Rob Davidson

All change at Lib Dem HQ

Mo’ elections, mo’ problems. This could be the Liberal Democrat motto after a decade of poor performances including three general elections and a referendum in five years. There is a strong need for change somewhere but after a decade of election reviews and no apparent improvement, you’d be forgiven for thinking change is something Lib Dems don’t grasp. And yet, all the signs are there that change is happening, at Lib Dem HQ at least.

Even in 2010 when the Lib Dem leader had performed reasonably well in TV debates and the party had returned to government after almost a hundred years in the wilderness, seats were lost overall. In more ways than one, that was the beginning of the end of any Lib Dem revival.

After each election, there has been a party-commissioned review and, each time, the theme has been the same – the party doesn’t work well as a national organisation, it can’t scale up from by-election successes, and a leadership-based clique normally forces itself into the existing jumble of committees and branches and runs a poorly communicated campaign.

The need for change has been clear but after so many, effectively ignored election reviews, the likelihood of change has grown increasingly small: until now, perhaps.

The new CEO, Mike Dixon, was only appointed two months prior to the 2019 General Election. A bad start, some might say, but that election surely does not count as “on the CEO’s watch” because of all the issues raised in the party’s post-election Thornhill review and for the very fact that he was only just in place, getting to grips with a dysfunctional federation of organisations.

Since the election, a lot of change has happened and is still happening, perhaps the most in the aftermath of any recent election.

First, of course, the Lib Dem leader, Jo Swinson, lost her seat and so regime change was forced. But also, the director of campaigns & elections stepped down, a ‘mea culpa’ of sorts. We now have a new Lib Dem leader, Ed Davey, but that’s not what heralds significant change (after all, Davey was deputy leader during the election.)

The big change seems to be happening within the HQ team. Dixon has now hired a Director of Strategy, Mimi Turner, and a CTO, Duncan Gough. These are both completely new positions at Lib Dem HQ, an expansion of the C-level team working with the CEO.

Completely new positions indicate a new way of thinking. Dixon is not an internal hire for the CEO position, unlike his predecessor. He worked with the Labour Party when they were in power and then worked at CEO-level for Citizens Advice and then Addaction– meaning he brings meaningful professional experience and non-party thinking to the role.

Turner is a brand strategist who has Vice and LadBible on her recent CV. Her lack of political experience may be a veritable strength. The Lib Dem’s need to see themselves as a damaged brand and it takes more than good policy ideas to fix that.

Gough’s GitHub page describes him as a ‘maker and sometime digital art therapist’ with coding recipes for robot-run radio stations amongst other exotic and just pure interesting projects. A tech entrepreneur, with a ‘passively multiplayer online game’ under his belt amongst other things, he has been tech lead at the V&A Museum, Moon Festival and other creative, experiential organisations. If you ever wondered how ‘liberals’ might respond to the Dominic Cummings tech-fuelled campaign system, Gough may just be it.

Of course, having new faces, new ideas and even diversity of thought, may not immediately lead to electoral success for any number of reasons. When Chelsea first started buying up football stars with an oligarch’s riches, the team didn’t gel and didn’t bring home the trophies – at first. But it’s certainly the best sign that significant change is happening, this time.

What I think it most interesting is that this looks to represent a bulking up of the HQ team and potentially, the CEO’s clout within the often conflicted or confused hydra that is the Lib Dem “structure.”

When you have a president represented by the members and a parliamentary ‘leader’ with democratic weight, the CEO has sometimes seemed like a vestigial appendage or mere ‘legal requirement’ caught between these distinct figureheads (and not to mention the elected federal boards and committees.) But the main bulk of staffing, strategizing, planning and implementation should come via the paid staff structure that comes under the CEO’s remit.

Perhaps with a more comprehensive “C-team” at the head of HQ, the ‘professional’ arm of the party might begin to report to the elected wings like an executive reporting to a governance board and stakeholders. If that is what Dixon is doing, he may be on the right track – even if he faces resistance from those in the party who distrust HQ and prefer the federal committee system as it has been.

We don’t know what the future will bring or if this change will reflect what’s needed or what was highlighted by the Thornhill review. The proof will be in future election results. What is absolutely certain is that change is afoot and the Lib Dems may be a different machine the next time around.

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