» policy ¦ What You Can Get Away With

policy-definition-and-ruler_1283516768There’s a certain inevitability in the fact that the day after the Greens break through 10% in a poll, a ‘look at all these wacky Green policies’ article appears in the Telegraph. Those of us with long memories will remember similar articles appearing on a regular basis over the years, right back to 1989 when they normally featured some reference to David Icke as Prime Minister. (At that point, the height of Icke’s weirdness was having played for Coventry City and being one of the Greens’ five Principal Speakers – the wearing turquoise and seeing alien lizards everywhere were still in his future)

However, it seems to me that this sort of coverage misses the main issue and reveals the media’s expectation as to how political parties should work. The general picture painted of political parties is that they’re monolithic entities in which all members will agree with the party line at all times. When a party’s policy on something changes, it’s usually presented as the product of some nebulous process going on behind closed doors (‘party sources tell me they’re thrashing out the details of their new policy…’) that all party members will be expected to adopt when its decided by those same nebulous processes.

In short, most journalists appear to have got their ideas of how parties work from Stalin. Policy comes from above, all members must agree and factions or dissent are intrinsically bad. And in true Stalinist style, any facts that disagree with this narrative should be ignored. This is why coverage of party conferences is happy to depict them as a never-ending range of set piece speeches and photo opportunities, with party members as just a backdrop for the Important People to speak at.

In this view, the only policy-related thing members have to concern themselves with is memorising what the party line is that day, and they definitely should be kept well away from making it. This is why they have such a problem in covering democratic parties like the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, where policy actually comes from members, and especially so with the Greens who properly collate all the policies of the party and put it on their website. (While the Lib Dems are good at encouraging people to make policy, the party’s not so good at actually displaying that policy in an easily-found way)

The problem is that this giant block of policy isn’t seen by the media for what it is – a body of ideas that’s been built up over many years, through many debates and votes of the members – but through their existing idea of how parties work. Thus, they assume that these Green policies have been worked up by policy wonks through the usual processes and aren’t something that’s come from the bottom up. The question that should be asked, but never is, is where are the similar detailed policies from the other parties? Sure, there are various issues and policies on their website, but those are normally limited to whatever’s salient at the time, and all can be easily dispatched to the memory hole the moment someone in the leadership decides it needs to be changed.

People may agree or not with the Green policies, but they should be congratulated for putting them out in the open and sticking to them, not hiding them away or not even bothering to come up with them.

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Too much democracy? Time for 21st century democracy. – An introduction by Martin Smith and Dave Richards to some of the themes of their book Institutional Crisis in 21st Century Britain, which I’m working through at the moment.
Forget quotas for women MPs – time to limit the number of men – Rainbow Murray flips the debate on representation.
Making policy for the policy invariant – How do you make policy if the people don’t care what the results of that policy are?
Public Statement on the Readmittance of Lord Rennard to the Liberal Democrats – Jennie Rigg says exactly what I would say.
Do political parties make any difference? – Alex Marsh with details of some new academic research that’s relevant to my interests, and also contains some information on the party’s stance on immigration that’ll be of interest to activists.

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Yesterday’s Guardian had a very interesting interview with Arnie Graf, a veteran community organiser from Chicago who Ed Miliband brought in to advise on how to change the way the Labour Party works to make it more effective. Graf produced a report with various recommendations on how to improve the way the party works, but his recommendations appear to have stalled somewhere in the party machinery – which is perhaps not surprising, given how critical he is of it. This perspective on it from Mark Ferguson at Labour List is an introduction to the way some Labour people see it.

Now it would be easy to write a post here about what this shows us about the Labour party, but reading about Graf’s suggestions in the Guardian piece, I found that they resonated with my experience of the Liberal Democrats (and I suspect other people in other parties may find the same too). We obviously don’t have the full report, but there are four principal ideas expressed in the article that we would do well to consider in the light of our own experience:

First, there was a need to deal with what Graf describes as the party’s “bureaucratic rather than a relational culture”. A new member coming into their first meeting should expect more than bureaucracy and hierarchy. They should be welcomed into a group that offered trusted, working relationships and interesting political discussions.

Second, the party had to stop treating members as drones rather than leaders. Many of the party members Graf visited in the regions seemed to think that if there were genuine leaders in the party, they were all in London. Most orders came from the capital. It was in London that the leaflets were designed, the timetables set and the marching orders given.

Thirdly, the party was too closed: Labour gatherings were often suspicious of outsiders, particularly people who were Labour sympathisers but not prepared to be members. It seemed hard for newcomers to break in.

Finally, the party offered little inspiration to its members. Graf blew open a complacent consensus that branch meetings had to be boring. He could see that they could offer more, and dared them to be so: “We grow up and get meaning from relationships … politics should provide that.”

