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Policy making as if it mattered

We’re all modernisers now, then. Personally, I detest the word. I don’t want to come over all Hoggartesque, but would anyone in politics ever claim to be an antiquator? It is a banal label that is used to present yourself as dynamic and forward looking, regardless of what you’re actually proposal.

The problem is, a lot of “modernisers” seem to be stuck in a very antiquated vision of party politics. I’m not making cheap jibes about “modernisers” wanting to emulate Gladstone, my concern here is the disdain a lot of self-appointed “modernisers” have for observing a formal policy development process, and a preference for a model whereby MPs essentially dominated political parties and members were merely keen supporters.

Over the past year, we’ve been moving increasingly towards a system of policy making by spokesperson diktat. We had it with David Laws’ pensions review in November. Increasingly we’re seeing major policy announcements being made in press releases without recourse to the party’s policy committee. It remains to be seen to what degree the new management will encourage or discourage it.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m no fan of the status quo. Over the past few years I have become less and less tolerant of policy making by conference resolution. There are three reasons for this: firstly, conference doesn’t adequately represent the whole membership and is under no pressure to do so. Secondly, it is uneccesarily divisive. Thirdly, it doesn’t change hearts and minds – it has the effect of entrenching opinion. You can win all the conference debates in the world and still never get anywhere. Trust me: when I worked for LDYS I had a proud record of never losing a single conference debate, yet the party’s 2001 manifesto had virtually none of the education policy we spent so long getting passed at conference in 1999.

However, it would be a mistake to replace it with a Tory-style system of whatever the leader says. I get the impression that some people in the Lib Dems, mainly Tory defectors, go all a-quiver at the prospect of being told what to think by a bunch of MPs. Yet it needs to be remembered that it hasn’t done the Tories many favours in the past. Labour, which has a formally very inclusive process which is generally ignored by its leadership, is now facing itself in a crisis with only activism decreasing at a faster rate than membership. What we should be moving towards is a policy development system that is more deliberative, more inclusive and is hardwired into the party’s communications strategy. It’s a tough challenge, but it can be met.

Meeting the Challenge has been a small baby step in that direction, but while some senior party officers appear to think it is a radical shift, we need to recognise that it doesn’t nearly go far enough. We need to do much more than simply produce a pack for local parties on holding a consultation meeting to adapt as they wish, and instead provide some leadership. We need a much easier “in” on the website than a series of long essays that will simply put the majority of people off, and provide a forum for people to discuss simple issues. We need to be using the process to at all times sell the party itself, our values and the fact that membership buys you a stake in the party. In short, we need to borrow shamelessly from Labour’s Big Conversation, only without the stage management and spin.

And yes, to pick up on an earlier debate, we do need to include qualititive and quantitive opinion polling in the policy development stage. The alternative – and the current situation – is far worse. If this sort of analysis is left until the end, we get what we had in 2005: a series of policy bites that don’t string togethert which happened to be the most popular in an opinion poll. Instead of settling for the fact that very few people are interested in constitutional reform, for instance, we should be exploring how it can be made more of a popular issue. Polling makes a poor master, but it can be a useful servent.

Let’s have a situation whereby the final “white papers” at the end of a consultation process don’t simply make policy pronouncements but are required to summarise the responses received and any polling data commissioned. Let’s have formal submissions posted on the party’s website for people to read. After all, we believe in openness and transparency don’t we? Let’s encourage people to both take part in the debate and have an informed opinion, rather than accept whatever the final report tells them.

Let’s have less policy at conference – after nearly 20 years, one thing the party doesn’t lack is policy. Move the consultation sessions from the graveyard slots and into the heart of conference. Allow for regular, “open mike” sessions on general themes such as education and crime which don’t make specific policy but the minutes of which will be formally tabled at a subsequent policy committee for consideration. If we have less space for policy, let’s have some kind of prioritisation. If you ask me, yes, we should replace the current “18” registration for films to be replaced by a “16” rating, but I don’t consider it to be a priority for a Lib Dem government. Ditto abolishing the monarchy. Ditto boycotting Nestle (mea culpa).

