Conference Preview 2014: The Pre-Manifesto Debate

libdemmanifesto 2010 wordleI thought it might be an idea to get some discussion going about the key Conference debates which are now just days away.

Arguably the most important of these is the motion on the Pre-Manifesto. It’s our shop window to the country, the cornerstone of everything we say or do between now and May.

Two and a half hours have been allocated for the debate on Tuesday morning. You can read the whole motion in the agenda. The key themes are published below:

Conference therefore endorses policy paper 121, A Stronger Economy and A Fairer Society, as the basis for constructing the party’s manifesto for the next general election.

Conference welcomes its key commitments to:

A. Finish the job on the deficit fairly and balance the books so the next generation are not burdened by huge interest payments.

B. Rewire the economy to cut out carbon, rebuild our national infrastructure, and embrace new technology, so the next generation can enjoy long-term prosperity and be protected from the threat of runaway climate change.

C. Rebalance the tax system away from work and towards unearned wealth, so the next generation can keep more of the money they earn and live in a more equal world.

D. Build the homes our country needs to stop prices spiralling out of reach, so the next generation have the chance to bring up a family in a home of their own.

E. Return power from the stifling grip of Whitehall to the citizens and communities of our country, so the next generation have the power to shape the society in which they live.

F. Restore confidence in Britain’s immigration system with fair rules and competent administration, so the next generation can continue to live in an open, tolerant society that benefits from people and expertise from around the world. G. Invest every penny we can in education from cradle to college – nursery, school, apprenticeships and college – so all our children get the chance to live out their full potential.

Now, it’s not as if there is anything terribly bad in the pre-manifesto. We’ve seen a lot of the new ideas such as the Carers’ Bonus, come out over the Summer. Some people feel that putting these ideas out was disrespectful to the party’s policy making process. It was made clear, though, that it was all subject to Conference approval. Some of it was already party policy. For me, though, when I finished reading it, my heart rate was the same, my blood pressure was stable and the heathery plants in the garden remained in a state of un-ignitedness.  There’s a lot of earnest, worthy stuff in here, but what we need is something that’s going to resonate with the electorate and put a spring in the step of Liberal Democrat activists. It is possible for that to happen. We know it, because we’ve done it many times before.

The Conference debate and, I hope, the comments to this article too, need to provide the narrative that holds all these worthy ideas together.

I think we also need to recognise some elephants in the room. The Pre-Manifesto rather neatly side-steps some of the really difficult issues that the Coalition has had from the NHS to welfare. There’s too much emphasis on making the sick work. We have to take a fair and compassionate approach to this, not make people feel like they are a burden on the state. The  Yellow Card idea on benefit sanctions, where you get a warning before they stop your money, is only good if you change the culture of the organisation. I mean, if the sanctions decisions are wrong and unfair as many of them are, all you are doing is giving a temporary reprieve.

Why hide the PR for local government stuff? It’s had a revolutionarily good effect in Scotland, smashing all these horrible Labour one party states. We should be angry that one party can wield so much power. We should have jumped all over Ed Miliband when he went on about chasing the Tories and Lib Dems out of Manchester, as Andrew Hickey pointed out the other day. His party’s sense of entitlement to power sums up all of its problems at the moment.

Two things need to happen before the Pre-Manifesto becomes a Manifesto. First. we need a couple of catchy ideas, preferably from ordinary Liberal Democrat members, that capture ours and the public’s imagination. Second, someone needs to take the competent words and make them sing. I’m hoping that this is going to be the 2007 Scottish manifesto process in reverse. In the October of 2006, we passed a fantastic pre-manifesto which was full of really transformative ideas on green energy and young people. That became a fairly worthy manifesto that had no bite whatsoever.

That’s my take. What’s yours?

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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23 Comments

  • Joshua Dixon 29th Sep '14 - 9:22pm

    Unless it is substantially amended I have every intention of voting against. Reading the pre-manifesto document was incredibly demotivating for me and I feel that we’re going to go into the election compromising on our own beliefs before we’re even round the negotiating table (if we’re lucky enough to even be in that position again!). I’m sure I’ll expand further (the wine I have drunk this evening may restrict me for now) but I’d be interested to hear what others have to say.

