'Going to the south coast once a year and putting your hand up should not be the only way to contribute to party policy making'

Autumn 2012 conference - Some rights reserved by Liberal Democrats
The quote above came from Lorna Dupré at the policy making process consultation

On Saturday morning, conference got off to a flying start with a consultative session on the party’s policy-making process. This followed the publication of this document.

The session was organised and led by the Federal Policy Committee, which is the leading body for policy making in the party. Tim Farron is the chair of this committee.

The session was chaired by Julie Smith, with Gareth Epps and Jeremy Hargreaves heavily involved in facilitating the discussion. Duncan Brack also spoke.

These “consultative sessions” are, I think, an exciting part of conference. They allow members to input ideas into the formation of processes and policy before working groups have started to write a formal motion for conference. So, it is an excellent way for members to influence things.

The FPC started this policy-making consultation because they genuinely want to hear from members about this. In particular, they want to involve new members. And a show of hands at the session this morning showed nearly 20 new members at the debate, which is great. Very well done indeed to chair Julie Smith for making absolutely sure that all new members, who wanted to speak, did say something.

Some issues which Jeremy Hargraves raised, in his introduction, were: How to get more people involved in the policy process, particularly for members outside London and the South-East, how to make conference more open, whether to change or open up the way policy is evolved.

Some suggestions mooted by the committee were: would it be a good idea to expand the membership of standing working groups on policy areas, to increase the participation in policy making via the internet, to expand conference voting via the web and to perhaps make interim policy between conferences?

There was a very encouraging forest of hands going up when views were invited. Here is a selection of views expressed by members present (with apologies if I missed or scrambled some names) (Any further submissions are welcome via email to steve.oneil@libdems.org ) :

Alistair was worried that there might be overlap between expanded working groups and the SAOs’ policy making. SAOs are Specified associated organisations (any the wiser?), like Liberal Democrat LGBT+ and Liberal Democrat Women.

Jennie was concerned that people might be put off from taking part in forums due to the input of experienced people who are very robust in putting their views forward.

On OMOV, local parties are rather patchy in how they select members to be conference representatives.

One member said that policies are often just a bug fix to problems that the country faces – just a patch to fix it.

Neil supported the idea of a travel pool to get round the issue of travel costs. Failing that, there should be travel expenses available.

It was mentioned that members receive invites to join policy working, then reply but receive no response back.

One member said that the idea that you can only vote if you pay to go to conference is undemocratic.

Bill mentioned that regional conferences pass many policy motions but they don’t seem to go any further. Why don’t regional motions seem to get through to the Federal Policy committee?

Jonathan mentioned that we should make voting more inclusive online, perhaps via local party meetings which are linked up to conference.

Chris said we should experiment with Skype conferencing.

Jonathan (new member) finds the whole Liberal Democrat thing “very challenging” and said there should be more information given to new members on how to participate in policy making.

Chris said that, as a pensioner, it can be difficult financially to be involved in policy making. He said that if we move to a system where everyone can come to conference then we will have a “regionalised” national conference because attendees will be disproportionately coming from near the conference centre.

Ron mentioned tuition fees. Well, someone had to. He mentioned that his wife recently joined the Labour party, then a few days later received an invite from that party to put forward a question to the Prime Minister.

Bill said that there must be regionalised policy making. Local regional parties should be able to come up with policies, adopted by the national party, which are appropriate to their region.

Faith said we must involve more people: by using the expertise of new members, for example, at conference. She also said local parties must be much more involved in policy making.

Leon said that businesses use internet conferencing all the time – why don’t we use these facilities to save lots of travelling?

Jackie said that getting involved in working parties is onerous for those outside of London. If there is a meeting in London in an evening, people outside of London may have to take up to two days off work and pay for a hotel, just to attend.

Richard said we are very good at writing detailed policies but we are not very good at setting out our “big picture”.

Adrian said that young people can’t really afford to come to conference, so online voting is essential to involve young people comprehensively in our policy making.

