Questionable reasons that Federal Conference Committee give for rejecting motions

We pride ourselves on the idea that party members make policy at Federal Conference. There is an idea that any member can write a motion, get the required support, and submit it to Conference and the members will then discuss it. This is not quite reality. The 30th June was the deadline for submitting motions for Federal Conference.

Imagine you have spent weeks working on your motion. You submitted it for drafting advice and have made some of the suggested changes. You got the support needed to submit it and have submitted it. Now you wait to hear if it was selected. (You are not told when a decision will be made, but you expect it will be within a couple of weeks or so.)

In the report on the selection of motions meeting of Federal Conference Committee for last September’s Conference, we can see that eight policy motions were selected, with two more reserved for motions on Europe and Covid, and two for emergency motions. Plus a couple of business motions and a couple of consultative sessions.

There were 32 policy motions rejected. So, after all that work your motion is rejected. The odds are against you. Oh well, there are always amendments to work on once the agenda is published.

Federal Conference Committee seem to be able to reject motions for any reason. The reasons given as to why motions that I have helped write have been rejected include:

  • It contains very large uncosted spending commitments;
  • The idea has been debated and rejected by the party in the past;
  • It covers a great deal of ground with a large number of very specific points and this type of motion is generally only acceptable with a policy paper;
  • It was a somewhat diffuse motion that covered a range of issues;
  • They received many more motions submitted than can be debated in the time available.
  • They felt that there were other motions that had a stronger case to be selected at that time.

The February issue of Liberator claimed that the motion on the UN treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was not being supported by our spokespeople “not because they were pro-Trident but because … people might disagree with each other … because the nuclear issue is potentially extremely divisive as other conference debates on the topic have shown. A divisive debate will focus on splits when our recently elected leader, Ed, will be seeking to contrast us with the deeply divided Tory and Labour parties. …. there was no current reason to depart from the present policy which … is proportionate and pragmatic”.

The motion was not selected for debate. Those who submitted it were informed that the reasons for it not being selected were because FCC:

  • Did not believe that it … (would) provide a sound basis for debate;
  • Was not convinced that the entry into force of the UN treaty made any significant difference to any of those arguments (put forward a few years before to justify the existing policy);
  • Did not believe that (the proposers had) put forward a strong enough case for debating it (this motion) at this Conference;
  • Those who submitted it were also informed that the topic (being) divisive, was touched on in (FCC’s) discussions.

There is no process for appealing the reasons why a motion is rejected (an issue for another time). You can only appeal if you have new information not available to the Committee when they made their original decision!

What if there were only a few specific reasons why Federal Conference Committee could reject policy motions, and those which they decided there was not sufficient time to discuss would be placed in a ballot for Conference attendees to decide which one of those motions should be debated?

* Michael Berwick-Gooding is a Liberal Democrat member in Basingstoke and has held various party positions at local, regional and English Party level.

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32 Comments

  • Paul Barker 8th Jul '21 - 10:25am

    Starting with the end of the article, the suggestion that Motions not selected be put into a Ballot – this is a formula for getting Conferenc into divisive arguments over issues that small numbers of Members feel Very strongly about. Inevitably only small numbers would Vote in any Ballot, giving an amplified voice to unrepresentative groups with simple but extreme views.
    Nuclear Weapons are a Classic example of an Issue that generates absolutist, Yes/No responses, its an area that is endlessly discussed without getting anywhere & is particularly irrelevant to a Fringe Party averaging 9% in The Polls.
    The Libdems need a ruthless focus on getting back to the point where our views actually matter.

  • I’m sorry but reading what Michael has quoted, it sounds like those are all rather good reasons for rejecting his motion, disappointing as it may be to him, having put in so much work on it.

    For my part, it feels like we’ve debated nuclear weapons so many times that I’d be quite happy if we didn’t expend yet more energy on this for a good few more years to come.

  • One of the problems with FCC’s reasons for rejecting motions is that they are far too polite.

    Very often the reason that a motion is rejected is “this motion is appallingly drafted”, but that gets rewritten as something like “does not provide a sound basis for debate” or “lack of clarity” or something like that.

