To go with the archive of Liberal Democrat policy papers on this site, Jeremy Hargreaves has very kindly agreed to share his guide to how Liberal Democrat policy is made. Here it is in full.
Official Liberal Democrat policy can be summarised very simply as policy proposals which have been approved by Liberal Democrat federal conference (with a caveat about devolved policy, such as for Scotland and Wales, on which see below).
Any ten party members can propose items to conference, and every conference approves many policy motions proposed in this way. Some motions, particularly in major areas, come from the Federal Policy Committee (FPC), which are also subject to a further earlier process of their own.
This guide sets out fully how the Liberal Democrat party policy process works.
What is Liberal Democrat policy?
People commonly regard any statement made by a senior Liberal Democrat or group on a subject as a statement of Liberal Democrat policy. These might include a position taken by the Commons or Lords Parliamentary Party, or speeches or comments to the media by the Leader or spokespeople. This is of course quite reasonable. However in fact these do not form formal party policy, as they have not been through the process above. Strictly speaking, even the party’s manifestos for general elections are not party policy.
In principle therefore the leader and spokespeople could say anything they want. And they do have a responsibility to help develop and take forward policy in response to the development of events, and their comments may sometimes go beyond formally agreed party policy, particularly on fast-changing issues.
However in practice when the leader or others speak, they are generally stating the party’s agreed policy position, albeit often framed in response to immediate events. Although they may sometimes be a further development of the agreed position, if they take a substantially different position then a motion criticising them and reverting to the agreed position is extremely likely be debated at the next party conference.
In line with Liberal Democrat views on devolution, policy for Scotland, Wales, and English regions and local areas is a matter for them. Scotland, Wales and English regions have conferences which make their own policy. Similarly to MPs, positions taken by Lib Dem council groups are not strictly party policy, but are often taken as that, especially since local parties do not generally create policy.
Federal Policy Committee
The Federal Policy Committee (FPC) is responsible under the party’s constitution for overseeing policy-making within the party.
It is made up of 29 voting members: 15 directly elected triennially by party members, the Party Leader or Deputy Leader, the Party President, 6 Parliamentarians (MPs, Peers, MEPs), a representative from the Federal Communications & Elections Committee, two councillor representatives and three state party (England, Wales, Scotland) representatives. It is chaired by the Leader, assisted by three Vice Chairs.
Most of its work consists in commissioning and then approving policy papers in specific areas. These will usually tend to be quite large policy areas (such as health or schools), though they may well cross boundaries between different government departments, and may occasionally be on smaller areas.
The FPC’s report to Federal Conference each six months sets out its future work plan and how work is progressing on each of the items in it.
The FPC has a power to create “interim policy” on behalf of the party, subject to a vote of ratification at the next conference. The intention is that this should allow the party to have a formal position on issues where waiting for the next six-monthly conference is not practical. However in practice FPC has generally taken the view that formal policy-making should remain the preserve of conference, and has only done this on exceptionally rare occasions.
FPC does however maintain a dialogue with party spokespeople so that their statements and party policy remain in line. This is helped by the position of the Leader as both chair of the spokespeople and chair of FPC.
Policy working groups
Policy papers are prepared by working groups set up to write each paper, who work for about a year on it. FPC appoints a chair of the group, and up to about twenty other members, who will include relevant spokespeople from the Commons/Lords and other party members. The FPC advertises for party members to apply to be part of working groups, and at the moment are attracting a large number of applications (for some groups, up to 200-300 applications for about 20 places). FPC works very hard to ensure that the membership of the group is as balanced as possible, across gender, location, background, and that all major relevant interests are represented on it.
Each working group will take evidence from a range of experts in the area concerned, as part of preparing their recommendations. They also undertake extensive consultation within the party, including by publishing a formal consultation paper, and by holding a consultative session at federal party conference. The chair and members of the working group may also be invited to speak at regional or local party events, and any party member may contribute their views by writing to the working group chair, usually care of the Policy Unit at Lib Dem HQ.
The Federal Policy Committee keeps in touch with the working group’s progress during its work. Once the group have finished their paper, it will be discussed by MPs and the peers and others, before coming to the FPC for final amendment and approval. The final decision on the content of policy papers and accompanying policy motions rests with the FPC, who finally submit them to party conference. The motion formally endorses the paper as policy, and contains its main proposals (amendments may also be submitted to other items in the paper). Only the motion is subject to vote at conference, but if approved the accompanying paper also becomes formal party policy.
Where working groups have got to in their process is reported back to the wider party membership via the party’s website.
The Federal Policy Committee also has responsibility under the constitution for preparing the party’s manifestos for general and European elections, in consultation with MPs (for a General Election) or MEPs (for European elections).
