Nobody else will speak up for liberalism, so our manifesto has to be brimming with it

lib dem manifesto tax cutI find myself bemused by this report from today’s Times (£) which suggests that Liberal Democrats would steer clear of any policies that both the Conservatives or Labour disagreed with in our manifesto for next year’s General Election.

The article reports a conversation with a Liberal Democrat source:

He conceded that the party was not going to win a majority at the next general election, but said it was vital that it left open the opportunity of working with either of the other two parties. “We need to be equidistant from both the Tories and Labour,” he said. “But we also need to identify policies, such as the tuition fees, that are not going to be deliverable in any circumstances.”

Policies that could be vulnerable include the Lib Dems’ support for state funding for political parties, which is opposed by the other main parties, and its demand for proportional representation, a long-standing policy which is unlikely to be dropped. Mr Clegg came into the 2010 election promising these policies, as well as an elected House of Lords, but none has been achieved.

The Lib Dem source said two tests would now be imposed on any Lib Dem policy: whether it was deliverable under a coalition government and whether it was affordable. Once Mr Laws has coalition-tested a policy, it will be costed by Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, he added.

I have long feared that our manifesto for 2015 would be timid when it needs to be fearless and gutsy. We have to show where we are unique in British politics and that’s why I’ve always slightly worried that the “stronger economy, fairer society” riff is too narrow. We have to have something right up there in our strapline associating us with freedom. The divisions in politics aren’t just of the big state/small state kind, it’s also about liberalism vs authoritarianism. We have to be unashamedly liberal. We can’t do coalition negotiations with ourselves because we then go in to coalition negotiations with the others fundamentally weakened.

What is the point, say, of Tm Farron and Julian Huppert bringing a motion to Conference on a digital bill of rights which protects citizens from state intervention if after it’s passing David Laws can put it in the bin because neither Labour nor the Tories would agree it?

Nick Clegg has been saying bold things on drugs, necessary things, but could our excellent drugs policy end up on the spike because nobody else will like it.

Labour and the Tories are showing no such signs of being so timid. The Tories will undoubtedly seek to undermine human rights, cut ties with the EU and waste money on tax breaks for people who behave in a way of which they approve.  Labour are likely to cede ground to the UKIP agenda, too. We’ve seen how both conservative parties have skewered Lords reform and party funding talks. Their reactionary stance is exactly why we should continue to press for change.

We can’t let others define us. We have to be very dear and shameless about stating the values that guide us and be robust about showing how we would put those values into practice in a second term of coalition government. To be fair, I think that the Times has gone a bit far in their interpretation of what was said to them, and I do think that the manifesto group is aware of the need to have something fresh and radical to say. In that I’d appear to have an unlikely ally in Jeremy Browne who on economic matters is about as far away as you could possibly get from me. He told the Western Daily Press:

I have some unease that we are trying to pitch ourselves as a party that splits the difference between the other two… there’s a sense of insipid centrism that is reassuringly unthreatening to people. That’s not the same as liberalism..

We could have done with more of that sort of thinking when he was at the Home Office.

Of course, the Times is contemplating something that’s not yet been completed. David Laws and the manifesto group is still collecting suggestions from party members. A pre-manifesto paper will then come to our Autumn conference in October. There will be plenty of opportunity for debate and adding extra robustness. If you have an idea you want to see in it, you can submit it via the consultation website.

Nobody else is going to offer a liberal alternative to the British people. It’s up to us. We daren’t shirk or we risk losing our soul.

Update 17:35: David Laws has written a rebuttal of the Times piece over at the swanky new Liberal Democrat website. It’s quite encouraging – and do have a good browse around the website which is a massive improvement on the old one which had been looking a little tired.

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

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37 Comments

  • Paul Pettinger 18th Feb '14 - 12:12pm

    I agree with you Caron. The leadership has already bounced the Party into supporting coalition economic policy, not as a necessary comprise of coalition that the Party supports, but as its economic policy. The leadership has won so many victories now from a minority position that if this becomes a confidence issue and about being ‘serious about Government’ who is left (esp at Conference) to stop them?

  • Cracking article. Well said Caron. Let’s not let our weariness of coalition and Government dim our vision and principles. We cannot hope to inspire with compromises and ideas only which our opponents will accept. The time for compromise is after we fight on the manifesto we want. Far better to sell a vision and fall short (and let people down on implementation) than to limit your vision and frustrate even your supporters.

  • I think this is a difficult question of expectations management, that we’ve so far as a party conspicuously failed at.

    What we have to beware of is expensive commitments that require a lot of funding where we know that the money is not going to be forthcoming from foreseeable sources. Tuition fees was one of the those undeliverable commitments and we have suffered massively from making it.

    But as far as other commitments are concerned where funding is not such an issue e.g. demanding STV for local elections, we should be right out there making our demands.