In short, we should have less policy, and do it better. There remains the issue of “interim policy” where a spokesperson has to come up with a response to a topical issue which the formal processes are simply too slow to handle. We need to see the parliamentary party to stop seeing the Policy Committee as an obstacle and instead work with it. Generally speaking, the spokespeople who do tend to get their way in any case, while the ones that don’t cause unneccesary irritation.

One change I think the party needs to consider is whether it was wise to prevent MPs from being able to stand for direct election onto federal committees. The thinking behind this in 1998 was that the parliamentary party was a small, fairly homogenous group, which managed to dominate federal committees disproportionately. Yet, the parliamentary party is no longer small, and is subsequently far less homogenous. This ban has institutionalised a “them vs us” culture which I don’t think is helpful. It is time we went back to the old model.

Having read Ming’s manifesto, I expect to see some significant changes over the next few months. I agree with the analysis that “activists” currently have too much say in the process, but it would be a gross mistake to conclude that we subsequently need to shift everything to the MP’s favour. Rather, we need a new contract that gives MPs, activists and other members a stake and ensures that when a decision is made, it is meaningful and consensual wherever possible.

The Review Without End

I have to admit to feeling a little deflated having spent a lot of time running the Reflecting Britain website. This weekend, the Lib Dem Spring Conference passed a motion on encouraging more ethnic minority MPs. Although you can’t sum up a strategy as wide as that in a single motion, the fact is, the donkey work has already been done. As Ming Campbell pointed out in his pitch, the motion essentially reiterates the action plan worked out in great detail by a working group that reported back to the party’s Federal Executive as far back as 2004. Essentially, the intent of this motion was to kickstart a process that had already been agreed.

What happened instead was an amendment got passed to hold a review of the process and report back to the Autumn Conference. The FE is to “consider” the plan (which it has already approved, let’s not forget), but not necessarily go along with it.

This would annoy me slightly less were it not for the fact that the review promised in the motion was promised as a “top priority” for the FE to work on immediately after the General Election. For the last 12 months, we’ve had a succession of FE decisions, and another conference motion on gender balance last autumn. In short, we have an extremely clear action plan on both ethnic diversity and gender balance, yet we are still holding yet another review. I can’t help shifting the suspicion that we will continue having reviews until the FE and conference come up with what certain senior party officials consider the “right” answer. Until then, it is review after review after review.

For me, this will be a major test of Ming Campbell’s leadership. Let’s be clear: Ming and Simon Hughes profoundly disagree on this issue. Look at their responses to Reflecting Britain: Ming‘s approach is essentially mentoring and support; Simon‘s approach is focused around twinning and zipping seats on a gender and ethnic minority basis. Look closer and you will see that Simon wants to bring staff support for both initiatives directly under Cowley Street control, something that has been resisted and that Simon was overwhelmingly voted down on less than 12 months ago.

Why is this an appallingly bad idea? Simply because the purpose of the task forces are to find, train and support individuals standing in target seats. In order for it to work, they have to function as honest brokers who will support people on an equal opportunity basis regardless of any particular campaign priority or agenda. Often that means pitching candidates against “favoured sons” that the Campaigns Department is keen to retain. As soon as this is brought under direct Cowley Street control, doubly so if they are made into a single unit as Simon wants, you create a conflict of interest. What the task forces do will be subject to what the Campaigns Department regards as a priority; in short, the role will be politicised so that it is open to the charge that favoured sons will be protected while troublemakers will be targeted in the name of diversity.

You may accuse me of being paranoid, but that is EXACTLY what a senior party officer called for the last time this was reviewed (Chatham House rules prevent me from saying who). And of course, it is exactly what we have seen happening within Labour and appear to be seeing to an extent with Cameron’s “A” list.