The FPC will usually start the work of preparing manifestos about two years before the election, by appointing a Manifesto Writing Group to do the detailed preparatory work. FPC then keeps this under discussion with the writing group, and usually (but not always) publishes a pre-manifesto document about a year before the anticipated election, which is submitted to party conference for approval. The pre-manifesto will normally form the basis of campaigning in the months leading up to the election.
Following approval of the pre-manifesto the FPC does further confidential work building on that, before agreeing and publishing the final manifesto at the start of the election campaign.
The policy content of manifestos will be closely based on existing policy, and only in unusual circumstances will the manifesto contain policy which is different from existing policy agreed by conference, usually when a new situation has arisen.
Other work of the Federal Policy Committee
The FPC may also undertake other work. It now normally carries out a major policy review and planning exercise in the first year or so of each five-year Parliament, looking at the overall state of Liberal Democrat policy and needs for development through the rest of the Parliament. This is subject to wide consultation within the party, as well as eventual approval at conference.
Party conference sometimes ‘refers back’ individual policy motions from conference to the FPC, for further consideration. FPC will do further work in such areas as requested, before usually bringing a motion back to a subsequent conference.
FPC has responsibility for representing the party’s policy to external organisations, such as ALDE (the Association of Liberals and Democrats in Europe, the Europe-wide grouping of which the Liberal Democrats are a part) and Liberal International. In practice it works closely with the party’s Federal International Relations Committee (FIRC) to do this.
Federal Conference meets twice each year, over a weekend in March and four days in mid-September; although the autumn conference is longer and higher-profile, they have equal status to make policy. Since reforms in 2014, any party member may now attend and vote at conference.
About half of conference’s time is devoted to debating policy motions, which if approved become policy. There are usually some emergency motions, on topics which have arisen since the main motions deadline. There are also a limited number of ‘business motions’ relating to the administration of the party, which if approved are binding on the party.
The remainder of conference’s time is taken up with other items. These include set-piece speeches from spokespeople and leading figures, Question and Answer sessions with the Party Leader and other leading figures, and themed discussions on issues of interest, in which conference may discussion a current live issue, but without a motion or vote. None of these items are voted on, and things said during them do not become party policy.
Federal Conference Committee
Under the party’s constitution the party conference, including selection of the agenda, is managed by the Federal Conference Committee (FCC), assisted by party staff in the Conference Office and Policy Unit.
The FCC comprises 22 voting members: 12 directly elected triennially by party members, the Party President, the Chief Whip in the House of Commons, three state party (England, Wales, Scotland) representatives, one representative each from the Federal Board (FB), the Federal Communications & Elections Committee and the Federal People Development Committee, plus two representatives from the Federal Policy Committee.
It elects its own Chair and two Vice Chairs, who take a leading role in running conference. FCC is almost entirely responsible for all aspects of organising the conference, including practical arrangements as well as selecting motions and amendments for debate.
Policy motions set out the general approach and specific actions that Liberal Democrats would take in a specific policy area. Their scope may range from fairly broad areas (such as ‘health’) to relatively specific individual areas (such as ‘maritime piracy’).
Any ten members may submit a policy motion for debate; local parties, regional and state parties, or the Federal Policy Committee may also do so, as may Specified Associated Organisations (SAOs), certain interest groups within the party.
Only the Federal Policy Committee may submit full policy papers to conference; other than this FPC’s motions must go through the same selection process as motions from any other submitter. In practice however it is unlikely that FCC would not select for debate a motion accompanying a policy paper from the FPC (although it has on occasion required that they be heavily re-drafted).
There is no fixed format for policy motions; however a motion will normally set out (a) some criticism of the existing position in the area concerned; (b) some general beliefs and principles guiding the Liberal Democrat approach in this area, and (c) specific proposals to do something differently in the area concerned.
Anyone considering submitting a motion is very strongly advised to take up the offer of drafting assistance from the Policy Unit in advance of the submission deadline; informal advice at an early stage of preparation is also available and advisable, either from the Policy Unit or a member of the FCC. This is invaluable for ensuring that motions are written in a style that means they are likely to be accepted for debate; many motions which would be good subjects for discussion continue not to be selected because they are not written appropriately. The submission deadlines are currently early January (for spring conference), and late June (for autumn conference).
Selecting motions for Federal Conference
From among the motions submitted, FCC will select some for the agenda for the conference; pressure of time means that it is not possible to debate all those submitted, and FCC is also keen to maintain a high standard of motions on the agenda.
FCC is accountable to conference, and regards its role as facilitating conference to debate the issues that those attending conference wish to debate, in an informed and coherent manner. FCC members select motions on this principle, rather than on the basis of their own personal views on specific topics. Although it seeks advice from other relevant bodies and individuals within the party, FCC takes its decisions independently of them and of the Leader.