  • Alex Macfie 18th Feb '14 - 1:36pm

    The mistake with tuition fees wasn’t the policy, it was the “pledge”. The party should not have encouraged candidates to sign it; we should not be making any separate “pledges” in relation to any policy, deliverable or not.

  • If it’s a coalition friendly manifesto it will not get my vote. I want to know what will be pushed for in coalition negotiations, I want to know what principles are driving the Party, I want to know what they would do in a majority, and finally I want to know whether there are absolute red lines. Last time around it was fair to assume Tuition Fees (in light of the pledge) was a red line. If there are none, fine, but don’t raise and dash expectations.

    There should be one massive red line in my opinion, and that is a change to the current interpretation of collective responsibility. In any future coalition, either party must be free to state they are only voting for a measure due to the coalition and not because it is their preferred approach. No more putting Lib Dems out to champion policies they had previously opposed. It will make a coalition, and especially the ministers within it, more able to be honest with those that voted for them.

  • Gordon Lishman 18th Feb '14 - 2:31pm

    A paragraph from my forthcoming Liberator piece on the travesty of a federal policy produced by a party working group:
    One final criticism of the policy paper: as in other areas of current policy-making, there is a tendency to compromise too early. Of course, there has to be a willingness to compromise on policies when it comes to negotiation with other parties or there is a need to convince ordinary people about change or to balance the budget for an overall manifesto. Crucially, negotiation has to start from a strong, clear understanding of what we actually want to achieve. If we compromise before we start, we have sold out before we even begin. Party policy is our statement about what we want; it is not our best guess about the final outcome of later compromises.

  • I wonder in a despairing manner whether Paul Dacre should be asked to approve all policies as well? I think one of the things that turns a lot of people off politics is the perceived lack of principles.

    @Steve Way – as to the “red lines” maybe the party members should vote for these? Yes it would tie the leadership’s hands to some extent in negotiations, but at least they would know that they had the party behind them and the other parties would know what was not up for discussion.

    Caveat: I am not a member of any party, nor (at this rate) ever likely to be.

  • Tony Greaves 18th Feb '14 - 3:17pm

    A “conversation with a Liberal Democrat source”? what shoddy journalistic nonsense is this?

    I suppose he means another useless teenage SpAd?

    Tony

    By the way I see that Danny Alexander is now reported as claiming that all the disastrous Coalition economic policies are actually stuff that the Liberal Democrats (Big Tough Danny?) have forced on that feeble Mr Osborne. Well, I suppose it’s different.

  • Caron, beautiful article, very well said.

  • Steve James 18th Feb '14 - 4:44pm

    Well said Caron. It’s actually up to the other parties to put in LibDem friendly policies if they want to do a deal with us! They need us, we don’t actually need them!

  • Bill le Breton 18th Feb '14 - 5:13pm

    Behind all this, including the leader’s recent flirtation with labour, is a political strategy in crisis. Communications activity such as this should be the servant of a.communications strategy which itself is the servant or expression of a political strategy.

    I suggest the leader’s bunker is imploding under the strain of zero movement in the polls and the fast arriving Euro and Local election results.

    They appear to be making it up on the hoof. Everything is directed to protecting the leader in June and July.

    Whilst we can do little to stop them messing everything they touch, we can, as Gordon infers, get the manifesto back to the Policy.committee.

    To get back to the right political strategy we shall have to.await the replacement of the leader which must happen in the summer. Til then our.candidates deserve our silence.

  • The comments here Simon Titley, Gordon Lishamn, Tony Greaves, Bill le Breton and others make sense.
    The reported comments from the “source” make very little sense.

    The Times reports as follows —
    “The Lib Dem source said two tests would now be imposed on any Lib Dem policy: whether it was deliverable under a coalition government and whether it was affordable. Once Mr Laws has coalition-tested a policy, it will be costed by Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, he added.”

    So we know this source is male but nothing else. Tony suggests a teenage SpAd. I doubt if any of the SpAds are actually teenagers they just seem like that to Tony – but it woud be interesting to know what these people in the Cabinet Office and scattered around Departments withLibDem ministers actually do.

  • So who was the source? If it was a SpAd (teenage or older) it would appear it was one of 26 people who are paid for out of public money but are appointed by a less than transparent recruitment process. They are not civil servants . Most of them one assumes are appointed by Nick Clegg himself and work in the Cabinet Office.

    Hansard – November 2013 – The Deputy Prime Minister: As I said, all the information was published. Let me be explicit: there are 98 special advisers in post—72 Conservative and 26 Liberal Democrat—across the Government.

    This murky area of our democracy deserves to have some light cast on it especially as it would seem to be the case that they are briefing the press for internal party purposes rather than briefing ministers on government information and decision making.

  • Mark Blackburn 18th Feb '14 - 6:11pm

    Lowering the tone somewhat, and I know it’s an old one, but never truer:

    ‘If you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything.”