  • Conor McGovern 29th Sep '14 - 9:36pm

    @Joshua – Completely agree. Unfortunately I won’t be able to make conference, but I’m pretty sure I’d vote as you would, against the pre-manifesto unless serious changes are made. I’m not going to argue that the party should swing to the ‘left’ no more than I’m going to say we should embrace the neoliberal ‘right’. What I will say is this: what happened to Nick Clegg’s radical centre ideas? The key point is radical ideas – aside from the welcome step of drug law reform and housebuilding, where are the bold policies key to electoral success? Where is the Land Value Tax, where is the commitment to Trident abolition, where is the genuinely liberal economic reform Britain needs in 2015?

  • Conor McGovern 29th Sep '14 - 9:41pm

    I also agree with Caron about PR for local elections. That may well be out greatest long-term prize in any coalition.

  • Eddie Sammon 29th Sep '14 - 9:52pm

    I think the party needs a shake. The status quo is so bad, but people have almost become used to it. The pre-manifesto reflects that. Big tax cuts plus big spending commitments don’t add up. The party is also confused in social policy.

    I need a shake too, but whilst I’m in the process I can still point out the flaws I see.

  • Tony Greaves 29th Sep '14 - 10:03pm

    It’s a poor document. Just a list of a lot of things, most okay and some really good, and some need dropping. But taken as a whole this is not a coherent Liberal prospectus. It’s a good indication of how our party has lost its way.

    Tony Greaves

  • Conor McGovern 29th Sep '14 - 10:08pm

    I would definitely say I’m a fan of the tax-cutting policies for those on low incomes, but that needs to be balanced either by efficiency savings, spending cuts or taxes on the wealthy. I have to say I’m glad the Lib Dem leadership have finally started to embrace National Insurance cuts as well as Income Tax cuts, though.

  • Richard Dean 29th Sep '14 - 10:23pm

    Those key commitments are meaningless and not credible, easy for opponents to tear asunder, unless the commitments come with details of what exactly they mean and how exactly they will be achieved.

    How, for instance, will you “finish the job” on the deficit, and what will you do about the debt that will hang over this country for a long time to come? Will you cut services and raise taxes, or will you be Keynesian, perhaps using the spending implied by B to D and G to increase output enough to maintain services and/or lower tax rates?

    What does “return power” mean? Right now people do actually have some “power to shape the society in which they live”. What does “fair” rules for immigration mean? How will you handle Calais? The backlog? The immigrants in detention now?

  • Gwynfor Tyley 29th Sep '14 - 10:29pm

    As a new member of the party, I found it rather reassuring that it didn’t contain any of the mad/cruel/iniquitous or self serving policies that we have just seen trotted out by Labour, the Tories and UKIP (eg energy price freeze, Mansion tax (labour version), benefits freeze, pension tax reduction). It actually seemed very practical and full of common sense with an absence of self serving policies targeted at our voter base. Given the incompetence of the other 3 parties, I feel that there is an open goal for us if only we can get our player on the pitch.

    Post Scotland and EVEL, there are 2 clear messages which are quite separate but the other 2 tribes have sought to conflate: firstly, all the people of the UK should be treated equally and secondly, there is a desperate need to reengage the electorate through constitutional reform (a phrase designed to do the exact opposite). The pre manifesto certainly tries to do the former but the worthiness of it fails to do the latter, coming over more as a corporate presentation than a belief system. But that is not impossible to overcome – it won’t be by cooking up some wildly exciting new policy but putting some passion into our beliefs.

    And at this moment, I believe that what the people of the UK are crying out for is, with apologies to Abraham Lincoln,

    Government of the people, by the people, for the people.

    That is the passion that we should all share and we must shout from the roof tops and it is what differentiates us from the other parties – the pre manifesto is just the detail of how we will try to achieve it.

  • It is essentially a comfort blanket which will not affect whether any Lib Dem MPs get elected one little bit.

