There is a strange spectre haunting the Lib Dems: a shortage of policy

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 advisers face, one of the toughest is a lack of detailed policy. Going into 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.

23 responses to “There is a strange spectre haunting the Lib Dems: a shortage of policy”

  1. Let's start with a simple exercise – someone should go through the 100 policy papers in the archive, take out all the policies that have been implemented by other governments pretending it was their policy, and all the policies that are being implemented under this government, and produce a single document detailing the remainder.

    Then we can add to it.

  2. Of course, 99% of the remainder will be things the orange bookers wouldn't touch with a barge pole, but you get the idea.

  3. But it's not just a matter of coming up with ideas. There need to be clearer ways to connect members and their ideas & knowledge with the Westminster bubble. Do these academics and individuals have to know exactly how to lobby and who to get in contact with?

    For example, I've been trying to draw attention to a particular tax issue. How do I pass my idea (which would need detailed analysis) on to Danny Alexander or similar? I don't have a Lib Dem MP. Discussing it on the LDV forum and other online LDs and writing an article for LDV are good testing grounds but I think Danny might have missed it… I have serious doubts about writing to the offices of Danny, Vince or Nick given the volume they must receive. I've written to the co-chair of the Treasury PPC (twice) but received no response.

    The best way would be to take the idea to conference but given the huge budgetary and strategic implications of this policy, I'd rather get some feedback beforehand. The networking, time and public speaking it takes to make something party policy are also barriers to others sharing their expertise.

    Hopefully the upcoming Liberal Insight think-tank can facilitate member input.

  4. I heard that the Federal Conference Committee rejected a huge number of policy motion requests for spring conference, not because they were badly thought out, illiberal or just plain wrong, but because of time constraints. Many of those proposing policy motions were encouraged to try again in the autumn. I suspect the party is still brimming with excellent ideas of how to improve the world around us, and many are using the existing mechanics of the party machine to make these suggestions – we're just frustrated that the machine can't cope.

    • Lev Eakins A motion for me was amongst those rejected for lack of time, so I agree there were some really good ones in there 🙂 I'm not sure how many good, concrete short-term policy ideas there were in those motions; when I've previously seen the text of rejected motions there haven't been many such ideas in them, but hopefully this time was different and so autumn conference will be one part of fixing the issue.

  5. I wanted to contribute policy but a couple of things held me back: time, and that I haven't got enough of a presence in the party to be listened to. I've been told a couple of times that as a relatively new member I don't know the party. OOTH I've been encouraged by others. Maybe like Lev says I'll give it another go in the Autumn, once campaignings done this year.

    • Louise Shaw can't imagine who told you that – total nonsense. ( you may not have the time though!)

    • Simon McGrath it was during one of the debates on Liberal Left – I was told my perspective on the party (which is that I believe it to be a centrist party) was because I had only been in it under two years and really it was centre-left. This does make me wonder if my ideas on policy would be well received. Perhaps I shouldn 't care tho? David Rogers It was other priorities this time tho, and now canvassing has taken over. Maybe next year tho!

    • Pleas dont be held back by anyone from Liberal Left. I've been involved with party since 97 and wouldn't disagree with your standpoint. Many others passionately promote equidistance between Lab and Tory. Without it, Lab get to think we are teenage-like offshoot of generic lefties: hence their shabby approach to coalition talks and language of 'betrayal' thereafter.

    • Well, I just posted a reply along similar lines to your original response, Louise, on Mark's own Facebook link.

      Well, let me not grumble. Here is a policy idea: The FPC should start setting up a FPC travelling circus. We'd like them to be representative of the party at large anyway, and there is some regional representation there – let them organise regular grassroots policy meetings in all the larger cities, where people who don't seem to find it easy to get through with their ideas have a chance to have their ideas discussed. Make it informal and unthreatening, and be prepared to take ideas at a very early stage.

      And if somebody does come with a complaint rather than a policy idea, teach them to understand the difference and to make their complaint a starting point for a policy idea. If we involve people earlier on, and let them learn policy making by doing it, perhaps we also have a chance of getting more ideas from the grassroots in the end.

      (PS: if somebody can tell me where to feed in a whole range of policy ideas about universities – yes, that's policy, not just whinging – I'd like to hear about it. I submitted a motion, spoke at a consultation session and during a debate, talked to the apparently right people, but it seems to have all got stuck in the process called 'Facing the Future' which was going to cover pretty much anything already).

    • Simon McGrath I saw one of the occasions where that happened to Louise and in context I can understand why it was said. The individual in question also expressed much the same view to me another time, accompanied by suggestions I should be in another party.

      My own experience of policy development was pretty frustrating, we ended up in one area bound up in a state/ non-state debate and form a personal perspective the position that was being advocated wasn't founded in evidence. Fortunately that element was then removed from the proposal by FPC, although even then I'm not convinced by the reasons why it was removed.

    • I still don't really understand why it was said Alistair, perhaps you can explain it to me. TBH it is making me think a lot differently about the party at the moment – so perhaps you can shed some light on it for me?

    • Louise Shaw Probably best taken elsewhere. Essentially position power and an attempt to diminish your significance. It's quite a common defence mechanism where one has a degree of status that is under threat..

  6. This is a strange viewpoint, given the time constraints on the policy process governed by FCC. Even motions on, say, arms export controls (an area where there is significant Lib Dem policy, firmly favouring radical reform of the current system that verges on the venal) cannot get debated due to lack of time. The same constraint meant that my attempts to pass policy on pubs – not a particularly esoteric subject – was doomed never to succeed, even though the motion was passed at Regional Conferences and had broad support. This enabled a Lib Dem minister to do the direct opposite. The problem is the constraint of Conference time, and the ability of FPC to pass interim policy has been severely limited (against calls from me and others).

  7. We need to have a policy focus at autumn conference then. Nothing worthwhile gets removed – if there's not enough time, lose some fringe events. Policy > Beer.

  8. I'd observe that since we entered coalition a lot of the energy that was formerly put into developing policies appears to be going into challenging what's now being implemented.

    There is also the potential that being in government has exposed that some of our policies are unrealistic and impractical when faced with the harsh realities of implementation. It's not out of the question that many implementable policies are not being proposed as a result of that.

  9. There is a feeling among many grassroots members that if you put detailed policies to federal conference committee they will not be tabled for debate. Conference committee could do a lot more compositing and taking of short amendments with specific proposals. For example it has a policy of opposing voting by parts on specific clauses.

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