    FCC should make much clearer why it is rejecting motions; there really are, in most cases, five reasons:

    1. The motion is drafted badly – contains a factual error, doesn’t have a clear statement of what the UK or the party should do, doesn’t lay out the relevant facts, doesn’t lay out the values and beliefs that lead from facts to action, is grammatically incoherent, etc.
    2. Conference has debated the issue too recently.
    3. This subject is too technical or too unimportant for conference to ever debate it.
    4. This is outside the policy-making powers of Federal Conference (usually this means it should go to a state or regional conference or a local party AGM, occasionally it’s because it calls for the laws of physics to be changed).
    5. The motion is fine, other motions were selected in preference.

    FCC should be much clearer which of these it is. Reasons 3 and 4 would result in the motion never being debated however hard you try. Reason 1 can be fixed, if it’s made clear what the drafting issues are. Reason 2 just means waiting for a future conference. Reason 5 means “please keep submitting this until we find the time to debate it”.

    I would like FCC to create one or two slots for debate that are balloted (in the manner that emergency motions are), where they would reject anything that falls into 1 or 4, but allow members to choose to debate an issue again or to decide that something is more important than FCC thinks it is.

    However, in order to allow time for the ballot and then amendments and so on, the deadline for motions for the ballot would have to be much earlier than usual. My suggestion would be to have the deadline before the previous conference so that the ballot can be open during the previous conference. Anything that loses in the ballot would still be a validly-submitted motion that can be put on the agenda by FCC in the usual manner.

  • Laurence Cox 8th Jul '21 - 11:27am

    Discussing this in terms of one issue (nuclear weapons) is not helpful. I know that back in the 1960s the old Liberal Party policy was in favour of unilateral disarmament. Presumably that changed later, but I have no idea whether it was before or after the merger.

    Of more importance, Michael identifies an issue that is widespread in the Party; that policy motions not selected for debate disappear into a black hole with their fate known only the the FCC at the time and to the motion’s proposer(s). Someone else wishing to propose a similar motion or to learn from the reasons for rejection of a motion has no opportunity to study them. I have personal experience of this. Some years ago another member of my local Party wished to propose a motion. Our local party supported it and it was submitted to FCC; first time around it was rejected solely on the grounds that many more motions had been submitted than could be debated at that Conference and he was invited to re-submit it to the next Conference. Second time around the motion was simply rejected and he lost heart and did not try again with a revised motion.

    In my view, if the reason for rejection is solely based on the number of motions received, rather than on specific faults in the motion, then it should remain on the table and available for debate subject to the usual requirements of there being people willing to propose it and to summate on it at Conference.

  • Katharine Pindar 8th Jul '21 - 12:38pm

    Laurence Cox makes good points. I expect there are many members who have felt disappointed and discouraged by rejection of their motions for reasons which seem inadequate, such as there being too many submitted. Particularly discouraging is the FCC’s unhelpful treatment of appeals – there is quite obviously generally no time for a successful appeal between the rejection of a motion and the Conference agenda appearing.

    I would be in favour of introducing some ballots among members generally – not those lucky enough actually to attend Conference – for motions which FCC don’t like themselves or say there is not enough space for, and for the reservation on the agenda of new time slots each time for a couple of these. The timing of such ballots would I should think be possible in the period between decisions on most of the agenda and the actual conference. Which motions should be allowed to enter such a ballot by FCC should include any where there is no obviously clear reason for rejection, even if they are numerous. Perhaps there could be some balloting system between conferences for those which as it were ‘lie on the table’, for instance motions which are resubmitted with the objections of FCC met, but which do not make the two extra slots I propose at the first conference they were submitted for.

  • Mark Smulian 8th Jul '21 - 12:56pm

    Michael’s quote from Liberator is accurate and is from a message to the movers of the nuclear motion from Jamie Stone, whose authenticity has not been disputed.

    Liberator (www.liberatormagazine.org.uk) awards the Mitcham & Morden Gold Toilet for the worst motion submitted to each conference, in memory of that constituency’s 1983 epic that set out the exact distances desired between public conveniences on different classes of road.

  • Peter Watson 8th Jul '21 - 2:16pm

    @Laurence Cox “policy motions not selected for debate disappear into a black hole”

    If it’s any consolation, policy motions which are selected for debate and voted through can also disappear into the same black hole.

    Two examples which I’ve cited ad nauseum are conferences when members voted for education policy that “ensures that selection in admissions on the basis of religion or belief to state-funded schools is phased out over up to six years” (2017) and that “calls on the government to abandon the selection by ability and social separation of young people, into different schools” (2016). Sometimes I wonder if I’m the only person who remembers these two Lib Dem “policies“. Presumably, someone was delighted at the time when their motions were selected for debate, but really, what was the point?