Catherine said we need new blood in terms of using the skills and expertise of members. She said she did not agree with the FPC making interim policy without consulting anyone else (I’m sure that is exactly what was suggestion). Catherine added that it is “bloody difficult” to get onto any body in the party. She said we need a “shake up”. She described the party’s structures as “sclerotic”.

One member said that, over the years, he has come to trust the party conference. On several occasions there has been a proposed motion and he has been worried about what decision may be made, but normally in the end conference made a sensible decision.

Stuart said that chairs of working groups should have a duty to consult members outside of the group.

New member, Hannah, who blogs as “The Liberal Queen” said we must encourage young people to get involved in policy making via social media and online voting.

Simon, said that there need to be more practical and widespread steps to canvass the views of local members before conferences.

New member, Bradley, offered some words of caution concerning engagement via the internet. Quality v quantity: although it is easy for people to engage on-line, it may be difficult for them to disengage. There is no alternative to face-to-face communication. That’s only what will increase our numbers, largely.

New member Jim works to help large organisations listen to people. He said that the main lesson is that instead of setting up forums one should actually go to people and talk to them.

New member Phil runs a software company that has developed a system for policy making. He mentioned Meetup, which is very successful, and encourages physical meetings and the involvement also of those online who cannot attend those meetings.

New member Red also said that we need to be better at leveraging the skills of our new members.

New member Karin said that there is a “huge gaping gap” in communicating, not only within the party, but outside with the public. We need to correct the party image of “old men in sandals”.

Steve said that there are two types of democracy: representative democracy and popular democracy. He said that the party’s policy making system was started as a representative style of democracy. We are at a cross roads and, realistically, we need to open up policy making votes to all members – full popular democracy.

Spencer said that local parties should regularly go to members and simply say: “How are you? Would you like to come for a glass of wine with other members?” etc.

Mark said that there needs to be more dialogue between the policy committee and the general membership.

Michael said if we believe in regionalism, we should have parliamentarians that consider themselves part of their regional bloc, in terms of their parliamentary voting behaviour.

Ruth said that if we offer food to people they will often come to meetings. Such meetings should not always be in pubs, as some members have specific ethical reservations about going to pubs.

Tom said that time, as well as money, is a constraint to attending conference – perhaps there should be more conference activity crammed into the weekend, to encourage those who can only attend at weekends, due to work commitments.

One member said that when we ask young people to design websites we should say to them: “Try it on your granny first” – because some age groups find websites very difficult to use.

Stuart said that the last five years have given us a very managerial attitude to policy. We need to change that and increase the radical, intellectual, freshness of our policy making. He said that our policy making is currently an “incoherent shambles”.

Lorna said that being a member of this party is not a uniform experience. Opportunities for contributing to the party’s policy making process should therefore not be uniform – find out where the discussion is and go there. We should not have the situation where the only way you can contribute to the party’s policy making is to go down to the south coast once a year and put your hand up.

New member Emily said that, as a graduate and teacher, she does not feel part of Liberal Youth, which she technically falls into. She went to her local party but found people mostly much older than her. So she is caught between two stools. Where is the space in this party for young professionals and graduates who are not teenagers and not ready for sandals yet?

New member Annie said there needs to be somewhere where members can register their skills and interests.

New member Ena said we must engage more ethnic minority women and said that she has skills relating to engaging such people and asked how she can help the party with this.

Tom said that we need to be a guerilla campaigning force by engaging the members more. He applauded Tim Farron’s idea of a “Festival of ideas”. Perhaps the spring conference could become that?

New member Martin said that he filled out a skills form when he joined. What has happened with his input? He has received no feedback on what he sent in. He has had a lot of emails about pigeons from London Assembly candidates, though.

New member Jane said that new members must be acknowledged and welcomed, and that her local party are very good at that.

Jim said we need a coherent website which shows all our current policy.

Gordon said we must find ways of joining up our policy and involving more people in it, particularly from impacted regions.

David said that we should go back to sending out a card with our policies on it, plus making available an app which allows people to look up our policy on all subjects.

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