Opinion: The making of a manifesto – why this time it’s about gut instinct, not policies

The days of being the ‘nice party’ – the all-things-to-all-people party – are well and truly over. Sharing in government has seen to that. Thankfully, contributors at the Lib Dem Voice fringe meeting in Brighton, about the next manifesto, were commendably realistic. Discussion focused on suggestions for new signature policies, like a penny on tax for education of yesteryear or (say it softly) tuition fees last time.

But, bluntly, this shopping-list approach to manifesto-making totally fails to address the profound predicament we are in: loss of trust in politicians and in Liberal Democrats in particular; broken promises; confusion about where we stand on the political spectrum now we’ve gone in with the right nationally.

Frankly we are now paying the price of neglecting for too long to articulate what we really stand for. As The Economist recently put it:

Two years in power have forced the party’s identity crisis into the open…. Past manifestos were long on opportunism and short on coherence.

Simply offering a refreshed package of promises in 2015 won’t work. Instead, we need to drill back into the bedrock of what we believe – and what fair-minded voters have always looked in a third party for, down the years. I don’t mean policies or abstract political philosophy, rather what our gut instincts are.

Scratch a Liberal Democrat and you’ll probably find: we stand up for the under-dog, the little guy, the person treated unfairly. We’re instinctively anti-corporatist: we don’t like big labour, big business or big government. We favour things that are local, looking for solutions rooted in neighbourhoods and communities. We believe in individuals, exercising personal rights and taking personal responsibility. We want to do the right thing for the future (like protecting the environment), not follow short-term expedients.

This isn’t comprehensive. No doubt you would express your gut instincts slightly differently. My point is simply that, first, we must be clear about the fundamentals. So, that means this time manifesto-making should be in two stages.

First, let’s spell out what we believe and get agreement on how that offers a clear distinctive third force, faced with both Labour and Conservative parties reverting to type: Miliband and Balls in hock to the unions, and Cameron and Osborne favouring red-toothed deregulated business. Then, and only then, comes the crafting of individual policies and pledges – whether tackling poverty, giving councils powers to rebuild local economies or holding banks and big business to account.

In fact, we can start now on rebuilding our identity: only taking credit for coalition policies which fit our core beliefs and (crucially) making clearer as a party our distaste for those that don’t.

In an age of despair about politics, authenticity is the only way forward. It will help rebuild membership. It will help stem the rip tide against us in local elections. It’s the only way back nationally.

* Mike Tuffrey is a former councillor and London Assembly member, works in the field of corporate sustainability and is a trustee of the New Economics Foundation.

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32 Comments

  • Here’s one for the policy shopping list: a simplified tax system.
    Efficient to run and not shot-through with holes.

  • coldcomfort 8th Oct '12 - 3:37pm

    Firstly our leaders need to come up with a simple & compelling narrative as to why the LibDems need to be supported. Making the Tories less nasty is not of itself enough. Firstly the public needs to understand (it doesn’t or doesn’t want to at the moment) that it stuck in our gullet to get into bed with the Tories but the alternative was a second election in October 2010 which would almost certainly have led to an overall Tory majority, and, while that was going on, a collapse in market confidence in the UK Both would have resulted in pain for Joe Public which makes present pain look very bearable indeed. Secondly, as the minority group in Government, we have had to fight tooth & nail to curtail the worst Tory excesses and we’ve got a fair few good policies of our own through – apprenticeships being one.
    And what about going forward? We remain committed to fair rewards for commensurate effort and no rewards for failure where that failure is due to incompetence rather than bad luck. We are committed to rebalance the economy so that making, selling & doing takes precedence over pumping money round a network of computers. We are committed to the green agenda which is the only way to preserve a planet in which our grandchildren have a future. It makes good business sense as well as one Tory Grandee (best known as John Selwyn Gummer) has publically stated.
    We are committed to helping people take charge of their own lives and to taking care of those who are unable to care for themselves. Finally the public are entitled to competence from our politicians. Every major cock up in the Coalition, culminating in the West Coast Rail Franchise fiasco, has come from a department where the relevant minister is a Tory. There ought to enough in this instant manifesto to give our leaders something to say that would get the public inspired.

  • ‘Scratch a Liberal Democrat and you’ll probably find: we stand up for the under-dog, the little guy, the person treated unfairly’

    Are you serious? You are about to throw even more into poverty and homelessness and add to child poverty

    From the New Statesman today, ‘Ahead of George Osborne’s speech to the Conservative conference, the big announcement is that the Chancellor has secured the agreement of Iain Duncan Smith and the Lib Dems to a further £10bn of welfare cuts in 2015-16 on top of the £18bn of cuts already announced’

  • Simon Titley 8th Oct '12 - 4:54pm

    Mike Tuffrey is broadly right. Narrative is more influential than detailed policies.

