I have recently been made aware that there is a potential problem with the way the Lib Dems organise their Federal Policy Committee. Apparently the meetings of this group are largely held in London.
I know that there are some people who live far outside London who would like to put themselves forward for election to the body but because of the travelling involved would struggle to travel the distance regularly for various reasons.
I can understand the logic behind holding the meetings in London. There are facilities available in the form of Cowley Street. It is near parliament which makes it easier for the parliamentarians to be involved. Also, if you live in the South East, the most populated part of the country then it is fairly central.
But what about all those members who do not live in the South East and although able to spare the time for the meetings could not spare the time to travel for several hours there and back to London?
I think there is a real risk here of excluding people who would be very good on the FPC purely for geographical reasons. I also think that as a party we are risking our policy making process being too dominated by people from London and the South East and hence there being a London-centric bias in the way decisions are taken.
I should make it clear that this is just based on concerns of mine. I do not have direct evidence of what I have outlined above in terms of bias and unbalance. It just seems like ensuring that the focus is so London based is taking a bit of a risk. Especially for a party that is so committed to devolving power.
I don't have a specific solution to this but here are a few suggestions:
1) The meetings could sometimes be held in different places. Perhaps every other meeting could be held somewhere else, e.g. Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow etc. That way it would be easier for people outside of London to attend some of them and hence make it more likely that they would feel able to run in the first place. It would also mean those living the the South East would have to do more of the leg-work.
2) Use technology to help ease the problem. Skype can be used to do video-conferences nowadays. We use it in our business and it works very well. It can only be used for free between two locations but that could potentially mean that say some of the meeting participants could be say in Newcastle and some in London. If there were big enough screens being used on a decent fast connection then this could actually work well. It is also possible to pay for better technological solutions which would allow more than two locations to be used in this way although I can understand that cost issues may militate against these
3) This one will be controversial but an option might be to base the FPC in another place altogether which is more central. Perhaps somewhere in Derbyshire would fit this sort of bill as I think the "most central place in the UK" is in that county. The BBC has moved a good chunk of its production to Manchester, perhaps we could be in the vanguard of doing this for a political party?
It could also be a combination of all three of these things.
I expect there will be objections to all of these suggestions, some of them will be fair ones no doubt. But I think we need to ask ourselves what sort of party we want to be. I am uncomfortable with the idea that we may be excluding people from our policy making process who would be very good but cannot do so because they live too far away from London.
I think we should at least be trying to make it easier for people to get involved to ensure that the process has the best chance of reflecting the diversity of people within our party.