  • Stephen Harte 8th Jul '21 - 2:50pm

    It’s is true that the FCC (and its state party equivalents) make choices about what we debate…..choices which we may from time to time disagree with, but choices none the less. They are tasked with making such choices so they are doing nothing wrong.

    What we must remember is that we elect members of the FCC and our task as party members is to make sure we elect people who expertise their choices in an appropriate fashion. I am closer to the actions of the Scottish Conference Committee and I am confident that the members of that Committee exercise their power in ways that maximise the usefulness of conferences to the membership.

  • Andrew Toye 8th Jul '21 - 3:29pm

    What happens in our Union is that all motions are published and the conference organisers select items for debate according to certain criteria. Conference is free to overturn these decisions (subject to the constitution) as they have the motions in front of them to decide. With similar motions on the same subject, the organisers can draft a ‘composite’ motion encompassing all the non-contradictory points. Anyone following the TUC or Labour conferences might be familiar with this procedure. Perhaps we could learn something here?

  • “Michael’s quote from Liberator is accurate and is from a message to the movers of the nuclear motion from Jamie Stone, whose authenticity has not been disputed.”

    That’s as maybe, but Jamie Stone is not on FCC, does not attend FCC meetings, and has no bearing on whether or not we select motions or not or knowledge of what our discussions are or are not. I believe you know this Mark.

    Richard Gadsden is entirely correct as to why motions get rejected, and I suspect he’s probably right that we are too polite about it. The thing is, if we were to say “we rejected this motion because it made no sense” or “it called for things outside our power” or even “it was pointless grandstanding” people would get upset.

    In reality (as opposed to the imaginary world where there’s One Stone To Rule Us All And In The Committee Zoom Bind Us) “another motion submitted on the same topic which FCC thought would provide a better debate than yours” is a call we make a LOT – for instance, last time around (and without checking) I think we had 8 “rejoin the EU” motions. So obviously 7 of them were going to be rejected.

    As for nukes, I suspect that this time around the international and defence selection will be the big bunfight. There are 5 motions in this area, 2 Israel/Palestine ones, 2 nukes ones, and 1 on the genocide going on in China. One of the nukes ones is written by me; obviously I will not be able to vote on whether or not FCC accepts it, with that being a conflict of interest, but I hope they do. I suspect, though, that in reality FCC will prefer the genocide one to any of the other four and we’ll all be disappointed.

    I shall try to bear such disappointment with fortitude.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 8th Jul '21 - 3:44pm

    Jennie. I’m pleased to hear that you submitted a motion on nuclear weapons. I actually signed the other one. What matters is that there should be a proper debate on the subject.
    Surely it should be possible to have debates on both the genocide in China, *and* the issue of nuclear weapons? Shouldn’t there be two separate categories, one for defense issues, and one for international issues? And why shouldn’t there be debates on more than one international issue, if they are different, unrelated issues?

  • Oh I’m not saying it’s *impossible* that two motions from the same topic area might be selected – we often have two health ones, for example, or two education ones, but we have to try to balance the agenda.

    I could be completely wrong, I am only one member of FCC.

    But I flatter myself I am still more informed on the topic than a random MP who doesn’t attend…

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 8th Jul '21 - 3:55pm

    Thanks for clarifying that, Jennie, and good luck with your motion.
    Jamie stone’s comments did seem rather worrying. The party should not be afraid of discussing controversial issues. The best conference motions are likely to be controversial. It should be possible for the party to have robust debate without it proving “divisive”

  • I agree completely, and have often been heard to bemoan the number of motherhood and apple pie motions that nobody could possibly argue or vote against that get submitted; don’t let Jamie’s comments bother you. As I said he does not attend FCC, has no knowledge of what goes on there, and I suspect has no wish to either.

  • Chris Randall 8th Jul '21 - 4:13pm

    It is truly sad that these decisions are made without any other thought it seems than will it embarass us, or we have had this debated before well I’m 69 this year and it will be debated before I die I hope because our present nuclear strategy is an embarrassment.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 8th Jul '21 - 4:19pm

    I understand the article from Michael, and relate to it as with comments.

    I disagree with Richard and Jennie, in that politeness is a lovely thing! jennie please continue to reject politely!

