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.
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.