Opinion: It’s about everything but freedom

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Bournemouth 2009’s big dust-up hurtles towards us on Tuesday morning – the debate on A Fresh Start For Britain: Choosing a Different, Better Future. And, as is ever the case when a paper taking the whole of our policy and priorities in the round comes up for debate, rather than taking in the big picture, everyone’s focused on just one relatively tiny issue that barely appears in it: last year, tax cuts; this year, tuition fees.

Just to confuse matters, when people address A Fresh Start For Britain, there are actually three separate publications they might mean – the motion printed in the Conference Agenda, the pdf / website which was launched in July with the key commitments, and the, er, other bits stuffed in at the back of the policy paper which no-one outside of the Conference hall will ever see. The most important bit is the version published on the website, because that’s the bit that’s the actual cast-iron policy for the General Election Manifesto: everything from page 10 onwards in the full paper comes with the caveat that it may be dumped in the run-up to the General Election (and so, implicitly, why bother?). This positions the Liberal Democrats as making the tough choices up front about public spending that the other parties are petrified of admitting out loud. The reason why people are furious about tuition fees is, of course, because that’s in the back end, and it’s the bit of the back end that Nick’s been drawing attention to in interviews, to prove we’re serious about tackling the economic black hole by saying we can’t afford something we really like as well as cutting back Labour projects we never liked in the first place. But there’s a lot of other stuff there that you should argue about cutting or not, too.

I analysed the key part of A Fresh Start For Britain when it came out, including exactly why not prioritising getting rid of tuition fees was such a major political mistake. You can read that on my blog, but today I’m going to look at the whole thing in much shorter form – and at just why you should pay attention to the ‘big picture’ it paints of the Liberal Democrats, which gets it far more seriously wrong.

To please the lovely Helen Duffett, however, first I’ve distilled its message into Tweet form:

“Lib Dems’ Fresh Start For Britain. 1: Green jobs & safer banks. 2: Fair taxes & investment in schoolkids. 3: Give you power to sack your MP!”

or

“Can’t afford Labour? We won’t boss you about. We won’t knacker the environment. & We won’t waste your money on nukes, invasions or ID cards.”

There, now that doesn’t sound too bad, does it?

A Fresh Start?

You’ve probably heard the argument about tuition fees, but not read the motion, still less the excitingly coloured (and quite easy to read) website – and almost certainly not the main paper. But as it’s all going to form the basis of the next Liberal Democrat General Election Manifesto, you might as well find out something about it before you deliver 18,000 Focus leaflets with these priorities distilled on them next May, mightn’t you?

First, the good news. It’s clear about our priorities, which it labels:

  • Creating a sustainable economy
  • Building a fair society
  • Cleaning up politics

Clear, popular and to the point – it identifies what the crisis is, and sets out how to deal with it (though the green agenda tends to be grouped rather awkwardly mostly in the first priority, and partly into the second). If you read it, you get a pretty good idea of what we’d do, and a pretty good impression that we’d actually be able to deliver it. And you’d be able to remember both of those points five minutes later.

Nick Clegg’s introduction both puts his personal priority squarely on kids, and makes Lib Dems think, ‘At last, political and electoral reform is sexy!’ along with the economy, on which we’re newly confident. Change For Real, Change For Good is punchy about what we think’s gone wrong, and challenges voters, “If you are happy with the way things are, the Liberal Democrats are not the party for you.” It’s the right message and positioning, but are we seen as anti-establishment enough to capitalise on it? And, most crucially, Principles for Government sets out what our key commitments actually are. If you only read one bit, read this (it’s a button on the website, or pages 7-8 of the full paper).

It’s there and in Nick’s introduction, though, that the paper’s yawning gulf appears if you look for it…

What About Freedom?

Principles for Government says that “We can be certain about the values and principles that will guide us” – so certain, in fact, that it doesn’t say what they are. “The priorities that follow, driven by the values we hold dear… Liberal Democrats will be firmly guided by our values.” Yep, the word “values” three times in one paragraph, but still nothing to say what they actually are. How about the motion? It mentions “fairer and greener” taxes, from which you can infer that we believe in being fairer and greener, but – again – says that we’re clear about our values without, er, being clear about our values: “While nobody can yet be certain what the country can afford, we can be certain about the values and principles that will guide us in the tough choices that lie ahead… Liberal Democrats will be firmly guided by our values.”

