Everything you ever wanted to know about… Policy and the Parliamentary Party (part 3)

In the first two parts of this mini-series, I looked at how policy is made, and how its creation is managed. Today, I want to look at its failings, the implications of those failings, and how future policy making might be shaped.

As a party of perpetual opposition, our inclusive but often ponderous policy-making regime allowed members to influence core policy, in the knowledge that it would be a means of attacking the Government, but was unlikely to be applied. Occasionally, that led to somewhat populist ideas being espoused but, if a Government did something in a field where our policy was obsolete, or overtaken by events, our spokespeople had a set of principles to fall back on.

Such an arrangement worked, for the most part, especially in small Parliamentary Parties. However, its weaknesses became more apparent as Labour’s mania for legislation produced a plethora of technical changes in need of detailed scrutiny. In such instances, the Party relied to a great extent on the Parliamentary Party in the Lords to argue the detail, propose the amendments, and hopefully influence ministers.

Bearing in mind that the Party in the Lords has always been relatively poorly resourced, and is reliant on the goodwill of Peers, many of whom, until recently, were of retirement age or above, this was always likely to present difficulties. Add to that the tendency of members, activists and policy wonks to rather overlook the Lords as a means of influencing policy, and it becomes likely that opportunities were lost.

And yet it was in the Lords that the future of member involvement in short notice policy making emerged. The Digital Economy Bill saw two Party spokespersons struggling to amend some rather authoritarian legislation, but doing so in a way which left many Liberal Democrat IT professionals and experts deeply dissatisfied. Using e-mail and social media, new Party policy was rapidly drafted, submitted for debate at Federal Conference, and passed.

With the advent of the Coalition, the need to find new ways to allow members to make their views known to Ministers and spokespeople has become more urgent. Whilst the Coalition Agreement has the endorsement of members via the Special Conference held in Birmingham last May, what happens after 2012 remains unclear. In that light, Danny Alexander’s announcement in the recent all-member Liberal Democrat News of a policy review, using the vehicle of a strategy paper to be debated in September takes on huge importance.

There is, to my mind, a problem with this way of approaching the question. Firstly, the nature of coalition means that policy making needs to take place with much greater knowledge of what our coalition partners are thinking, in this instance made more difficult by the rather closed process of policy development favoured by the Conservative Party. Secondly, it fails to address the issue of responsive government, i.e. what happens if an un-planned-for event occurs, and a legislative response is required.

So, what might be done? Firstly, we need to strengthen the relationship between the Specified Associated Organisations, such as Liberal Youth, and the Associated Organisations, and the Parliamentary Parties. Clear channels of communication with our Ministers need to be maintained, managed and made accessible to Party members. Technology is our friend here, and with the platform for debate that is Liberal Democrat Voice, an issue of concern can be debated quickly, and groups can be formed on an ad hoc basis to gather responses and transmit them onwards.

The Federal Policy Committee is a vital conduit for raising policy concerns. Find out if there is someone on it who can champion your issue and e-mail them, don’t just assume that they are on top of everything. If an FPC member gets twenty, or thirty, or fifty e-mails calling for something, it strengthens their argument for action if they can call these in support.

The East of England Regional Party has established a twice-yearly meeting between its Parliamentarians and key local activists, councillors and candidates, where issues can be raised, explanations given, and concerns aired. The first of these, rather fortuitously perhaps, took place before the vote on tuition fees, and the feelings expressed certainly made an impression on the MPs present. Whilst the timings may not be as convenient in future, such meetings will at least connect our Parliamentarians to the membership.

And finally, don’t forget the Lords. The scope for influencing Government policy is perhaps greater there, with no guillotine on debates, and a generally more thoughtful scrutinising function. During the debate on tuition fees, all of the attention, and lobbying was focused on the Commons, and Peers were left largely undisturbed, even though they voted on the Bill after the Commons had done so. A well-argued, well-researched and well-referenced submission will generally draw itself to their attention.

Hopefully, members will take the opportunity to make a positive contribution to the development of Liberal Democrat policy. But we all need to be proactive, rather than bemoaning our lack of influence, and constructive, rather than just demanding that the Government not do something we don’t like…

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