Blogging is a strange occupation - a solitary writer in search of the sort of communion with others that used to happen in the pub, on the corner, on the bus is now engaging with others electronically instead. So much for progress.

THIS blog is about ideas - big and small - connected with one of the things I care about with a passion, namely the future of liberal thought in this country. I am instinctively a radical liberal, with a grudging belief in the value of markets but an abhorrence of statism and indifference, and a strong belief in social justice. I find Labour bankrupt of ideas, and the Tories intellectually flacid. This is my response.

I am intending always to stick to the point: there will be no rabble-rousing talk, and no wasted jibes at other parties and political philosophies.

Comments will be moderated, but anyone can leave one.

Monday, 4 August 2008

How to make policy through your political party...

Policy-making. Art? Science? A bit of both? The problem for all political parties in participative democracies is that the inclusiveness of policy making depends upon the inclusiveness and reach of policy consultation. So when governments seek to involve members of their parties in policy-making the results can be perverse.

Labour's National Policy Forum back in July is a perfect case in point. First stage: invite all of the activists, supporters and workers engaged in your party to a meeting, at which you encourage them to shape policy. Second stage: fight off attacks on what is and isn't ideologically 'pure', what you as a government haven't yet done because you were too timid, and the lobbying of special interest groups, and try to get some form of confirmation from the meeting on the general way ahead. Third stage: Reluctantly cart all of that back to the reality of a constrained budget, other pressing demands, the need to avoid damaging talk of 'U-turns' and 'caving in to special interests' and the like, and come up with a policy framework for government in Cabinet.

Since the 1960s most rational political parties have tried to evolve (to one extent or another) an inclusive approach to party policy making that will affect their programme in government. For Lib Dems, it has become an essential article of faith that conuslting members IS policy generation in action.

And yet...There is much to be said for the argument that consulting your members on future policy is like asking random car drivers to design a Formula 1 car from scratch by committee. I don't mean by that that car drivers might not be able to reconcile their differences, shape something that might look like a F1 car and even ape one, but they are unlikely to produce the next best thing in F1 car design. For that to happen, you need to ensure that they understood the very latest on aerodynamics, for example, and understood how to reflect that in the design of something they would only ever see others use. Moreover you would need to ensure that the car drivers who happened to prefer low emissions cars and those who were wedded to gas guzzling 4x4 cars put aside their differences and, indeed, looked at full efficiency from the point of view of the aim of a totally different driver - someone for whom fuel efficiency was about pit stops and acceleration.

Now there may be those among the leadership of many political parties who wish this sort of party member consultation would not take place and others for whom a technocratic elite would be better at doing it anyway. Neither would enable truly participative party government.

However, we do need to ask our parties - including the Liberal Democrat party, by far the most open of the major three on policy consultation and party policy making - how far consultation in policy fora can be an entirely shapeless affair, with no more than a background brief from the expertise within the party and a contribution from a hapless minister enjoined to 'put policy thinking into practice'.

Here's my suggestion (and it is an approach that, at various times, party politicians have favoured). Why not leave the broad ranging consultation as consultation so that the leadership knows what members think, but have policy proposals developed by independent policy teams - independent, that is, of the party. Those proposals could be regarded as the blueprints for that F1 car designed by the top car designers of their generation.

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