You have to turn to Nick’s introduction, which has the paper’s only explicit sentence on Liberal Democrat values: “I believe there’s a better way. This country can be fairer, it can be safer, greener, and stronger in the world.”

Remember the paper on our philosophy, It’s About Freedom? Or our 2001 and 2005 General Election Manifestos Freedom, Justice, Honesty and Freedom, Fairness, Trust? Or our previous priority-setting paper Trust in People: Make Britain Free, Fair and Green? Or even the “Liberal” bit of our name? Can you spot what’s missing? There’s not a single mention of freedom in the motion, nor in the ‘commitments’ part of the paper that appears online. “Free, Fair and Green” was a simple, clear summary of our aims – but dropping “Free” for “safer” and “stronger” convey a very different message.

Neither the Liberal Democrats nor A Fresh Start For Britain are about playing safe. And as for the macho rhetoric of “stronger”… That’s simply wrong. It sounds like we’re desperately trying to butch up to cover up, say, dropping Trident. And that merely sounds confused, not strong. After Iraq, after ID cards, after any amount of Labour bossiness and politicians saying ‘We know best’ that’s got us into all this mess, I don’t want a Liberal Democrat Government to be butcher still. I want us to have the courage to say, government’s done too much, and too much of the wrong things, and you should have more freedom to live your own life rather than throwing a new law at you for every hour of the day. And that will strike a chord with people even if for no other reason than because enforcing stupid laws wastes money, too.

And it isn’t just me that thinks this – look at what Nick Clegg said in his The Liberal Moment, published just last week:

“A liberal’s starting point is the freedom and integrity of the individual.”

“A liberal believes in the raucous, unpredictable capacity of people to take decisions about their own lives. Labour believes a progressive society is characterised by enlightened top-down government. A liberal believes a progressive society is distinguished by aspiration, creativity and non conformity.”

Not about freedom? About playing it safe? About government that prizes being “strong”? Not a bit of it. So whose values are “strength” and “safety”?

“At the core of conservative thought is a determination to preserve, protect and defend.”

So what are they doing replacing freedom at the heart of our values? We mock David Cameron and Eric Pickles’ claims to be liberal Conservatives – so why the are we pretending to be conservative Liberals? It’s a horrible mistake. Worse, it’s a lie, it’s embarrassing and with Labour and the other Tories competing over that ground to boss people about, no-one will come to us as the ones who really mean it. This paper sets out policies and priorities, but what’s most important to know about any party – because the last couple of years have taught us more than any others in half a century that things can go horribly wrong and turn your plans inside-out – what’s most important is to know your principles. We’re a green party, a party of fairness, and above all a Liberal Party. One word sums that up. It’s about freedom.

These Are the Savage Cuts

I’ve said – and Nick’s said more codedly, in all those interviews – that the second part of the full paper is nothing like as important as the first third or so. It starts on page 10, though you won’t find it online. Even the paper says it’s disposable from then on:

“Those policies which require public investment will only be introduced as and when resources can be identified by cutting public spending elsewhere… The manifesto will be a fully costed programme for government, so any policy for which resources cannot be identified will be excluded.”

This implies that, for the first time since we started producing them in 1991, the pre-Manifesto could be longer than the Manifesto. I know, I know. Saying it’s not the top priority isn’t the same as dumping a policy altogether. But if I were a Parliamentary candidate again, I’d be very careful indeed about what I said about policies that weren’t ‘on the list’. And that’s why it’s so important that the party debates what is, and isn’t, on that list – because if you want a reputation for honesty, you have to stick only to the bits you can be absolutely honest about.

So here are the big-ticket policies from that point on which rang alarm bells for me as not having the money to pay for them:

  • Adult Apprenticeships (page 12)
  • Affordable Housing (page 14)
  • A universal entitlement to free childcare, for all children from 18 months to when they start school (page 17)
  • Scrapping tuition fees (page 18)
  • Uprating the State Pension (page 19)
  • We will also work to create a Citizen’s Pension (page 19, and probably the most massive cost in the whole thing)
  • Help for Equitable Life pensioners (page19)
  • Help with care costs – “We would slash care costs,” though no longer abolish them entirely (page 19)
  • “We will recruit up to 10,000 more police officers” (page 20) “We will make prison work” (uh huh?) and “we will treat drug addicts and the mentally ill in more appropriate accommodation.” (page 21)

So What Else Is Stuffed Away at the Back?