While the structure and culture of the two parties is different, I think there’s something in all four of those points that Liberal Democrats should consider. We all want to get more people involved in the party, but what can we offer them to get them there? A chance to sit in a draughty room discussing the minutes of the next meeting, before being given a bunch of leaflets to deliver? If someone was interested in the party and wanted to find out more about what we do, would they feel welcomed at a meeting? More to the point, would we actually be able to offer them anything interesting to do? (And no, for most people delivering leaflets is not interesting)

The problem we face is that as a party, in many cases we’ve come to see campaigning as an end in itself. (See for instance this LDV article, where getting people out to campaign for PCC elections is seen as an unambiguously good thing, but it’s a common theme) It’s where Liberator’s description of the party as a ‘leaflet delivery cult’ comes from, which is true despite the fact that no one I’ve ever encountered in any party got into politics because they really love delivering leaflets.

The problem all parties have is that a lot of our ideas about how politics work in Britain are based on parties with mass membership and strong links into the local community. It’s not just about delivering leaflets, but knowing the people around you and what they think to feed that into the process. Somewhere along the line, we’ve lost that, and we’ve lost that wider engagement which has led to all parties becoming odd clubs where the like minded spend time together. While party membership was never quite as common here as registering as Democrat or Republican is in the US, it was a lot more common. (As an aside, how much did party membership cost in the 50s and 60s before the decline started?)

If we’re going to survive and thrive as a party – especially in a post-coalition world – then we have to start questioning how we’re going to do it, and why we’re doing it in the first place. Even if it’s bogged down in bureaucracy, Graf’s work shows that Labour are properly thinking about this problem, and we should be too.

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Hopi Sen has written an interesting blog post on how Labour adopting the policies desired by some of their lost voters would be a disaster for the country.

I was thinking about this issue at the weekend, after reading on the SNP voting to change their policy on whether an independent Scotland being a member of NATO. This was because regular polling showed that a majority of Scots want to remain in NATO, so the SNP’s anti-NATO policy was seen as a hindrance to the independence campaign. Leaving aside the implied assumption that the policies of a post-independence Scotland would be those of the SNP, it got me thinking on similar lines to Hopi – why is the prevailing political mood one of pandering to the electorate, rather than trying to persuade them to change their views?

The SNP’s policy shifting wasn’t an isolated incident. It’s common for just about all parties now to determine their polices on where the voters are, thus giving us a mad rush to the centre ground, rather than developing policies in line with principles and ideologies and then attempting to persuade the voters to come to them. I don’t think there was ever some golden age where politics was purely concerned with the latter – Roman politicians were often concerned with just what the populace would accept, for instance – but I’m sure the practice of politics was never quite as cynical as it is now. As I wrote a few months ago, so much of modern politics has become a big game for the participants where the important factors are winning and losing power, not what you do with that power when you get hold of it.

When the game is all that’s important, you no longer care about trying to shift the Overton window in your direction. Instead of setting out your stall and trying to convince people to come to you, you chase after them, happily shedding whatever bits of you they show any aversion to. But just because politicians have stopped trying to influence how people think, it doesn’t mean others have. The void is filled by unaccountable media organisations and shadily-funded pressure groups, gradually drawing opinions towards their favoured position, and all the time the politicos happily follow, led by the polls that tell them what to drop and what to adopt. Going back to Hopi’s post, there’s rarely any attempt to challenge these beliefs, no matter how impractical and unworkable they may be.

Some of my Liberal Democrat colleagues reading this might be feeling smug at this point, and imagining that what I’m saying doesn’t apply to us. Sorry folks, we’ve become just as bad. Maybe not quite to the extent that Richard Reeves and others have decreed as the future path for the party as a centre-right pandering machine, but I see far too many statements on the lines of ‘this policy is good, but are we sure people will like it?’ and I still smart from the last time Conference debated faith schools where several people pushed a ‘don’t do what’s right, do what won’t offend the Daily Mail’ line.

If we’re too scared to make the case for liberal policies, who will?

What I want to see is us taking the bold approach. Rather than joining the mass dash towards the centre, let’s properly make the case for liberalism and persuade people of its merits and how it would benefit them. There’s a growing number of people who don’t vote because politics doesn’t speak to them and engage them, and we do nothing to bring them back to the polling stations if we join the others in mindless pandering. It’s not a disaster if someone disagrees with you, it’s a sign of a healthy democratic process where people have different opinions and there’s some distance between them. There’s no shame in debating and arguing what’s the best way forward, in saying ‘this is my truth, tell me yours’. We should be prepared to stand up and push for radical and different policies, in an attempt to shift the perception of what’s possible. Arguing for what we think is right isn’t something we should shy away from.


Though it is a comment, from a Lib Dem Voice thread on Conference accreditation:

It sometimes strikes me that some people see winning elections as an end in itself, without giving very much thought about why you are trying to win them or what you should do when you have. And paradoxically, it’s that kind of attitude that has paved the way for electoral disaster.