The biggest lesson from the Ashdown Prize is for the rest of the party

The Ashdown Prize – a new initiative, tried for the first time this year and named after former leader Paddy Ashdown – was an attempt to involve grassroots Liberal Democrat members in the generation of bold, radical ideas for the party:

You’ll need a big, bold, radical idea – that will empower citizens and tackle one of the big issues facing Britain today. So, if you think you’ve got an idea, don’t wait, submit it.

You can read the after-action report here [now removed] and take part in the feedback survey about it here.

My views on it are both more and less critical than most others in the party, judging by other people’s comments.

First, the more critical: the outcome (an amiable but really rather non-radical, non-original policy about making better use of supermarket food waste) reinforces my previously expressed scepticism that starting off by saying ‘we need a RADICAL POLICY NOW!!!!’ is wise. That is because ‘radical’ is so often deployed to mean either ‘not mentioned much by anyone because it’s small-scale, unexciting and minor in its impact’ or ‘wildly unpopular with no clue about how to persuade people to change their minds about it’. And also because when we have had a radical policy that is popular and widely known, all that has shown is that having one such policy is but a very small part of overall political success.

(Of course, when I talk about the need for radical reform in the Liberal Democrats, I am not using the word in either of these ways, honest.)

Second, the more positive. There’s definitely things the Ashdown Prize could and should get better when repeated. But the bigger lesson should be for the rest of the party because I make it that the one year of running the Ashdown Prize generated more policy submissions from party members than a decade of federal party conference (and at two a year, no less) all put together.

That’s a remarkable achievement which we should ponder carefully the lessons from.

One competition, once, gets more submissions that a decade worth of something run twice a year. Oh and those twice a year events get far more publicity in the party, including mentions in multiple emails to party members through the year, than the competition got.

What’s more, if you want to change party policy, the Ashdown Prize route is a more complicated, slower moving and riskier route than submitting a motion to conference, because it is in effect an additional series of steps between members and the eventual democratic choice at conference.

Yet despite all those disadvantages, the Ashdown Prize did far better at getting lots of members involved in contributing ideas than the conference motion process does.

The lesson there surely should be to think about what the motions process can learn from the Ashdown Prize. How can the party make that motion process rather more attractive, securing the involvement of more members?

How too can the party broaden the involvement of members in policy debates and policy-making outside conference? The offer of a keen new member to help with policy is the sort of offer which local parties often struggle the most to make good use of. Understandably if regrettably so given how the party currently works. Yet as the Ashdown Prize shows there is a substantial level of interest in policymaking around the party.

So that’s the real lesson for me from the Ashdown Prize. There is much more interesting in participating in policymaking from party members than the party currently manages to effectively make use of.

By all means have ideas for improving the Ashdown Prize next time round. But don’t miss the bigger picture – the lessons for the rest of the party too.

5 responses to “The biggest lesson from the Ashdown Prize is for the rest of the party”

  1. There were several more bold, radical, brilliant ideas submitted -sadly the other reviewers lacked sufficient understanding and/or radicalism to recognise them. I despair.

  2. I did think we should rename this ‘The Big Block of Cheese Prize’, b/c highlighting overlooked issues that can grow into nationwide concerns is something we do very well – see revenge porn, medicinal cannabis use, etc.- but it isn’t “radical” policymaking as such. (Also because there are so many WW fans who would geek out you might triple submissions.)

  3. Coming up with a one sentence idea is a lot easier than coming up with a detailed policy motion. Of COURSE the Ashdown Prize got more submissions. It’s a lot less work.

    • Jennie: the Ashdown Prize also (aspires to) end up with a detailed policy motion. You’re quite right that reducing the initial barriers to a process makes it more likely that people will take part… I’d then go on to add ‘so why not apply that logic to the conference motion process too and think about whether the first step in that process is more off-putting that it needs to be?’. FCC has played a little with changing that first step – I’m thinking in particular about inviting motions on a pre-set topic – and I’m sure with the inventive talents on FCC could come up with more such ideas to try. I think this therefore quite nicely illustrates my point: if a conclusion from the Ashdown Prize is that making the first step easier is an effective thing, then it makes sense for us to think about how to do that elsewhere too. If we don’t, we’re missing an important lesson.

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