    Great to read Catherine and Katharine here. Much as I like nearly everything about them, the views of both on lockdown were not mine, and am glad to reunite on conference business!

    But i think as a party we ought have less policy on these issues. Nuclear weapons for our smaller contingent of mps should be a conscience decision, like abortion or…. whatever is troubling the mind and heart to not take one line only.

    Most of us agree on most things. When there is a real disagreement, I prefer the controversial view I hold, not to bother ourselves in public with that controversial issue we disagree on!

  • Charley Hasted 8th Jul '21 - 5:28pm

    Perhaps if more people realised that just because you *can* make a 5/3 minute speech it doesn’t mean you *have* to we could build in a little more time to debate policy.

    Literally the biggest culture shock for me going from NUS to Lib Dem policy debate is how bloody long we spend bloviating about our motions.

    If you can’t explain your motion to conference- a room full of people who are clearly interested – in a couple of minutes – how on earth are you expecting people to explain it to voters?

    If your motion is say “stop genocide” who in their right mind needs a 5 minute speech on why genocide is a bad thing?

    This concept brought to you by the person who summated a speech at an NUS conference with “This is really obviously necessary and I need the loo so please support the motion.”

    Also definitely agree with the idea of compositing similar motions together – give the submitters a week or two to pull their motions together into one and then resubmit for FCC to consider (would obviously mean fiddling with deadlines but ultimately doable) if they can’t agree then FCC considers the motions separately and they can always submit amendments for conference to consider if they are say proposing different options and can’t decide which should be used or find a compromise position on one or two points.

  • Thank you everyone who has commented.

    Paul Barker,

    It seems odd to me that you don’t even want those who attend conference to choose one motion from those which were in order but there was just not sufficient time to discuss them all.

    Richard Gadsden,

    Conference Standing Orders should set out all the reasons a motion can be rejected. Of your five I object to the third one. For liberals this should never apply.

    I am glad that you support the idea of there should be a ballot of motions which were rejected because there was enough time to discuss them all.

    Laurence Cox

    This should not be discussed in terms of one issue. It should be discussed in terms of what are valid reasons to reject a motion and what should happen to those which are only not selected because there was not sufficient time. And if those attending Conference should have some say on whether a motion is discussed or not.

    Andrew Toye

    Conference Standing Orders allow FCC to composite motions, hopefully in the future they will use this power more.

    Jennie,

    I think it is important that FCC can reject a motion if it is unclear as to its meaning or intent or is, in the opinion of the Committee, too poorly drafted to provide a sensible basis for debate. Of course they should be able to reject motions if they make no sense, or call for things which are impossible to do.

    What about compositing motions when there are motions on the same subject?

    Please can you post to say when FCC will be deciding on which motions will be on the September Conference agenda?

    Charley Hasted,

    It is good to read another person supporting compositing of motions. Conference Standing Orders allow compositing and I think it allows them to composite a motion into an amendment to another motion.

  • “Of your five I object to the third one. For liberals this should never apply.”

    Just to remind you of what this is:

    3. This subject is too technical or too unimportant for conference to ever debate it.

    Motions I’m aware of being rejected on these grounds include:

    One making detailed policy on how the UK government should conduct the transition from IPv4 to IPv6.

    A motion on HS2 and HS3 that included detailed route proposals (things that you’d basically need a detailed map to be able to follow).

    One I’m not aware of ever having been submitted but I’ve seen talked about in many policy discussion forums: a list of exactly what tax loopholes to close and exactly how to close them.

    One I keep hearing someone wanting to try: a business motion on strategy that has a list of target seats that would be amendable by Conference.

    I’d have no problem with these being on the ballot, because I think they’d never win. But I do think that FCC is entirely reasonable to reject these motions, however well-written and clear, on the grounds that there will always be other things more worthy of the debate time.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 8th Jul '21 - 7:58pm

    Thank you, Lorenzo, Good to see you on here too 🙂

  • I find that often the choice of motion depends on a) who is submitting it (gotta be in the clique) and b) how uncontroversial it is policy wise.
    ‘On/message’ motions pass easily and ‘wrong think’ motions are rejected.
    I also find there is a shortage of critical thinkers amongst the FCC group deciding the motions it forward.

