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Debating Policy in the Liberal Democrats: Members Views Sought

March 27, 2008 11:58 AM
By Federal Conference Committee

Group of Lib Dems listening to conference debateLiberal Democrats are rightly proud of the fact that we remain the only major party to be internally democratic. Unlike the other parties, party policy can only be decided by the democratic vote of the representatives of the party membership, after debate at the party conference.

Despite this, however, the number of policy motions submitted to conference has steadily fallen over the last ten years or so. Federal Conference Committee want to hear your views on why this may be so, whether it matters and what - if anything - we should do about it. This paper sets out the background to the issues and asks a series of questions. Please let us know what you think: see the end of this article for a summary of questions and details of how to respond.

  • 1 Motions submitted

Federal Conference Committee (FCC) chooses the policy debates for each conference from the pool of motions submitted by state, English regional and local parties, elected reps, specified associated organisations (SAOs) and federal committees such as the Federal Policy Committee (FPC). The number of policy motions submitted to conference from all these sources appears to be on a long-term trend downwards. In 1996 the number of policy motions submitted for debate at the autumn conference was 126. Ten years later, in 2006, it was 62, and last year, 2007, it was 54.

Partly in response to this, though also partly as a result of feedback from conference participants about the composition of the conference agenda, FCC has reduced slightly the number of policy debates that take place at each conference - from 22 to 1996 to 17 in 2006 and 2007. We have used the extra time for alternative ways of discussing policy, including Q&A sessions, presentations and 'urgent issue' discussions.

Arguably we should be selecting even fewer motions. Certainly it seems to be the case that we select some motions which are of relatively little interest to most participants. In each of the 2006 and 2007 conferences, we called more than three in every four speaker's cards submitted in a quarter of the total number of policy debates, and in each conference there was one policy motion where we called every single card submitted.

In addition to this, our dependence on motions from the FPC and Parliamentary Party has grown. Over the last five autumn conferences, the FPC accounted for an average of just under a third of motions on the final agenda, and the Parliamentary Party for exactly half. Motions from all other sources - local, state and English regional parties, SAOs and non-parliamentary conference reps - have fallen to slightly more than a sixth (generally about three debates per conference).

Occasionally FCC is criticised for not selecting controversial motions for debate from the party grassroots. In fact this is true - but only because, by and large, such motions are not submitted. In recent years all the major debates (the longest and most controversial, with the highest numbers of reps wanting to speak) have been submitted by the FPC or Parliamentary Party (though controversial amendments from other sources have been debated). The motions submitted by the 'grassroots' (i.e. not the FPC or parliamentary party) are almost invariably of lower interest, with fewer people submitting cards to speak.

  • 2 Why aren't people submitting motions?

The conference feedback form for autumn 2007 included a question asking respondents why they had not submitted motions (or amendments). Responses can be grouped into three sets:

  • No willingness: lack of time; too busy; too shy; didn't want to.
  • No ideas: local party never or rarely discusses policy; nothing to contribute; not learned enough; motions not motivating.
  • Procedures too difficult: too hard to do; complex rules to submit; no time to do proper job to amend motions / get agenda too late.

It may also be the case that people are generally happy with existing party policy, and see no reason to change it. Two successive leadership elections have failed to reveal any substantial disagreements over major issues. Furthermore, after twenty years of policy-making, the party now has a comprehensive body of policy, and there are relatively few gaps or seriously outdated areas - and where there are, FPC policy papers are usually quite good at addressing them.

Q1 If you or your local party have not submitted a policy motion recently, why is this?

Q2 Do you think reducing the number of policy debates at conference matters?

  • 3 Potential solutions: promoting debate in the party

Outside federal conference (and the state conferences in Scotland and Wales), policy issues are not discussed particularly broadly within the Liberal Democrats. It seems likely that many local parties rarely, if ever, hold policy discussions (the extent to which local party 'pizza and politics' events are organised is unknown, though we are working with Liberty Research to try to gauge how much is happening).

Nevertheless, the huge (and growing) number of fringe meetings that are organised at federal conferences, and the success of the two special policy events in recent years - the 'Meeting the Challenge' conference in January 2006 and the 'Setting the Agenda' conference in January 2008 - suggests there is a considerable appetite for policy discussion.

The more that policy is discussed within the party, the more likely local parties and conference reps are to come up with ideas for policy motions. Some local parties already hold specific meetings to discuss possible items for submission to conference. English regional conferences could be particularly appropriate forums in which to encourage discussion of potential motions for federal conference.

