Keeping Party policy fresh, relevant… and ours

Yesterday, I outlined some of the issues that impact on how we make policy as Liberal Democrats, and some very interesting comments came from that, for which I am grateful. Today, here are some thoughts of my own, which build on those comments and on my own thinking…

Whilst Federal Policy Committee has been attempting to reconcile the variety of tasks to be addressed, the Party has seen the emergence of a number of ginger groups. Added to the long-established, but increasingly dormant, Liberal Vision, which appears not to have developed much beyond being a small group of libertarians with a rather limited agenda, and the Social Liberal Forum, which is organised and a now widely respected voice of the so-called left wing of the Party (so-called because left and right don’t always work terribly well in the Liberal Democrats), we now see Liberal Left and Liberal Reform.

There is a problem with all of these new and emerging strands of liberal thinking, in that they are all operating in isolation from, but in competition with, each other. And the field upon which they must inevitably compete is the Federal Conference, refereed by the Federal Policy and Conference Committees, some of whom are players and arbiters. I freely admit that, knowing many of the people involved, I worry less about a potential conflict of interest than I might, but the risk does exist.

And is Federal Conference really the best place to thrash out policy anyway? Yes, if Conference is to remain sovereign, as I believe it should, policy must be settled upon there, with scope to amend or reject, but where is the space for policies to be initiated, argued, fine-tuned and justified at length? And how can ordinary members actively engage, regardless of who, and very importantly, where they are?

Two solutions offer themselves, neither of which should be terribly resource hungry.

Firstly, there is no reason why Federal Policy Committee could not set up permanent policy working groups, tasked with monitoring specific policy areas, headed by a member of Federal Policy Committee and including the members of the Parliamentary Backbench Committees. By operating online, within a secure member-only forum, ideas could be put forward and discussed, with the best emerging for debate at Conference. They would also allow our Parliamentarians access to the expertise and knowledge of our members and activists, the various ginger groups and the think tanks. You could call them policy circles, if you wish, using the power of the internet to improve the flexibility of our responses as a Party to the policy debate. I’d like to think of them as kaffeeklatsch, an opportunity to philosophically ‘gather to drink coffee and informally exchange ideas’.

The second idea is a slightly more open one, providing a window for non-Party members to engage should they wish. Liberal Democrat Voice already acts as a window onto the Party but, as it has no formal place within the Party structure, it could become a means to express new ideas or to initiate debate, and a source of potential cross-fertilisation from other political parties, thinktanks and lobby groups.

Both of these ideas would offer a potential escape from the malaise that afflicts governing parties, in that once the ideas in a manifesto are applied or rejected, politicians are often too busy managing their empires to be able to think in depth about what to do next. At that point, senior civil servants and the minister’s inner circle become the main source of policy making, not a scenario that, as Liberal Democrats, we should welcome.

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This entry was posted in News, Op-eds and Party policy and internal matters.


  • Maria was at the same consultation session as me when we talked about the need for the party to do an ‘audit’ of the expertise and experience within the membership. Though my observation, following the revelations of cash for influence in other parties: – we already have direct input to our MPs and Ministers within the structures of our party (without having to pay £25k), things said as suggestions to Danny and Norman at that session are now being put into practice. Mark’s suggestions here would add to what we already have, by ensuring that every member can be more involved.. so lets go for it.

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