Federal Policy Committee Report – 29 March 2017

FPC’s meetings tend to be dominated by two things: consideration of consultation and policy papers, which are ultimately put to conference for discussion and debate; and trying to find ways to improve the process of policy-making and policy discussion within the party. Last Wednesday’s meeting featured both.

For the first hour or so of the meeting we discussed our responses to two of the consultation papers we published in February, on the 21st Century Economy, and on Education. The working groups which wrote the papers for us will take our comments, along with the many received from party members and made at the consultative sessions at York, into consideration when they write their policy papers for the FPC to consider in June or July. The final papers will then be submitted to the Bournemouth conference in September for debate.

The rest of the meeting was mainly devoted to process issues. FPC is keen to improve the opportunities for debating policy within the party. While plenty of policy debates take place at federal and state conferences, at the local party level it’s quite variable. Many local parties run popular and effective pizza and politics events (or their culinary equivalents), but in others their efforts may be entirely taken up with campaigning and fund-raising. We believe policy debate is good in itself: it improves members’ experience of involvement in the party (after all, it’s the reason many members joined) and their knowledge of what we stand for, and it improves input into the formal policy-making process which FPC oversees.

We discussed a range of possible actions, including improving access to existing policy through the party website, publishing ‘pocket guides’ to party policy and philosophy, helping to promote local party discussions (including learning from the successful Your Liberal Britain experience – http://liberalbritain.org), organising the ‘Festival of Ideas’ Tim Farron talked about in his leadership campaign (see http://www.markpack.org.uk/132763/exclusive-tim-farrons-festival-of-ideas/) and many more. We aim to implement these, as far as possible, over the next few years, and we’ll let you know, through these reports and through the policy-making section of the party website (http://www.libdems.org.uk/making_policy) what progress we’re making.

FPC also discussed which policy papers to commission for the autumn 2018 conference. That may seem a long way away, but if working groups are to do their job properly, including consulting within the party and hearing evidence from experts outside it, and writing a consultation paper and a full policy paper, they need close to a year; and of course it takes us several weeks to advertise for and recruit the group itself. We agreed to schedule three of the policy papers listed in the Agenda 2020 paper approved by conference last year: health and social care; climate change and the low-carbon economy; and taxation. In addition, and in response to various suggestions, we will produce a policy paper on race equality. We will shortly be advertising for the chairs of the working groups who will draft these papers, and we’ll recruit the full membership after the local elections in May. Watch this space. (Also see below for the current schedule of consultation and policy papers.)

FPC also decided to add one more paper to those we’ll be submitting to conference this year: on the party’s core policy stance, a ‘policy priorities’ paper. Normally we don’t produce papers like this until nearer the election, as part of the process of agreeing the manifesto, but we believe this will be valuable this autumn both because of the dramatic changes in the political scene since the 2015 election and because of the huge growth in party membership since then – more than half the party have joined since the last election, and we’d like to give them the chance to read and debate a paper that sums up the Liberal Democrat position.

We also discussed a series of policy issues which we think need further development but don’t warrant a full policy paper, such as land use planning or democracy at work; we aim to work with our parliamentary spokespeople and our LGA group to produce a series of conference motions and short papers to flesh out these issues. And on top of all that, we had a quick look at the party vision document produced by the Your Liberal Britain group, discussed a paper developing the party’s position on the rights of EU citizens after Brexit, and reviewed what happened at the York conference. It was a pretty full meeting!

Current schedule of consultation and policy papers

September 2017 conference – Policy papers: Britain in the World; Education; Rural Affairs; 21st Century Economy; Policy Priorities. Consultation papers: Immigration and Identity; Power to People and Communities.

March 2018 conference – Policy papers: Immigration and Identity; Power to People and Communities. Consultation papers: Climate Change and the Low-Carbon Economy; Health and Social Care; Race Equality; Taxation.

September 2018 conference – Policy papers: Climate Change and the Low-Carbon Economy; Health and Social Care; Race Equality; Taxation. Consultation papers: still to be decided.

* Duncan Brack is the Editor of the Journal of Liberal History and former Vice Chair of the Federal Policy Committee.