Having said all this, many of the discussions that took place at the two special policy events were of a broad ideological nature that would not necessarily lend themselves well to detailed policy motions and debates. FCC could, of course, organise this type of session at federal conference, not linked to a specific motion. We piloted this type of session in autumn 2007, with a discussion on 'citizenship and identity', and the 'urgent issue' discussions on particular topics we have timetabled over the last two years are similar. We could organise more of these sessions at federal conference, and reduce the number of motions debated.

Q3 What can the federal party do to encourage policy discussion more broadly within the party?

Q4 What should FCC do to encourage more local parties to (a) consider submitting motions, and (b) discuss the Preliminary and Final Agendas for conferences?

Q5 Would you like to see more discussion at conference of broad issues without detailed policy proposals, even if this means reducing the number of debates on policy motions?

  • 4 Potential solutions: changing deadlines

There may also be steps that FCC can take to make it easier for people to submit motions. The current procedure is not as straightforward as it could be, and it is probably the case that people do not have a clear idea of when to submit motions, and of how to do so with a reasonable chance of success.

The current system features three deadlines for submitting motions; for autumn conferences these are:

  • Mid May: Motions
  • Mid July: Amendments to motions; topical motions
  • Mid September: Emergency motions; amendments to topical motions

We changed the system for spring conference several years ago, effectively removing the first deadline for everything other than policy papers and constitutional amendments. The reasoning was that very few local parties ever submitted anything by the first deadline, in November.

This different structure of deadlines for the two conferences may itself be confusing. Additionally, a mid-May deadline may seem too far away from conference for many local parties and conference reps to bother writing anything; it also, of course, falls shortly after the local elections.

One possible option would be to scrap the first deadline completely, for both conferences, and to have one main deadline slightly further away from the conference than we now have it - say, in early July for autumn conference. This may help to stimulate more input.

There are two main disadvantages to this option. First, we would be circulating the Final Agenda and all the policy papers in mid-August, with an early/mid-September deadline for submission of amendments - probably not the best time for local parties to organise discussion meetings. Second, we would not be able to circulate the details of amendments to motions - which often provide the focus for the main debate on items - until the eve of conference.

Q6 Bearing in mind these advantages and disadvantages, do you favour scrapping the first deadline for submission of motions?

  • 5 Potential solutions: improving drafting advice and submissions procedures

There are a range of changes we can make to our submissions procedures to make it easier for people to submit motions - including in particular offering more help with drafting motions in a form suitable for debate. These include:

  • A new section of the party website devoted to conference submissions, including clear instructions for submitting a motion and the dates; a basic guide to producing motions; and contact information.
  • Creating web forms for the submission of motions and amendments.
  • A discussion forum or message board allowing people to post ideas for motions and get support. (In fact this is beginning to happen in any case on Liberal Democrat Voice.) FCC members could offer advice on drafting motions arising from these discussions.
  • Working more closely with motions submitters to improve the drafting of their motions, instead of just rejecting them when the draft is inadequate.
  • Publishing expanded background information on the motions selected in order to help people think about amendments.
  • Running more training sessions at conference in discussing policy and writing motions.

Q7 What should FCC do to make it easier for you to submit motions?

  • 6 The future of conference

Federal conference has always been about more than policy debates. The agenda has always featured set-piece speeches (from the leader, other party spokespeople and invited guests) and the business sessions necessary for the running of the party (committee reports, business motions, constitutional amendments, etc.). In recent years we have introduced a series of innovations, including Q&A sessions, presentations, and discussions without votes, such as 'urgent issue' discussions. In addition, a huge range of events take place outside the conference hall: consultative sessions, fringe meetings and training.

Questionnaire feedback indicate that at present people think we are getting the balance broadly right, though complaints about dull debates suggest that some, at least, would like to see fewer motions. In 2006 and 2007, about 50 per cent of the agenda was taken up with policy motions; FCC could easily reduce this proportion, and increase the time spent on other items.

Q8 Would you like to see a lower proportion of time spent on debating policy motions? If so, what would you like to see instead?

Please let us know what you think!

Return your answers to the following questions to:

...by 10th May 2008

Q1 If you or your local party have not submitted a policy motion recently, why is this?

Q2 Do you think reducing the number of policy debates at conference matters?

Q3 What can the federal party do to encourage policy discussion more broadly within the party?

Q4 What should FCC do to encourage more local parties to (a) consider submitting motions, and (b) discuss the Preliminary and Final Agendas for conferences?

Q5 Would you like to see more discussion at conference of broad issues without detailed policy proposals, even if this means reducing the number of debates on policy motions?

Q6 Bearing in mind these advantages and disadvantages, do you favour scrapping the first deadline for submission of motions?

Q7 What should FCC do to make it easier for you to submit motions?

Q8 Would you like to see a lower proportion of time spent on debating policy motions? If so, what would you like to see instead?

Thank you!