I have just emailed in to respond to the consultation paper of the aforementioned Review (pdf). I at least partly based my responses on comments made at the recent consultative session at Bournemouth Conference, so they may make more sense to readers who also attended that, but they shouldn’t be incomprehensible to those who didn’t.
1. How can we involve a much larger proportion, and a much more diverse range, of our members, in policy discussion within the party?
Firstly, we need to stop wringing our hands about the potential downsides of new ideas, whilst pretending that the status quo does not have problems of its own. Indeed, in some cases, the problems cited about new ideas are *the same* problems that the status quo already has, as Paul Walter’s contribution to the consultation session ably demonstrated; I completely agree with Paul that people not listening to debates but turning up to vote is already an issue with the way our conference operates, and should not be taken as a reason why we couldn’t possibly extend conference online, etc.
Secondly, as a general principle, it should be clear to members how their decision to spend their time engaging with the policy process in some way or other actually leads to an outcome. I will return to this principle in some of my answers below, but to condense it into a rule of thumb: if any proposals come back from this review which talk about members or local parties nebulously “feeding in” their comments, without specifying precisely how this happens (and can be seen to have happened), I will be very disappointed! Where at all possible, pyramid-like structures involving “feeding in” to the next level up need to be flattened.
2. How can we best encourage informal policy discussion to be much more widespread in local parties?
Local party policy discussions may be a laudable aim, but we should be clear what they are for. My past experience of local party policy discussion has not encouraged me to do it more often. For one thing, there is not the level of expertise and therefore quality of discussion to be had in a local party as there is in, say, a conference debate.
Another issue is this: having given up some of my spare time to attend, I might make some suggestion at a policy discussion which I think is rather good. At this discussion, there may be someone designated to “feed in” our comments. *IF* that person agrees with me that it was good, they might include my remark in any synthesis of the “outcome” of the meeting which they write. Presumably they then send their writings to a designated recipient of such “feedings in” from all over the country. This person, *IF* they are similarly taken with my idea, might actually take it up and use it in their policy working group discussions. So that’s at least two hurdles before anything I say at a local party discussion would have any impact whatsoever on the wider policy process.
Crucially, *I have no way of knowing* if my idea has succesfully cleared these hurdles! Unless and until something that looks like my idea comes out the other end of the policy sausage machine, I have no idea whether it was worth my time and effort attending the discussion. On the other hand, I can write directly to a working group, or I can just put motions to conference (or sign other people’s motions), and go to conference and vote. These are concrete actions with a predictable, observable and quantifiable impact on the wider process. For that reason, I am much more interested in spending my time doing them.
A number of mentions of the “Calderdale model” were made at the consultation session. As someone who is not a Calderdale member, what I like about the Calderdale model is that it is reasonably apparent what comes of it: Calderdale local party’s name is often all over the conference agenda, in a way that allows us all to see in precisely what direction they are collectively pushing.
3. Is it as easy as it should be, for a new member wanting to participate in policy discussion, to do so? If not, what we can best to do make it so?
It will always be intimidating for a new member to participate in almost anything the party does. We should, of course, do what we can to minimise this, but I’m not sure it can ever be eliminated. I think personally, I would have found ways to participate in policy development online to be helpful.
My experience of being a new member is of being a young person in an area where the local party was relatively old, and fairly unknown to me (I joined for national reasons, not because anyone local asked me to), so opportunities to hang out with my local party were not all that attractive to me (especially when they came in the form of coffee mornings and not pub meets!). Conversely, there were a number of Lib Dem bloggers around at the time who seemed a lot more on my wavelength. What made me feel at home in the party was being a part of that online community, not being a part of my local party.
We, as a party, need to build our party in such a way as to allow this kind of member, without telling them that they are wrong and they are just going to have to learn to love their local party. Any solutions which this review arrives at which are dependent on local parties will almost certainly fail to engage this type of new member.
4. What practical ways can we use to make some policy discussion, especially working groups, much less South East-centric?
I would like to echo comments made at the consultation session. David Grace’s point about a travel pool for meeting attendance was good, but does still require that people have enough free time to travel to participate. I think, inferior in some ways as it may be, that online discussion, either by email or by Skype etc., needs to become a larger part of the working of a working group, so that face-to-face meetings are less frequent.
5. What are the best practical ways to make use of modern technology to engage many more party members, and more frequently?
There exist today good mechanisms for the online crowdsourcing of ideas and the harnessing of the “wisdom of crowds”. A policy suggestion and discussion site which allows nested discussions (so that people can respond to and follow particular lines of argument) could lead to good, detailed discussions which are simply not possible in the constrained timescale of a general discussion or consultation at conference.
