This blog is by Martina Weitsch. These are Martina’s personal views, to get us started.
What is the process for making policy now?
First, let me remind us of how we do this: there is a very useful presentation on the members’ website which explains this. You can find it here. I won’t repeat what it says. But there are three essential points:
- We have several documents which together make up our policy: the philosophical basis, our values, the Policies for a Sustainable Society (PfSS) and the Record of Policy Statements (RoPS). Policy decision-making happens at conference generally addresses these last twoand amends them.
- Policy motions come to conference and can do the following:
- Put forward the proposal to amend something in the Policies for a Sustainable Society
- Put forward the proposal to review/revise a whole chapter or section of Policies for a Sustainable Society
- Put forward a revised chapter or section of Policies for a Sustainable Society
- There are also emergency motions – they tend to be statements to go into Record of Policy Statements as they tend to be matters of current issues.
- Policy motions can come from either a group of individuals, a local party, or a policy forum/working group.
My own experience of the process – having attended 3 out of the last 6 conferences – is this. Most of the time and unless the motions are about something I already know something about, the real reason for putting them forward and/or the impact they will have on the GPEWs ability to win votes is not clear.
Recently, there has been an attempt to improve this by developing something called an accredited motion. That is a very welcome step in principle because a motion, to get accreditation, has to have a broader discussion before getting on the agenda. That said, the last two conferences didn’t have any accredited motions.
The likelihood of a motion being discussed at conference and decided upon depends on where on the agenda it comes within each section. We hold a prioritisation ballot to decide this. The participation in that ballot is very low (in the hundreds recently, rather than thousands). Therefore a relatively small number of members can influence whether something is discussed or not. That is not a good way of deciding whether something needs to be talked about.
Finally, of the motions that do get debated, very few indeed fall. They are far more likely to be referred back to the proposer.
Does this mean that we are unable, collectively, to say no?
Who makes the decisions?
As indicated above, conference is where policy is made. Because we don’t have a delegate conference, the people who make the decisions are the people who come to conference because they are elected to some role in the party. Or people who come to conference because they enjoy it, can afford it, live close by, and don’t have other pressing commitments – such as childcare. It’s only people who are comfortable with the type of process a party conference is.
Attendance at conference varies. During the Green Surge we had huge numbers. But for the Spring Conference this year only about 500 members were registered. The fact that a lot of us couldn’t get there because of the weather is another matter.
Another problem can be that the date and venue of conferences is often announced relatively late in the day. That means that some people who might have gone have other things scheduled for the relevant time.
Local parties – in my experience – have little involvement in discussing the agenda, briefing those of their members who are planning to go, or hearing detailed reports on the outcomes.
Information to members more widely is practically non-existent. For the Holistic Review, I tried to access the agenda and outcomes of the last seven conferences and had some considerable difficulty in getting these. They are not all on the website and even those that are have to be found!
Why do we have policy?
The Green Party is a political party. We want to get elected, locally, nationally, and at all other levels of government available, to achieve our aims. That means we have to have something relevant to say to the people who might vote for us. Our policy is there to provide us with the content of what we might want to say.
But, we need to put that into the relevant context.
The other day, I heard some interviews with people on the doorstep in the local election campaigns. The interviewer asked them what mattered to them in these elections and the answers were: potholes and parking!
What I’m trying to say is this: we need to meet people where they are. What are their concerns? Why do they elect someone onto their local council? And that will change from place to place and from time to time. For us to be relevant, we need to:
- Analyse the context – what are the issues for people in this place in this election at this time?
- Take the most important of these issues (from our point of view, clearly) and formulate a response: what would we do to make the situation better if we were elected: specific, contextualised, relevant, now.
- That’s the basis for the local manifesto – or more likely – leaflet; that’s the basis for what our candidates will talk about at hustings; that’s the basis of what people will talk about on the doorstep.
The same applies for elections at the regional level (say, regional mayors, regional assemblies, PCCs, etc) and at national level. The context is different; the responses to the context have to relevant; and the wider the geographic remit of the election, the more coordination there has to be of the message we want to get across.
National policy should provide a framework for this process. It needs to be broad, and it needs to be clear regarding how it might apply in a specific context. It should not be something that will trip us up either because it is so long and detailed that we can’t hope to know it or because it is so specific and out-dated that the media can make it an obstacle for us.
So, here’s one idea that might work (and it is my idea presented here as a basis for discussion and disagreement!):
- We need a ‘template’ manifesto – that gives us both the style and the approach; it should also identify the broad policy areas we would want to address – although it should leave room for local/regional parties to choose from a menu to make it relevant.
- We need a well-designed presentation of our core values: what we stand for. The ’10 commandments’ as it were. Something we would all agree with. This can be agreed by conference and reviewed by conference every 5 years or so.
- A party decision-making body is set up in good time before elections to do the analysis of the context and to come up with the key points that need to be in our ‘manifesto’. This could be a working group of the local party if it’s local authority elections. It could be a working group of relevant local parties if it goes wider than one local authority or one party’s geographical remit. For general elections it should and must be a national level body including our key players: those that are in the public eye and who have to be able to work with the manifesto. None of this can be done at conference.
But policy isn’t all about written down stuff
We need to learn to talk about policy. We need to get nimble at answering difficult questions. That goes for the people who canvass on the doorstep; the people who do stalls on street corners; the people who talk to the media; people who do our social media and for candidates who speak at hustings.
So we need somewhere where we can do this and practice this and get good at this. And of course, people join a political party because they are interested in this stuff and so having somewhere to have those discussions could be interesting and fun.
Instead of a 2nd conference each year, we could hold regional training and debating events. Regional, because they would happen in more than one place (not necessarily 10 each year!) so that more people can attend and at lesser cost – they could be events that people can attend as day participants, for example.
These would focus on:
- Open policy debate – without the intention of making binding decisions (those would be left to the national conference)
- Training sessions – giving our members the confidence to do the things that need to be done well and giving those who are already expert/skilled at them the opportunity to share their skills
- Panel discussions on topics of interest – members could suggest subjects, which could be submitted to an online poll well in advance of the event – and the two most popular would happen. This gives an opportunity for:
- Exploring issues and an opportunity for members to speak in a public arena.
- Vital training for hustings and for elections – not to speak of talking to the media.
- Opportunities for all of us to hear of the good work that our elected Greens are doing.
- To give a platform to the many members who have significant expertise in policy areas we care about.
The emphasis should be on having a good time, meeting like-minded people, getting a sense of cohesion and building trust.
One of the things that could emerge from this is a well-developed decentralised network of spokespeople who are expert in their field and who can be called upon to respond to issues as they come up. We could have a national spokesperson for each area with a team of regional spokespeople to support them and to support each other.
So what about CONFERENCE?
This would still leave conference for the actual decision-making for when we need to make or change policy at that broad, core value level. And to hold those who work for us (committees, elected Greens and staff) to account for the much valued and tremendous work they do. An opportunity to applaud them, to support them and – at times – to ask the odd awkward question! But above all, to show that we trust them to do what they do in the best interest of their constituents (in the case of elected Greens) and the party.