The issue of tuition fees has raised a more general challenge the party needs to get its head round. This one’s been bubbling away quietly since the Lib Dems entered the Coalition and we seem no closer to an answer now than we were then.
Are our Government ministers bound by party policy?
When one of our ministers is formulating what the UK Government should do on a specific issue, or setting out the Lib Dem bargaining position to get the best final deal, how far should that minister be reaching for a party policy document rather than using their own judgement?
We pride ourselves on being a democratic party. Nick is proud of leading that democratic party, with all the challenges that brings. If that democracy doesn’t mean that policy passed by members is fought for by the parliamentary party then what’s the point?
But that’s far from the whole story.
The party has lots of policy going back quite a few years. At the very least we must ask our parliamentarians to judge whether, due to changing circumstances, that policy is still right. Our IT policy dates from the best part of a decade ago, and formulation of an update is in progress. I hope we wouldn’t get too upset about a minister using her judgement to take the government away from that old policy if she thought it was right to do so.
And what of the role of ministers. Are they there as ciphers for party policy, or to use their own best judgement given the information put in front of them?
Party policy has been pushed very successfully, first by the negotiating team when the Coalition was being formed and then by ministers. As a result, a long list of policies debated and voted for by members on the conference floor are now – for the first time – really happening. We musn’t forget that – it’s a great achievement and one we should be proud of.
There are other cases where our policy has been negotiated away. That’s OK. We didn’t win the General Election, we have 57 MPs. Our negotiators did a good job and most people understand that to get as much of our policy as we did into the Coalition Agreement was a real success.
But what of the third case? What of the case – of which tuition fees is an example – where a Lib Dem minister looks at the facts and forms an honest and considered view that it would be wrong for the country to follow party policy on a particular issue at a particular tiime?
Do we demand they stick to the party line? Or do we say that a minister is there to use their judgement and, where that clashes with party policy, so be it?
The approach so far by our ministers has been a pragmatic one. They’ve started from a working assumption to go with policy (or the Coalition Agreement where it covers an area) but not been bound by it.
The tuition fees case is the first time that’s led to a significant clash with party activists. Our minister, Vince in this case, has looked at the facts and – clearly – has a genuine belief that to stick to Lib Dem party policy would be wrong for the country. Nothing in the Coalition Agreement made him do it.
What’s the solution?
Any formal process is doomed to failure. Government is government. It would be nice to think that some party mechanism could be put in place, perhaps where ministers came and asked the Federal Policy Committee to be released from a policy pledge. It won’t work; nor will any other process that has the potential to stop a Government minister doing their job.
Is there an alternative?
Yes. It’s far from perfect and it’s messy but it can move us forwards.
First, communication. Where a minister wants to veer away from party policy, especially on a high profile issue, they need to talk – and to listen. To their parliamentary colleagues, to Federal Policy Committee, to party activists and members. Sorry, I know it means more work, but that’s the price. Ministers have been pretty good at talking to fellow MPs so far, but perhaps not so strong when it comes to FPC and the rest of us.
From the party side, we need to appreciate two things. First, this will happen from time to time. Second, there will be occasions when it will be the right thing to have done. Party policy is not perfect and there will be occasions when a minister, with the benefit of hindsight, is absolutely right to step away from it. (Whether tuition fees such a case I don’t know, and there’s the whole separate issue of the pledge our MPs gave too).
To the party leadership, I say that you are rightly proud of leading a democratic party able to set policy and hold you to account. That democracy can be a huge strength, but there is a flip side. Work with the party, not against it.
To members, I say we need to accept that there are – must be – limitations to party democracy, especially when we’re in Government. The alternative simply won’t work. Now is the time to engage constructively with the leadership and reach a shared understanding of how this process can operate for the good of the party and the country.