By Olu Akanmu
In the months of September and October every year in the United Kingdom, the leading political parties, the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats usually hold their annual policy conferences. Attendance is usually massive from across the United Kingdom with senior and local leaders leading major policy sessions on subjects like education, health, transportation, foreign affairs, economy, industry, sports, home affairs, immigration, science and technology. The calendar of the policy conferences are usually arranged back to back such that as one political party conference finishes, another one begins. In the British system with opposition shadow cabinets, the leading speakers on policy areas are usually the shadow cabinet members whose policy speeches are usually a critique of the ruling party performance in that policy area over the one year period.
The policy speeches are usually well researched, with data, facts, anecdotes presented from major ideological perspectives of the political parties. Each policy speech will then be followed by policy debate and contribution from delegates from across the country where they bring local and regional perspectives to support or flesh out their party’s perspective on each policy subject. The delegates tend to vary from rank and file members, to local councilors, elected legislators in regional houses and the Westminster. Of course, in the typical British style, there are usually the strong elements of British caustic political humour where jabs are thrown at opposing political parties’ perspectives and personalities. The jabs are usually policy-based to illustrate policy gaps and weaknesses of competing political parties’ policies.
The press as the modern day forum for the people to follow the parties and their policies are not usually left out. The party conferences from beginning to end are usually televised life on BBC Parliamentary channel. Other stations will tune in live to major policy speeches of the Prime Minister, the Opposition leader, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Opposition Cabinet Economy spoke person. One interesting aspect of the sequencing of the political party conferences is that the opposition policy conferences tend to come first and the ruling party policy conference tends to come last, ensuring that they respond copiously to the policy critique that would have been given by the opposition parties. Imagine an APC Policy Conference for three days with major policy speeches and sessions on education, health, economy, industry, employment, and infrastructure. To do this, APC will have to do its homework properly on diverse subject areas with specific details on what it will do differently from PDP. In a three day conference with live telecast, an APC would have had to constitute policy teams to do thorough research which will be presented at the conference. There will be no room to hide with vague details as the policy conference will not be the type of typical one- hour press conference addressed by its Publicity Secretary.
If a week later, a PDP policy conference follows, you can be sure of policy fire for fire, critique for critique based on ideas to move the nation forward. Policy debates and speeches by the PDP will be led by members of the Federal Executive Council or senior members of parliament in the subject policy portfolio. They will have to tell us why they have a better governance idea; how they are executing it and the result they have delivered. In such policy conferences, there will be very little room for absolute focus on primordial issues of ethnicity and sectionalism. If such subjects would be discussed at all, it will be done in a policy context such as federalism, devolution of power, resource control and impact on the quality of life of the people. The fact that such policy conferences happen every year with or without election also means political parties are constantly forced to keep sharpening their governance policies such that as we approach elections, we know what they stand for or how they differ.
Today, a critical problem of our electoral process is the lack of true plurality of governance ideas or the little robustness of policy ideas. It is not very clear today how the PDP and the APC are different. It is not even clear whether the electorate know what they stand for. Elections today have thus become a debate on personalities, character and ethnicity of the candidate with all attendant counter-productive emotions. A political party policy conference will throw up our bright politicians, the ones who have depth, who have schooled themselves properly in governance, who have real ideas to improve the well-being of our people. The lack of formal public platform for policy discussions such as this has rather thrown up the typical Nigerian politician who is more or less a rice distributor among the party members, hailed and carried shoulder-high because of the naira that he doles out to his party rank and file. This typical Nigerian politician, the narrow privileged elites are the ones who seem to have permanently captured our political parties, reproducing themselves in leadership successions. And this has essentially turned our elections into choices between blue-black and black-blue candidates.
In recent essays, we have called for electoral reforms to fix our broken and dysfunctional electoral process that usually throws up our worst or at best our averages for electoral offices. We also wish to call for statutorily compulsory annual political party policy conferences. We need to build a new polity driven by policy and great thoughts rather than ethnicity and sectionalism. We need to have an active citizenry, a civil society that engages the politicians on their governance ideas, its execution and results delivered. We need to have political parties with contesting ideological perspectives on driving the nation forward, where some will be truly a little to right while others will be truly a little to the left. We need to get our intelligentsia to join politics, to drive policies and great governance ideas and philosophies. We need politicians who can write again, great books and political thoughts such as the Voice of Reason, Thoughts on the Nigerian Constitution and Renascent Africa. We need to build a new politics and electoral process driven by policies, great contesting governance ideas and philosophies among our political parties. Statutory annual policy conferences of political parties, as part of our electoral reforms will make this happen and raise the quality of our governance.
Olu Akanmu publishes a blog on Strategy and Public Policy on http://olusfile.blogspot.com