In the three months since I last blogged at length about the Liberal Democrat general election manifesto process, Danny Alexander (chair of the Manifesto Working Group) has won widespread praise for restoring a sense of peace, sense and order after the events around the party’s autumn conference.
On the two major flash points – mansion tax and tuition fees – hostilities have ceased and proposals been modified to win widespread support within the party. Tuition fees are still due to be scrapped, but over a longer timescale, and mansions are still due to be taxed, but with a narrower definition of mansion.
The only question left is, “How did anyone manage to make such a mess of things?”. In both cases there was a much easier, less divisive and less time consuming route available to get to the same final policy outcome. Let’s hope some learning from mistakes has taken place.
Although previously a cause of vigorous debate, the proposals to scrap Council Tax look to be staying in the form they have been for a little while now – commitment to the principle but leavened with detailed proposals that involve testing and transition rather than a dramatic immediate abolition.
More generally, the integration between our economic and environmental policies is producing a more coherent package than has sometimes been the case in the past.
Less promising is the outlook on proposals to improve public services. As I wrote before:
It is, at the moment, perhaps the weakest area of party policy. We have some good ‘big picture’ themes – such as devolving budgets and responsibility as a way of improving quality – but the detail is often lacking and a rather mixed-bag of nice ideas without clear themes.
Coming up with a convincing answer to “how would you improve public services?” that goes beyond “devolve power” – and coming up with convincing ways of explaining why devolving power will work – looks to be the party’s biggest policy challenge.
This is an area of genuine, principled division within the party. Some believe in decentralisation as meaning giving more power to local councils, others as meaning giving more power to newly created directly elected boards. The party’s official current position is a slightly messy one: directly elected boards, of a sort, for health and police – but no more. Even if you believe the individual policies are right, they certainly do not add up to a clear, simple approach that is easy to sell in a sentence or two.
Given what the party’s policy process has delivered for the manifesto team to work with, it’s unlikely that the manifesto will contain a strong, simple message on this point – with the ironic lesson that the party would have been better served by some big bust-up debates on this rather than the ultimately wasteful ones that were picked* for last autumn.
The other likely troublesome area is the balance between policies and messages which appeal to floating voters and those which motivate activists. There is certainly a large degree of overlap between the two but they are not identical and good manifestos and general election campaigns balance the two.
Nick Clegg’s “four steps to a fairer Britain” speech placed heavy emphasis in its presentation on how the party was abandoning previous commitments, even to the extent of talking up a change in policy on long term care for the elderly as being a new move when in fact it had been debated and agreed in public at the party’s autumn conference. (Tsk tsk to those journalists who reported it as news this month, having failed to notice when the decision was made in public under their noses several months previously.)
Self-flagellation may have suited William Gladstone and may appeal to some voters, but relishing in it is far from the best way to motivate activists to get up that bit earlier to go and deliver that extra bundle of leaflets.
Still up for debate is Europe and also the degree to which our civil liberty concerns feature in the manifesto. One imaginative solution would be to consistently wheel out dismantling the ineffective Big Brother state as a way to both restore civil liberties and also to cut the deficit, bundling both appeals in to one point. It has long worked well for ID cards leading with the pragmatic cost issues as well as the principled ones, and this is one area where the Federal Policy Committee’s debates may well shape the final balance.
Overall the process should be fairly smooth going from here, but then that is how it looked it should be in late August last year too.
* I’m being generous here and assuming there was some deliberation