Our ministers can’t always follow party policy

The issue of tuition fees has raised a more general challenge the party needs to get its head round. This one’s been bubbling away quietly since the Lib Dems entered the Coalition and we seem no closer to an answer now than we were then.

Are our Government ministers bound by party policy?

When one of our ministers is formulating what the UK Government should do on a specific issue, or setting out the Lib Dem bargaining position to get the best final deal, how far should that minister be reaching for a party policy document rather than using their own judgement?

We pride ourselves on being a democratic party. Nick is proud of leading that democratic party, with all the challenges that brings. If that democracy doesn’t mean that policy passed by members is fought for by the parliamentary party then what’s the point?

But that’s far from the whole story.

The party has lots of policy going back quite a few years. At the very least we must ask our parliamentarians to judge whether, due to changing circumstances, that policy is still right. Our IT policy dates from the best part of a decade ago, and formulation of an update is in progress. I hope we wouldn’t get too upset about a minister using her judgement to take the government away from that old policy if she thought it was right to do so.

And what of the role of ministers. Are they there as ciphers for party policy, or to use their own best judgement given the information put in front of them?

Party policy has been pushed very successfully, first by the negotiating team when the Coalition was being formed and then by ministers. As a result, a long list of policies debated and voted for by members on the conference floor are now – for the first time – really happening. We musn’t forget that – it’s a great achievement and one we should be proud of.

There are other cases where our policy has been negotiated away. That’s OK. We didn’t win the General Election, we have 57 MPs. Our negotiators did a good job and most people understand that to get as much of our policy as we did into the Coalition Agreement was a real success.

But what of the third case? What of the case – of which tuition fees is an example – where a Lib Dem minister looks at the facts and forms an honest and considered view that it would be wrong for the country to follow party policy on a particular issue at a particular tiime?

Do we demand they stick to the party line? Or do we say that a minister is there to use their judgement and, where that clashes with party policy, so be it?

The approach so far by our ministers has been a pragmatic one. They’ve started from a working assumption to go with policy (or the Coalition Agreement where it covers an area) but not been bound by it.

The tuition fees case is the first time that’s led to a significant clash with party activists. Our minister, Vince in this case, has looked at the facts and – clearly – has a genuine belief that to stick to Lib Dem party policy would be wrong for the country. Nothing in the Coalition Agreement made him do it.

What’s the solution?

Any formal process is doomed to failure. Government is government. It would be nice to think that some party mechanism could be put in place, perhaps where ministers came and asked the Federal Policy Committee to be released from a policy pledge. It won’t work; nor will any other process that has the potential to stop a Government minister doing their job.

Is there an alternative?

Yes. It’s far from perfect and it’s messy but it can move us forwards.

First, communication. Where a minister wants to veer away from party policy, especially on a high profile issue, they need to talk – and to listen. To their parliamentary colleagues, to Federal Policy Committee, to party activists and members. Sorry, I know it means more work, but that’s the price. Ministers have been pretty good at talking to fellow MPs so far, but perhaps not so strong when it comes to FPC and the rest of us.

From the party side, we need to appreciate two things. First, this will happen from time to time. Second, there will be occasions when it will be the right thing to have done. Party policy is not perfect and there will be occasions when a minister, with the benefit of hindsight, is absolutely right to step away from it. (Whether tuition fees such a case I don’t know, and there’s the whole separate issue of the pledge our MPs gave too).

To the party leadership, I say that you are rightly proud of leading a democratic party able to set policy and hold you to account. That democracy can be a huge strength, but there is a flip side. Work with the party, not against it.

To members, I say we need to accept that there are – must be – limitations to party democracy, especially when we’re in Government. The alternative simply won’t work. Now is the time to engage constructively with the leadership and reach a shared understanding of how this process can operate for the good of the party and the country.

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38 Comments

  • sensible piece, as usual from Iain. However, unlikely to be received well by those who have invested all their emotions in this, as opposed to their minds.

  • Richard Morris 18th Oct '10 - 8:33am

    As a non philosopher can I point out that there’s a difference between thinking on your feet about whether a 10 year old IT policy might need tightening up, and reneging on a manifesto pledge made 5 months ago which you then chose to publicise by signing a pledge to honour it.

  • David Matthewman 18th Oct '10 - 9:04am

    I am, with reservations, OK with the parliamentary party going against some party policy, although there are certainly some party policies that I would not be OK with them going against (my so-called ‘red line’ issues of which the Browne Report is not, for the record, one of mine, although I disagree with it).

