Are policy motions at Conference too long?

All active Liberal Democrats know that the messages you write on a leaflet have to be clear and short.  So why when we come to party conferences do we insist on debating motions which are astonishingly long and complex?  I challenge most attendees at party conferences on whether they have read through the full texts of all the motions.

I have just ploughed through 1,000 words of a motion for Spring Conference on an issue I care strongly about – having already read the much longer and more detailed policy paper to which it relates.  What we want from conference motions is the equivalent of an executive summary – the headlines of our detailed policies, brief and clear enough to be put on the back of our leaflets, ideally: 3-400 words at most.   But the established style of LibDem policy motions is far longer and more intricate.

The crush of business in the Lords has made me acutely aware of the need for brevity and focus in making speeches.  A generation ago peers (and MPs) were permitted to luxuriate through lengthy speeches of 20-30 minutes; in Victorian times Parliament would listen to speeches of an hour or more.  Now we have ‘advisory timings’ of 3-6 minutes in many debates, with 10-12 minutes for front-bench speeches.  I’ve therefore had to learn to count the number of words in a draft carefully, to prioritise points and to cut out things I would like to add but are only of secondary importance. At around 130 words spoken a minute, 1,000 words takes between seven and eight minutes to deliver in a speech – twice as long as the conference chairs are likely to offer someone from the floor.

I’m an academic by profession.  My ‘natural’ length in lecturing used to be 50 minutes – though I learned to tell an anecdote and crack a joke after the first 20 minutes to give students a break from concentrating (and to wake up any who’d dropped off).  My natural length when writing has been 5-10,000 words an article.  The shift into politics was often painful: having to simplify and summarise issues which I had been trained to explain were messy and complicated.  But that’s what we have to do, on the doorstep, in leaflets and media messages.  If we want outsiders to pay attention to our policy debates and conferences, shouldn’t we manage to simplify and summarise better in the motions we debate?  How about a short motion for the next conference that limits the maximum length of a motion to 400 or 500 words?

* William Wallace has fought five parliamentary elections in Manchester and West Yorkshire. He is a former president of the Yorkshire regional Liberal Democrats.

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10 Comments

  • Kay Kirkham 23rd Feb '22 - 3:26pm

    Absolutely, William. Spot on.

  • Too many motions go into crossing all the Ts mode instead of dealing with the core message. Yes we need to look at concentrating and focussing motions.

  • Nonconformistradical 23rd Feb '22 - 4:06pm

    Absolutely right.

    Does the party need to look at the workings of federal policy and federal conference committees? Is the format of policy papers appropriate? Are the right people involved early enough in policy development?

    Should those involved in developing policy and policy motions need to bear in mind all the time the question of how to get the particular political message over on the doorstep and in the media – getting it over to the unconverted, not just the supporters?

  • Paul Barker 23rd Feb '22 - 4:54pm

    Yes.

  • Hear hear!
    And no emergency motion should run to more than 150 words.

  • Yes. Make your speech during the speeches, not in the motion.

  • Laurence Cox 24th Feb '22 - 12:17pm

    @William, yes, but taking one motion as an example:

    F13 Rebuilding Trade and Cooperation with Europe

    which is in the name of FPC, How would you reduce this to 3-400 words and allow for such things as separate votes and amendments. This motion is around the 1200-1300 word mark as it stands and while we agree that this is too long it is not easy to see how to reduce it to 30% of its length without also reducing the power of conference meaningfully to change it. Can you, with your long experience of drafting legislation demonstrate that this is possible (I am sure that the editors of LDV will allow an extension to their 250 word limit on comments in this case).

  • William Wallace 24th Feb '22 - 2:52pm

    How much detail do we need to have in a conference motion, father than in the policy paper that spells the detail out? There’s no reason why a speaker could not quote the paper in making a speech, or put down an amendment on what she considers to be an important dimension left out of the motion. Lengthy motions encourage debate about the details rather than a focus on the broader issues. My experience on legislation, incidentally, is that the longest Bills are often the most badly drafted and incoherent’ brevity forces the drafter to decide what is most important.

  • Jenny Barnes 24th Feb '22 - 3:44pm

    Headlines to which the answer is “yes”.

  • Mark Smulian 24th Feb '22 - 4:06pm

    Liberator http://www.liberatormagazine.org.uk has since 1983 awarded the Mitcham and Morden Commemorative Gold Toilet for the worst motion submitted to conference.
    This is named after one from that constituency that specified in some detail the exact maximum distances to be permitted between public conveniences on different classes of roads.
    Winners have included motions on British interplanetary conquest, a single time zone for the entire European continent and many that were simply incoherent!

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