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.


  1. To pick up the point about the Tory process: there is good reason to have a system that contains a certain amount inertia. The Tories have flip-flopped back and forth over tuition fees because the leader/education spokesman – well, the leader, let’s be honest – could wake up one morning and change their policy.

    However much some LibDem MPs may have wanted to drop the policy, the fact that it is a policy passed by conference at least means that they have to put together a motion and get it passed. There is a case for reforming the current process, but, as you say, not to go for the Tory option.

    There was little business in the main conference hall at the weekend that tickled my fancy, and my mind did wonder to how we could do things better. Consultations and more general debates at the core of conference do sound appealing.

  2. I don’t normally post “hear, hear” comments as they’re a bit pointless, but in this case I agree so profoundly and enthusiastically that I had to make an exception. It’s just ridiculous that policy working groups seem to disappear into a kind of purdah between the consultation paper and the policy paper. The “Meeting the Challenge” and CentreForum’s “Free-Think” sites are attempting to open up the process but the traffic seems low, perhaps not surprising given the appalling navigation design on the latter (or is it just me?). At the leadership hustings I attended, Ming spoke about getting ordinary members more involved in policy, so I hope we’ll see some movement soon

  3. Once in power the Labour Party writ large have had to settle for no direct input into policy formulation. Would you expect a LD Government to formulate policy via party mechanisms?

    No trip here – I am genuinely interested, because I do not know the answer to what seems to me a paradox: all parties of opposition include their membership in policy formulation and then ignore them when in government to greater or lesser degrees.

  4. Another ‘me too’ post. Although I’ve only been to one (regional) conference, policy votes did get to me, you can’t analyse a full policy properly at a conference of that size. Proper consultation and an inclusive process, that’d be interesting. Like the open mike idea.

  5. “Once in power the Labour Party writ large have had to settle for no direct input into policy formulation.”

    In fact, Labour anticipated all this which is why from the very outset they developed the “Partnership in Power” and hence the National Policy Forum.

    Yes, it has worked imperfectly, but the problem has not been that there have not been mechanisms but that it has been ignored. The problem we now see is a Labour Government completely out of touch with its membership, despite sharing such a broad, mutual programme. Having achieved agreement on the broad direction, Blair flunked it by loading it down with a dogmatic view on marketising public services to the point of absurdity (probation service being a case in point).

    Partnership in Power DID prevent a fullscale route in 2005 and I would argue the party has no choice but to embrace this mechanism fully if it is going to survive. Indeed there is evidence that it is now doing so, and expanding the process to include its registered supporters (another trick we should be paying close attention to).

    You need a feedback mechanism. Labour is painfully learning that lesson.

  6. Will’s point is a good one. The existing Lib Dem policy process has saved us on numerous occasions from making very bad mistakes. It is well known that Paddy Ashdown and the then-Education Secretary Don Foster were all for top up fees in 1997; the policy making process stopped them from making a decision that would have ripped the party apart. The policy making process also stopped the party from opposing minimum wage, something which six months after it had been implemented Vince Cable was forced to admit was a progressive reform that didn’t lead to economic catastrophe.

    But it also works against us. In my view, the topical motion on Iraq in Spring Conference 2003 was one of the most divisive and irresponsible debates we’ve ever had as a party. It caused people to leave the party (some of whom frankly were getting worked up about not a lot), and led to a clumsy formulation of words that made it appear to the media and critics to our left that we would oppose the war right up until the troops moved in, whereupon we would support it. In fact, our actual position was much more nuanced than that, but the motion – and the panic measure behind it – made us look daft.

    Sometimes, much as it pains people to admit it, when you have an incredibly complicated and swiftly changing issue such as a military operation, you have just got to leave the guys at the top decide what the party response will be. Having agreed a strategic position, the last thing we should have been doing was having a policy debate just days before the war was likely to begin.

  7. The Party’s policy-makng process has plenty of weaknesses but plenty of strengths.

    Policy by spokespeople’s ‘official announcement’ is a recipe for division and disaster, as James’ comments above show. One of the most truly scary concepts (and this is where Tim Leunig is half right) is that a self-appointed policy working group that is unrepresentative (not all are, but many are self-selecting and the risk is there) can and occasionally does produce a policy paper that is massively out of kilter with either previous documents, key party principles or the real world – or all three. Consultation responses as part of the normal party process are treated as an optional extra far too often.

    As regards the real world, the Party is getting a lot better at this – but the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.

    There is a separate issue about the best way of involving more MPs in the process.

  8. Richard Allan and I are going to change Make IT Policy into a blog + email list format as a ‘model’ for future policy consultation processes.

    Personally I’d like to see party spokespeople maintaining something similar for ongoing involvement of members and public in current policy issues.


  9. I suppose it is because the conference process is so tortuous, the quality of debate often indifferent, and the accuracy of the way in which members are represented so limited, that I am fairly relaxed about having spokespeople make stuff up on the hoof.

    Of course in that case, there is no debate and no involvement of membership, and that will cause a few bad policies to get through, and will, perhaps more seriously, reduce the ownership that members and activists feel they have of the party’s policies.

    Voting is limited to individual policies or issues, and yet the whole package must be coherent and attractive, so there must be at least some scope for the leadership to bend conference decisions. What is needed in the first instance, is more and better discussion fora for policy, and in the second, looking at potentially better democratic processes to give members a good dollop of control.

  10. There is a dilemma that simon and Joe address in different ways. Our model of democracy is representative democracy – the person making hte decision will carry the can if something goes wrong. It seems to me that one does not have this with conference decisions.

    I share the reservations on meeting the Challenge.

    I wonder if we ought to be building (more) detailed policy around a statement of values and approach. As I have said elsewhere, we often seem to be muddled on issues like bans, compulsion.

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