    (seen in a pub toilet at the weekend)

  • paul barker 18th Feb '14 - 6:31pm

    Since when do we believe everything the Murdoch press says. When I saw reports of The Times article I assumed it was part of a co-ordinated attack with The Sun. The Press are our enemies & will lie about us, its time that our first instinct was to believe the Leadership we elected rather than our enemies.

  • The manifesto should begin with a bold statement of what life would be like in the UK in 2020 after five years of Lib Dem government. We do not need another dreary recitaion of details of policy which will please a few policy wonks and bore everyone else rigid. Realistic and deliverable policy proposals should be there later but always to show how we would achieve our ambition for the UK.

    If it is to be a negotiating document then you start by asking more than you expect or want not less.

  • If what paul barker says is true how does he explain the actions of the “Liberal Democrat source” who was clearly briefing this newspaper?

  • 19 of the Lib Dem SpAds as listed in a parliamentary answer October 2013.
    Salaries between £65,000 and £110,000 a year.

    Ryan Coetzee, Jonny Oates, Chris Saunders, James McGrory, Hollie Voyce.
    Julian Astle, Polly Mackenzie, Lena Pietsch, Veena Hudson, Sean Kemp, Zena Elmahrouki, Shabnum Mustapha, James Holt.
    Emily Frith. Matthew Hanney, Monica Allen, Matt Sanders, Alex Dziedzan, Adam Pritchard.

    More details – –
    https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/253081/SPAD_list_Live_UPDATE.pdf

  • Bill le Breton 18th Feb '14 - 7:38pm

    David has now published a.repudiation which shows that there is a failure in the political management of the comms team. Either they are not controlling the.output.or they are being given incompetent instruction.

    One result will be a breakdown of trust between reporters and the comms team. That is really bad news – forgive the pun.

    Paul, above has no.ideas.of how journalism works. In the light of the Laws repudiation, whoever wrote.the.times.piece.will be pulled.in by the.editor and asked to justify his/her story. Journalists will have.their revenge for that kind of undermining of their reputation. If an editor can’t trust a.journalist it is a.very serious matter for that journal.

  • Geoffrey Payne 18th Feb '14 - 10:19pm

    We do not know if it was a SPAD. Whether a SPAD is any good or not is to some extent down to the MP who recruited them. Until recently Duncan Brack was a SPAD and no one would say he isn’t worth the money.
    Anyway if anyone thinks they are bad value for taxpayers then let’s have a separate discussion on that. This discussion is on how the party pitches itself and how we can promise things we can’t deliver in government as a junior Coalition partner.

  • A great article Caron and I find myself agreeing strongly with both you and Jeremy Browne. Our manifesto needs to be radical and not some watered down pre-negotiated mush that would be acceptable to everyone and their mum.

    But by radical I hope we don’t mean completely unaffordable. The manifesto needs to be our vision of what we would do unencumbered by a coalition partner and it needs to back up our core messages, fair while being responsible. That’s why I hope we don’t promise free tuition fees.

  • Bill le Breton 19th Feb '14 - 8:31am

    The notion of an unaffordable manifesto is a red herring. Since at least the formation of the new Party every manifesto has been ‘audited’ by a leading accountancy firm or academic authority.

    In 2015 it is probable that the Office forvBudget Responsibility will be given the power to comment on manifesto spending commitments. This would bring national government in line with local government where budget motions and amendments have to be authorized in advance by the ‘Proper Officer’.

    Those who say any past manifesto commitment was not costed or affordable are undermining the party’s reputation.. To do so now would be to undermine the credibility of our candidates who are contesting elections now.

  • Amen to all that Caron, great piece. I for one don’t fancy committing my time and shoe-leather to the sort of bland nonsence such a process would deliver. I want a manifesto I can get out and sell rather than have to apologise for.

  • adrian mcleay 19th Feb '14 - 10:26am

    I’d argue that there almost certainly was no “source”. The Times and its tree murdering Sunday sister paper are hardly renowned for their accurate reporting. I would suggest that the whole thing could have been invented by some hack that has just graduated from the Daily Express school of accurate weather reporting! I’ve not read the article. I couldn’t find it online the other day and I wouldn’t use a Murdoch title to pick up next door’s dog mess let alone buy a copy or be seen reading one in my local newsagent!

  • @ Dave Page

    “RC repeats the claim (which has come from Clegg among others) that we shouldn’t have put a policy to scrap tuition fees over 5 years because it was unaffordable.
    Scrapping tuition fees was only unaffordable in coalition with the Tories, because we compromised on things like the Mansion Tax.”

    So that’ll be an *accurate* claim then, since there were no other coalitions possible after the 2010 general election and there was no way the Tories were going to accept the Mansion Tax along with other Lib Dem tax policies like increased Stamp Duty, was there?