  • Andrew Toye 9th Jul '21 - 1:16am

    What I think most amusing is Liberator’s award of the ‘Golden Toilet’ for the worst motion submitted. (I don’t know how they get hold of the full list!) If only all motions were published (perhaps as an annex to the agenda) we can all make our own judgements!

  • Paul Fisher 9th Jul '21 - 3:57am

    An excellent article and many thoughtful comments. For my part as an ex-member, this matter was key in my decision to part company; I was appalled and disillusioned to realise that the whole process was illiberal and fundamentally undemocratic. It was neither open nor transparent. Not a good look, I am afraid.

  • We need to move towards real democracy. Motions should be put forward. There should be a vote by all the members. That would establish the agenda.
    Meanwhile there should be a thorough review into how to use IT to create a truly democratic Party.

  • Robin Grayson 9th Jul '21 - 11:02am

    In the modern world, party conferences need to attract front-page media attention. Labour conferences grab media attention by tribal battles, Conservative conferences grab media attention by orchestrating government goodies. We need an alternative path to these ritual media dog whistles.

    So my suggestion, as a Lib Dem activist who takes care to avoid the over-orchestrated conference, is to slam in a special session into every conference on hotly contentious issues to electrify attendees and media attention with votes of attendees. But with absolutely clear rules that the motions are simply for testing the mood of the conference. ‘This conference believes the Prime Minister is ***”
    “This conference is appalled by privatised water companies making heaps of profit by dumping heaps of untreated sewage in our streams, rivers and seaside.” Just light the fuse and let the show begin.

  • Katharine Pindar 9th Jul '21 - 11:47am

    I wish Jennie as possibly the only FCC member engaging with this thread would try to answer Andrew and Paul Fisher, who both seem to share the poor expectations of FCC which others of us have silently felt at times. (All right, on having submitted a business motion which got nowhere for what seemed inadequate reasons!). I like Tom Harney’s comment. I would like the membership generally to be able to vote on whether to accept motions for the agenda which have some significance but FCC hasn’t found time for, and for members in general to be able to vote on motions.

  • I agree with Tom Harney that all motions should be read by members and voted on and I would add further ballots to whittle them down.

  • Andrew,

    Recently, (just stopped) FCC considered motions without knowing who submitted them. However, it does seem that controversial motions and amendments are not selected. I believe there were a few motions and amendments submitted on a UBI after 2015, but they were not selected until both leadership candidates supported it. Then a motion was selected in which we agreed the principle without setting the amount. This would never have been selected if the leadership was against it, because it didn’t set an amount or how it would be paid for.

    Paul Fisher,

    I know that minutes of FCC meetings are not available to members and I think it can’t be reported how a member of FCC voted in committee. Is it these issues which you are talking about? Or are there other issues regarding the lack of transparency such as who gives advice on whether a motion is a ‘good’ one or not which effected your decision not to remain on FCC?

    Tom Harney,

    That is an interesting idea. Have you thought how you would change Conference Standing Orders to enable it to happen?

  • Today, I have been informed that the standing order amendment my local party submitted has been rejected. It set out the reasons why a policy motion can be rejected and putting those which are not either selected or rejected under this new standing order into a ballot of those attending conference. I have been informed it was self-contradictory, but I disagree. It is not possible to appeal a decision you disagree with. (A subject for a future article maybe.) There has to a new argument or fact for an appeal to succeed. As the decision is held in private it is not possible when the decision is made to challenge the points being asserted.

  • Paul Fisher 12th Jul '21 - 8:51pm

    Michel BG. To answer your question. I never sat on the FCC. I decided to leave the Party due to a “fix/stitch up” over the Europe motion for Autumn 2020 conference amongst other manifestations of the heart of the Party being run by an inner cabal. Just my view. The FCC is merely one organ of this cabal’s control of LibDem affairs.

  • Paul Fisher,

    Thank you for your clarification. I am not sure there is a cabal as we do elect members to our Federal committees. However, there seems to be ‘group think’ and a lack of the will to run the party in an open and transparent way. There seems to be a fear that if we tell our members what happens on our committees these details will end up in the press and this will be bad for the party. In the 1990s there was a large body of members who wanted the party to be run on liberal principles, but during the 2000s they lost ground and I don’t think there are many left. The majority of members don’t believe we should run the party in an open and transparent way to show what it looks like and to ensure we have the experience of doing so, so we can do the same when we enter government at any level. We need to change this.

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