I would suggest that such a forum incorporate the ability to up/down vote particular comments, and I would especially cite the way that comments work on Slashdot as an example of good practice: comments can be scored by other readers, and then the viewer can decide how much they wish to dig into the lower-rated comments. As was discussed in the consultation session, such a forum would need to be heavily moderated to ensure that it remained a civil and respectful space for discussion, but I would question whether this absolutely *had* to mean paid staff to perform this function. A volunteer team might be able to fulfil this function, provided that it was managed appropriately: rota-ed slots for being “on duty”, so that it could be ensured that someone was on duty at all times (and if there was not, then the site could be closed to comments until a mod was back on duty, which might serve as a good incentive to others to volunteer for moderating duties!).
In this way, working groups would be able to draw on much more well-developed suggestions from members. Perhaps there could even be a mechanism for the submission of motions to conference via a wiki-like group editing process? Even if this was not a formal mechanism, if the site worked well it would almost certainly lead to the submission of motions arising from discussion on the site.
6. Do we need to make formal party policy-making procedures more visible to members? If so, what are the best ways of doing that?
Perhaps some discussions of policy working groups could be made public – video them and stick it on YouTube, or elsewhere if you want to keep it “members only”, so that the rest of us have a better idea what the formal policy process entails.
In addition, the general response of the party’s internal committees to Mark Pack and others’ push for better reporting of their workings has been foot-dragging and stonewalling. In particular, the response that “often committees work by consensus, there are fewer formal votes than people might imagine” seems awfully convenient to me. Perhaps there *should* be more votes than members of these committees might imagine, if only to actually give the electorate which put them there a handle on whether they want to re-elect them. If parliament operated in the way that our internal committees do (very cursory summaries of their discussions, and an insistence that they needn’t report any votes because it’s actually mostly consensual), it would be considered a democratic outrage. Either these committees make decisions that are controversial enough to require democratic oversight, or they don’t, in which case why elect them at all?
7. How can we make engaging in policy discussion, in whatever forum, more attractive to members?
I have addressed this already, so I will simply repeat: Concrete and transparent ways for members to be able to see that their participation is actually having a meaningful impact on the wider process.
8. Should finding ways for all party members to be able to vote remotely, following live-streamed debates at conference, be a priority?
I would like to see it happen, but I’m not sure it’s “a priority” if that means that other areas of the process are left in the long grass. A number of things would also need to be worked out about conference. For instance, once there were online members voting alongside members in the conference hall, it would probably become necessary to count every vote. This would become impractically time consuming without a form of electronic voting in the hall, registered to the particular party member (otherwise there would be no way to ensure that people were not voting twice: once in the hall, and once online using a tablet or similar). Meanwhile, if votes still took place immediately after a debate concluded, then conference would not have been widened to the greatest possible participation. Yes, it would include some members who could not afford to travel and accommodate themselves to come to conference physically, but it would still exclude those members who simply could not secure time off work to attend conference even electronically.
For that reason, if we are to widen conference with an online dimension, I think we need to break the assumption that a vote takes place immediately after a conference debate has taken place. Instead, voting could be opened immediately following the debate, but be open for a given window of time. How long this window would be is obviously a matter for discussion, but I would suggest that it should be at least 24 hours, to enable members who work to participate, whatever
pattern of work they have.
9. Should the fundamental principles of conference making policy, supported by a policy committee, be changed? If so, how?
Conference’s sovereignty should not be changed, but I do think the “Standing Panels” idea might be a worthwhile alteration to the working of Policy Committee.
10. How can we best ensure ongoing effective co-ordination between the party’s formal policy-making structures, and MPs, Peers, MSPs, AMs and MEPs?
It occurs to me (and I surely can’t be the only one?!) that section 4.1 (Standing Panels) and 4.3 (Parliamentary Party Committees) of the consultation document cover overlapping territories, and should probably be merged into a single proposal. If MPs, Peers, etc., were ex-officio members of the Standing Panels relevant to their allocated policy areas (and allowed access to others), this would be a good way for them to be connected to the party’s structures.
13. What else about our policy process is it important that we improve?
Some conventions of the way that conference operates, particularly the “2 year rule”, are sensible in opposition, but came to be used to stifle conference’s ability to contribute to the debate on government policy as it developed whilst we were in government. Perhaps we should draw on the experience of the last five years to develop a different set of conventions for the operation of the party’s structures in government, whilst retaining conventions more like our existing ones for times when we are in opposition.