Good intentions about diversity should not be used as a tool for increasing centralised control. It was very bad judgement on behalf of the London Region to accept the amendment which essentially drove a coach and horses through everything they wanted in the name of holding yet another godforsaken review. But as well as the centralisation, it is the lack of urgency that depresses me. While Ming was speaking in Harrogate today, the Politics Show had a piece on how the Tories’ diversity strategy has been proceeding. I might take issue with how they’re doing it, but there is no question they are making a serious effort and are likely to get tangible results. By contrast, Harrogate Conference agreed to put the Lib Dem’s strategy on hold until at least the end of May and, to a real extent, until the end of September. How many target seats will have selected by then?

UPDATE: Mark Valladares gives his version of events. Sorry mate, you’ve been had. I’m not suggesting we won’t get the right decision in the end, but it will take us considerably longer for us to get there. And as I’ve said twice before, the review happened in 2004…

Duncan Brack on Equality

I’m surprised this article on Equality by Vice Chair of the Meeting the Challenge working group Duncan Brack hasn’t provoked any discernable debate so far. No doubt everyone has had other distractions this week. I certainly don’t have time to deal with it in depth right now.

It is laying down the gauntlet to quite a serious ideological debate however. Brack’s argument is that inequality lies at the heart of the problems we face with health, quality of life and crime issues, while other commentators such as Andy Mayer are quite contemptuous of such notions.

I’m not saying I agree with every word that Brack has written – I certainly don’t share his warm feelings towards the egalitarianism of income tax – but I do think it is a serious challenge to the classical liberals within the party that they need to answer.

Renewing Liberal Britain

A couple of weeks ago I critiqued Jeremy Hargreaves’ take on what the Lib Dems’ narrative should be. But it isn’t good enough simply to criticise; far too few people are taking part in this crucial debate and so I thought it was time to try and work out some tentative ideas of my own.

So, here goes. My proposed narrative would be “Renewing Liberal Britain.” To use the archetypes spelled out in Neil Stockley’s article, this would seek to combine the “Great Island Nation” with the “Enemy Within”. The premise is that most of what makes Britain great can be summed up as liberal values: tolerance, democracy, liberty, questioning authority, sang froid (if you’ll pardon my French), entrepreneurship, concern for the individual and the underdog and an instinctive dislike of the mob. Those values are embraced by politicians from other parties who seek power (Blair, Cameron…) and dumped, just as quickly, by the same people, once they get in power.

In short, I’m proposing embrace and develop a liberal form of patriotism, one which doesn’t wrap itself in the Union Jack in the way that Gordon Brown has been doing of late. A deliberate, unapologetic and calculated exposition of how what one might call “drawbridge down” values aren’t simply more rational, but go to the heart of the British identity.

These values are under threat like never before. New Labour, having successfully co-opted them in 1997 with their themes of “Cool Britannia” and “things can only get better” have done more to undermine them than anyone else. David Cameron is now adopting the same 1997 approach, despite the fact that his party has always been the historical opponents of liberal Britain. Why should we believe that the self-appointed heir to Blair would behave any differently to Blair if he ever gained power? The Liberal Democrats, by contrast, are liberal Britain’s traditional champions.

Where does that leave the individual? The individual is at the heart of British identity. As Adam Smith liked to say, we are a nation of shopkeepers. The fight for individual rights and human dignity is the story behind the Magna Carta, the Civil War, the Bill of Rights, the Free Trade Movement and the creation of the Welfare State. But we’ve drifted. Britain has reached a point where there needs to be a new constitutional settlement. To be frank, Parliamentary Sovereignty has let us down and we need something a little more substantial to guarantee our rights and freedoms.

Anyway, it isn’t there yet and I clearly need to develop things further, but what do you think? Comments in the usual place, please.

I bet you think this blog is about you

Deputy Chair of the Lib Dem Federal Policy Committee Jeremy Hargreaves has made this contribution to the Meeting the Challenge website. Here, he outlines his proposed “narrative”:

It’s About You: putting you in control of your own life (and actively equipping you to be so), and making our shared institutions accountable to you.

