Continuing her series of guest posts, Party President candidate Linda Jack today sets out in more detail her plans for the party’s policy process.
You can read Linda’s first guest post, Linda Jack sets our her plans for party reform: four problems to fix, here along with my thoughts on one of her ideas in that first post. Her second post is also online: Linda Jack: too many of our members believe they are taken for granted, and that their hard work merely creates opportunities for a party elite.
Linda Jack: Restore, Renew, Respect – Effective policy making that respects our internal democracy
I have always been proud to be able to state that as Liberal Democrats we have the most democratic policy making processes of all the major UK parties. However, I would argue that since being in coalition this has become true more in theory than in practice.
Constitutionally the party membership has sovereignty , this being exercised primarily through our Party Conference, with its agendas comprising major policy motions that have been prepared by the Federal Policy Committee alongside those submitted by members, local parties and SAOs.
So far, so good. But what happens afterwards? Some motions are apparently ‘adopted’ by the leadership, some are seemingly recognised but not strictly adhered to, and many others seem to be ignored, perhaps being used a gauge of popular sentiment. Put simply, there appear to be no fixed or discernible rules as to how these different decisions are reached.
I believe that our manifesto development process is a real opportunity for meaningful engagement of ordinary party members. I want to consult much more on the process, and ask some fundamental questions. Do we need more local meetings, particularly in held and target seats? Could we have online ballots for member’s top ten priorities to engage the wider membership further? How do we ensure that Conference gets to vote on the controversial as well as the ‘safe’ ideas, ideas which at the moment are too often discarded earlier in the process, depriving members the opportunity to debate them where it counts, at our conference?
I acknowledge that there can be persuasive ‘reasons’ for ‘glossing’ over Conference policy decisions. First, our MPs and leaders must deal with policy issues as they arise, and even if in coalition have to respond to policy proposals of the day from the government, some urgent. Second, Conference motions, other than those commissioned by FPC, are usually brief and can lack a rigorous evidence base. And of course, as ‘Yes Minister’ so aptly demonstrated, it is the unusual Parliamentarian who on taking office does not want to mark their mark by creating a new policy initiatives, unfortunately frequently taking scant regard of our formal Conference policy processes.
When in government the majority of policy proposals that Ministers grapple with comes from civil servants, often second-hand from lobbyists or sectional ministerial interests. In coalition our Party has often struggled to keep up with this relentless flow of ‘expert’ policy changes, something I think is to the detriment of our party’s own democratic processes, and our country’s well-being.
My view is that our party’s policy making system is opaque, meaning that the importance role of Conference in the policy making is compromised. I am aware that it would be counter-productive to have a rigid system of mandating Parliamentarians, but I believe that we must deal with the perception held by too many members and activists that they are ‘shut out’. Fundamentally I believe that we need more clarity on the status of different policy making activities, and much better synchronisation between the different components our our party.
I have four key proposals to address these problems.
First, we need to accept the reality that conference policy is representative, rather than necessarily expert. Conference itself should be able to commission reviews. In addition, we should accept that the best experts on a subject may not be party members, although they may be supporters of our principles. Other parties involve experts in their policy making process regardless of their party allegiances. We need to consider how we can do this more effectively, while maintaining the clear sovereignty of party members. This will help particularly in considering the problems of implementation and will help Parliamentarians and others use policy to greater effect.
Second, policy reviews themselves need strengthening. They need a framework of ‘best practice’ (in problem-identification and problem-solving), a wider trawl amongst members for expertise, and new tough ‘conflicts-of-interest’ provisions. As with other party bodies, the party centrally must make more effort to ensure greater participation, for example by investing in a video conferencing system. As someone who has attended many telephone conference meetings it is hugely frustrating not to see who is speaking and prevents participants from actively engaging with each other.
Third, we have to deal with the disconnect between our leadership and the public. We need feedback mechanisms between the wider party and the leadership, to allow information to be transmitted easily and quickly, for instance on the outcomes of government policy. If our members become aware that something is not working, or is obviously beginning to fail, they should be able to tell the leadership without hindrance. The ‘bedroom tax’ is a good example of where such a system would have been invaluable. We have the capacity, and the activists, to provide much more real time useable feedback.
Finally, the distance between party policy and political strategy (e.g. coalition negotiations) has also been too wide. Part of my approach will be to address this disconnect, and arrive at a framework for policy priorities which has the support of the membership and would include at least one joint meeting of FE and FPC a year to ensure a more joined up and streamlined approach.
I believe that if we can adopt and develop these processes and ideas, we will in time create a counterbalance to the hidden power of the British state, and help bring policy making back into the democratic arena.