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8 Comments

  • Sue Sutherland 3rd Apr '17 - 1:00pm

    I am concerned that most of these policy papers involve potential increases in expenditure if they are truly to represent the changes we would make to bring about a Lib Dem society. The next GE could well be about remaining in the EU or not and we would need policies to show how we would help people on low incomes if we are to make the gains we need and maybe reverse Brexit. That would offer people a real choice.
    So, I think we need to establish whether or not we still support austerity before we get into detailed policy. If we still support austerity our policy options are limited to fiddling around at the edges. If we don’t and can find another way, we can produce some truly inspirational policies to tackle the issues of inequality.

  • Gordon Lishman 4th Apr '17 - 10:54am

    I would add a further important reason for promoting policy debate to Duncan’s list: if people discuss and argue about policy, they become better able to argue our case to other people. Learning policies (as we ask potential parliamentary candidates to do) enables them to parrot the party line. Engaging in debate enables them to think about policy in the real-life context of trying to convince people about what we’ve got to say.
    This suggests that local party events should be in the form of debates rather than just speaker and questions or organised as discussion seminars. Dick Newby said recently that he had found this style much more involving than a simple speaker meeting.
    Reading political memoirs and biographies, it’s very noticeable that effective politicians learned their trade this way, whether in university debates, unions or working-mens’ groups, women’s organisations and so on.
    I suggest that the FPC thinks about how to promote debates by providing the background ideas and tools.

  • Duncan Brack 4th Apr '17 - 5:12pm

    Sue, you make fair points, except that I don’t think ‘austerity’ is a binary choice. In reality there is a wide range of options involving decisions over spending and taxation across every government department. Policy papers on individual topics can’t make these kind of choices – they have to be made together, which is why we will set them out in full in the election manifesto. And in between elections, the party has its parliamentary spokespeople to put its case on economic policy. Read Susan Kramer’s speech to the York conference and you will see a pretty clear rejection of the government’s current approach

    Thanks, Gordon – good point, I agree.

  • Christina jones 4th Apr '17 - 7:11pm

    In the new rapidly changing political environment, I do feel that a way needs to be found to get things turned around faster than 18 months on. I appreciate there are many difficulties in this (probably more than I imagine, but more than a year to get something to conference? Everything may have completely changed again by then!

  • Duncan Brack 5th Apr '17 - 12:09pm

    Michael – apologies, yes, you should have been contacted. It will happen today.

    Christina – the policy paper process aims to allow the party to debate and agree detailed and comprehensive policies on particular topics from which we construct the election manifesto and which underlie our approach in Parliament, the public etc. They need to take time to do a decent job, including consulting widely within the party and outside and allowing time for debate at conference. They are not intended to provide opportunities for rapid responses to political circumstances which change day to day – that’s what our parliamentary spokespeople do. And remember that any policy motion passed by conference becomes the policy of the party; it’s not just policy papers.

  • Katharine Pindar 6th Apr '17 - 1:32am

    This is very clear and informative, thank you Duncan. It is good to know both the methods and the topics, and how we can all be involved in policy discussion beyond taking part in the conference discussion sessions, which not everyone can be lucky enough to be able to attend fully.
    One thing I am not clear about, however. Is there a full report on the policies passed at each conference available through the party website shortly after each one? What is the timing aimed at there? And could there be, or perhaps there already are, hard copies to be purchased of the policies passed? I find myself constantly referring back to some of the useful documents, the policy and consultation papers, I received as hard copies before each of the recent conferences, but I also want to have to hand the final results, the policies we passed. Ready access to the newly agreed policies is also important to sympathisers inquiring via LDV , so I hope the website is welcoming and not only for members. And as to referring to speeches given at a conference, how does one access any of them?

  • Jeremy Hargreaves 4th May '17 - 9:53am

    Katharine – good question. The policy motions and policy papers proposed are here: http://www.libdems.org.uk/spring-conference-2017-agenda and here: http://www.libdems.org.uk/spring-conference-2017-policypapers

    The papers at http://www.libdems.org.uk/spring-conference-2017-additional then report back what was passed. In general, policy motions are passed, with some relatively small amendments – but this gives details.

    This is all not as clear as it could be! Improving this is one of the things we discussed how to do, and a couple of FPC members in particular have been pushing for exactly what you’ve asked for. Clearly nothing is going to happen on it during the General Election, but I hope we should have a clearer system in place for autumn conference and thereafter.

    (I am one of of the other FPC vice chairs).

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