Whatever the Ashdown Prize is, it’s not about radicalism.

The Ashdown Prize will be awarded to the boldest, most radical new policy idea that best empowers the citizen and tackles one of the challenges facing Britain today.

So goes the blurb sent out to every Liberal Democrat member yesterday, urging us to vote on the radical policy ideas that this new contest within the party has drawn up. It’s a bold plan and a way to open up policy-making in the party to a wider audience and to bring forward ideas that are normally stifled by the leadership before they get a chance to…

Yeah, you know where this is going, don’t you? Caveats away!

we looked for the ideas that were most radical, but also most practical, liberal, and timely

‘Practical’ being the sort of qualifier that allows you to get rid of all sorts of things by having some wise old hand (who’s just there to ‘assist’ those making the decision, of course) sucking air through their teeth and saying ‘well, that’s going to cost you, not sure we can do that, why not look at these safer options instead?’

Any entries that had already been debated by the party at Conference, like Universal Basic Income, were excluded: this prize is for ideas that are new to the Liberal Democrats.

You know how the last qualifier included ‘timely’? Well sucks to be you if you proposed a radical idea to conference before it was timely, because now it can’t be considered, no matter how much circumstances might have changed since then. And given the number of things that get discussed at conferences every year, that’s excluding a huge number of ideas that might now be practical and timely (or might always have been, just not popular) on the grounds that being ‘new to the Liberal Democrats’ trumps everything.

Though it is interesting that this caveat specifies Universal Basic Income specifically. It would be interesting to know just how many of the 1,140 submissions to this process included it or a version of it, or other persistently radical ideas like land value tax or a real devolution of power in the UK. I doubt we’ll ever know, because the idea of real openness in an exercise like this is one that’s far too radical for the party to consider.

So, having set up these two big hoops that any proposed policy has to get through — and managing to screen out anything that might be a little bit too radical in this contest for radical ideas — what manages to make it through to the end for us to have our say on?

Nationwide Online Schooling

The demands placed on schools and the struggle to provide resources are making schools far less effective than they could be in delivering education. We need a national online learning environment where assignments are set, teachers can be consulted, and lessons can be viewed — all online. This would help students who are sick, ‘excluded’, home-schooled or otherwise unable to attend school to take full part in education.

Statutory Care Leave for All

Many people find themselves needing to care for a loved one, but can’t get their employer to agree to time off. We need to provide all employees with statutory care leave, modelled on maternity leave. It would ease the burden on the NHS, allow employers to plan for fixed term leave for carers, and give employees the security of knowing that they can care for a loved one without fear of losing their job.

Supermarkets Must Donate Low-Risk Food Waste

Supermarkets throw out far too much fresh food. They should be obliged to give away their least risky food waste to food banks and the homeless. This will help people struggling to make ends meet, it will help food banks stock fresh food, and it will help supermarkets develop a more positive social and environmental image.

I’m really struggling to see how any of these qualify as ‘bold new ideas’ that ‘empower the citizen’ and ‘tackle one of the challenges facing Britain today’. All three basically sound like the sort of generic nice idea that you can imagine characters in The Thick Of It creating in the back of a car when they desperately need to generate something for the press, without any thought of the consequences or how they would be implemented.

‘Nationwide online schooling’ definitely sounds like buzzwords in search of a policy and manages to contradict itself in only a few dozen words, which is impressive. If schools and teachers are facing excessive demands and have a shortage of resources, in what way does creating a new national system that they have to add all their work to and be available on for answering student queries while somehow filming all classes so students can view them online reduce the demands on their time? Couple it to this being sold as nationwide, and as well as increasing the demands on schools and teachers to provide even more, you’re joining it to a major national IT project that needs to link together hundreds of different ways of doing things, an idea which has everyone who’s ever encountered NHS IT projects coming out in a cold sweat. This feels very much like late-90s techno-radicalism, where in the future we could do everything on the internet, and it’d be cheap and easy. Where does this empower the citizen, anyway?

The second idea does have some merit. Allowing people to balance care and work, and securing jobs when people need to take time off to care for a member of their family is a good thing, but while it’s a good idea, there needs to be a lot more detail to get an idea of how it’s going to work. How much leave can people take? What happens when that entitlement runs out and care is still needed (caring responsibilities are very rarely short term things)? Would it be limited to a certain amount per individual, regardless of how many caring responsibilities they might have? And beyond those practicalities, is this the best way to resolve a crisis in care — what other alternatives are there? And again, how does this empower the citizen?

Finally, making supermarkets give away their food waste to the homeless and food banks sounds like a good idea, but at best it’s a sticking plaster on a gaping wound of homelessness and deprivation that fails to tackle the causes of these problems and does very little to deal with the symptoms. It’s not going to solve the problem or empower anyone, and again runs into all sorts of practical problems, not least in that (from my experience, anyway) most food banks don’t deal with fresh food because it’s not easy to store and distribute things that have the potential to go off, especially if it’s something that’s explicitly been given to them because it’s very close to being wasted. Overall, it’s a nice idea, but it’s hardly a radical one.

So that’s three ideas, none of which are that radical, all of which are flawed to some degree, being presented to members as part of an opaque and closed process that only gives them a couple of days to vote on them. Whoever the person was who decided that sending out the email notifying members of this vote on a sunny Sunday of a bank holiday weekend was a good idea deserves a special prize for ensuring low involvement in this, even before we note that it’s a ‘choose one of three’ vote. That’s right, there’s no options to list preferences, ask questions, explore and debate these ideas before one of them gets crowned the winner — and you can be sure that whichever it was, we’ll be told when it comes to Conference that this policy was the choice of members, so it’s wrong for Conference to object to it.

So, we have a process that’s seemingly designed to weed out any inadvertent actual radicalism coming through it that ends up proposing a bunch of worthy and wonkish policies that won’t achieve any of the aims set out for them and don’t do anything towards making the party look distinctive in the eyes of the public. In that at least, the people behind this prize deserve some sort of praise for having boiled down the party’s regular policy process into a much simpler form.