“Ignore us at your peril!” – Linda Jack reports back on the Lib Dems’ first post-coalition Federal Policy Committee

The Lib Dems’ Federal Policy Committee (FPC) operates under the Chatham House Rule: you can repeat what was said, but not who said it. But often what happens at FPC goes completely unreported.

In some cases this is understandable, people throwing their toys out of the pram isn’t something we really want to report (oh not that often, honest!), and sometimes it is just because we are discussing issues (such as the manifesto) that we quite rightly want to keep under wraps until it is launched.

But someone (who of course will remain nameless) made the point at last week’s FPC that while we are very good in calling for accountability – and, therefore, against an elite that is divorced from the party and our democratic decision making processes – we could also be accused of being elitist. How and when are we accountable to those of you who elected us, except when we stand for re-election every two years?

I have occasionally reported back on FPC, though not regularly. But having been thinking about it all week I feel that I should. It may also make sense to have “official” reports in Liberal Democrat News and on Liberal Democrat Voice, augmented by the views of FPC members through their blogs (and many of us have them). This becomes even more important given the brave new world we are all – whether we like it or not – now part of. As we call for greater transparency and honesty in politics in general, we need to look internally in particular and consider ways to more effectively communicate with the membership about the decisions we are making on your behalf.

Last week was the first meeting post-election, the first sadly, without Evan Harris (really missed you Evan!). It was an opportunity for members to vent their spleen – if they had any spleen left to vent – about the coalition arrangements and the implications they have for policy-making within the party.

We learned, unsurprisingly, that Nick is standing down as chair – this means the parliamentary party will have to elect a successor. Whoever that is, I hope they will be senior enough to reassure us and the wider party, that the leadership still takes the democratic processes within our party seriously. This is essential given the apparent horse-trading that went on with the Tories, in which certain folk were able to drop policies they never supported anyway and advance those the party had rejected but which appealed to them (Trident, school academies, ‘Free Schools’, tutition fees, to name but a few). And we have to be concerned about the apparent rolling back on CGT.

My personal preference is that the new chair of FPC should be the deputy leader, but whoever it is, it is essential that they are able to hear first-hand from the grassroots. As I pointed out, if we become too remote from our representatives in government the cracks will start to appear – and cracks can easily become chasms. Nearly everyone shares the same concern, that unless FPC stays firm on both declaring and developing policy that is distinctively Liberal Democrat, there is a very real danger that we will just be gobbled up by the Tories – and history isn’t really on our side in this respect. So the message to our Deputy Prime Minister and our government ministers is clear: ignore us at your peril!

There was a good deal of consensus around the table, a mixture of anticipation and delight that we were in government – tempered with very real anxieties about what this means for the future of the party. I was not quite alone in being against the coalition, but I think most agreed that in some ways it was more important than ever that we continued to challenge on some of the key issues, if only to give the leadership some support in arguing against some of the more rightwing instincts of Tory policy and in favour of ours.

An idea that maybe FPC in its current form would not survive was given short shrift although some consideration was given to the fact that while our policy-making process was robust (apparently this was a very important point in the negotiations with the Tories), it is also cumbersome and long winded. With the sadly imminent redundancies at Lib Dem HQ in Cowley Street there will also not be the support we have always had in the past. So we are considering some sort of portfolio policy panels, drawing on expertise within the party and without, and forming more alliances with those groups with whom we have shared values.

Those policy working groups already in the pipeline will continue, although the localism one will just come to conference with a set of principles for the moment. I was delighted that Youth Justice will be on the agenda – this will be one policy where we can demonstrate the clear blue water between us and the Tories. And that for me is what we must continue to do, with aplomb, if we are not to fall victim to that old questioning mantra “What are the Lib Dems for?”

We were also agreed that FPC must take more of a role in scrutinising coalition policy as well as feeding ideas in to the Cabinet. It will be vital to keep the link with ministers and ensure that they attend FPC at least occasionally. We had a mini-debate around whether we should include ministerial Q&As at conference and whether, as at the special Birmingham conference in May, we should exclude the media. This was another idea that met with short shrift – the new politics after all is all about “transparency”. So let’s hope these go ahead and will be another vehicle for us to clearly demonstrate what differentiates us from the Tories.

So, I for one left the meeting feeling a little more hopeful and a little less anxious ………… only a little but!

* Linda Jack was the Lib Dem parliamentary candidate in Mid-Bedfordshire at the last election, is a member of the party’s Federal Policy Committee, and blogs at Lindyloos Muze.

