The Liberal Democrat challenges for 2012: The Budget

To mark the start of 2012, we’re running a series of posts over consecutive days on the main challenges for the Liberal Democrats in 2012. I’ve already written about the four priorities for the party’s new Chief Executive, Tim Gordon, but as the Liberal Democrats are more than just the one man whilst he has four, this series sets out six for the party.

Political pundits rarely get their predictions right. It isn’t that they are particularly bad at punditry, it is just that – as research has shown across several fields – experts generally have a pretty poor predictive record. One prediction, however, that is rather safer than leaving your chocolate in my safe-keeping is that the economy will continue to be the dominant political issue.

HM Treasury logoIn 2012 at least there is a good reason for such uncertainty with the great uncertainty over the European and US economies, both of which can have large impacts on our own. Some of the news from the US is starting to looking cautiously promising and the world’s economy outside the developed world has also been showing promising signs, including – thankfully – in many of the world’s poorest countries. On the other hand, a Euro-meltdown could make those factors look positively trivial.

Even in the best of scenarios, the Budget will not be one where the government has money to spare. That makes the choices of priorities all the more important. Even without a net reduction in taxation, it is possible to make the tax system fairer or greener. The wealthy can be taxed more and the struggling the least. If there is some sort of fiscal boost for the economy it can be done in ways that initially favour different sections – such as the low paid or the married. And so on.

On many of these issues it is not as simple as a Conservative versus Liberal Democrat split. They often see Conservative modernisers agreeing with Liberal Democrats and in opposition to traditional Conservative backbenchers. That means it is possible to see a distinctively Liberal Democrat influence on the Budget. It will be a key test of what the party achieves from being in coalition during 2012.

You can read the full set of challenges as they are published on Lib Dem Voice here.

* Mark Pack is a member of the Federal Board and editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire. He is a candidate for Party President.

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8 Comments

  • Actually the key challenge for the Lib Dems, is to work out how we will win some seats at the General Election. How to do something popular with the public that will get them to consider voting for us again.

    I am afraid that the leadership seem to have the idea that people will see we did a good job and will vote for us in gratitude – either that or the leadership just want to do the ‘right thing’ for the next few years and then consign the party to history in the cataclysm that will befall us.

  • Tony Dawson 3rd Jan '12 - 11:44am

    @Andrew Tennant:

    ..” personally I’m more interested in a strong and stable country”

    Which, you presume, will be best-achieved long-term (post 2015) by a Parliament containing three taxiloads of Lib Dem MPs? 🙁 It is not a question of ‘either -or’.

  • Andrew – so you are in the ” then consign the party to history in the cataclysm that will befall us.” category. I respect your opinion but I disagree – the country is much better served having the Liberal Democrats survive beyond 2015

  • I am not suggesting ducking difficult decisions, I am just suggesting that we couple that with having a strategy for winning some votes. I really don’t see why some people think “winning votes” is a dirty word – (okay two words)!

    At the moment we seem to be going out of our way to lose votes – not with the difficult decisions but with what we are saying:

    unnecessary speeches by Danny Alexander on Public sector pensions – achieved nothing but lost us votes

    Nick being more “bitterly disappointed” on the veto on Europe than he has been on anything else – achieved nothing but lost us votes – couldn’t he have been as “bitterly disappointed” with the Health Bill?

    these are just two examples – with out even starting on tuition fees or means testing pensioners

    I am not saying any of these policies are wrong just that we need to have a strategy for putting them across that wins votes.

  • I think Andrew Tennant is right and there is a strategy.

    It is to go out of our way to prove that we can make tough decisions – and then not to spin them in any way. Voters will be so impressed by both our toughness in making the decisions and our honesty in taking the crap for them, that they will vote for us.