There are a few interesting bits in the ‘disposable’ part that aren’t big expenditure items, though – whether they’re policies, or language, or an indication of our priorities.

A New Sustainable Economy tells us that “Ordinary families are paying the price for mistakes made…” Ordinary people, surely? Individuals get less help from tax credits, and young people who can’t afford to start families are the worst-hit group of the lot (as “Creating Jobs” further down the very same page explicitly admits!). At least the later The Best Deal for Families, the Best Start for Children is actually about families, and not just using the term as a buzz-word that excludes large chunks of the population. More encouraging, though, is the notion of splitting up the biggest banks – going back to 1950s Liberal anti-monopoly instincts, as does the mention of new mutuals and co-operative ventures. And the ’90s shiny New Labour credit card is firmly snipped in half with a rejection of PFIs after their “collapse,” though the reference to Labour’s denials that they’re making cuts are out of date now, of course. Labour are now denying they ever made denials. I do wonder, though, why only pensioners are offered risk-free returns on government bonds (page 13), and why no-one’s mentioned the one blatant new tax for spending in the paper, the Future Transport Fund (page 15)?

A New Fair Society – blimey. This might only be one of three sections grouping issues according to our three key priorities, but it’s by far the biggest. This is where almost everything is bunged in. It’s also where there are finally some policies about freedom, and some mentions of “freedom” – though, confusingly, they aren’t the same.

“At the root of these problems is a self-interested political establishment that puts big promises and top-down control ahead of empowering people and communities to design their own solutions… We want a society that gives people more power to shape their lives.”

Now that, clearly, though phrased as about fairness, is about freedom, and all the better for it. However, when the word finally arrives, it’s to say “We’ll free professionals in the NHS and schools…” to do as they see fit, offering freedom only for the producers. At present, things are top-down – yet rather than changing them to bottom-up, we want to stick the power in the middle. The only area in which we promise to give “local communities a major say” is “in punishing offenders.” Dead Liberal.

There’s much on education, though some of it raises questions. With the Pupil Premium, for example, “Schools would be able to use the money for things like one-to-one tuition and catch up classes so that standards improve for everyone” – but could they use the money just in general, rather than on the poorer kids? Will it be ring-fenced for ‘fairness’, or left to teacher ‘freedom’? Then there’s the awkward statement that “The National Curriculum is too rigid… We will create a new ‘minimum curriculum entitlement’ that demands more,” facing both ways at once. Again, “Freedom for all schools” and “Freedom for teachers” on page 18 use the word “freedom,” but only for teachers and other professionals who know best, not for kids. Amongst the many points where this document could have done with some proof-reading, incidentally, it is of course this point on education where two words are wrongly hyphenated, while another two that should be hyphenated aren’t.

A special award goes to “Access to health care – We will bring forward further proposals in our general election [manifesto, presumably, as there’s clearly a word missing as well as a policy] for improving access to health care.” Presumably, the FPC couldn’t agree on money for making eye and dental tests free again, but this is the single most useless paragraph in the whole document: it may as well say ‘insert policy here’. My heart further sank on reading “Despite the importance of tackling obesity, alcohol abuse and smoking, public health has not been given the priority it deserves.” Oh joy! So the Labour Government haven’t been bossing us around enough? Really? Thankfully, on page 20, it links health and environmental pollution, as I’ve been saying we should for at least a decade (and one of the phrases in “Tackling health inequalities” is clearly based on one I wrote for the 1997 Manifesto and which has lingered since – though, and I know you’ll find this hard to credit, it lacks my brevity). Then, at last, on page 20 of 26 (and, unusually, repeated on page 24), we get a bit of power for people: “Give local people real control over the NHS and policing”.

