Even after all these years, two things still puzzle and bemuse me about the Liberal Democrats.
The first is that a sure fire way of starting an argument within the party, especially amongst the activists, is to suggest any big change to internal structures, processes and organisation. Everyone seems to have a view, an objection, a cross to bear, a score to settle. Curiously, this seems to trigger as much unrest and discussion as almost any big policy argument.
Second, whenever the party leadership or "establishment" tries to suggest or, more likely, enforce such changes, they handle the internal communications really, really badly. Here, the debates over possible coalition arrangements and party “strategy” in the late 1990s, the plan for all members to vote for party committees and the use of the peers’ list are three examples that spring to mind.
What looks like a new attempt by the party leadership (in its broadest sense) to assemble its own firing squad has come with the report of the Party Reform Commission, the “Bones commission”.
If you accept that the party must change itself in order to reach Nick Clegg’s target of doubling the number of Lib Dem MPs over the next two general elections, many of the Bones recommendations are unexceptional. Who disagrees that volunteers should be treated better, engaged more deeply? Who doubts that the party’s communications need to be improved? We could start by better understanding the concepts of marketing and branding. Who could have a problem with major efforts to expand the pool of candidates and improve the quality of candidates in key seats? Or with taking forward the diversity agenda?
So far, most attention has focussed on the formal creation of a Chief Officers Group (COG), a management board, to set the party’s budget and strategy. I agree with that, with the proviso that the COG needs more direct input from the Federal Policy Committee, in order to ensure that the policy aspects of party strategy are considered fully. The arrangements to ensure transparency and accountability need to be made clearer, but then the current situation is a model of neither. Also, looking at the personnel proposed, the COG will, as things stand at the moment, be a woman-free zone. Still, none of this should be too hard to fix. (Maybe I just illustrated the first point, above)
The real mistake though was with the way the commission’s work was communicated. Most of us heard of the contents through a provocative article in The Times. This was followed by a flurry of comment – much of it, inevitably, misinformed and hostile -- on the Lib Dem blogosphere and, later, in Liberator. Then, Jo Christie-Smith pointed out on her blog that the executive summary of the Bones report was floating around and was to be included in our conference packs.
I do not suggest there was any malice on the part of the party leader, the party president or the members of the commission. But the report was allowed to become the worst possible thing in the Liberal Democrats: a secret, in London. And, to my knowledge, nobody explained to people what was going on, or how the report would be taken forward.
The whole exercise is still not doomed, however. The commission needs to start selling the proposals to the party and the best way to do that is to -– yes –- tell stories.
Stephen Denning sets out three story-telling steps for leaders who are trying to convince people to embrace change: These are: (1) get people’s attention; (2) generate desire for something different; and (3) reinforce the reasons for change.
Using Denning’s model, one way of getting the party’s attention would be to tell a simple story(ies) based on the problems that party members are facing now -- raising money, finding candidates, winning seats.
A desire for change could be stimulated by what he calls a “springboard story” that has a plausible, happy ending. That’s the hard part, to be sure. The most useful way could to be to use a familiar example of where a particular change (the COG perhaps?) has already been successfully implemented and let the audience imagine it working in the Liberal Democrats.
Reinforcement might consist of stories – specific, credible examples -- about how the package of changes will play out across the party, so that everyone wins.
The Monday of conference starts with a consultation session on the commission's work and this is to feature a presentation by its chair, Chris Bones. That would be a good time to tell representatives these kinds of stories about what the commission has come up with. They might even believe them.
How about it?