Strategy Consultation paper – there’s something important missing


One thing I absolutely love about being a Liberal Democrat is the involvement we members have in formulating, developing and approving policy. This open and transparent process not only chimes with our values but also is a marvel to behold. At York last month, my first ever time at a conference, I voted in important policy proposals ranging from faith schools to nuclear weapons and partook in a consultative session on economic policy.  Nonetheless I feel this whole process is in danger of failing us.

A fast changing political environment needs a fast policy making process

In times past there was a reliable 4/5-year cycle all culminating in a general election. In the intervening period the party could spend time ruminating and developing policy. Unfortunately we no longer live in normal times. The tectonic plates of politics are shifting not only in the UK but also around the world. If we really want to redefine British politics and replace the old left/right dichotomy with a choice between open and closed then we need to be much more nimble.  The political environment no longer gives us the luxury of an extended period of reflection and policy consultation.

Example: Our Brexit stance needs an updated economic policy

An example should serve to make my point. My own view, as laid out in my only other article for LibDem Voice, was that a key underlying cause of Brexit was economic. On 23rd June 2016 the electorate simply assessed their own circumstances, reviewed the ‘state of the nation’, concluded it wasn’t good enough and voted accordingly. With the political environment changing so rapidly we need to respond quickly and effectively, so what is happening on economic policy?

I am assuming that early in 2016 it was decided by the party to review our economic policy. By spring 2016 applications were being sought for the chair and wider membership, the group was formed in the summer and undertook its work during the autumn and early part of 2017. Consultative sessions were held at the spring conference and a draft document circulated. We will finally vote on the policy at Conference this September.

By the time it’s all finished it will be almost 2 years from start to finish. Not only that but the groups remit specifically excludes anything to do with macroeconomic policy and taxation.  For an area that could gain us a significant electoral advantage this is clear madness.

My plea

None of this is a criticism of the great work that is being done. Neither am I proposing that we shortcut the involvement of party members. I have very little knowledge of how the party works but from the outside it seems very clear – the fast changing political environment means we need a faster way of developing and approving policy.

* Ashley Cartman is a Lib Dem member in North Somerset

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  • David Evershed 10th Apr '17 - 11:17am

    “No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy” is attributed to the German military strategist Helmuth von Moltke.

    However, when we set poicies we should do so anticipating a variety of future scenarios. Policies should be sufficiently robust to cope with most future directions. Plans to implement these policies may well have to adapt as things unfold.

    For example, an economic policy to have better technical education and improved apprenticeships should surely apply equally well with or without Brexit. Fuel duty may need to be tweaked as oil prices ebb and flow but that does not mean we should not have a policy on the fuel price to the consumer.

    Reviewing the evidence and taking care about setting policies is surely better than shooting from the hip and finding we have shot ourselves in the foot.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 10th Apr '17 - 1:27pm

    We should not rush the important decisions, we should not have policies on matters better left to the conscience of individuals , and variants in localities,and what policy we do need we should involve online voting by all members who log in for the in person conference debate , and then vote accordingly.

    Democracy means participation, access funds need more support , yet e democracy should be how and in what unique way we as a party can set the agenda.

    The 5* movement in Italy have their faults, their widening of involvement and developing of democracy , are not amongst the faults.

  • Ashley Cartman 10th Apr '17 - 1:52pm

    I absolutely agree that we should not ‘shot from the hip’ (@David Evershed) or rush important policy decisions. My point is that it seems there is a lot of wasted time in the current process. For some policy areas taking time and developing consensus is an appropriate response. My point is that increasingly as we enter into more turbulent political times this will not always work for us and we risk having nothing relevant to say.

    Sometimes, as with Tim’s declaration that we would seek a second referendum, decisions need to be made quickly. Of course not every decision needs to be made like that and shouldn’t be, but is it not time we acknowledged that there is on occasion a need to develop policy faster?

    I may not know the detail of the policy making process but two years to produce an incomplete economic policy does seem inappropriate in these turbulent times.

  • Tom Morrison 11th Apr '17 - 8:19am

    Thanks for posting Ashley. I think you raise a really important point about meeting unforeseen challenges in a very turbulent landscape.

    In my view, I think the focus on taking on events as they unfold needs to be down to message rather than policy. For example, during the expenses scandal in 2010 the Party managed to position itself incredibly well because of our extensive work on political and constitutional reform, likewise our response to the economic crisis in 2008 was, in my view, the most effective of the political parties due to our thorough policy making.

    Because of the arduous (and I mean that positively!) journey Liberal Democrat policy goes through in order to become “official” I think it helps our campaigners, communications team, and politicians to position the Party to best effect when events dictate.

    In essence, I think policy needs to go through a robust decision making process in order for the messaging to work when sudden changes in the political landscape take hold.

  • I understand some Party members have had this ‘strategy’ document emailed to them. Is there a ‘hot’ list and a ‘cold’ list of party members?

  • I agree with Ashley’s thesis that there is something missing but speed is only a part of it.

    After the GE the party published an excellent ‘Review of the Liberal Democrat Policy Process’ consultation paper. It identified several shortcomings in policy-making but, as far as I know, only minimal changes have been made subsequently. Did I miss something?

    The core principles are that it should be democratic and participative (totally right!) but the actuality is somewhat different. At the last election for the Federal Committees, Board, Policy and Conference the turnout was well under 10%, far below the much derided Police & Crime Commissioner elections held under the Coalition government. In addition there are typically around six Policy Working Parties at any one time, each with about 20 members – a total of, say, 120 – and these too are disproportionately from London & the SE.

    So how does the party draw on the vast pool of talent and expertise represented by the other 99% of members? It’s not clear that it does and, IIRC, that was one of the issues identified by the consultation paper. Many, of course, attend Conference and participate in that way but by then the die is cast. How many substantial changes have been made to policies at Conference in the last 10 years?

    The bottom line is that our process-heavy approach to policy-making has never created a core vote of more than about 10—12% and a soft core at that.

    So, is Lib Demmery rubbish or are we getting something, perhaps policy-making, systematically wrong?

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