Later this week , at spring conference in Gateshead, the Liberal Democrats will have the opportunity to debate issues and define party policy. Now, more than ever, this internal democratic process has the opportunity to actually influence what the government does. The NHS is likely to be on most people’s minds, and possibly on the agenda as an emergency motion.
I’m a member of the Liberal Democrats, but as a doctor, I’m also a member of a number of other organisations too. I’ve become acutely aware of the very different ways that these organisations have responded to the health and social care bill over the last couple of months. And in particular how the leadership of these organisations has responded to the views of their members.
Both my professional organisation, the Faculty of Public Health, and my union, the BMA, have had their own lively policy discussions. And both have allowed their internal democratic processes to take place. The grass roots campaigned, raised awareness, called for meetings and presented motions. These motions were discussed openly, and then voted on. In both cases the members voted against supporting the bill, and then, after discussion, the leadership followed suit, changing their position and have now come out against it.
Many Lib Dem members are concerned, however, that the opportunity to discuss the NHS will not be allowed this weekend. Or that the motions discussed may not be those that represent the genuine breadth of members views.
I’m sure the experts on process and rules at the federal conference committee could come up with a way to challenge or stifle debate on the NHS bill in the forthcoming conference. My challenge to them is not to do that. Instead, to allow the party’s democratic process to happen, and to be seen to happen.
I’m not arguing here to vote one way or the other on the NHS. I’m just arguing that a debate should be had. The party’s name seems to support the idea. Lim Dem HQ’s own website describes conference as ‘democracy in action’, claiming:
“The Lib Dem Conference is a recognisably democratic event in a sense that the other conferences can no longer claim to be. Policies are proposed, amended, debated and voted on in an impeccable manner”.
That’s what I want to see. However, if the party does not listen to its members, then maybe it’s not so different to the others after all.