I think he’s halfway there, which is a slightly nicer way of putting “he’s very, very wrong.” It isn’t that I’m opposed to a people centred politics, I just think that put like that it sounds very harsh, very consumerist and, frankly, very much like the Pre-Cameron Conservatives.

The most crucial criticism of this is that it isn’t all about you. It’s about your friends, your family, your community/ies. It’s about everyone you’ve ever cared for. It’s about your unborn children and grandchildren, nephews and neices. It’s about that poor starving African you’ve never met who you thought buying a wristband would help.

The point is, humans are by their very nature social creatures. If you want to be me going all Darwinian, there may be a bit of enlightened self-interest at play here, but what it basically boils down to is that no person is an island, and we should be wary of sounding as if we think that.

That isn’t to say the individual isn’t important. Of course we want to empower the individual. But that is because we have an optimistic view of human nature. Liberals believe that if you give people the means, broadly speaking they will be good citizens. Socialists believe it has to be done for them collectively while Conservatives don’t believe in good citizens in the first place. If liberalism didn’t contain within it that fundamental belief in human nature, it would be a dead philosophy.

In short, we should be individualist. But we should be championing an individualism that leads to strong communities and a more global conscience, not an individualism for its own sake.

I think it is important to reflect on Neil Stockley’s narrative archetypes:

  • The Politics of Hope
  • The Aspiring Individual
  • The Politics of Fear
  • The Enemy Within

Clearly, Jeremy has placed his flag squarely on “The Aspiring Individual” one. But that only tells us half the story. As Neil points out, Thatcher was keen on this, but she was also playing “The Enemy Within” card.

Ironically, I think we should consider doing the same. I hasten to add however that our “enemy” is very different from Thatcher’s! The “rot” we want to stop is mindless bureaucracy, centralisation, an anti-democratic culture (much of which the legacy of Thatcher herself of course). The reason we want to stop this rot is that it is destroying our ability to make meaningful choices about our own quality of life. Fundamentally, it is destroying our ability to care, leading to a rise in anti-social behaviour, lack of democratic participation and general engagement with society. It isn’t just about the right to choose school X or hospital Y, which is how the “choice agenda” is generally framed.

I’m not there myself yet: I still haven’t worked out how to distill this down to a few phrases. But we can’t afford to go into the general election sounding like rampant individualists. To quote a certain Mr Cameron: “we’re all in this together”.

The tax shift

Despite being the late entrant, Chris Huhne has already been more successful than any other candidate in this race in terms of shifting the debate onto both policy in general and his agenda in particular. As has been mentioned elsewhere, he was the only one on Saturday who made a point of talking about the need for the party to improve its Parliamentary Gender Balance; now they’re all talking about it.

He has also brought with him not just environmental rhetoric but environmental policies. Ming announced his top three priorities on Friday as being “the environment, the environment and the environment” yet thus far has been rather sketchy on details. Chris on the other hand has been quite clear: he wants to see a radical tax shift off income and onto resource taxation.

The party has been paying lip service to this idea since at least 1998 and Paddy Ashown’s post-97 policy review yet has always been forced into the background as the front bench has competed with itself in what clever income tax policies it can come up with next. So we had the penny-in-the-pound. So we have local income tax and the 50p rate. Over the past few years I have grown increasingly desperate over this, unable to see how it makes any economic sense whatsoever. Finally, someone is prepared to use his time in the media spotlight to put a contrary view and I am delighted.

Not so some of my fellow bloggers. Militant Ken feels that we shouldn’t be calling for a tax shift at all, but instead should plough the money we raise into environmental schemes. Missionary Iain on the other hand feels that Huhne is being, to use a Sir Humphreyism, “courageous”. I’m delighted we are finally having this debate, and respectfully disagree.