    However, the situation with tuition fees is exacerbated by both the NUS pledges most MPs signed and the unequivocal messages of opposition to raising tuition fees many made. That is a separate (and to my mind, more serious) issue to that of going against party policy. It may be that the error of judgement was in signing the pledge then. It may be that the error of judgement was in approving a coalition agreement which could easily lead to breaking that pledge. It may be that the error of judgement is in breaking the pledge now that they previously intended to keep. Where the error of judgement is will depend on how you asses the situation, but surely any MP who signed the NUS pledge but now supports raised tuition fees has made an error of judgement somewhere.

    Again, on the more general point of the article (and, indeed, in the case of MPs who didn’t sign the NUS’s pledge and support the Browne report), I agree.

  • Such a pity that well reasoned arguments such as this were not put forward and thought about before all that rush to sign pledges… the cat’s out of the bag now.

    And by the way a lot of people were using their minds when they saw a bunch of politicians say, look at us, things are going to be different, we are a new breed and hey, look, we are willing to give our solemn promise to do things a certain way – pity they are going to be let down.

  • Iain – it is disappointing to see the Party so readily give away policy + principle all in the name of ‘pragmatism’. Cable + Clegg in particular are rapidly diminishing as they get ever closer to core Tory beliefs.

    It reduces politics to a pursuit of power. And whereas many use this to justify the line “politics is nothing without power’, many liberal-minded people disagree. Politics is about change. And this Coalition is only offering change of an extreme Tory variety.

    I fear that the more you seek to justify these complete policy reversals the more your party will morph into the Tories.

  • “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” – Edmund Burke

    We live in a representative democracy. Our MPs are people, not robot delegates.

  • “Many students voted Lib Dem on the promise that all Lib Dems made”

    Not true. Turnout among students was very low. Most of those who say they are angry about it, stayed at home in bed, drunk from the night before.

  • Values and principles are very important. Often the specific details of a working policy have to be made on the hoof. This, of course, is where working with the Tories causes severe problems – their principles and values are often a million miles from us. Not sure whether that is an Aristotelian or a Kantian statement! Before we know where we are we will have reconstructed the famous sketch of the football match between German and Greek Philosophers!

  • Anthony Aloysius St 18th Oct '10 - 9:27am

    More like cant than Kant.

    Of course they aren’t in a position to implement the manifesto. But if during the election campaign they signed a written pledge to vote a certain way, then they should honour that pledge.

  • It is one thing not to be able to follow party policy, that I can understand and on occasion agree with.
    But it is an entirely different thing to actively support a policy which is opposite to your own party policy, the word for that I believe is betrayal, and in this case (tuition fees) something worse as pledges were made directly to the public.

  • My local MP has pointed out that the NUS plegde was to vote against a rise in tuition fees until a fairer way of funding university education is found. If the coalition policy, based more or less on the Browne report, is fairer than the current scheme, is it a pledge broken or a pledge fulfilled?

  • Anthony Aloysius St 18th Oct '10 - 10:50am

    “My local MP has pointed out that the NUS plegde was to vote against a rise in tuition fees until a fairer way of funding university education is found.”

    Your MP isn’t telling you the truth.

    The wording of the pledge was:
    “I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative”

    That is an unconditional pledge to vote against any increase in fees. And an additional pledge to campaign for a fairer alternative.

  • @Colin Green
    “I pledge to vote against any increase in fees”

    Tuition Fees are increasing. To me will be a pledge broken if MPs either vote for or abstain on this issue.
    Is your local MP really arguing that it will be a ‘pledge fulfilled’ if the Browne proposals are voted through? are you it wasn’t a joke?

  • This is a very sensible and accurate piece Iain.

    But on the issue of tuition fees I am not sure it is wholly pertinenet as our ministers can abstain whilst individual MPs, including PPSs, must vote against the increase. This would defeat the measure. Secondly on fees specifically, the issue of party policy vs individual pledges needs to be addressed. I agree that our ministers will not always be able to follow party policy. But I do think that the pledge requires individual action of a special sort, as the text of the pledge did not read ‘A Liberal Democrat Majority Government will…’.

    On the broader point you make, about Vince ‘looking at the evidence’ I agree, if he had convincingly believed in our tuition fees policy before the election, he may have taken me with him, my real concern, and one which has yet to be addressed, is that Vince never supported the party policy and now seems to have ditched it – in my view – too easily. There is a real concern here that some policies ministers have not agreed with are being ditched behind the smokescreen of the coalition…

    By way of contrast – Chris Huhne, I know, genuinely opposed Nuclear Power, but seems to have made a decision, and compromise, in the way you describe above – thus, I am willing to be taken with him on this, even though I strongly object ot nuclear power.

    The difference in many ways is in their behaviour before the election – Cable repeatedly tried (and lost votes) over our fees policy.

