parties on a day to day basis, but with the English Party as a whole retaining an important role with respect to the following:

  1. Ensuring common minimum standards across the whole of England;

  2. Coordinating the work of Regional Parties and providing crucial advice & support to them on difficult and complex matters;

  3. Exercising important reserved functions of State Parties which practically cannot be handed down to regions, such as common Parliamentary selection rules which apply across the whole of England and England-wide budgeting and finance;

  4. Representing the English regions on the UK Federal Party bodies.

The Party in England is run by the English Council, made up of elected representatives from all 11 Regional Parties plus Young Liberals (which is treated as the 12th region with its own representatives on the English Council and the Chair of English Young Liberals sitting on the Council's Executive). Much like Conference at the Federal level, English Council is the ultimate decision making body for the English Party, and only sits two or three times a year.


In between meetings of the Council, its Executive and officers manage the work of the English Party. The English Council Executive is made up of the English Party officers, the 12 Regional Party Chairs (or another authorised representative from their Regional Executive) and several ordinary Executive members elected by the wider Council. English representatives to Federal bodies are also invited to Executive meetings so they can report and take questions on their activities, but are non-voting (unless also an elected Executive member/officer/Regional Chair).


The Chair of the English Party and Chair of the English Candidates' Committee are elected by all members of the English Council, now every two years, as are ordinary members of the Council's Executive and the English Candidates' Committee (which is not a subcommittee of the Executive but rather a constitutionally empowered committee in its own right, also including all Regional Candidates' Chairs, and having a very important role in managing and overseeing approvals and selections for Westminster, London Assembly, Mayoral, and Police & Crime Commissioner candidates). The English Council also elects the English Party representatives sitting on the Federal bodies, now every three years (to better align with the terms of these bodies).


The two English Party Vice-Chairs are then elected by the Executive from amongst its own members when it first meets following its biennial election. And the English Party Treasurer is appointed by the Executive when it first meets, but need not be an existing member of the Executive (as they should be chosen on skill and expertise rather than democratic mandate).


Suffice to say this is all incredibly complicated - the result, no doubt, of a complex system which arose out of the merger between the Liberal Party and SDP, made even more complicated over the years by various changes to constitutional arrangements. And all this is to say nothing about individual Regional Party arrangements, which can vary from region to region, though thankfully in most cases it will be one member, one vote for Regional Executive members and officers (perhaps, as in my home region of London, with a mix of directly-elected officers such as the Regional Chair, and indirectly elected roles chosen by and from the Regional Executive, such as Regional Secretary or Vice-Chairs).


Nevertheless, hopefully this guide to the internal party structure will help make clear what (and how) I and others will be seeking election to certain internal party roles in the coming weeks.


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If you would like to here more about my work in the Liberal Democrats at the English Party level, including as England's representative on the Federal Conference Committee, you can signup to my unofficial newsletter here: libdemenglishparty-news.mattjmclaren.com

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