With regard to Ken’s argument I will simply say this: no-one is saying we shouldn’t invest in environmental schemes. But what we are saying is that the overall level of tax should not be raised. To go into the next election saying otherwise would truly be suicide, especially since we would be raising revenue through what are often caricatured as “stealth taxes”. But fundamentally, what this policy is saying is that individuals should be entitled to keep more of a proportion of their income. In return, when they use a service, they should have to pay more in terms of its environmental externalities.

In a lot of cases it isn’t a matter of taking the car or taking the bus; it is a case of using the car less. Reduction should be our priority, not encouraging greener alternatives to current levels of consumption.

There’s also only so much we can do with subsidies. The rail industry receives more state aid than it ever did before privatisation, yet every time that money is increased, costs simply go up and we are back where we started. That is the perversity of using public money to shore up unpopular services.

Surely, and I’m not suggesting there isn’t a balance to be struck, but it would be better for people to use their own money to choose whatever service suits them, even if it costs a bit more, than for the state to choose what service is best for them and then subsidise it (God I sound very Reform there – I should add that I’m talking about things like transport here not health!)?

Iain worries, if I may paraphrase, if this isn’t too much too fast. Where I would concur is that we would have to come up with some kind of safety net – some way of ensuring that the poorest in society can still adequately pay for heat and light. Beyond that though, I think it is a strong message. Raising personal allowance in the way Huhne suggests would lead to a big net increase for most wage-earners and I think they would respond well to the idea of being able to take more personal responsibility over both their own lives and their own environment.

The messages will be absolutely vital here, but I think we are helped by Cameron wanting to shift onto this ground. My suspicion is that Dave will want to essentially adopt the line being taken by Mark Oaten this evening – that rather than talking about the environment in terms of taking a bit of pain now in order to avoid bigger problems down the line, all we have to talk about is simple pain-free solutions such as money off council tax for recycling and pretending that bio-ethanol will allow us to carry on as before. It will certainly have its detractors and I don’t see the Truckers Lobby liking it very much, but it will look more credible and make us look like we are prepared to be more honest about what needs to be done. Lembit’s analysis on Meeting the Challenge that we should be more willing to take risks suggests to me that he is backing the wrong candidate here.

But we won’t get anywhere unless we are willing to champion it as one of our Big Ideas. That means doing everything we did a couple of years ago – and more – with local income tax. It won’t be an easy sell, but I really believe that if we sell it with conviction we can significantly shift the debate onto our ground over the next couple of years.

This is exactly the sort of thing I want this party of ours to be doing and I’m delighted to be supporting a candidate who wants to lead in this direction as well.

Telling stories

I’ve more or less given up on my attempt to blog the Meeting the Challenge paper – I found it too rigid a structure around which to frame my thoughts. But I did get stirred up by the plenary session at yesterday’s conference about narrative (more about which you can read here).

In short, I found this session a frustrating waste of time. A lot of the contributions were of value, but the discussion, as set out by Lord Rennard in the first five minutes, about about the party’s core messages which are not, as I understand it, the same thing as a narrative. Unfortunately there was no-one on the panel to give a countervailing view.

To be fair, I think the narrative idea causes a lot of confusion and I’m not sure I understand it myself 100%. But one thing I am clear about: there is no such thing as having “no narrative”. It is not an optional bolt-on to make you more electable. If as a party you choose not to think about crafting your narrative your opponents and the media will craft it for you.

For all our talk about being the “real alternative” in the last election (a slogan), our actual narrative in 2005 was this (or an approximation of it):

The Lib Dems are set to make gains in this election, largely due to Labour’s unpopularity because of the Iraq War and tuition fees. They hope to “decapitate” the Conservative Party by using tactical voting to get the desirable scalps of senior Tory politicians. They are the most high tax of the main parties, and will introduce a 50p income tax rate on incomes over £100,000. They oppose council tax and want to replace it with local form of income tax, which is criticised by their opponents for hurting middle income families.