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26 Comments

  • One thing I feel strongly about is that this coalition government – no matter how it galls many Lib Dems – NEEDS to implement some clearly non-Lib Dem policies, for our own good, because we *need* things where we can differ from the Tories on quite clearly.

  • Grammar Police 15th Jun '10 - 10:44am

    I think this is something we need to be able to do – is to say where we disagree with the coalition government. We need to find a mechanism whereby our ministers can do this, because our ministers comprise a lot of our senior MPs/Lords who could lose out through the apparent operation of cabinet responsibility. We need to find a way that Nick, Vince, Chris can say, “I argued against this in cabinet, but lost the vote” – and the wider party needs to be able to publicise this.

  • Grammar police – the problem with collective cabinet responsibility is that Cabinet Ministers can’t say “I voted against this, but lost” in public – but I do think that there needs to be some sort of mechanism whereby this message can be got to members in an implied way – this is maybe where the Deputy Leader (and, presumably, the Chairman of the 1922 Committee on the Tory side) can come in. I like the idea of a “ministerial Q&A” session at Conference – putting it in front of camera won’t stop our activists asking unhelpful questions!

    I do think, though, that we need to bear in mind we are in Government (like it or not) so developing policy takes on new, greater implications than before.

  • Grammar Police 15th Jun '10 - 11:06am

    Collective Cabinet responsibility is only a convention. Conventions can be ignored/changed. Ministers can and do say what they like – this is the new politics after all. We shouldn’t be so deferential that we rule out abandoning conventions that are not to our advantage unless there is a real legitimate reason to keep them. With single-party government Cabinet responsibility is akin to whipping IMO.

    I agree there should be a proper mechanism for this and this could/should have been agreed in the Coalition agreement (perhaps the LD negotiators tried to – the Tories will be keen on Cabinet responsibility I would imagine.

  • Grammar Police 15th Jun '10 - 11:07am

    Oh, and I’m less worried about members knowing where the Lib Dems disagree over Government action and *the public* knowing. The Tories (and Labour) will try to hold us jointly responsible for all unpopular Government decisions.

  • What part of ‘being in Government’ is escaping the die-hard ‘progressive’ wing of the Party ?
    Grow Up. FINALLY.
    No. You cannot have LibDem ministers wearing two hats as it might be convenient to you. They MUST support Coalition Policy unless given a pre-existing ‘get out of jail free card’. If they refuse then they must in conscience resign from the Cabinet. While the Coalition exists there is not a Tory Policy and a LibDem Policy, there is only a Coalition Policy. ON AGREED UPON AREAS. You don’t get a ‘wink-wink, nudge-nudge’ was to have your cake and eat it as well. You just don’t.

    Now you can indeed, turn a facet of the Party into the LibDem equivalent of the Tory ‘right’ should you wish, but I think the general Public pretty much detests the Tory ‘right’, and will pretty much equally detest the LibDem ‘left’ should it become tendentious,obstreperous and ANNOYING . But if this is how you want to be perceived —- Go For It.
    Just remember that every action now has a very clear cost attached to it. Those actions that serve to make the whole Party appear ‘non-credible’,’un-serious’ , and fractured, will impact the Party a lot more adversely in the future than any temporary electoral retrenchments.

  • Andrew Suffield 15th Jun '10 - 12:27pm

    So, how do we actually go about getting new policies implemented? A lot of people have been deploring the lack of any real IT policy, an IT policy working group, or any reasonable front bench presence on the subject. Several members of the FPC have also commented on this and said it needed addressing. What will it take to get things to happen?

  • toryboysnevergrowup 15th Jun '10 - 1:02pm

    @KL

    “but I do think that there needs to be some sort of mechanism whereby this message can be got to members in an implied way ”

    There is a mechanism – it’s called resignation. Do you seriously believe that any coherent government is capable of talking with multiple voices.

    As for getting the message to “members in an implied way” is this what is meant when LibDems talk about open goverment? Or is it just what LibDems see as one of the trappings that go along with power.

    @Grammar Police

    Not only will Labour try and hold you responsible for all the unpopular acts of the Government – but you will be responsible. Responsibility goes with power – get it or get out now.

  • @Dougf, this isn’t the case. Difference of opinion, and the expression of that difference is key to our society and should be to our government. I disagree with nuclear weapons, but I am not going to claim the proportion of my tax back that was spent on their development. Likewise, the Liberal Democrats continue to oppose academies (at least in their current set-up) but accept the concession in coalition. It is the very basis of democracy.

