Everything you ever wanted to know about… Policy and the Parliamentary Party (part 1) – at the beginning was the word

A fortnight ago, the question was put to me, “How do you influence the Parliamentary Party?” At the time, I indicated that this was a very complex question – normally shorthand for “You don’t think that I’m going to touch that with a bargepole, do you?”. But not this time… So, how do Liberal Democrats make policy?

The sovereign policy-making body of the Party is the Federal Conference, and policy motions can be submitted by State Parties (England, Scotland and Wales), the regional parties in England, local parties, Specified Associated Organisations (e.g. Liberal Youth), any ten conference representatives or the Federal Policy Committee (FPC). In reality, it is the last four who are most active in terms of policy proposals.

Whilst most policy motions submitted are on quite specific issues, the FPC focuses on the big strategic issues, like the environment, or defence, commissioning serious policy papers from working groups who meet frequently, consult as they see fit, and eventually produce a document which, if approved by FPC, is put before a Federal Conference attached to a motion which touches upon highlights and issues of potential controversy.

So, how does an ordinary member influence the process? In truth, most local parties don’t discuss policy much – increasingly, the focus is on campaigning, but if you have an idea you want to promote, why not put it to a meeting of the local party? It might break up the usually quite dull Executive Committee meeting, and get a debate going. And if you can convince them, they might well be willing to submit it in the name of the local party, either directly to the Federal Conference or, more unusually, to the Regional Conference.

I think that that’s enough for this time, and next time, I’ll talk about FPC, who sits on it, how they get there, and how you can get to them…

Meanwhile, Federal Executive met on Monday, and amongst a packed agenda were two linked reports, both addressing issues of diversity amongst our Parliamentary candidates, the first (from soon to be Baroness Sal Brinton) commissioned by Federal Executive, the second (from Dinti Batstone) commissioned by the Federal Conference.

The discussion that ensued saw what I can only describe as an underhand attempt to subvert the will of Federal Conference by trying to insert quotas into the selection process again. Given that Conference has voted three times against mandatory quotas in five years, you’d think that Simon Hughes might have gotten the message by now…

And finally this week, news of a restructuring at Cowley Street. Hilary Stephenson becomes Director of Elections & Skills, taking additional responsibility for management of the English Candidates Office, Diversity and Training. The future structure of the Campaigns Team will be finalised now the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election is over – this naturally put such considerations on hold.

David Loxton becomes Director of Membership & Development and will take responsibility for membership, digital/data management, English Party liaison & service level agreements and will coordinate our legal responsibilities. David will lead on two key important interdepartmental projects in regional party growth and electoral data systems.

Nigel Bliss becomes Director of Finance & Resources, responsible for finance, purchasing, building administration, compliance, local party accounting and IT services.

Tim Snowball joined in December as Chief of Staff (HQ) and Political Secretary to the DPM to set up a new Office of the Chief Executive with wide ranging political management responsibilities as well as being the home for human resource management and the International Office.

The Chief Executive’s team now includes Matthew Hanney and Tom Smithard in their existing roles, and Kate Heywood, who will take increased responsibility for supporting the Party President and Leader

And, of course, as the world now knows, this week Helen Duffett has joined the Chief Executive’s team as Internal Communications Manager. This column offers its heartfelt congratulations to Helen, and will be on the phone shortly to arrange a meeting to discuss communications between the Federal Party and the English regions…

So, until next time…

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7 Comments

  • Darren Reynolds 20th Jan '11 - 3:24pm

    I’m not entirely convinced that influencing any Parliamentary Party is possible other than in the capacity of a citizen, via one’s own MP. Certainly, it would not be constitutional for a party to tell its MPs what to do under threat of sanction.

    But if it was constitutional to do so (and I can see an argument for making it so), then I think it is a shame that since entering government, party policy has become a less reliable indicator of the way Lib Dem MPs vote.

    Our party was noticeably the most reliable party for having MPs that voted in line with party policy (I’m sure someone could do the math…) It seems to me anecdotally that this is no longer the case, and all three parties are now similar in this regard. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t other reasons why Lib Dem MPs are better than others; just that this particular reason is no longer one of them.

  • I too would like to know what policy ‘does’ once Conference has determined it. How is the Manifesto formed? If we were in power, would party policy be government policy? Are MPs and MEPs obliged to follow it? What about councillors?

    Please tell us more about the gap – or bridges – between democratic Conference policy and actual implementation.

  • @Adam
    I think who ever draws up the manifesto has an incredibly tough job, they have to balance what we/conference the members want, with what’s needed and is relevant to the country whilst wording in an an eye catching and appealing manner whilst ensuring the whole thing is fully costed and perfectly implementable – not an easy job.
    I know you’re not suggesting it, but some of our members think our manifesto should just be made up on the conference policy motions from the last five years.

  • Paul Griffiths 20th Jan '11 - 7:41pm

    @Liberal Eye

    Your comment seems very cynical to me. It’s odd that you don’t mention that our manifesto policies should be (taken from) those agreed by Conference, or even that they should be in line with liberal philosophy. If mass popularity were indeed the only criterion, it would be hard to explain (for example) how our “earned path to citizenship” immigration policy made it into the manifesto.

  • “The discussion that ensued saw what I can only describe as an underhand attempt to subvert the will of Federal Conference by trying to insert quotas into the selection process again.”

    Now AREN’T WE SuRPRISED?

    The most under-represented minority in ‘target’ parliamentary candidates (and parliament) is single fathers with sole/major responsibility for young children. On a quote basis there should be plenty such people in parliament. Is there a single one? Has the Party given positive support to this group? They have far more in common with women with child responsibilities than the latter have with women who have no such responsibilities.

    If it doesn’t matter how good your actual candidate (or MP) is then quotas are fine for making the bureaucracy feel self-satisfied. They can tick the boxes. But name me one MP of any quality in Parliament who has succeeded because of ‘positive discrimination’ measures.

    The truth is that unless we make it attractive for sensible people to become parliamentary candidates, then we will not attract the best people to politics, let alone into candidacy. In order to have a faint chance of succeeding (whether or not people in the UK are generally agreeing with Nick) , outside of about 30-40 seats where there is anything like a sustainable support organisation, one has to be either fanatical/obsessive, have few outside interests or social networks away from politics or have a supportive (read exploited) partner or parent(s) like Dennis Thatcher.

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