Another issue that has been highlighted by the tuition fees situation, is how internal party democracy will function in a coalition. One of the things that we pride ourselves on, in the Liberal Democrats, is the democratic nature in which our party operates, especially in creating and debating policy.
Twice a year, in spring and autumn, elected representatives from local parties gather at party conference to establish party policy. Every two years, conference representatives elect a Federal Policy Committee which is responsible for the production of the policy papers that are debated by Conference. Party members discuss policy papers in local and regional meetings, and their representatives then debate and vote on policy motions and papers at Conference. Conference also debates motions submitted by local parties and conference representatives.
Therefore, we as a party decide policies by a democratic process. The elected Federal Policy Committee draw up policy papers that are then debated and voted on. If policies prove to be unpopular with the party, they can be voted against at conference and stopped.
However, quite a few members have raised concerns about the current accountability of the leadership, and their ability to challenge coalition policies. Last week, for example, we all had to wrestle with the incredibly difficult situation of choosing between abandoning an iconic Lib Dem policy, or reluctantly supporting the coalition. It is a concern to many that the 'coalition agreement trumps all' argument, seems to leave internal party democracy relatively impotent. It feels as though we can debate issues internally, but no matter how we vote at conference, there is very little hope of us changing coalition policies. Even publicly raising concerns has drawn criticism from some, as they believe it undermines the coalition. The debate and vote on free schools at the last autumn conference, for example, has done very little to change the policy, despite clear opposition.
Tuition fees, again, examplifies the difficult situation we are in. Party policy remains committed to gradually removing tuition fees, but it is highly unlikely that people will take us seriously on this issue anymore. Tim Farron recently made the point that it is quite likely that the policy will remain in the next Lib Dem manifesto. This was, perhaps unsurprisngly, met by derision and cynicism from the vast majority of people who read the article.
The position that we find ourselves in at the moment is especially difficult because we are trying to achieve several things at once, things which are often contradictory. Firstly, we need to ensure that we gain as much influence on policy as is possible. This point is relatively obvious, and the main reason why we entered into the coalition in the first place. However, we also need to make sure that we can show the public that coalition governments work and can provide stable governments. Selling the idea of coalition governments is especially important in our campaign to win the referendum on AV, and for our ultimate aim of introducing proportional representation. Lastly, we need to ensure that we retain our distinctive voice and identity.
Thus far, as David Hall-Matthews recently pointed out in an article in Renewal, "it has been accepted (perhaps too readily) that the principle of collective responsibility applies fully in a coalition, so decisions must be supported once made." We need to find a way to make our positions clear on issues, whilst not unnecessarily endangering the coalition. David Hall-Matthews suggests, as an example, that we present our position on issues before coalition policies are presented to the public. This would enable the public to see which battles we have won and lost, and perhaps allow us to gain credit for our currently, insufficiently visible efforts. It would, of course, also create problems such as presenting our own policy and then having to support a very different, possibly contradictory, policy as part of the coalition. Despite potential problems, I think it is very important that we as a party investigate all of our options on this matter.
Lastly, we need to ensure that we put pressure on the leadership of the party to ensure that they try and influence policy in accordance with what the party believes and decides, even if it is a policy agreed to in the coalition agreement. Yes, we agreed to join the coalition, but that does not mean that we cannot, and should not, try and influence policy when we have concerns about it. Retaining a distinctive identity is important, but we also need to show the public that we are trying our hardest to influence and gain concessions on Tory policies.