  • Sorry missed out the word ‘sure’ before the word joke in my post above.

  • Grammar Police 18th Oct '10 - 11:16am

    One of the other ways that our policy now influences things is through the civil service – one of the Lib Dem ministers at conference remarked that he’d been shocked to see a well-thumbed copy of the Lib Dem policy paper in a senior civil servants’ office.

  • > My local MP has pointed out that the NUS plegde was to vote against a rise in tuition fees until a fairer way of funding university education is found.

    Even if we accept that interpretation, is it the government’s position that the new approach is indeed significantly fairer? If not, the point is moot

  • The pledge was a huge mistake and needs to be acknowledged as such. However, it is the height to stupidity to continue to stick to something to detriment of the country if you honestly believe it t be wrong. Better to admit that, go with your conscience and place yourself in the hands of the electorate at the next election. That is the point of democracy.

  • Philosophasters and sophists trying to bore people to death won’t detract from the very righteous indignation that many people feel.

    Let me put it this way. You vote for a party based on the policies and the pledges it has made, you use your brain to make that reasoned decision. In return for receiving your vote that party must follow through on what you voted for, even if some people may change their minds. That is called a democracy, something we are clearly not living in. If a party can take any position regardless of the position it takes prior to the election, then why bother to vote at all?

    Why should anyone vote for AV if this is the kind of typical anti-democratic outcome we come out with. It’s all very well talking about ‘proportional representation’, but when a party take the opposite stance to its voters (and what it campaigned on)… then there is zero representation and therefore making it ‘proportiona’ become a moot point.

    And the apologists here seem to have all built their arguments on two very shaky premises. The first is that politicians know better than the people who voted for them. The second is that the politicians, when in power, will act for the good of the country rather than their own professional self interest.

    Which is more credible: politicians acting for the sake of their country or the sake of their careers? I’m afraid the later has been revealed to be the vastly more widespread motivation.

  • “However, it is the height to stupidity to continue to stick to something to detriment of the country if you honestly believe it t be wrong”

    But we have know evidence that any of the lib dems in power’honestly’ believe anything. Nick CLegg and Cable seem perfectly capable of arguing one position whilst clamouring for the exact opposite.

    I don’t honeslty think any lib dem voting for this is really doing it ‘for the good of the country’, but because they are forced to by the Tories… and they want to protect their political careers.

    There was ample time to renege on the pledge before the election, knowing what would happen (hell, even I predicted this would happen). The reason they did not abandon the pledge prior to the election isn’t because they were ‘incompetent’ as they now try to plead: it was a cynical move to win votes.

    And, frankly I don’t think the politicians know any better than the party or the voters: because if they did, they would be able to convince the party and the voters of the validity of their position without reverting to ‘deficit was worse than expected’ (when it wasn’t).

    I think it is amusing how low some ‘liberals’ have sunk. They really believe the people in power are always right and the voters are always wrong. If the politicians are right, they must convince the voters and the members. Neither Nick or anyone else has provided an honest explanation for their volte face.

    For this party calling itself the ‘liberal democrats’ it is ironic that this is perhaps the most unmandated and undemocratic government in the last century.

    If you really think the politicians are so much cleverer than the plebians, two words: Afghanistan, Iraq.

  • And it will be amusing at the next election, after the double dip, when Nick Clegg gets up to say ‘I beleived the Tories were wrong all along’.

  • Rob – less than a fifth of voters voted for us in the last election. The majority of voters voted for parties NOT opposed to tuition fees – therefore by your own simplistic logic the voters do support the principle of this. However – that is far too simplistic.

    I assume you are not a Lib Dem supporter or member, and judging by your cynicism generally I assume not a supporter of any party. as such, I’m not sure we should take your view of the motives of the volte face on this issue too seriously without evidence. If Vince Cable and Nick Clegg say they have honestly changed their mind, I think we should believe them unless we have proof to the contrary.

    On the finances – some economists believe cuts will create a second dip, some argue it will happen whatever we do and some say we need to cut to avoid it (as do many business leaders – see the letter in the Telegraph today). Yu ay your money and takes your choice who you believe. I think most people believe the economists who support their own ideology anyway.

  • OF course the assumption made by the apologists above is, as always, that it is necessary to raise fees.

    Yet keeping fees at their current level would cost us approx 1£.8 billion per year. I don’t know how much tax avoidance costs us, but apparently it may be in excess of £100 billion per year.

    Raising tuition fees is not ‘necessary’… it is just about the priorities that the government has. This government has the priority of appeasing middle class TOry voters, so no raise in tax. It alos has the priority of appeasing tax evaders and city dolts… so no big raises in tax for them. It also has the priority of dismantaling the welfare state, so obviously student fundign can be scrapped as part of the desire.