    Here is a quote from Mill: “The claims of an opinion to be protected from public attack are rested not so much on its truth, as on its importance to society.”

    But truth is more important – so Nick Clegg should feel free to speak out over differences; a more honest and open cabinet might do us all some good. It would be dishonest of Clegg not to express a difference of opinion as he did (accidentally) over the Welsh devolution vote…

    @Gammar Police – I agree wholeheartedly. I think this was Simon Hughes’s plan and with shadow ministers we will be able to maintain the distinction quite easily.

  • Grammar Police 15th Jun '10 - 2:12pm

    @ toryboysnevergrowup – I think you’d be right if Lib Dem MPs vote for something/fail to argue against something – then they are responsible for it.

    Collective responsibilty is a convention that arose out of the disputes between Monarch and MPs in the 17th-19th centuries. IMO it’s most useful modern role is to encourage free and frank debate at cabinet level, but it is much wider than that, and binding in relation to decisions taken at a much lower level than cabinet itself. Clearly it has a useful political role in single party government, as it allows the Government to speak with one voice, which is good for that party.

    It is entirely possible for the Government to reach “agreements to differ” (as we have in relation to tuition fees, tax exemptions for married couples and speaking rights against nuclear power). I would have liked to have seen these go wider – but can quite understand why Cameron would never have agreed.

    Clearly our political opponents from both left and right are keen on fully enforcing collective Cabinet responsibility, that way we can be lumbered with/blamed for decisions that we don’t agree with. For them it’s an entirely tribal position. They’re also trying to ensure that politics is “two party” in the public’s mind – because it suits both their agendas.

    I also think the Coalition itself is more likely to last if there are some formal ways to let off steam. Conventions change over time, and this is supposed to be the new politics. I would have liked to see us with time-tabled questions at PMQs (and why not Nick for heaven’s sake?), for example.

  • I agree with Doug that the coalition cannot work if our ministers voice their disagreements at every turn, that’d be hypocritical for a start.

    that’s not to say that we as a party can’t make noise on things we disagree about.
    Also ministers should be able to publicly voice critics on issues that are not covered by the coalition agreement… positive criticism though.

  • “I agree with Doug that the coalition cannot work if our ministers voice their disagreements at every turn, that’d be hypocritical for a start.
    That’s not to say that we as a party can’t make noise on things we disagree about.
    Also ministers should be able to publicly voice critics on issues that are not covered by the coalition agreement… positive criticism though.”—Sandra F.

    Sandra might I say that you have a great grasp of the situation in play, and not only (but really mostly) because you agree with ME. 🙂

    I can see no problem at all with your ideas on how the LibDem Cabinet can play a real role in establishing the LibDems as a real partner in the Government. And especially this —- ‘Positive Criticism Though’. As you say there is criticism and then there is CRITICISM. One of these things is NOT Coalition Friendly, and a grown up Party that really wants to have an impact on things, understands that.
    Again, nice to read your fine comments.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 15th Jun '10 - 10:10pm

    @Grammar Police

    “I think you’d be right if Lib Dem MPs vote for something/fail to argue against something – then they are responsible for it.” But you have voted for something/failed to argue against something – i.e a Government headed by Cameron which will be locked in by the undemocratic 55% rule. And I don’t think the markets ort anyone else will want a Government that is bickering and has no clear sense of direction. Although the LibDems have opted out in a very limited number of areas, you will still have to accept collective responsibility for the result of the Commons vote and responsibility for its implementation. Neither markets/contractors will accept a position where part of the government does not accept reponsibility for its actions. Do you really think that Huhne will not sign the orders for more nuclear plants if he loses the vote – and then be able to turn around and say nothing to do with me Guv.

    One other benefit of collective responsibility is that allows a clear link between power and responsibility -of course such a link has never been very popular within your tribe.

    “that way we can be lumbered with/blamed for decisions that we don’t agree with” – did it ever cross your mind that this occurs within all political parties that are in power, if you don’t like the heat then yos should never have gone into the kitchen. All parties in power end up doing things that some of theri members don’t like – and even if you don’t agree the poor old voter on the doorstep will think that you had rather more say in the matter than they did , and they will hold you responsible. Try and tell them it is the “new politics” !