FCC will generally be inclined to put motions on the agenda which are politically salient and have specific well-thought-through proposals to make.
FCC will generally be unlikely to put motions on the agenda which are of only narrow interest, have been subject to debate at conference recently or are in substantially the same area as work being done by a policy working group, or are ill-informed or vague. A significant number continue to be rejected because of poor drafting.
If FCC rejects a motion, the proposer will receive detailed feedback from an FCC member concerning the reasons for its rejection; often further work means that it can be successfully submitted again for a future conference. Motions which are successful are placed on the agenda which is sent to all those coming to conference.
Normal policy motions are open to amendments, which any group entitled to submit motions, may submit. FCC will then select those to be debated, on the same principles as for motions. Conference attendees may also request a ‘separate vote’ on any specific lines within the motion – in effect this is very similar to an amendment to delete those lines from the motion. Such requests should be submitted at this stage.
Emergency motions may be submitted for either autumn or spring conference, by a deadline about a week before conference. They must relate to an issue which has come up since the deadline for normal motions. Emergency motions are subject to a different procedure for selection than normal motions: subject to being in order as genuine emergencies, FCC may not reject them for debate.
Submitted emergency motions which are in order will normally be put into a ballot for members at conference to decide which issue they would like to debate, with only the winning one or two being debated. FCC may also put one or two emergency motions directly on to the agenda.
Emergency motions are not open to amendment and should generally be short and focussed clearly on one specific issue. They are commonly on specific foreign affairs crises.
Timetable for run-up to conference
All policy motions must be submitted by a deadline in early January. Following motion selection by FCC, the final agenda is circulated in February.
Amendments to policy motions, emergency motions, and suggestions of topics for Topical Issue discussions must be submitted by a deadline in the week prior to conference itself.
Policy motions must be submitted by a deadline around late June. The agenda is circulated in August.
Emergency motions, and amendments to motions must be submitted by a deadline in the week prior to conference. Suggestions for Topical Issue discussions must be submitted by the same deadline.
Debate at conference
The debate at conference on all policy motions will be structured by the chair in the following way. The structure is the same for all policy motion debates, although the time allowed for it will vary depending on the topic and the extent of interest in it: generally debates will vary between half an hour for a small motion on a specific issue, to up to two hours for a major new policy paper. The debate is chaired by an independent chair appointed by the conference committee and assisted by a member of the conference committee as their aide.
The proposer of the motion speaks first, and has longer to speak than other speakers – generally about twice the normal length. The proposer of any amendments will speak next, in order (so proposer of amendment one, then proposer of amendment two, etc).
There will then be a general debate. Any party member may submit a speaker’s card; the chair will endeavour to call as balanced a range of speakers as possible, so that as many points of view as possible are represented in the debate, as well as other balances such as gender, race, and where in the country speakers come from.
At the end of the debate someone supporting each amendment will summate the discussion on it (again in order). Finally, a supporter of the main motion will summate the debate as a whole.
After all the speeches members present will vote on any amendments and separate votes, and then on the motion as a whole. Almost all votes are counted simply by a show of hands, but if it is close this will be done by a formal counted card vote.
A member may move a motion during the debate to ’refer back’ a motion for further work, usually to the Federal Policy Committee (though it need not be). If this is moved, conference will hold a short debate on this. If the move to refer back is defeated the debate continues in the normal way; if conference votes to refer a motion back then debate ceases at that point.
Responsibility for making policy: “Applicability”
The Liberal Democrats are committed to a federal structure for the United Kingdom, where many powers are devolved from Westminster to the nations/states of the UK. The party constitution therefore sets out a federal structure for the party, in which each state party (Scotland, Wales and England) has responsibility for making policy for areas which we would wish to see controlled at state level.
The Federal Party has power only to make policy in areas which Liberal Democrats would wish to see policy made at UK-wide level (which may be different from the current actual division of powers between the nations/states and the UK); only the Scottish party may make policy in areas which Liberal Democrats would wish to see powers exercised at Scottish level; and similarly in the case of Wales. In the case of England, the English party has ‘passed up’ powers to make policy in all areas to the Federal Conference.
The ‘applicability’ of all policy proposals and motions is marked clearly on them, such as ‘England only’, ‘Federal’ (i.e. UK-wide) etc.
Party spokespeople in Parliament of course play a leading role in putting forward the party’s ideas, through speeches, comments in the media and other publications. These will be strongly based on party policy, and in most cases are simply applying existing underlying party policy to developing political circumstances.
Spokespeople also have a responsibility for leading further development of party policy and may often bring proposals to conference for new policy in their area. These, of course, only become formal party policy once approved by conference.
Jeremy Hargreaves, December 2016