Debating policy at federal conference: give us your views!

Liberal Democrats are rightly proud of the fact that we remain the only major party to be internally democratic. Party policy can only be decided by the vote of the representatives of the party membership, after debate at the party conference.

Despite this, however, the number of policy motions submitted to conference has steadily fallen over the last ten years or so – down by about half between 1997 and 2007. This makes it more difficult for Federal Conference Committee (FCC) to select an agenda full of topics people actually want to speak about and debate. In addition, we are more and more reliant on the Federal Ppolicy Committee (FPC) and Parliamentary Party for topics for debate; motions submitted from all other sources have fallen in number significantly.

Possibly, of course, it doesn’t matter all that much. After twenty years of policy-making, the party now has a comprehensive body of policy, and there are relatively few gaps or seriously outdated areas. There’s also no real evidence of many substantial disagreements over major issues.

In any case, federal conference has always been about more than policy debates. The agenda has always featured set-piece speeches and the business sessions necessary for the running of the party, and in recent years we’ve introduced a series of innovations, including Q&A sessions, presentations, and discussions without votes, such as ‘urgent issue’ discussions.

In addition, a huge range of events take place outside the conference hall: consultative sessions, fringe meetings and training. Questionnaire feedback indicates that at present people think we’re getting the balance broadly right.

Nevertheless, FCC remains concerned about the possibility that the systems we use for the submission of motions for debate make it too difficult for people to come up with good topics. There are a variety of measures we could take, including simplifying the motions timetable, and we’ve set them out in a short consultation paper.

The paper also asks some more general questions about why you think fewer people are submitting motions, and what – if anything – we should do about it. You can download the consultation paper from http://www.libdems.org.uk/conference/consultation.html; if you’d prefer a paper copy, write to Conference Office, Liberal Democrats, 4 Cowley Street, London SW1P 3NB, and we’ll put a copy in the post to you.

The deadline for responses is 10th May, to give the Committee enough time to discuss your thoughts and decide on actions before the autumn conference. Please take the time to let us know your views on this issue.

* Duncan Brack is Chair of the party’s Federal Conference Committee.

Editor’s note: please feel free to submit your comments in response to this article – I’m sure Duncan will be reading what you have to say. However, I know he’d be grateful if those who really want their views to be heard where it matters filled in the form.

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11 Comments

  • I think there has been plenty examples of policy debate on here especially around faith schools for example. I would love to submit a motion but am not even sure when my local party meets yet….

  • I agree with Laurence and would gladly submit a motion to sitmulate the debate if there was to be one..thats what I had in mind when I said there has been plenty of policy debate on these pages…

  • Andrew Duffield 2nd Apr '08 - 2:00pm

    I have submitted 3 successive motions on monetary reform, each of them adjusted in line with feedback from FCC, and each time they have been rejected – for increasingly spurious reasons. Forgive me for feeling somewhat disillusioned, but it does seem that if a motion is to get as far as the floor of Conference, it has to fit a pretty conventional bill.

    Perhaps I’ll have one last try at something outrageously radical with a motion to allow genuine local choice in revenue raising, rather than the prescriptive, misguided and utterly illiberal policy of LIT or nowt.

  • Gareth Epps 2nd Apr '08 - 3:17pm

    The Humanists & Secularists have submitted a motion on faith schools. It was not taken for Liverpool but there is some ongoing discussion on the matter.

  • Liam Pennington 2nd Apr '08 - 4:49pm

    I think the general perception has been “It’s a bit too difficult to submit a motion”, or “it’s not really for us to do it, that’s for bigger associations/groups”.

    Anything to widen the opportunity to submit notices should be welcomed. I think the on-line consultations and message boards could be really useful in helping smaller groups make a real go at submitting motions.

  • Duncan Brack 5th Apr '08 - 12:02pm

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. We are trying to focus on systemic barriers to the submission of motions, though, rather than identify specific topics for debates. Having said that, however, one thing that came out of FCC’s debrief meeting last Thursday is that in future we will try and highlight some particular issues on which we would then invite motions – we’ll list the issues in the Preliminary Agenda and invite motions in on them by the 9 July deadline. Of course, we’ll take motions in on other things too.

    As Gareth said, we have had motions submitted on faith schools, from more than one source. We’re trying to work out, together with FPC, when it makes best sense to debate the issue, given that we have the Schools policy paper scheduled for debate at spring 09. You can expect, though, a debate on faith schools at one of the next two conferences.

    Thanks in particular to Darrell’s and Liam’s comments on the mechanisms. As well as local parties, any ten elected conference reps can submit motions, and that’s the predominant way in which we get them, these days – so you’re not tied to a local party meeting schedule. Liam’s comments are just the kind of thing we’re thinking of – so keep some more thoughts coming!

    Duncan

  • Andrew Taylor 9th May '08 - 4:20pm

    Addressing the systemic problem of why motions are not forthcoming requires looking at the relationshup between the local and national activity that local parties do. It is understandable that local parties are focused on ‘the elephant in the room’, if they have an MP this will include national policies, if not local will be dominant.

    Members that are more interested in national matters that are in local parties which have no MP, are unable to produce original motions that will be supported as the issues are not of interest. I placed two before my party on Employment and have had a procedural wall delaying the chance for getting into conference this Autumn.

    I do not know if it is feasable but maybe there needs to be some outlet for members to go through an alternative to the Local Party to a Local Party without Local constraints to accomodate the free thinking. Direct motions to FOC and then looking for ‘sponsors’ via the website may help. As we are all hostage to our individual local party needs and priorities.

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