    In the (hopefully unlikely) event that, due to fluke of Parliamentary arithmetic, Nick Clegg gets anywhere near government, he will do whatever he feels like anyway.

  • Eddie Sammon 29th Sep '14 - 10:31pm

    Conor, but your thinking is part of the problem. You recommend a “radical centre” agenda of radical policies on drugs, Trident, house building, tax cutting and wealth taxation, but who on earth does this appeal to? You can’t be both a radical and a centrist. You need radical policies for radical situations, but you don’t produce a manifesto that ensures it has something to antagonise everyone in the country.

  • Conor McGovern 30th Sep '14 - 2:17am

    Eddie, I’m not really advocating the ‘centre’ part. What I’m trying to say is that once upon a time Nick Clegg was calling for some form of radicalism, but now the leadership are presenting us with a middle-of-the-road ‘centrist’ agenda for 2015. For what it’s worth, I don’t even believe in left, right or centre. We need to enter the election as nothing less than liberals.

  • Eddie Sammon 30th Sep '14 - 2:55am

    Conor, radical policies are good if they have the potential to become popular. This, in my view, is what marks a good radical policy from a bad one. The stock market works in the same way: unpopular stocks are good if they have potential, but some are unpopular for a reason and we don’t seem to do the same kind of filtering when it comes to our policies. Not enough of it anyway.

  • Eddie Sammon 30th Sep '14 - 3:07am

    We’ve also got to get our timing right. I believe getting rid of the monarchy is good and practical, but not yet. 😉

  • Conor McGovern 30th Sep '14 - 10:50am

    @Eddie – fair point. Obviously we have to be pragmatic, but in my view the leadership are being far too timid when it comes to the pre-manifesto. We should be able to stand out from the other parties, even if that’s without any commitments to legalise all drugs and send the royals to a council estate (yet). 😉

  • Eddie Sammon 30th Sep '14 - 11:12am

    Ha ha, indeed Conor!

  • paul barker 30th Sep '14 - 1:28pm

    Gwynfor Tyley & Ian Shires said a lot of what I wanted to say.
    Far too many of the comments seem to come from what you might call the “everything is shit” faction who only ever seem to talk us down. If you have nothing positive to say, say nothing.

  • peter tyzack 30th Sep '14 - 4:15pm

    agree with Paul, ‘if you’ve got nothing positive to say, say nowt’. I just hope that people with the guts to say it as it should be said, like Gwynfor and Ian, are approved and being selected as we speak..

  • Stephen Hesketh 30th Sep '14 - 6:51pm

    @Ian Shires 30th Sep ’14 – 9:00am
    Very good point. Incredible that we do not have this debate by the scruff of the neck already!

    I’m confused as to why the Ostrich faction consider you to be part of their number?

  • Tony Dawson 29th Sep ’14 – 10:30pm
    In the (hopefully unlikely) event that, due to fluke of Parliamentary arithmetic, Nick Clegg gets anywhere near government, he will do whatever he feels like anyway.

    The nightmare scenario is that by a second fluke of general election arithmetic Clegg clings on to some sort of diminished role in another Tory Government (even more actors than this one).
    Five more years of spending a million pounds a year of public money to surround himself with special advisors might appeal to Clegg, but it should to appeal to any GenuinenLiberalmDemocrat.

  • Stephen Hesketh 30th Sep '14 - 8:08pm

    @JohnTilley 30th Sep ’14 – 7:42pm

    Come on John, some of us like to sleep at night. Any chance of you posting such scenarios first thing in a morning?
    Thanks a lot!!!

  • Conor McGovern 30th Sep '14 - 9:01pm

    @Paul – I don’t see why those of us who have a problem with the pre-manifetso should be restricted from voicing our opinions. Isn’t this meant to be a democratic party? When you say “nothing positive to say”, what you clearly mean is “nothing I agree with”. People have different views; deal with it. The pre-manifesto is severely lacking in many respects – I can guarantee I’m not the only Liberal Democrat who believes that.

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