Sat in one of Parliament’s grander committee rooms, trying to pay more attention to the proceedings of a Federal Policy Committee (FPC) meeting than to the art on the walls, I was recently waiting my turn to question a Liberal Democrat government minister about a recent government announcement. As the sequence of questions moved around the table, heading towards where I was sat, I was struck by a simple question: what was the point of what I was about to say?
This wasn’t an existential crisis about the purpose of humanity and the roles of committees within it, nor doubts about the values of democracy and powers of ministers, but rather a simple calculation.
The government minister sat there had worked on the issue for months ahead of the announcement and would work again for months, if not years, on its implementation. During that time, thousands of expert, powerful, charismatic, moving and important people (along with quite a few others) would get to express views on it to the minister at rather greater length than I could in the time allowed for just one question (and even though some people try to shoehorn in a multiple-part question, all that usually results in is large parts of what they have asked being skipped in reply).
In amongst all that blizzard of other people outside the FPC meeting commenting for longer, what chance was there of my one brief contribution making a difference to anything at all?
Of course, I could ask something because I wanted to find out something for myself or because I wanted to get something off my chest. But saying in a year’s time ‘re-elect me to FPC so I can continue to feel better about myself’ wouldn’t be much of a slogan even in the rather arid field of internal committee election slogans. And even for a hardened political activist like me, addicted as I am to the internal workings of a political party, I know that if you want to learn things or make yourself happier, there are plenty of more effective and efficient ways of doing it than sitting in an internal committee meeting. AOB is fun, but not that fun.
So what chance was there of my one brief contribution making a difference to anything at all?
Listening to the contributions of my fellow committee members with that question in mind, some were, either knowingly or by luck, trying to produce a good response to that question with their own contributions. Claiming (sometimes justly) to be representing the views of many others, throwing in valuable experience on the topic or presenting critical evidence – all these tactics were on display from some although, with the best will in the world, I really struggled to divine what difference to anything many contributions would make.
My own attempted answer in the end was to look for a memorable analogy to make my point stick, hoping that it would therefore lodge in the back of the minister’s memory and tweak their conscience now and again as the issue plays out.
Whether you think my approach was right or not, and whether you would agree with my judgements on the other FPC members were I to name them and score each of their contributions on the ‘what chance of making a difference did their comments have?’ scale, one basic problem immediately arises for anyone voting in the next round of FPC elections. You will have no idea how good or bad the incumbents up for re-election are at this challenge.
Rules of secrecy
Given how much of FPC’s time is given over to questioning Liberal Democrat ministers, making good use of that time should be vital but – thanks to the FPC’s rules on secrecy, voters have almost no information on which to judge those incumbents. And that of course in turn means that the FPC collectively ends up making worse use of its time in such sessions because those elected members who do not make good use of them are no less likely to be re-elected as a result.
There are certainly areas in which the FPC’s secrecy rules could and should be relaxed – and hopefully my latest push to get all three of the party’s federal committees to regularly publish reports after their full meetings will have more consistent success than the previous efforts of myself and others. However, even an enthusiast for transparency such as myself has to concede that the FPC sessions with ministers are better for having a degree of secrecy, as that makes for franker discussions and more honest answers than is possible if everything is public.
But even if others cannot judge FPC members on this criteria, for me at least the direct lesson is clear after a year on the FPC: judge your questions of ministers by the yardstick of what has a chance of making an impact when they get 999 other questions too.
That question of what makes a difference also increasingly directs my contributions to the other big consumer of FPC meeting time: debating policy papers which will end up being put to party conference. Many of my colleagues will often spend much time debating the big controversial points in such draft papers. I can understand the attraction, but for me it has only limited value – after all, any big decision will go to conference and can be debated and voted on. Why spend much time debating the merits of a big issue when we all know it is then going to get debated and decided at conference anyway? It is not even as if ‘the FPC thinks you should vote this way…’ is an argument that carries much weight at conference.
For me, therefore, the more valuable way to spend time is to spend it on issues that are big enough to matter yet small enough that they would probably not make the cut for an amendment at conference.
As an example, on the party’s recent tax paper, I didn’t spend time talking about my views on a 50p top tax rate, knowing that Glasgow conference would debate it anyway, but instead used the time to push for details of tax treatment of peer-to-peer saving to be changed. A good way of using tax policy to encourage the sort of economic system we support in my book, but not quite a big enough change to have a chance of making it into policy if left to conference amendments and speeches.
Again, you may or may not agree with my approach, and you might think that FPC should spend more time instead on the big headline debates even though they will then be repeated at federal conference. Or you may even agree with my colleagues who think FPC time is good time to spend on verbally discussing small points of punctuation and grammar.
But again, too, because of FPC secrecy no matter how strongly you feel about this, you won’t be able to use it to judge support or opposition for candidates at the next FPC elections, save that now I have blown my cover and revealed myself as someone who thinks sub-optimal punctuation placement is best left to quick emails rather than discussion at FPC meetings.
Of course, you might be able to do better at casting votes based on such issues if FPC candidates talked more about them in their committee election manifestos. Mea culpa: I did not really in mine last time round.
My excuse? Being new to the whole thing then, I didn’t realise these would end up being two important ways by which I would determine my committee contributions. In part, that was because no-one else previously talked about them in their manifestos that I had read in previous years either. Sorry about that. I will try to do better next time.
The secrecy problem will still be there however – and all the more so if the issues on which you wish to judge people are neither of the two that for me are increasingly clearly the key to being effective FPC members.
For example, one of my fellow committee members does not believe in appointing experts to policy working groups. Their logic? That experts already have views, and they would rather policy working groups came to issues with an open mind. Agree or not with the point, as discussions about who to appoint to working groups are confidential, again voters cannot cast verdicts on what incumbents do – and the secrecy also means that it is hard for both voters and new candidates to identify that such issues are relevant and therefore ones to ask or talk about. Initiatives such as Jennie Rigg’s public blogging of questions and answers directed to candidates at the last federal committee elections are brilliant – but still run into this secrecy problem.
So whilst I have learnt two useful things about my own contributions to FPC in my first year, I have also learnt one useful thing about the intermittent debates over how the FPC and other federal committees are elected.
The usual debate, picking up a bit of steam again recently, is over whether the electorate should be conference reps or all party members. The choice of electorate is important, but a meaningful debate about party democracy and the FPC has to include far more than just the electorate.
If you don’t know what incumbents get up to and get told so little about the committee’s work that it is hard to work out what are the most important issues and skills, then even giving the vote to the right selection of people does not make for that much of a democracy.
This article first appeared in the latest edition of Liberator.