There is a strange spectre haunting the Liberal Democrat party: a shortage of policy. A few nights ago I was sat in a Liberal Democrat policy consultation meeting, where grassroots members had the chance to talk to senior party figures about what they would like to see the Liberal Democrats pushing for in government in the second half of this Parliament.
It was grassroots democracy in action, save for one problem. For many members it was a case of “There’s this problem I’d like someone to tackle…” rather than “There’s this policy I’d like to see someone implement…”. Even with several policy experts in the room, there was often no policy – or choice of policies – presented in answer to the possible problems.
That mirrored what one of Nick Clegg’s advisors told me a few months previously. Amongst the many hard tasks Liberal Democrat special advisors face, one of the toughest is a lack of detailed policy. Going in to a room to negotiate with a Conservative opposite number, you need a long list of potential demands to be able to negotiate down to a good overall balance. Go in with far fewer demands and the inevitable trading off of demands results in an overall package that has far more Conservative than Liberal Democrat policies.
It is a strange problem for Liberal Democrats to face, who for years were used to facing teasing from opponents and the media over the amount and detail of the party’s pile of policies (including even over the treatment of goldfish – a point on which the Lib Dems had the last laugh when in government Labour changed from mocking the policy to implementing it).
This leaves a big opportunity for pressure groups, academics with a hobby horse and individuals with a bright idea to lobby the party wisely for their party. The body which thought a good way of promoting its cause to Liberal Democrats was to send out an email to Liberal Democrats talking proudly of how the policy was back by a Conservative MP best goes unnamed on grounds of mercy.
That makes the opportunity for the person with the wise policy and a few pinches of common sense all the more appealing though. So far, precious few are taking it. With the broad plans for the second half of the Parliament being set this year, others should get a move on.