The Liberal Democrat policy process is broken.

I’ve been thinking for a while that the way the party makes policy is not fit for purpose and needs fundamental change. Having spent probably far too much time over the last few days responding to a couple of policy consultations — as well as seeing the recent storm over the consultation about immigration policy — those thoughts have crystallised and I now think the policy process needs to be completely changed from top to bottom.

The current system is normally championed as being one in which every member gets the chance to have a say in policy, but that say gets so swallowed up by the various cogs of the process that any individual voice is ground down to a mush by the time any policy is passed. In theory it looks simple — propose a policy to Conference, have a debate on it, get a majority to vote on it and then congratulations, your policy is passed. In truth, however, the process is much more one of propose your policy to Conference, see it not being accepted because eleventy-billion other motions have also been proposed, but you can still turn up to conference and debate the motions submitted by the Federal Policy Committee, and one or two others that have proven themselves generic enough to get selected for debate.

Ah, but you can always try and influence those FPC motions through their policy process, can’t you? And yes, you can. You can apply to be on a working group that will discuss a policy — if you can spend the time and the money to get to meetings that usually happen in central London on a weekday evening, and that’s assuming you were chosen to join the working group in the first place. Or you can respond to the working group’s consultation, which as we’ve seen recently, tends to mean that they have a series of vague (and possibly contradictory) ideas on a general area and ask for a bunch of thoughts. Those thoughts will then be fed into the working group’s process and because the group has just been told to look for ideas in a certain policy area, they’ll end up all being aggregated into a mushy split-the-difference centrist policy paper that will try and present a lot of tweaks to the status quo as bold policy choices rather than just the managerialist non-vision they actually are.

The problem is we have a policy process that’s set up for a party in a completely different position to the one we find ourselves in now. We’ve got lots of detailed policy on lots of different areas, but very little of that is truly bold and radical or transformative, it’s mostly centrist managerialism that’s fine for a party hovering around 15–20% in the polls and wanting to be a coalition partner to either the centre-right or centre-left, depending on which does best. That sort of party needs its policy wonks and endless list of tweaks to make it look like its got some differences between it and the other parties trying to crowd in the same space, and it needs to look enough like a party of the overriding political consensus to not scare the horses.

Where we are now, though, is completely different. The party has been below 10% in the polls for the best part of the decade and there’s no political consensus to appeal to or appear to be part of. What’s more, the managerialist approach to politics has been widely discredited and people don’t want to see another party full of wannabe SpAds touting giant folders full of little ideas about things that might make a few marginal gains for a few people. We’re in an age when a party needs a big idea and a big vision to stand out from the crowd, and our party’s processes are set up to effectively squash any big vision from getting anywhere near a debate, let alone becoming policy. Let’s face it, we couldn’t even adopt a strongly anti-Brexit position without adding in some equivocation and hedging of our bets, what chance has a policy about something that’s not an existential threat to the country as we know it got of being distinctive and different?

The problem is that the party has an addiction to compromise and consensus and what arguments we do see at Conference tend to be on very minor issues that serve as proxies for the bigger battles we need to have. When conference debate time is dominated by lengthy, wordy policy papers about how we should support good things and be opposed to bad things, why do we complain that we don’t get any media attention? ‘Liberal Democrats pass Nice Things Should Happen policy’ isn’t news, but more than that it doesn’t attract us any support or position us as anything other than an irrelevance — and our processes are such that the anything that isn’t a twenty-five point strategy to demonstrate how much we’re in favour of motherhood and apple pie falls by the wayside long before it has even a chance to be policy.

We need to accept that sometimes having a position and opinion on something may cause other people to disagree with it, and that’s a good thing because politics should be about parties putting forward opposing views and arguing over which is best. Trying to appeal to everyone has left us getting shares of the vote in the single figures, so perhaps it’s time for another approach?

And to counter charges that this is just moaning with no solutions, here’s my suggestions for what we could do differently:

1) Scrap the Federal Policy Committee. Making policy by committee is a surefire way to create camels instead of thoroughbreds and the FPC’s processes just take up a lot of time, effort and money that could be spent much more effectively.

2) Use the resources currently devoted to supporting FPC and its work to instead support a policy process that’s based on the grassroots. Allow members to set up their own policy groups and support them in exploring distinctive policies based on member demand to look at a specific area and specific policy idea, rather than ‘we haven’t looked at X in a while’. If there are more working group proposals than can be reasonably supported, Federal Board can decide which get support (and members of that can then explain which areas they support or oppose).

3) Create a new policy discussion process where working groups can put their proposals to members and local parties for discussion, and for those members and local parties to indicate their support for ideas. This could be done by a combination of local meetings and a dedicated policy website providing forums for discussion. Working groups would be free to choose for themselves how to involve themselves in this process, and the levels of support ideas receive could also be used to assess which motions coming from working groups get discussion time at conference.

4) Encourage more debate and discussion at Conference. Select motions that get people debating the pros and cons of them, not ones that just provide opportunities for a stream of people to come and tell us how much they agree with it. Divide debates up into different sections of a motion, so we don’t get the whole thing focused on just one part of it. Look into scheduling workshop sessions on motions so people can discuss them in a more relaxed manner before they come up in the main debate.

If we take steps like that, then we might end up generating policy that’s distinctive, interesting and capable of getting us attention and support again.

Written by

Many, many things. PhD student at QMUL. Councillor. Ran the 2019 London Marathon for Brain Research UK. @nickjbarlow on Twitter.

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