Clegg opens up his “fairly thick Black Book” of Lib Dem plans blocked by the Tories – but is it enough?

Last week, David Cameron revealed he’s keeping a “little black book” of Tory ideas he’s desperate to implement which have been thwarted by the Lib Dems. This prompted an impressively swift imagining by Lib Dem HQ of what that black book might contain – you can read it here.

It also prompted Lib Dem blogger Richard Morris pointedly to ask at the New Statesman, ‘Where is Clegg’s “little Black Book” of Lib Dem policies blocked by the Tories?’

… thinking back over the last few years, Lord’s Reform and the Mansion Tax aside, it’s hard to think what Lib Dem policies we’ve had blazing rows about in government that haven’t seen the light of day. Not even the AV referendum – we had it, we just screwed it up. That’s not to say there haven’t been such rows; just that we don’t talk about them much. And sure, I can list a ton of brilliant Lib Dem policies – Pensions reform, tax thresholds, Pupil Premium, free school meals – that we’ve achieved in government. But you can’t help but feel we were pushing on an open Tory door here, given they were all cracking ideas. …

I keep hearing that we’re going to spend the next 18 months attacking the Tories and Labour as idealogues, more interested in promoting what they believe than what it actually needed to continue to dig us out of the economic mire. Can this possibly be true? We’re going to attack other parties because they ‘believes very strongly in particular principles and tries to follow them carefully’ (to use the dictionary definition)? I wonder if we’ve properly thought that through?

Today Richard’s question was asked directly of Nick Clegg at his monthly press conference. Here was the Lib Dem leader’s reply:

I have a fairly thick volume of things that I’d love to do if I was prime minister, which is not of course possible within a coalition with the Conservatives.

Housing today is a good example, I’ve wanted to see community land auctions, which I think would be a great way to get more land leased, to get more houses built on them; that’s something the Conservatives are very reluctant to endorse. I’ve been a long-standing advocate of a planned approach to garden cities, particularly in that part of the country between Oxford and Cambridge, where lots of people want to live, where we don’t have enough places for people to live. Again, the Conservatives have stopped that. I think we would have seen more housing on a quicker scale if we’d been on our own in government.

I alluded earlier to the fact that I find it very frustrating that despite the coalition commitment, which I wrote into the coalition agreement, on reintroducing exit checks at our borders, that seems to have been not acted upon as quickly as it should have been. I think we probably would, frankly, have acted a bit faster on some of the structural problems in the banking system. I’m sure we can compare endless lists.

(Hat-tip: George Eaton.)

Community land auctions, garden cities, exit checks at borders. Nothing wrong with the policies, though I’d question whether they’d cut it on the doorstep.

Richard Morris’s point remains an important one. Though I think Nick Clegg’s strategy of fighting the next election as the party of ‘the liberal centre’ is the right one – fairer than the Tories, more responsible than Labour – I don’t underestimate the danger that the Lib Dems end up being seen as risk-averse, triangulating politicos who only care about staying in power and forget why they wanted it in the first place.

It’s right that people know we stopped the Tories doing bad things – but it’s not enough. We can’t simply be seen as guerillas in our own government, wreaking more havoc from within than we ever could outside it. We have also to talk about the positive – and, yes, even radical – things we want to do. That doesn’t mean signing up to hostages to fortune we can’t deliver (“Tuition Fees 2.0”) but it does mean emphasising the positive and distinctive reasons we want to be in government.

As I wrote in July in our LibDemVoice series, Lessons of Coalition:

In the easy days of opposition we could only imagine being in government. We lacked the experience of having to get to grips with the nitty-gritty reality of implementable policy detail. We don’t have that excuse now. Instead, our task is much, much harder. Not only do we need the fully worked through policies which give our manifesto credibility and enthuse party activists, we need also to work up the bite-size policies achievable within the compromise of Coalition that will nevertheless move us in a liberal direction. Because if we don’t claim that space, as we so effectively have on taxation but have generally failed to do on public services, we can be sure the other party we’re in Coalition will do it for us, whether Tory or Labour.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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11 Comments

  • Bill le Breton 16th Dec '13 - 8:52pm

    It would have been great to have been able to say that we wanted to get unemployment down to 6% by this time next year – not 7%, raise median incomes and give social landlords the power to borrow against their rental income to fund a massive housing programme of homes to rent, to let to buy with shared equity and for sale to first time buyers.