  • Speaking as somebody who used to support the Lib Dems and who now will definitely not be doing so, I would suggest the content of your manifesto matters very little. The reason for this is that very few people will actually believe you. The public are fickle and not always understanding, and Nick Clegg’s attempts to explain things like the tuition fees rise were badly unsuccessful.

    Unfortunately, I’m not sure what you can do about that lack of trust. My advice would be to simply take the hit in 2015, get a new leader (Farron might convince me and others to come back) and rebuild yourself as a party of Liberals and Social Democrats, as you were intended.

  • @ Robin Wilde

    “Unfortunately, I’m not sure what you can do about that lack of trust.”

    Point out the large number of promises we have actually been able to deliver on, perhaps?

    And the fact that the other two parties, despite having massive majorities in the past, have signally failed to deliver on what they promised? Who is holding the Tories to account for their promises on cutting inheritance tax for example, or Labour’s promise to be prudent with the economy and improve education?

    Which bit of the Lib Dems having only having one eleventh of the MPs in the House of Commons are people still struggling with? All of it, it seems.

  • Robin Wilde 19th Feb '14 - 3:15pm

    @RC

    Nothing you say is wrong, but the problem is that you won’t be given the airtime or the audience to tell them things like that, and many still wouldn’t believe you if you did. It would be unwise to blame the voters for not understanding you properly. That rarely goes well.

  • Kevin White 19th Feb '14 - 4:07pm

    Scrap Trident ! The present Party policy is economic, political and military nonsense.

  • David Allen 19th Feb '14 - 5:00pm

    It’s not as simple a dichotomy as everybody seems to be suggesting.

    Sure, a “coalitionist” manifesto, designed solely to get bums onto Ministerial seats, is a complete turn-off. All the signs are that it is what our leadership want, however.

    However, something “brimming with Liberalism”, such as Lords reform, LVT, PR everywhere, free prescriptions, loads of giveaways, oh and scrap tuition fees – Well, we’ve had manifestos like that before. The problem is whether anybody believes that we are actually going to get any of that stuff implemented. If it’s just empty words, said for the sake of form but ready to be bargained away – then it isn’t helping. We might as well settle for the unambitious, down-the-middle, we-won’t-be-trouble-so-gizza-job approach.

    Now once upon a time, some Lib Dems up in Scotland found a rational way through this dilemma. They said, “OK, we’re not huge, so we can’t demand the earth, but we’re not tiny, so we won’t demand nothing either. We will do a deal, in which we push for one big thing that we hold dear, and in exchange, we will put a big party into government. What shall we pick for our big issue? Well, tuition fees would do nicely, especially seeing as we don’t have a Tardis and can’t see what the future might bring to the UK as a whole in that particular field.”

    It seemed to sort of work, in Scotland, at the time. At any rate, it worked a lot better than what Clegg did a decade later.

    However, things have moved on, Clegg has destroyed our credibilty, and now we would like to get it back. There is only one way that stands a chance, but we won’t take it, until we lose in 2015. Then we will sack Clegg, just as Labour sacked Brown – Too late!

  • @RC – I am reminded of the old addage that a banker who has to prove his credit has already lost it.

    The LDs have alienated an awful lot of their left of centre target vote.

    @Kevin White – yes the current position is illogical. The options are either stop being a nuclear power or replace trident with an equivalent system. I think that advocating the former course would be electorally “brave” (i.e. potentially suicidal).

    I would expect a lot more focus on LD defence policy as the election gets closer, and I believe that it is currently a weak point.

  • Worth repeating —– Kevin White 19th Feb ’14 – 4:07pm
    Scrap Trident ! The present Party policy is economic, political and military nonsense.

  • Also worth repeating …….David Allen 19th Feb ’14 – 5:00pm
    Clegg has destroyed our credibilty, and now we would like to get it back. There is only one way that stands a chance, but we won’t take it, until we lose in 2015. Then we will sack Clegg, just as Labour sacked Brown – Too late!

  • I am sure David Laws comments are well intentioned and sincerely held. However, we do need to examine very carefully what is meant by our manifesto being affordable AND achievable in the next Parliament. The latter of these is especially important, since it can mean that our policies must be capable of winning the support of either Labour or Conservatives. Does that mean we write our manifesto with negotiations in mind ? I hope not.
    We must do our manifesto in a way which is realistic and costed on the basis that we would form the next government. We leave the compromises for any negotiations that we might do, so that we negotiate from a trully Liberal starting point.
    THIS IS VITAL, otherwise many of us will find it extremely difficult to consider being Parliamentary candidates.
    We also need to make sure that next time, we consider seriously the possibility of a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement with another party and we must also aim for a longer period in which any post-elections discussions take place. Even media commentators have come to the conclusion that negotiations in 2010 were rushed.

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