    All this demonstrates to me how thorough undemocratic post election coalitions are – and how parties should make clear their intentions re coalitions before each election, so that the electorate can form their own view. Those with a knowledge of electoral systems where coalitions are more usual will now that electorates in those countries usually share the same view.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 15th Jun '10 - 10:13pm

    One thing that does surprise me is how undeveloped LibDems views appear to be with regard to how coalition government should work in practice. It isn’t as though you were ever going to come to power by any other means and haven’t had rather a long time to think about such matters, is it??

  • Collective cabinet responsibility means not rocking the boat. For example, if we go to war, a Minister cannot publicly oppose the war and not resign, because he/she would be undermining the Cabinet decision.

    But it often isn’t like that. For example, Huhne could approve nuclear plants, while making it clear that he would not have done so if he had had the full freedom to make his own decision. Why should that undermine the Cabinet? Cameron might even find Lib Dem independence useful (along the lines of “don’t you electricity people dare give me any grief about nuclear safety, or else those pesky Lib Dems will act up!”)

    Tories won’t get intimidated out of speaking up for their own party’s policies. Nor should we.

  • Very important that the FPC is seen to be supporting the Coalition and our Ministers. The whole tone of this blog is that you regret the Coalition. If that is the case given the overwhelming support at the Special Conference you should not be on the FPC.
    That doesn’t mean of course that we don’t need a robust policy formation process, but that needs to be informaed by the reality that we actually will get some of our policies implemented.
    The time for gesture politics is past.

    ps why isnt the FPC elected by a ballot of members?

  • Anthony Aloysius St 16th Jun '10 - 9:10am

    “If that is the case given the overwhelming support at the Special Conference you should not be on the FPC.”

    I saw Goody Jack with the Devil!

  • Liberal Eye 17th Jun '10 - 6:05pm

    Thanks for this report back.

    I have long been of the view that the policy-making process needs to be revamped to preserve its many good points while making it sharper. As others have said senior figures in government are necessarily constrained in what they can say or do so there is now an additional need to reimagine how the FPC works.

    I have to say that there is something in the view that the FPC could be accused of being elitist. I would say that it is even more insider-ist and thus somewhat incestuous and that this is a problem. Robust it may be but, as you say, also cumbersome and long winded to the point it reminds me of an elephant dancing. Yet one of the few competitive advantages arising from being a smaller party ought to be a more nimble organisation – exactly what we don’t have. I suggest that the FPC should maintain exactly its current constitutional role but reinvent itself in two key ways.

    Firstly, it should be far more strategic in setting goals for thinking collectively about important issues – which are not necessarily what is bothering the tabloids. It involves understanding what is happening in the country, what is going wrong, what is going right, what the constraints are and so on. Get the thinking straight and policy will then emerge relatively straightforwardly. This would be a sharp break from the Rennardian view that efforts should be focussed mainly on top voter concerns as discovered by opinion polls. ( I am aware that this is a bit of a caricature, but at root I think it’s about right).

    For example, it’s long been clear that the Party has an unacknowledged difficulty with the EU. On the one hand we all agree that there is a long-standing and severe democratic deficit, on the other hand we all completely supportive of the EU establishment (allegedly). This is a major crack in the foundations. It may not matter much to the average voter but it certainly matters to a lot of potential supporters, it has been rated at a major reason that members resign and it’s already lead to a split in the Parliamentary party under Clegg. Is is beyond us to find an approach that resolves this contradiction? Certainly not, but we will only find it when there is an organised search supported in its aims from the very top of the Party. That is what I mean by ‘strategic’ goal setting.

    For another example it follows from VInce Cables warnings about unsustainable debt growth that there would soon come a time when spending had to be cut back severely. Yet it is only now that the fateful moment has arrived that we are seriously thinking and debating publically about how to actually make those cuts. Not clever.

    The second thing I would like to see is essentially a mechanism. The Party owes its structure – including the FPC – to negotiations at the time of the merger over 20 years ago which was before the Internet age. Difficult communications meant that policy-making was necessarily a metropolitan activity and even running the simplest of (dead tree) newsletters was a major undertaking – I know, I tried.

    The FPC must now undate its approach to reflect what is now technically possible via the Internet which means that it it is no longer constrained to be metropolitan, can cast the net for talent far wider and be inclusive and consultative in a way that even the most open Policy Working Group or the best Conference session can be.

    Roughly speaking that means a dedicated blog organised thematically to group together contributions on each subject. Operationally it should be run, like LDV, by a group of activists which would make it arms-length and would provide necessary deniability.

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