Saturday, September 25, 2010

Blood, Sweat and Tears: What really happens at Federal Policy Committee

Two years ago I stood for election to the party's Federal Policy Committee (FPC). My primary reason for standing was that I wanted to help make sure that we did not ditch certain key policies from our General Election manifesto, and that I wanted to help ensure that the Manifesto was an effective campaigning document as well as a sound policy one.

There was a little bit of trepidation in this move, as I've never really been that excited about the detail of policy, although I think it's fair to say that I ended up fitting in reasonably well.

Top committees

I had previously been a member of two top committees.

Back when I worked for the Lib Dem Youth & Students (LDYS) I was a member of the first incarnation of the Campaigns and Communications Committee (CCC) under the very effective chairmanship of Matthew Taylor MP. This brought together representatives from the MPs, Campaigns, ALDC and LDYS to plan themed campaigning across the party and was, I felt, generally successful. I am still very proud of the LDYS campaign packs that came out of this process and the successful way in which LDYS campaigning complemented that of the national party.

A few years later I was elected to the Federal Executive (FE) with the aim of improving the party's approach to budgeting and improving support for and coordination of training. I achieved some of this, but found the Executive to be a more frustrating affair, and that it didn't really seem to know what its role was.

I was delighted to be elected to the FPC, coming third on first preferences behind the significantly more experienced and highly intelligent Duncan Brack and the somewhat more famous than me Claire Rayner. I interpreted this as a reflection of the strong stance I had taken on maintaining the party's opposition to Tuition Fees in my FPC manifesto.

Having enjoyed the two years, and particularly having some input into the manifesto, I have decided to not restand, largely because I don't realistically have the time to do it properly (and I don't like taking on jobs I haven't got the time to do).

Do stand and vote

I would encourage anyone who wants to to stand (although there is not long left!) and would generally encourage voting reps to take the election seriously. The rest of this posting aims to give you some idea of why the FPC is important.

So what is it really like on FPC?

Well, it's mainly as mundane as you would probably expect it to be. Most of the time was spent commissioning policy working groups to draft policy papers, reviewing those papers, rewriting bits and pieces and sometimes choosing between policy options that the working groups came up with.

Probably 90% of the time was spent on this.

But the other 10% turned out to be a) quite exciting and b) quite important.

Unlike my experience of the FE, FPC certainly does know its role, and takes that role very seriously. On the FPC each person has one vote and each vote is equal, whether you are the Party Leader or a humble elected member like myself.

In general there is a lot of genuine consensus, but where there is a disagreement the majority rules. There is no fear at all about disagreeing with the Leader or senior spokespeople.

Boo, hiss

I'm not going to tell you about which individual voted which way on what (boo, hiss, I hear you shout), because if committee members went round doing that it would seriously damage the ability of the FPC to function. But I can say a bit about some of the key issues we discussed, some of which came out in a rather public way!

The biggest bust up was over Tuition Fees. Party policy was clearly in opposition to them, and that policy had been a major and successful plank of our 2005 manifesto. But several senior members of the committee did not believe that the policy was sustainable. In the run up to last year's conference various public statements were made by senior figures which suggested that we were going to ditch the policy, or at least that it would not be a funded policy in the manifesto.

To say that there was a bit of a reaction to this would be an understatement!

Within days a draft motion had been circulated between FPC members to go to conference to set the record straight. A large majority supported it. (Technically I think it was an amendment to our own pre-manifesto motion) This was unheard of and made it obvious that the FPC was at odds with the leadership.

During conference a letter to the papers was drafted and circulated, and a very large majority of FPC signed it. This letter set out very clearly that we were committed to existing policy and that we expected the policy to remain in the manifesto.

There was also a bit of a to do about the proposal from Vince Cable for a Mansion Tax.

The following FPC meeting was, shall we say, quite interesting.

Because of the strength of the FPC a solution had to be found, and I put forward the view that we needed to find a way of keeping the policy commitment whilst ensuring that the figures stacked up. Various negotiations went on and we eventually worked out the phased funding approach that ended up in the final manifesto.

Other key issues

Other key issues that the FPC had significant influence over were schools policy (rejecting something quite similar to the Free Schools policy currently being implemented), health policy and Council Tax.

On this latter issue there was a very exciting row at one meeting.

Again the majority of the FPC strongly backed standing party policy that we should replace the (highly unfair) Council Tax with a (fair and simple) Local Income Tax.

However several senior figures, particularly those who had struggled to explain the policy at the previous election, made an attempt to drop/water down/replace the commitment.

It is fair to say that the resulting discussion got a little heated, and that the ensuing 'debate' was not carried out on the usual restrained basis, but everyone eventually calmed down and some progress was made.

Once again it was the strength of the majority view that prevailed, after some careful negotiation around the precise wording, with some wording that I proposed eventually being adopted.


And this links to my final point. As an individual member of FPC you do get the chance to have a direct influence on policy, and on the manifesto. In the same way that Slartibartfast was very proud of his fjords, I am extremely proud of some of the wording of the bits about abolishing the Council Tax and investing in Shipyards.

Throughout the process, and whilst not always agreeing with them on some key policies, my liking and respect for both Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander steadily grew, and the same goes for the incredibly hard-working Vice-Chairs Jeremy Hargreaves and Richard Grayson.

So, with apologies that I haven't named names, or told you which Shadow Cabinet member behaved in a way my children would get a good telling off for, I hope that you will be convinced that the FPC fulfils an important role, and doesn't shy away from asserting its view when necessary.

If you are thinking of standing, and are someone who knows their own views and will stand up for them, please stand.

If you a voting representative, please vote.

And if you are a member of FPC, please forgive me any indiscretions in this article and the very best of luck with the important job you do for our party.


Susan Gaszczak said...

I can remember in detail each of these incidents. This is really well written Neil without naming names, but gives a true picture of what it is like!

Liberal Neil said...

Thanks, that was the balance I was aiming for.

Anonymous said...

Please don't leave, we need people like you on FPC