Monday, February 26, 2007

 

Trident and the Trouble With Amendments

Good news for anyone keen to debate Britain’s nuclear weapons capability in advance of Liberal Democrat Conference this weekend: just in case you’ve not already heard, tonight from 7-9 there will be a web forum with Nick Harvey, the Lib Dem Defence Spokesperson. Hopefully it’ll provide a useful platform for informed debate, and hopefully on the issues, which might provide more light than the rather silly squabbles I’ve been complicit in as people’s tempers have started flaring. Opposing voice Colin Ross has also offered to debate with you all individually by e-mail (surely he can’t be getting too much sleep?).

One of the arguments around the Trident debate is an avoidable one, though. It’s that the ‘anti-Trident’ amendment just isn’t very well-drafted. The main motion calls for a 50% cut in Britain’s nuclear warheads, but also to extend the operational life of Trident and set out the basis on which any potential successor weapons system should be developed, should Britain in the future decide to develop one (spot all the various compromises of many different initial points of view). The amendment, however, seems to provide an answer to a different question. Most of the arguments in its favour are arguments for getting rid of Trident; the amendment, presumably so as not to frighten the horses, calls for Trident to be scrapped at the end of its current, non-extended, operational life. That’s about 20 years away (or approximately 40 years after the end of the Cold War). The amendment comes off the fence in ruling out a replacement to Trident, but gets confused; until 20 years in the future, it seems less in favour of disarmament than the main motion, as it doesn’t include the proposal to reduce Britain’s nuclear arsenal by half before then. I’m sure the amendment’s drafters didn’t mean to simultaneously more dovish and more hawkish than the main motion, but that’s what they’ve managed: while the motion can fairly be criticised as neither one thing nor the other but somewhere in between, the amendment is neither one extreme nor the other, but both.

The Liberal Democrats have been here before. Just last year, I was tempted to vote for the amendment to the Tax Policy Paper that would retain the long-held policy of a 50% top tax rate. Various online discussions at the time found me firmly put off the idea by not its opponents but its proponents. Instead of retaining the policy that the party had fought on at the previous General Election (and the two before that), the amendment was another confused mess. The advantage of the 50p rate was its clarity – it was easy to explain and campaign on. It was a huge mistake for the devisors of the amendment to muddle it up with a different threshold, in combination with lots of other taxes, being an additional tax instead of a replacement tax, including lots of complex calculations meaning it’d vary depending on what your local income tax is, and throwing large amounts of it to councils to fiddle their local income tax levels anyway… So I decided the amendment, while its heart may have been in the right place, was in fact barking. I voted for the new policy instead.

There have been many criticisms of the way the Liberal Democrats write substantive policy. One of the most common is that it takes a long time; usually it’s at least a year and a half from deciding what the subject should be (it only took Millennium a year to write his Manifesto), through formulating a balanced group including all shades of view, a variety of useful experience and outsiders without a vested interest, devising a consultation framework, taking in consultation, taking evidence to research policy along the lines that the consultation has suggested, drawing up a paper, having its rough edges filed off by the party’s Federal Policy Committee, sometimes kicked back by the FPC for a complete redraft, and then the final draft sent in to be voted on or voted out by whichever six-monthly Conference is next up. It tends not to be fast and exciting; but it generally has wide support and avoids really stupid mistakes (it generally does that. Not universally!).

In contrast to the incredibly slow and thorough (some might say tedious) deliberative process through which full policy papers are produced, amendments tend to be produced quickly, randomly, without support from expert drafters, and with no consultation. It’s possible that it may suit the FPC’s interests for amendments to be a bit shoddy and so doomed to fail in their attempts to change what the FPC recommends, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard an FPC member say ‘goody!’ when another rotten piece of writing that can easily be pulled apart is tabled. It’s actually quite depressing, because a badly drafted amendment that doesn’t do what it thinks it wants to do satisfies no-one. If it’s defeated – and they usually are – then the amendment’s supporters claim it was only on a technicality, and feel conned; the main motion’s supporters feel cheated, as they won but other people have an excuse to say they didn’t really; and the main body of Conference-goers feel let down, because they’ve not been provided with the clear choice on paper that all those persuasive speeches on both sides sounded like they were advocating.

In my time, I’ve written an awful lot of amendments to policy motions. In the period when I was Policy Officer and then Chair of the Liberal Democrat Youth and Students, I wrote more policies for the Conference agendas than anyone else barring the FPC. I found that the shorter and clearer the amendment, the better – and that amendments that deleted bits of the motion were those most likely to have unintended consequences. I don’t think I ever lost one of the many that, wearily, amended a motion to add “…and sexual orientation,” but I lost some of the complicated ones. Back a few years ago when the party was much more ambiguous about ID cards than it is today, I was one of the writers of an amendment to toughen up our position. I didn’t do a very good job of it, and the motion was passed unamended not, I think, because most people in the Conference hall disagreed with my intent, but because the amendment’s impractical drafting left enough holes that the motion’s proposers could pick it to pieces.

It strikes me that having a web forum to inform the debate is an excellent idea. But if there’s any point in the policymaking process at which a web forum would be really useful, it’s immediately after each policy paper and policy motion is published. The Liberal Democrats would have sturdier policy – tested by much more constructive amendments – if amendments were thoroughly discussed and debated so they made sense before they were submitted, rather than being dashed off the night before the deadline with a feeling that ‘People know what we mean anyway, and, oh, it’ll do.’ It usually won’t.

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