    But the Leader actually campaigned against these three policies at the Glasgow Conference in September.

  • Peter Watson 16th Dec '13 - 10:15pm

    Claiming “free school meals” as a “brilliant Lib Dem policy” is, erm, imaginative, since pretty much every other party seemed to have been in favour of it before Lib Dems. I’m not convinced it’s brilliant either, but that’s another matter.

  • Robert Wootton 16th Dec '13 - 11:19pm

    For the LibDems to win the next election we must be able to deliver on our manifesto pledges. One such pledge could be to end Britain’s Rip Off culture, A step towards this that could be delivered within weeks of taking office is to make all telephone numbers that our citizens use to contact government departments, freefone numbers. Of course any party could promise this. And deliver on it.

  • @Peter Watson,

    Well, seeing as Lloud George was the first to implement a free school meals policy I think we can cheekily saw that Liberals, in one for or another, got there first 🙂

  • In his original piece Richard Morris says –
    ” But the reason we managed 23 per cent share in the last general election was because people believed we were both ideologues and principled – and not cut from the Tony Blair ‘government-by-management’ cloth.”

    Who seriously thinks we will ever get as much s 23 per cent share in 2015 with Clegg as leader?

    Richard Morris goes on to say –
    ” Folk will either adore David Cameron’s ideas in his little Black Book, or be horrified by them. But everyone will be certain that he believes them.”

    Who in the Liberal Democrats or amongst the voters is certain what Nick Clegg believes in?

    Clegg’s fluffed answer to the Richard Morris question –
    ” Community land auctions, garden cities, exit checks at borders … .. .”

    It was paper-thin and pathetic.

    Clegg’s answer is not a ‘ Land Fit For Heroes ‘ – but a land of the unfit, lining up in food-banks.
    A mean and sad suburban sprawl where we pay the bedroom tax and all the badgers have been shot.

  • “Community land auctions, garden cities, exit checks at borders. Nothing wrong with the policies, though I’d question whether they’d cut it on the doorstep.”

    Quite. If these are the best examples of ‘differentiation’ that Nick Clegg could come up with, when specifically asked about it at a press conference, then either he hasn’t given the matter much thought or he has already decided that the party will be differentiated from the Tories only in matters of fine detail. I’m not sure which of those should be more disturbing to the party’s supporters.

  • Peter Watson 17th Dec '13 - 8:04am

    @ATF
    Interestingly, according to Wikipedia, universal entitlement to a free school meal (as opposed to Lloyd George’s measures) was first in the 1944 Education Act, so could be considered a Conservative policy, and it began to be scaled back under a Labour government.

  • @Robert: Even better, make them non-geographic 0300 numbers; mobile phone users such as myself pay a heavy premium if we want to ring 0800.

  • Matt (Bristol) 17th Dec '13 - 9:34am

    ” I don’t underestimate the risk that the Lib Dems end up being seen as risk-averse, triangulating politicos who only care about staying in power and forget why they wanted it in the first place. ”

    This is not the risk, it is the prevailing popular perception.

  • Chris 17th Dec ’13 – 7:57am
    ” … … either he hasn’t given the matter much thought or he has already decided that the party will be differentiated from the Tories only in matters of fine detail. I’m not sure which of those should be more disturbing to the party’s supporters. ”

    The party supporters and members will remain disturbed and disillusioned whilst he remains leader.
    We must make sure that when we get rid of him we do not get landed with another vacuous, right-wing diletante from The Orange Book brigade.

  • For the LibDems to win the next election we must be able to deliver on our manifesto pledges. One such pledge could be to end Britain’s Rip Off culture, A step towards this that could be delivered within weeks of taking office is to make all telephone numbers that our citizens use to contact government departments, freefone numbers. Of course any party could promise this. And deliver on it.

    Absolutely agree but there is a whole bunch of things like this… See this months Which magazine about theatre ticket mark ups (for printing the tickets yourself – you couldn’t make it up), I propose a peoples commission for the great British rip off, which would have the power to consider all the rip offs we see every day, the credit card mark ups, the theatre ticket add ons, the telephone numbers, the excessive fees on annuities, the inane telephone directory enquiries costs, the restaurant service charges etc etc etc, and I would give that body the power to instantly put a stop to it (ie. not have an investigation for years)

    Propose that and I’ll have a reason to consider voting Lib D em

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