I’m very pleased to see, under Defeat Terrorism and Extremism, that “We will reduce the maximum period of detention before charges are brought, from 28 to 14 days” and “We will reach out, beyond the self-appointed community leaders.” On immigration, though, Labour / Tory rhetoric sits uneasily with Liberal policies: “Controlled immigration and a welcoming society” vs “the government’s lost control of the borders” vs “Allowing asylum applicants to work rather than living off benefits”… And, if you want proof that this is the section – still A New Fair Society – in which all the leftovers ended up, we get A Green and Pleasant Land, too, with plenty on rural areas (though not a word about cities).

Right at the end, A New Clean Politics takes some freedom issues seriously, on page 23 of 26: “At the same time, your privacy’s being undermined. There are plans for intrusive ID cards, and the Government snoops into people’s lives while making it hard for anyone to find me what it is doing… We are instinctive defenders of the ordinary person against the over-mighty and over-intrusive state… We’ll introduce a Freedom Law to protect your privacy and stop ID cards.” Later slips in “Cutting Back the Overmighty State,” which means we’ll “Stop government interference in people’s lives with a Freedom Bill,” offering a good list of some of the things that would scrap. Reforming Westminster explicitly backs STV, now far more relevant because of the voter power it offers, with that put even before proportionality: “A new [voting] system must end safe seats and make seats won more proportional to votes cast.” There are paragraphs on decentralising power, promising “More money spent locally, more decisions made locally,” and here “Local people will be set free” – though warning, Spiderman-style, that “With power must come financial responsibility”.

The cleverest wheeze you may have missed is on page 24 – “We believe it is necessary to pilot Local Income Tax to resolve any practical issues of implementation.” And, at a stroke, the problem of an income tax-cutting message and local income tax rises is solved by saying LIT won’t come in all at once, but won’t be abandoned, either. Another excellent policy: “We will abolish many of the unelected quangos that New Labour has created to run people’s lives… But before that, we will immediately open all meetings of quangos and health boards to the press and public.” And finally, on page 26, “We are committed to working towards a world free from poverty, inequality and injustice” finally casts relief from poverty, as does the Liberal Democrat constitution, in terms of freedom.

Who’s To Blame? And What Can You Do About It?

Nick Clegg? Danny Alexander? Some horrid marketing executives you don’t know, but are sure are there? I’m going to be controversial and point the finger at another lot – the Federal Policy Committee.

Now, I know that various FPC members have been briefing and spinning how shocked they were when this paper’s message was briefed and spun. Some, like the redoubtable Linda Jack, have even done so under their own names. But look, FPC! I was on that committee for three General Election manifestos, and the one-that-never-was. I know how this works. You don’t decide the spin, the campaigning and certainly not the Leader, but you do control the words. And it’s blatantly obvious from the words printed in the paper that the first third counts, and the rest – not so much. So if you didn’t insist that tuition fees were in the bit that mattered, it is your fault. Leaders always take advantage of any rope they’re left with. Holding up your hands in affected shock that, because you weren’t clear enough, someone else took the opportunity to be clearer is a textbook ‘No shit, Sherlock’ moment. You were out-manoeuvred, you didn’t pay enough attention to your jobs, and you have no-one to blame but yourselves. Luckily for you, there are no FPC elections this year, so you won’t be thrown out.

So, Liberal Democrats, where next? First, see what happens in the debate. Then get in touch with your MPs, your Leader, and above all your FPC, to say, ‘actually, we’d like this in, please’. And in a constructive spirit, I have two suggestions.

How about a face-saving compromise acceptable to both sides for the Manifesto? Draft very clear, utterly unambiguous text committing us to abolish tuition fees either after the economy has grown by a certain percentage, or in year four of the Parliament, or some such – not on ‘day one’, but a commitment for before the next General Election.

As an added bonus, Mark Littlewood is taking bets at 8/1 that a commitment to abolish tuition fees won’t be in the next Lib Dem Manifesto, so this compromise will also enable lots of us to take lots of money off him – with a better rate of return and a smaller risk than the stock market, I’ll be bound. I’m looking for him with my tenner tonight.

And, as we’re always told we need a cut for everything we put in, FPC members, please take up my proposal to take two words out when it comes to the Manifesto – “Safer” and “Stronger” – and put one word in – “Freedom”. That’s a 50% cut. If only all your cuts were so easy.

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