Changing the way Liberal Democrats develop policy – some thoughts from the country

Nearly two years into the Coalition, and with the Health and Social Care Bill now on its way to Buckingham Palace for Royal Assent, now seems a good time to reflect on the future of ideas within the Party.

There will be those who will wonder why a self-confessed bureaucrat, not known for a yen for policy wonkery, would be worrying about such things. And I guess that they would have a point. But from a process perspective, I suggest that the way that we make policy is now flawed.

At the moment, the hub through which virtually all policy passes is the Federal Policy Committee, a fine body of people who attempt to represent the broad swathe of opinion within the Party. However, whilst the academic approach of commissioning policy papers via working groups operated pretty well in opposition, its limitations are showing up in government.

As we’ve begun to realise, in a coalition, with the inherent compromising that is involved, the development of ongoing policy is fluid, with some, if not much, of the context hidden to those outside of the negotiations. And those outside of the negotiations include much of Federal Policy Committee, the very people tasked with policy development. You can understand their frustration when the Coalition then goes off in a direction not envisaged by Party policy.

This frustration has manifested itself through such incidents as the now infamous letter to the Guardian over tuition fees. It also appears to have led to attempts to hold the Parliamentary Parties to the agreed policy, a monitoring role to protect the one true faith and to prosecute apostasy, for want of a better phrase (there is a piece of me that sees images of Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition here). This is, in emotional terms, entirely logical, as we are a Party which has always made much of the link between the membership and policy making, especially by comparison with Labour and the Conservatives, where the role of members is to applaud policy when it is announced.

That exclusion does have the benefit of allowing far greater flexibility to reflect current circumstances, but it isn’t very Liberal Democrat. And, to be honest, given that the relationship between activists and Liberal Democrat Parliamentarians is, to put it politely, not what it might be, it wouldn’t be viable, even if anyone was keen on such a notion.

So, if Federal Policy Committee isn’t the answer or, at least, not all of the answer, what other possible solutions are there?…

Tomorrow, I’ll propose some ideas but, in the meantime, what do you think?

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  • Honestly? I think it would be helpful to leverage either new technology and use it to help vote on policy, or leverage new technology to share policy decision (such as the tycoon tax) so it can be sold by members.

    Conference can either “ratify” or “propose” new policy, hopefully improving communication in both directions.

    Of course if it doesn’t “ratify” policy that has already been implemented, that could lead to problems, but perhaps they could suggest amendments? Nothing is written in tablets of stone, not even Government policy, is it?

  • Nick (not Clegg) 22nd Mar '12 - 2:01pm

    I think it’s all quite clear. Liberal Democrat policy is whatever the little clique at the top of the party decides to put in the manifesto. And if they later find anything in the manifesto a tad inconvenient, they just play it by ear.

  • Why does ‘compromise’ always seem to be that the Tories do what they want and LibDem MPs do a complete 180 on most of their policies? What is wrong with modern Uk politics when an unelected House of Lords is more representative of party members than the low lower chamber?

  • Richard Dean 22nd Mar '12 - 2:21pm

    A few random suggestions …

    It seems to me that policy comes from knowledge of the present situation, aspirations for the future, and recognitions of possibilities and limiting factors over time. So, in a democratic party, policy development needs to be a negotiation that involves everyone who has anything to contribute in these areas. An implication would be that think tanks should not expect to lead, but only to analyse and advise.

    Implementation is done through people chosen by the electorate as a whole, and their duties are primarliy to the whole electorate, not to the party. Those who are presently in office will also have a lot of practical knowledge in all relevant areas. I suggest that this makes their consent on any policy decisions essential, and that their major involvement, and perhaps leadership, of the policy development process could be highly desirable.

  • @Simon McGrath
    “If it was we would not have had the idiotic and disastrous policy on tuition fees in the manifesto.”

    I think you’ll find the problem was keeping to the policy in the manifesto, not the other way round. As a result of the manifesto being ignored, we have ended up with a disastrous and idiotic tuition fees system. Disastrous for the country and disastrous for the Lib Dem’s electoral prospects.

  • @Nick (not Clegg) – you forget that the “clique at the top of the party” were voted in by their constituents (moreover, Nick Clegg won our leadership election fair and square). This, therefore, gives them the right to air their views and implement their agenda. That’s democracy!

    @Simon McGrath – I agree entirely with the sentiments of your comment. If every single policy decision was left to the members and activists, we’d have a messy, incoherent agenda based on populist opportunism. Instead, we need a coherent, pragmatic structure in place, at the top, representing (and hopefully summing up) the majority of party attitude.

  • Nick (not Clegg) 22nd Mar '12 - 2:52pm

    @ Simon McGrath

    Having it in the manifesto was not your problem. You could have got around that by saying, as you did, “we’re in a coalition, the economy’s in a mess, sorry we can’t deliver this one”. That might have lost you some support, but it would not have led to the disaster which, I hope, will dog you right up to the next election and beyond.

    Your problem, and the root of the disaster, was that your Leader and lots of your candidates publicly signed a pledge to vote against any proposal to raise tuition fees. When such a proposal came before the House, your MPs split three ways: a minority honouring the pledge and voting against, some abstaining and others followed your Leader and voting in favour of the very thing they had pledged themselves to vote against. The problem was a toxiccombination of lack of principle and inept handling of the coalition negotiations

  • NNC – the problem was easily soluble by voting for a time-bound graduate tax (what we’ve got) not for higher tuition fees (which we haven’t got).

  • Mark V – some mechanism to go direct to the membership for their opinion on policy.

  • Nick (not Clegg) 22nd Mar '12 - 3:11pm

    @ Tabman

    You are where you are. Excuse me while I savour my schadenfreude.

