Sometimes I despair. Sometimes I have hope. The UK may not be as corrupt as the Ukraine, but the influence of big business, consultancies and think-tanks on political policy development is scary.
Russell Brand says that we should not vote. I have often argued the opposite point of view, but if the three main parties are all proposing the same policies I do wonder why we bother. Just how democratic we are in the UK.
On the face of it Liberal Democrats are extremely democratic. Party Policy is determined by votes of national conferences on policy papers drawn up after studies by working groups and consultation sessions with the members. Sounds good, doesn’t it?
What follows is my own experience of policy development. It is possible that my experience is unique, but if replicated through other policy areas, and in other political parties then it is no wonder we finish up with policies that are unhelpful, inappropriate or plain stupid.
I have long been frustrated by the fact that Liberal Democrats lack a coherent overall policy for health and the NHS. I now know at least some of the reasons for that failure. It was certainly not party policy to break up the NHS and replace it with a National Health Insurance Scheme. (See footnote)
The first hurdle is to get Federal Policy Committee (FPC) to decide that we need a policy working group.
As an area that accounts for 18% of public expenditure and regularly comes among the top areas of public concern you might think that health is quite important. But no, alas, FPC decided to have a Public Services Working Group that would look at health, education, transport and other locally delivered services.
As someone with a lifetime’s experience of the NHS both locally and nationally in General Practice, Management and Health Informatics, I have something to offer on the subject. As a councillor, parliamentary candidate and Local Party Chair I could also consider the political context. But my name was not on the preferred list produced by the Party leadership. I was even told that when my name was suggested an objection was raised that that would mean too many male members on the group. Clearly such an objection would apply equally to several other names under consideration.
Gender notwithstanding, I was appointed to the working group. The problems of our wide brief were compounded by a very tight time-scale: we had in effect five months to produce a consultation document. Had we been set up to fail?
There are twenty-one members of the working group. Until this week I am the only member to have attended every meeting, apart from the chair. Typically we have between six and twelve members attending. We are sometimes outnumbered by Special Advisers and policy analysts seconded from Price Waterhouse Coopers.
The chair of our group decides on the agenda and the evidence givers. During the meeting he is quicker to give his own opinion than to listen to those of others. He writes and approves the notes of meetings, which are erroneously referred to as minutes. And he has written the consultation paper. He has flagged up issues as important and persisted with them despite disagreement from members of the group and contrary evidence from witnesses.
The remit of our working group included a requirement to “review the current legislation governing the provision of these services, including recent reforms to the NHS, and consider what changes to recommend.”
To focus our discussions I wrote a draft paper which I circulated in early October. Four meetings came and went while our chair prevaricated. Interestingly, other papers from members have been discussed within 24 hours of circulation. Finally, several members of the group supported me in my insistence that it should be discussed. At the last minute our chair arranged that Health Minister Norman Lamb should come to the same meeting and present a different paper. When the notes of that meeting were circulated they contained no reference to my paper or any of its recommendations.
And so it is that at the Spring Conference Liberal Democrats will be offered a consultation document that totally fails to address the most important issues facing the NHS and that neither reviews the Health and Social Care Act of 2012 nor recommends any changes.
Why is that? Some people do not want to rock the boat. They do not want to change anything. There are even some who think that it would be embarrassing if Liberal Democrats adopt policies that are out of line with legislation passed by the Lib/Con coalition. To promote such a view would be to deny the voters choice, and raise serious questions about the relevance of our parliamentary democracy.
Footnote: These were policies advocated by Nick Clegg and David Laws in 2005 and 2004 respectively.