Making Liberal Democrat Policy – the Calderdale Solution

Flick through a Federal or Yorkshire Regional conference agenda these days and it’s likely that you’ll see Calderdale as the sponsor of several motions or amendments. This article shows how we’ve made that happen:

The short version for those who just want the how and not the why

  1. keep policy and admin totally separate,
  2. always involve people at every step of the way,
  3. have a definite aim to a definite deadline,
  4. have visible outcomes so people can see they are making a difference, and
  5. always make sure there is food/drink at every event.

The longer version: when I took over as chair of Calderdale one of my main frustrations was that most exec meetings went on for hours and hours and would get bogged down in policy arguments (as well as other off topic rambling discussions). It’s not that I don’t like policy arguments and rambling off topic discussions – I love them – it’s just that an exec meeting is not the time or place to be having them. Exec meetings should be about getting the boring admin stuff done and out of the way as quickly as possible.

When I mentioned this to him, Alisdair Calder McGregor recalled a solution that had been used in a couple of other local parties he’d been involved with, to greater or lesser effect: if you hive off policy to a policy working group then exec meetings go much better. So Calderdale’s policy working group was originally formed purely as a device to speed up exec meetingsWhat makes it so successful is a different story.

Find the people who are most passionate about policy to drive it forward

When setting up the policy working group we involved the members of the local party who were most passionate about policy (one example: James Baker, who was a bigwig civil liberties campaigner before he even joined the party) in deciding the terms of reference for the group (if you want a copy of the terms of reference, by the way, I will be happy to send them out to any party member who emails me).

It’s all a matter of timing

Secondly, timing is crucial. We have PWG group meetings about a week before all the deadlines for submitting motions, amendments, and emergency motions to regional and federal conferences. Then the elected chair of PWG (currently Ruth Coleman Taylor) has ample opportunity to submit things. We also do two big events that the whole local party is invited to at strategic points in the year to see if there is anything that the people who don’t usually turn up to PWG meetings want us to be pushing for.

Make it sound interesting

Thirdly, always give meetings and events a snappy title that pulls people in: for instance, our most recent big PWG event was “Taking control of Calderdale in Ten Years” (as an aside, non-PWG group events in Calderdale do this well too. We have a regular #libdempint event and also our council group leader Janet Battye runs a supper club – and these get titles like “The Liberal Approach to Immigration” which draws people in).

Show what you’ve achieved

Fourthly, having a visible effect so that people know that turning up to policy working group is worthwhile is also important. Anyone who has glanced at a federal conference agenda in the last two years, and seen the number of times the word “Calderdale” appears will know that we are very visible. Part of this is making sure that you have someone (or several someones) who can draft things correctly so that they don’t get immediately rejected by FPC. Another part is having someone (or several someones) who don’t do the drafting but are willing to proofread, slim down, and introduce corrections. But mostly you make yourself visible by being noisy and passionate about policy. We in Calderdale are very good at making noise disproportionate to our numbers.

An army marches on its stomach

Finally, and most crucially: always make provision for food and drink at every event, even if it’s just telling people to bring their own. If you don’t do this, people will get hungry and want to go home and eat instead of having discussions. Again, our formulae for this differ across the different styles of meeting. At big meetings it tends to be a Jacob’s Join; at the smaller ones whoever is hosting will cater, and may or may not ask for a contribution of funds. Or you can hold it in a place where food is available anyway – one of our local members runs a fish and chip shop and we sometimes have an event in the cafe part of it. Do bear in mind religious and other sensitivities when thinking of venues though – if you have a lot of Muslim members (and we have a few) pubs are best avoided for at least some events.

Is there anything we could do better, or that I would do differently? We could probably communicate more widely what we do to the troops on the ground and advertise ourselves better, but I think that all arms of and bodies within the party from the smallest branch to the loftiest federal body could do that, so I’m not going to feel too bad that we don’t manage to communicate by means other than email and text message when the next meeting will be.

Really though, if you want the one big secret (and well done for reading this far to get it): you need a minimum of two or three passionate and committed people who are willing to work hard and make things happen. I am very very lucky in Calderdale to have lots of them. Hopefully you can find them in your local party too.

Home page featured thumbnail picture of Calderdale College by AdamKR FLickr CCL

* Jennie Rigg is an award winning Liberal Democrat blogger who blogs at With a Melon? She was a member of the Liberal Democrats until September 2019.

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11 Comments

  • Ruth Bright 7th Nov '15 - 2:51pm

    Jennie Rigg is so wonderful. Other than “none shall be enslaved” etc what words could gladden a Liberal heart more than: “one of our members runs a fish and chip shop”?

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 7th Nov '15 - 4:21pm

    I have to say, Ruth, I agree with you on very many things, but I agree with your first sentence even more than usual:-).

  • It also helps to have policy geeks that know their specialist subject quite well – for example, James on civil liberties, or Alisdair on transport, or – and I hope I’m not trumping my own horn too much – myself on equality issues.

  • Nick Collins 7th Nov '15 - 6:50pm

    @ Sarah Noble. Does that mean that you’re more equal than the others?

  • *blush*

  • peter tyzack 8th Nov '15 - 3:45pm

    I like the idea(elsewhere) of having Regional Conference in June, agree a policy there in time to submit to Federal Conference. Being backed by a Region makes it far more powerful in terms of getting selected to the Autumn agenda.

  • yup, we love Jennie Rigg 🙂

  • As a Calderdale Lib Dem member, this made an interesting read If you want a debating society rather than a political party then I think the example of Calderdale LIb Dems are a good model to follow.

  • Ruth Bright 10th Nov '15 - 9:16am

    Hywel – it has to be said that a local party that debates policy is a big step up! It is amazing how apolitical some local parties are.

  • Jon, Phyllis, thank you *further blushing*

    Hywel: it’s a bit chicken and egg, really. You have to get people engaged in order to get them to go out and campaign. As you well know, people won’t campaign for something or someone they don’t believe in. But I agree that you have to have at least some campaign activity for people to know you’re there to engage with.

    IMHO separating policy and campaigns works because people who are interested in both can go to both but people who are only interested in one or the other don’t have to sit through the bit they’re not interested in.

    Peter: that idea specifically came about due to federal utterly ignoring the overwhelmingly passed views of Yorkshire region when it came to devolution. While Jon has a point that regional and national don’t always cross over, it tends to happen that when they do cross over the federal rides roughshod over the regional with nary a backward glance, which is very irritating.

    Oh and Jon, sorry for the FCC/FPC mixup. I do, of course, know the difference. I plead late night typing.

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