Rethinking policy

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Over at OpenDemocracy / OurKingdom, I’ve written a think piece about how we might rethink the Lib Dems’ policy making process. There’s lots more I could have put in there about increasing the level of deliberation and the role of local parties in the process, but I was wary of getting too technical.

With the leadership debate getting into the swing of things, now would seem like a good time to have a debate on this. This is only my first attempt to get my head around things; I accept for example that in practice the difference between short term policy and long term vision is not as clear cut as it might be. But overall, I stand by my overall claim that the party needs to put much more emphasis on vision and worry less about the parliamentary party’s role in developing and adapting policy.

9 thoughts on “Rethinking policy

  1. So could one paraphrase you as arguing for essentially two sets of policy discussions, one at local level let us say “pre”-conference, then that gets transmuted into a vision discussed and refined “at” conference, then another separate discussion at parliamentary level “post”-conference which will actually make the policy – and which may take rather different meanings from the vision than those originally intended by the local parties? (the quotes because I comprehend this would be a rolling process).

    There is possibly an element of the tea-strainer about this. As you say yourself, policy and vision are two different things and once you start dealing in the generalities of vision you lose the policy detail which may be the important point as far as the originating local party are concerned. Why not, in that case, have the two things discussed under openly different headings? If you’re going to get the local parties to have regular policy discussion, they might just as well feed up the fine detail as a generalised summary of it.

    As a separate point, surely strong localism and a comparative lack of coherent vision are connected anyway, the first being a cause of the second?

    So many questions…

  2. I think there’s also the issue of local policy vs national policy – in my experience, while local parties may not feed much into the national policy debate, it’s because they’re concerned with what they can do locally. It’s much easier to get people to take part in a discussion about what we’re going to do about traffic in the High Street, for instance, where their views could be in a local manifesto in 6 months time, compared to being part of a national process where they’ll just be feeding into a process in which their view may be reflected in a policy that might be debated at conference next year sometime.

  3. James, is what you are suggesting here perhaps not so much a change of process as a change of habit.

    Proposers of resolutions should be focussing on longer term policies, which include a framework of priorities and values to inform the shadow cabinet, rather than proposing too-specific short term policies.

    That they don’t do this – that they don’t always think in terms of a division of labour that includes the frontbenchers, but instead try to do the whole job – is a habit.

    And there is still the occasion when there would be understandable open rebellion if the process prevented certain kinds of issues going to a vote.

  4. Yes, an important debate to be had. I remember all too well the unsatisfactory conclusion of the “Meeting the Challenge” conference. I agree with you that really FE and FPC should be elected under one member one vote. Ordinary members are inevitably excluded and I am sure in many cases the cliques that run a lot of our local parties hold sway. I worry constantly about how unrepresentative we are. As you know, I bang on about the issue of women, but I know myself, that as a mother of young children, working full time (including an average of 3 evenings a week) I had little or no opportunity to be involved in my local party until my children were grown up. It was far easier for me to be a trade union activist (which I was) than a party activist. I felt I had something to offer to policy development and debate but had no way to do so. Instead my energy for many years went elsewhere.

    There will be another January conference which will confront some of these issues, but I worry that the search for the “big idea” may turn out to be a hostage to fortune. I have a theory, an old one, one has to build on sound foundations. Our foundations are our values………..a pal of mine used to say – we ought to be tight on values then we can be loose on everything else, instead we tend to be tight on everything else and loose on values. Er……………….so……………..! Your analysis of the strengths of Nick and Chris are sound……..if you think about us as a product it is scary. We know how we are going to sell the product (strategy) we know who is best to sell it (communications)……….are we clear about what the product is???????????!!!!

  5. Or, disagreeing with myself now, the danger is that values can be all apple pie, visions can be all things to all people. Principles don’t do a lot of heavy lifting in working out actual policies. To really show where we stand we have to debate and vote on some specific short-term policies.

  6. Joe – what you say needn’t be contradictory, why not have the explicit aim of discussing both, and at all levels? I think even the fact of separating out discussion of policy from discussion of principles would be a valuable exercise, whether we’re talking about the parliamentary end or the local end of the process.

    The phrase “we ought to be tight on values then we can be loose on everything else” sounds horribly Orwellian to me. Actually, not Orwellian, who do I mean? Panglossian maybe. I wonder if Labour insiders were saying something very similar in 1995-7. Surely their history has shown that if you stop discussing the detail as a party in favour of adopting the loose values propagated by a highly communicative figurehead, sooner or later you lose control of the policy-making process and the figurehead is free to reinterpret values.

    Ironically maybe, it seems to me that one of the core values attached to liberalism is an inclination to roll your sleeves up and get on with it, so perhaps the excess of detail debate is simply indicative of that.

  7. Lots of things to deal with here…

    First of all, I’m not sold on OMOV for committee elections myself. The membership is largely indifferent and turnout in those elections is poor enough as it is. Plus, the real issue for me with those committees is accountability. If they were elected by OMOV, conference would not be able to hold them to account. Not that conference ever does hold them to account (the FE for example sorely requires a rocket under its arse), but still.

    Secondly, I take Joe’s point about this being a change of practice rather than a constitutional change, but I don’t accept that values can or should be all things to all people.

    To take one of my main hobby horses for example, shifting the burden of taxation off incomes and onto resource use (including land!) is a highly contentious principle even within the party. It is also a classic difference between ourselves and the Conservatives (Bt. Gideon Osborne is certainly keen to assert the Tories the other way at the moment). We’ve never had a serious debate about it because it is a long term aspiration which the party has never let get in the way of coming up with ever more complicated forms of income tax. If support of this principle were actually applied on the other hand, you can bet it would be vigourously debated.

  8. Ah then I mean something else by “values”. I was just advocating against wiffliness, whereby tax policy discussions get summarised as “Taxation should be fairer” – which could mean all things to all people, and shouldn’t.

    LVT and the system it implies is one example of a great big easily distinguishable “value” that translates straightforwardly into policy. But what (and I’m shamelessly using you as an encyclopaedia here) are the others? Surely the values we could come up with in relation to e.g. Europe, crime, transport are going to be less specific, hence more open to interpretation. Even our civil liberties stance and the green tax switch are only truly unique in the nitty-gritty fact that we actually mean it and the policy detail reflects that. Other parties pay lip service to both ideas and are believed, so how could we ever come up with a “value” that demonstrated our all-singing, all-dancing radicalism in these areas in the same way LVT does in economic policy?

  9. In my article, I talk about longer term policy being “vision” – i.e. something more specific than our preamble but not something that is so specific that its effects would be relatively immediate. So for example, having a policy of Zero Carbon Britain by 2050 (or whenever) would count, as would (say) a policy of full employment.

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