    The real problem for students is not that student finance costs too much, it is that students are an unreliable and small voting demographic with basically no lobbying power (outside the NUS which is enver listened too) sot he government, correctly it seems, thinks it can get away with treating students however it likes.

  • Rob – do you mean tax avoiders or tax evaders? One is legal, the other is not. Measures against evasion have been announced (see Andrew Marr’s interview on Sunday). Closing all opportunities for tax avoidance will require a complete overhaul of the tax system – the costs of which will wipe out the benefits for the life of a Parliament.

  • @Ian

    “The majority of voters voted for parties NOT opposed to tuition fees – therefore by your own simplistic logic the voters do support the principle of this.”

    That was not my point. I don’t beleive that the lib dem manifesto can or should be forced through in its entirity, Ithat wouldn’t add up. What I do believe is that someone who wins votes making an extremely specific pledge to do something specific in a specific frame of time (now) must honour that pledge, because they made a contract with their voters. The point of a representative democracy is that we elect representatives, not people who can just choose to do whatever they want to do.

    IF a Lib Dem MP feels the need to vote for an increase in fees in order to be ‘democratic’ they must either resign afterwards or call for another election, where we can decide where to place our vote based on what pledges will genuinely be honoured. Of course I know this won’t happen, but it would be the democratic way of voting for an increase in fees.

    I’m not sure you could call me a lib dem supporter, I support wholeheartedly, however, the platform the Lib Dems campaigned upon at the last election. I am also a member and posted leaflets for the party during the election campaign. Nick Clegg certainly hasn’t done anything to alleviate my cynicism.

  • @Ian

    I meant what I wrote, although it isn’t clear. I think Tax avoidance should be made much more difficult, and it wouldn’t ‘wipe out the benefits’ to do so. It might cost up to, say, a billion to reform all the laws and make the tax office more efficient… but as pointed out, there may be over 100 billion to gain from doing so.

    When I wrote ‘tax evaders’ I was referring to a typical Tory voting demographic/

  • So you are suggesting that tax evaders (i.e. Criminals) are a typical Tory demographic? REALLY?

    Just to be clear – the estimated amount of tax avoided legally is estimated to be around £20 billion a year. To catch all of that would require such a fundamental shift in tax policy (e.g. having the infrastructure to PROVE that all married and cohabiting couples in business partnerships are actively working in that partnership or company – the most common form of tax avoidance; legislating to make all earnings from British residents regardless of the country in which the tax is earned payable in the UK – that would require a renegotiation of many current cross-border tax agreements) that it will cost well in excess of £1 billion to implement (consultation, IT, staff retraining, legislation, restructuring etc) you wouldn’t see the introduction of it for three or four years (assuming the white paper was released in the next Parliamentary year) and the financial benefit for the year after that, so the next Parliament it would be.

    Also, a proportion of that £20 billion would not be recouped as people move business elsewhere, change practices etc.

  • @Ian
    If we can reform/cut welfare with all it’s complexities thus saving a total of 5billion I can see no problem what so ever reforming the Tax system which would ultimately save 18 to 20 times more. it’s a no brainer really. the question should really be, why isn’t tax the priority? and why are all the headlines about welfare scroungers? maybe the answer to those questions lies with the very people whose job it is to deal with them in the first place or rather where their own interests lay

  • Why don’t we (the media) refer to “tax scroungers” (which could be avoiders or evaders?

  • @nige: I agree – I thin it would make sense. I am personally of the belief, as a liberal, that the state should only take the minimum amount of tax possible – I reject the notion of ‘progressive’ taxation. Therefore I would like to see a flat rate tax system on all personal income (with a higher threshold, say £15,000 per year) and business profit, simplifying and streamlining the whole system and making the whole idea of avoidance virtually impossible. However, the problem is that this debate has never been had and there is no coalition agreement. Looking at Welfare, the CSJ has been discussing these things for five years now and was ready to go into the negotiations and into government with much of the preparatory work already done. Perhaps someone needs to set up a think-tank to start working on this now and begin the process of creating the right language, consensus and a debate on the various ideas.

    @tim: partly because the right-wing media have an agenda – let’s face it.

  • where do you start?
    “liberal democrats” im a natural labour voter disillusioned by the blair spin regime,so I vote for you lot for the first time in my life,and what do I get?
    well,reactionary for “liberal” and “who the hell voted for this” for democracy
    you’ve taken political cynisism to a new level
    osborne and alexander are two peas in a pod,it’s just180 after 180 for you lot,anything for power
    cable and clegg,steptoe and son ,without a hercules

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