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.