General election manifesto update

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 🙂

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This entry was posted in General Election and Party policy and internal matters.
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5 Comments

  • The cost-cutting argument for ending the National Identity Scheme isn’t as watertight as it used to be, due to the Government’s binding contracts with suppliers which means the taxpayer’s money gets spent whether the scheme happens or not…

  • Paul Jenkins 22nd Jan '10 - 10:10am

    I agree Mark – big picture we are now sorted on (possibly for the first time in years – another debate…) I am trusting that the nitty gritty will emerge nearer the election date.

    If we get the timing right on the key policy announcements, combined with the new coverage we’ll get through the leadership debates – I believe that we will have a very successful election campaign.

  • Alex Sabine 22nd Jan '10 - 2:54pm

    Mark, I agree that sensible compromises have now been reached on tuition fees and mansion tax, although I still think both proposals are flawed.

    Scrapping tuition fees is unrealistic and will almost certainly leave universities short of the funds needed to invest in first-class teaching and research. Even without the fiscal crisis it would be a wasteful use of scarce education resources, which would be better targeted at early years schooling.

    Meanwhile the populist mansion tax adds complexity to our over-complex tax system and is likely to be administratively cumbersome for the small amount of money it raises. Extending our proposals for land value tax to cover residential as well as business property would be much better, or even as a second-best simply adding a couple of higher bands in the council tax schedule or (more radically) charging capital gains tax on primary residences. As a switch from taxing income to taxing wealth, there is some merit in the mansion tax, but it is an inelegant, clumsy and timid

  • Alex Sabine 22nd Jan '10 - 3:21pm

    …way of pursuing a laudable objective (taxing property wealth in a less regressive way and reducing taxes on income).

    I agree the message on public service reform is a fuzzy mix of devolving power to local councils, devolving power to directly elected boards and empowering individual citizens.

    Geoffrey, it seems to me it’s not so much New Labour as the British public that wants ‘EU standard public services with US levels of taxation’. Voters tend to prefer tax cuts and spending increases to the opposite, at least until they wake up to the consequences of huge budget deficits, at which point they turn fire on the politicians for that.

    Not that I primarily blame voters – politicians are all too eager to give the impression that they bestow gifts on the people and don’t have the guts to confront voters with the costs attached.

    In any event, New Labour have delivered neither. We certainly don’t have anything like US levels of taxation – in fact our tax burden is around the EU average and higher than Germany’s (at least before the recent slump in revenues), but nor do we have public services of the standard of those in many EU countries.

    It’s also notable that those European countries which have some of the best public services (France for healthcare; Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands for schools) have a more pluralistic, devolved and often competitive model than our state monopolies.

    Funding and structure are both important, but given the very tight budgets that are likely over the next decade, there clearly needs to be a relentless focus on why similar levels of funding (and often similar socio-economic factors) deliver dramatically different results, and how to raise standards to the level of the best in a way that will not create all sorts of perverse incentives like central target-setting.

    Finally, I’m still not clear what the party’s latest position on local income tax is. But if we are proposing to keep that policy, and keep Labour’s 50% top income tax rate, we will be pushing marginal tax rates to nearly 60% (50p plus 2p NI plus say local income tax), which would be just about the highest level in the developed world.

    I remember when we had our old 50p top income tax rate, the proposal was to cap local income tax so total marginal rates (including NI and income tax) did not exceed 50% – is that still the idea?

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