  • Tuition fees was a disaster and yet a triumph at the same time: considering the previous tuition fees debates went…

    Phase 1 – LabCon want £1k. LD want £0. Compromise figure: £1000
    Phase 2 – LabCon want £3k. LD want £0. Compromise figure: £3000
    Phase 3 – LabCon want £15k+. LD want £0. Compromise figure: £9000

    While failing to get the policy the party wanted, it was more influence on the final figure than they’d ever got out of Labour.

    Speaking of which, the LDs may sometimes seem not to have got too much out of putting Cameron into power, but did the Co-Op party that gave him his working majority get *anything* out of keeping Brown in power for 3 years?

  • NNC – be my guest. Excuse me whilst I savour my weltschmertz.

  • Nick (not Clegg) 22nd Mar '12 - 3:26pm

    Tabman – The wurst is yet to come.

  • Aye Mark, my argument is could “conference” become an online “conference” in addition to the physical one?

    As if it has the same reps, and poss even increased turnout – is it not as sovereign as the physical conference is now?

    As long as you get quora does it literally have to be a physical location?

  • @Tabman
    “NNC – the problem was easily soluble by voting for a time-bound graduate tax (what we’ve got) not for higher tuition fees (which we haven’t got).”

    Please explain how tipling tuition fees isn’t an increase. Which brings me on to:

    @Nick (not Clegg)
    ‘Having it in the manifesto was not your problem. You could have got around that by saying, as you did, “we’re in a coalition, the economy’s in a mess, sorry we can’t deliver this one”. ‘

    Absolutely. It’s not rocket science is it. Saying ‘sorry we can’t deliver on this one’ would have been infinitely better than making up a whole load of absurd arguments trying to justify how the new system is ‘fairer’!

    “Tuition fees was a disaster and yet a triumph at the same time: considering the previous tuition fees debates went…

    Phase 1 – LabCon want £1k. LD want £0. Compromise figure: £1000
    Phase 2 – LabCon want £3k. LD want £0. Compromise figure: £3000
    Phase 3 – LabCon want £15k+. LD want £0. Compromise figure: £9000”

    Please show some evidence for where Labour were advocating £15k tuition fees! The actual compromise was this:

    Tory manifesto: No policy other than waiting to see what the neo-liberal stooge Browne said
    Lib Dem manifesto: Phase out tuition fees.
    Result: Tuition fees tripled

    It’s almost as impressive as this compromise:

    Tory manifesto: No top down reorganisation of the NHS
    Lib Dem manifesto: No top down reorganisation of the NHS
    Compromise: Top down reorganisation of the NHS

  • I agree with Louise. As a young(ish) person, the party seems frankly antiquated in how it fails to make use of the internet. Ten years down the line it will be laughable so we need to get started now.

    Even without going so far as allowing those who want to to vote online for positions and motions (which we should – the Constitution can be changed), there’s more we can do:
    – A private forum for all members, containing all the following…
    – Proposing and informally voting up/down and commenting on policy ideas (something like
    – Video debate events, for fun/training but also policy development/education
    – Voting up/down what policy papers we’d like to see (this would also be useful for Liberal Insight and other think-tanks, as well as helping people form their own working groups)
    – A place to post motions online – if desirable – before they are submitted to the FCC, so reps can easily add their support or recommend changes (this means anyone could gain the necessary support for a motion without needing access to a network of reps). The FCC’s response should also be posted.
    – Improving the consultation process. At present I believe you only get sent consultations (or even informed of their existence) if you are a conference rep, and going to conference and going for the whole event!, which does help limit the number of responses but is not the best way to make use of the entire membership’s expertise. The internet and crowd-sourcing can help here though local party chairs would be a good conduit too.
    – As Mark Pack has requested, more information from the FPC. Even as a very active LD I have no idea when or where the FPC meets or what they discuss, let alone what votes they take.

    We’re missing opportunities to improve policy and attract and retain members. Without going overboard on ‘liberal bureaucracy’ – to use your phrase – a membership-led investigation of these and all the many other ideas would be a good first step. I look forward to tomorrow’s post.

  • @Tabman
    “NNC – the problem was easily soluble by voting for a time-bound graduate tax (what we’ve got) not for higher tuition fees (which we haven’t got).”

    Oh, and I forgot to add: If what we have now is a graduate tax then it is a regressive graduate tax (so can’t be compared to income tax for example)

  • Lets be honest here, without wanting to go over old ground, Nick Clegg may have won the leadership fair and square under the rules but more people voted for his opponent than for him. Votes were excluded through no fault of the people casting them.

  • James Sandbach 22nd Mar '12 - 7:25pm

    One of the big problems is about Parliamentarians capacity to engage with members, lib dem interest groups, and other organisations etc closely aligned with Lib Dem values – and thus failures to communicate and contextualise the fluid relationship between policy, strategy, tactics and ultimately decision-making (whether that be things that come of Govt like the budget or LD voting positions on contentious legislation). The westminster willage bubble ends up with self parodying and exclusive dialogue between parliamantains and insider policy wonks,,and no-one else getting a peep in.

    Given that between Peers and MPs we have what – over 140 Parliamentarians in total (with support staff, albeit inadequate etc), how about a rota whereby each week a different Peer or MP volunteers to be ‘engagement tzar’ accross the piece with the legislative agenda etc, host meetings that week, engage with ldv feeds etc on what’s happening,,,

    I quite appreciate that it is quite impossible our Parliamentarians and their staff to engage with all the floods of hundreds of lobbying and grumbles emails, but how about a more strategic approach to engagement?

    Just sending out the the odd one mass standard statement emails to members inboxes, or occasional conference call set up with a Minister (largely prescripted), or as a last resort waiting for a big bust up at conference, doesn’t really feel like real engagement and dialogue which has to be a two way process – other approaches should be trialled.

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