Their leader is a nice man, a “fully paid up member of the human race”. But there are concerns that he is not up for the job. His wife is about to have a baby.

You might want to argue about the specifics of this, but my point is this: our narrative was a mixture of our message, our opponent’s message about us and media speculation. Talk of “decapitation”, “high taxes” and Charles’ personal problems were rather unhelpful for us, at least as far as some groups were concerned. Other bits were useful.

My very important point is this: we do not own our narrative, all we can do is influence it. Wanting to narrow the debate down to what our messages should be is to miss the point. And if we are on the subject of narratives, we should also be talking about ways we might want to shape our opponent’s narratives.

Secondly, to a certain extent now is the worst possible time to be talking about narrative as a large chunk of it will be crafted by the leadership campaign. The story of our leader will be part of the story of the party, and whatever else we want to say must be shaped with that in mind.

Ming’s story for example is that of the elder statesman. This is both a positive and negative thing. Andrew Rawnsley today veers towards the positive, and ekes out the other important point about Ming: he has a humble background and has pulled himself up with his bootstraps. There is a lot there that looks like a good antidote to the Cameron effect. But there is also the question of his age – already a major theme in his current media profile – which could seriously undermine him.

Simon’s story is that of an energetic inner city politician, a religious man with a social conscience, but with a reputation for chaos and for being a little dated. To me, there is very little in that that works in opposition to Cameron. He lacks the statesmanlike qualities of Ming and perversely, despite being 10 year’s Campbell’s junior, comes across as rather more old fashioned. On that basis, I think he would be a poor choice, but that isn’t to say we can’t find ways of countering if minus points in other ways. We do however, need to be thinking about it.

Leaving aside my personal opposition to him, Mark’s narrative is that of the professional marketing man with a photogenic family who wants to drive the party forward into the 21st century. And he is the loyalty candidate who stood behind Charles while others plotted against him. However, as far as the media is concerned he is a bit of an unknown quantity, and that perception shows signs of changing. His launch has been less than slick, contradicting his professional reputation. And his claims to be the loyalty candidate look less and less credible as it emerges that he cannot rely on more than a couple of MPs willing to actually support him and tempers calm as the party slowly begins to adjust to the post-Kennedy era. Indeed, I would say that of the four candidates, he is the one who most lacks a narrative, and that is undermining him quite severely.

Chris’ narrative by contrast is currently shaped not by reputation but a lack of it. Thus far it has been summed up in three words “dark green horse“. In many respects this very much works to his advantage because it means that his narrative will be shaped by the election itself. He has already been very successful at making the green agenda his own and has intellectual respectability. If he can demonstrate his political skills over the next few weeks, then he will have real momentum. While Campbell is the perfect “anti-Cameron”, Huhne is the perfect “conviction Cameron” – someone with a similar agenda to Cameron but with a track record that suggests he actually means it. That is a very tempting prospect and one reason why I am supporting (the other being that I happen to like what he’s actually saying!).

The point of this article is to make one very simple point: talking about narrative as if we have a blank slate to start and are in isolation to everything else with is futile. Our first step must be to identify, as clearly and honestly as possible, what the various narratives (our party, our opponents, the state of the nation) actually are, and then look at how we would want to change them. Our tools most certainly are our policies, our slogans and our messages, but this shouldn’t be our starting point.

Generational Theft?

I spoke at a breakout session at yesterday’s Meeting the Challenge conference called “Generational Theft?” and organised by Liberator (or more precisely Simon Titley). I thought I’d put my own thoughts on how the debate went here, if for nothing else than to help Simon with his official report.

The other speakers were Ed Vickers and Simon Bryceson. Given that they clearly knew far more about what they were talking about than me, I was flattered to have been asked to be on the platform, but I like to think I may have made some contribution in terms of bringing the discussion onto campaign strategy and policy ideas. And since I don’t know the names of all the contributors, and they might object to me quoting them here in what was a frank discussion, I shall adopt Chatham House rules. Continue reading Generational Theft?