  • Alex Sabine 3rd Jan '12 - 4:44pm

    I agree with Andrew’s sentiments above – and indeed the example that Libby gives of Danny Alexander speaking out on public sector reform is a good case in point: The easy, populist option would have been to try to force a climbdown and then say ‘it was the Lib Dems who moderated those nasty Tory impulses’ – but instead, to his credit, Danny held the line on the necessity of fundamental reform. (Tactical concessions on the details of specific schemes are not the same as a climbdown, and, even though I still have doubts about the fairness and long-term affordability of the proposed new settlement, it is a definite step in the right direction for which the Lib Dems – along with the Tories and John Hutton – can take some credit.)

    I agree with Libby that mood music like Nick being “bitterly disappointed” on the EU veto achieved little in the eyes of the public. First, it implied weakness and lack of influence, and secondly it was completely out of step with public opinion on the substance of the issue.

    Indeed, a key problem for those who urge the Lib Dems to pursue a more consciously vote-chasing course through sharp differentiation from (or confrontation with) Tories in the coalition is that on those issues which party members often want the Lib Dem leadership to strike as more discordant note – benefit changes, the stance towards the EU, immigration, law and order and green energy – polling consistently shows strong public support for the more “Tory” position, including among Labour and ‘floating’ voters. (Indeed on the EU veto I believe I read that even half of Lib Dem voters agreed with the PM’s actions!)

    It seems many more voters believe the government isn’t doing enough to reform welfare, stand up to the EU, stop illegal immigration or restore law and order than believe the converse.

    Now, I’m not saying the Lib Dems should advocate policies just because they are popular – Heaven forbid! – although any political party that aspires to government must present an overall package or agenda that is capable of convincing a broad spectrum of opinion.

    Sometimes this involves challenging the consensus, as Thatcher did in the 1980s, although then a number of other conditions have to be met, including the intellectual or financial bankruptcy of the alternatives (in this example the real problem in the early 1980s was not so much the Bennites but the fact that the mainstream centre-left, represented by the SDP as much as by the Labour right, no longer offered a plausible diagnosis and cure to Britain’s economic problems – as the social democratic columnist Peter Jenkins wrote later, Thatcher won support as the “liquidator to a bankrupt order” and, as Ralf Dahrendorf observed, the SDP stood for a “better yesterday”).

    If you are going to challenge deeply ingrained public beliefs, I’m not sure you can do it by telling them that their instincts or priorities are wrong, but rather that the evidence supports your alternative diagnosis of the problems which they want to see solved (a case can be made here with things like restorative justice, so if this is well articulated and combined with sensible attitudes to sentencing it should get a hearing).

    Another requirement in shifting public attitudes, or at least winning over a significant portion of the public, is policy coherence and consistency. For example, I would argue for a more liberal immigration policy than the one the coalition is pursuing, even though I know it to be unpopular, because I think it is one facet of the freer and more open society that I would like to see. I would link that with a whole series of other policies which I would justify (at least partly) on the same grounds.

    Those for whom tighter immigration controls as their main policy priority are unlikely to be won over, but plenty of other people might respond to the overall message and like some of its other manifestations (say, lower taxes or greater personal freedom or a defence of traditional civil liberties) enough to consider voting for a party with that platform.

    In any event the party would be identified with a clear worldview and agenda, rather than a collection of populist causes as has perhaps been the case with the Lib Dems in the past. (I’m not denying this approach, allied to Lord Rennard-style tactical shrewdness, can deliver some success, but its effectiveness is inevitably blunted once you can no longer play the oppositionist, whiter-than-white ‘plague on both your houses’ card as the voters have recent experience of you in government…)

    I suppose my point is that you can “take on” ingrained public opinion on one or two issues, provided your alternative analysis makes sense and can be justified as part of an overall narrative or explanation of the way the world is and the way it might be – but to challenge it on a whole series of fronts (like those listed above – welfare, the EU, immigration, law and order, green policies) at the same time without staking out a plausible governing agenda that would chime with the public is simply self-indulgent and doomed to failure. To do that in the context of coalition point-scoring would be even more futile and, what’s more, would deserve to fail.

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