Conference preview: consulting on the future, inequality and digital policy

This weekend’s Liberal Democrat conference in Sheffield starts on the Friday afternoon with three policy consultation sessions: Facing the Future, Information Technology and Intellectual Property and Inequality.

The Facing the Future policy working group is chaired by Norman Lamb MP and, as Norman explained on this site last autumn, is intended to set the party’s broad policy framework for the next few years. Having such a key party leadership figure chairing the group is good news as it raises the chances of the group’s deliberations and outcomes having an impact on what the Liberal Democrats in government subsequently do.

The big challenge for the group is to avoid the fate of previous similar broad policy reviews which generally have done a good job at the technical details of what policies need reviewing and in which order, but have tended to have either very muddled overall messages or messages that sink largely without trace. (It’s a time for Facing up to the Future of Challenge, Opportunity and Responsibility while Moving Ahead to Meet the Challenge, Make the Change a policy wonk might almost say.)

Norman LambThe success of this group is all the more important this time round as without a clear direction, the party’s policymaking processes are likely to get over-shadowed by the day-to-day decision making impetus from government – where the policy teams are coalition rather than Liberal Democrat teams.

Norman’s presence as chair of the group is therefore particularly welcome, and it’s the absence of a similar senior leadership figure from the chair of the other two groups that illustrates their main challenge.

The Information Technology and Intellectual Property group (chaired by Julian Huppert, and which I’m a member of) and the Inequality group (chaired by David Hall-Matthews) both need to get their own recommendations right. But almost as important is to have recommendations which Liberal Democrats in government then pay some attention to. In both cases, the more closely the policies are drawn up with regular discussion with those in government, the more likely they are to have an impact on what happens.

Take the example of the Inequality group, which amongst other issues looking at those of social mobility and how important, or not, overall levels of equality are. The consultation paper says both are “crucial” and that tackling the former “would not necessarily” lead to improvements in the latter. That, and the chairmanship of David Hall-Matthews, give a fairly strong clue as to the recommendations the group is likely to produce. The key test, however, will be the degree to which any such recommendations influence the words and actions of Liberal Democrat ministers, especially Nick Clegg whose emphasis has been very much on only the former.

In my experience, policy working groups are very open to the views of others in the party where they are clearly put and with some evidence or experience to substantiate them (not a hurdle all submissions pass, alas!). So although some of the bigger questions may be beyond the direct reach of individual party members, I’d strongly encourage people to take part in the consultation processes.

Liberal Democrat Spring Conference Agenda and Directory 2011

Further information about the Liberal Democrat federal conference is available in the Party Conference section on the main party website and the official Lib Dem conference Twitter account is @LibDemConf.

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