    Of course, political parties need boring, long-winded, detailed, costed policies so that Jeremy Paxman cannot catch them out in election interviews, and so that they have something they could actually implement if elected. But that is not the same as constructing a ‘narrative’ of the society they hope to create and articulating it effectively to the public.

    There is a crucial difference between programmes and values. The Liberal Democrats need to give people positive reasons to support them. These come from connecting emotionally rather than hoping the voters will pore over policy details. The battle for hearts and minds takes place on the battleground of values, not ‘carefully-costed programmes’ or ‘ten-point plans’.

    This is a lesson the Democrats In the USA have had to learn. They received a drubbing in successive elections basically because they did not understand, as their Republican opponents did, the importance of values. The Democrats have turned for advice to Professor George Lakoff, who has been applying cognitive linguistics to the study of politics, especially the framing of public political debate. His book Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate attempts to teach Democrats how to think in terms of values instead of programmes, and why people vote for their values and identities, often against their best interests.

    So what should be the Liberal Democrat narrative? Our core value is freedom, but that should mean real, felt freedom rather than an abstract or legalistic concept of freedom. So what we are aiming at is ‘agency’, which means people’s capacity to make meaningful choices about their lives and to influence the world around them. But that’s not a slogan you can put in a Focus leaflet – you should show not tell.

    What therefore ought to make for a distinctive narrative is a belief in the human dimension – respecting people’s humanity and running things on a human scale. It can be applied across a range of policies and would provide a stark contrast with the Tories (freedom meaning everyone for themselves and the devil take the hindmost) or Labour (well-meaning but ultimately alienating attempts at social provision through centralised controls and bureaucracy).

  • Democratic from the inside out.

    Responsible with the economy and respectful to the poor.

    Financially free of TU’s, financially free of big business.

  • “What therefore ought to make for a distinctive narrative is a belief in the human dimension – respecting people’s humanity and running things on a human scale. It can be applied across a range of policies and would provide a stark contrast with the Tories (freedom meaning everyone for themselves and the devil take the hindmost) or Labour (well-meaning but ultimately alienating attempts at social provision through centralised controls and bureaucracy).”

    Simon – this reminds me why what unites us is greater than what divides us.

  • From The New Statesman: “Ahead of George Osborne’s speech to the Conservative conference, the big announcement is that the Chancellor has secured the agreement of Iain Duncan Smith and the Lib Dems to a further £10bn of welfare cuts in 2015-16 on top of the £18bn of cuts already announced”. So, have the LIbDems agreed to this or not? We seem to be left wondering.

  • paul barker 8th Oct '12 - 9:03pm

    I agree with the thrust of the article but I would like to question 2 of the points in the last line.
    On the “riptide against us in local elections” Ive been looking at our performance since june & our average vote seems to be no worse than in May. This is in sharp contrast to byelections last fought in 2010 where we are down 11%.
    The evidence suggests we have bottomed out, that gives me hope.
    On membership we have to remember this is a long-term decline, hitting all parties & particularly parties in government. We have lost half our membership since the 1990s, so have labour. The conservatives seem to have lost 2/3rds if recent reports are accurate. Membership is a crisis for british democracy, not just for us.

  • “[W]e stand up for the under-dog, the little guy, the person treated unfairly. We’re instinctively anti-corporatist: we don’t like big labour, big business or big government. We favour things that are local, looking for solutions rooted in neighbourhoods and communities. We believe in individuals, exercising personal rights and taking personal responsibility. We want to do the right thing for the future (like protecting the environment), not follow short-term expedients.”

    I think this should be the message we send out from now until the GE. Fantastic.

  • Freedom for everybody, not abandonment, not oppression.

  • Regarding low party membership across the board, yes it is a crisis for British democracy, and I am sure it because the people want PR. I know people who loyally vote for Labour, and the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats that want PR. I have not met anyone that does not want it for about 20 years. The only people who don’t want it seem to be the leaders of Labour and the Conservatives, who are apparently deluded into believing that they can prevent it indefinitely. I am a Liberal because I believe that freedom is the one thing people will always sooner or later get up and fight for, to me, it is not a morality thing, it is a human nature thing, and the British people are not free. Either PR will arrive through the system we have sooner than now seems possible, or there is going to be civil unrest over it before the LabCon see it coming.

    Now I am trying to connect this to my “gut instinct” to be a Liberal, but I think I already covered it, any government offers freedom first, then the rest, or there will be a fight about it until they do.

  • Paul McKeown 8th Oct '12 - 11:55pm

    Perhaps there is something to fight for.

    I have just come back from the pub. On the way back, a friend, who votes Conservative (UKIP at European’s), told me that all the nonsense the Conservatives have been saying at their conference has convinced him to vote Lib Dem at the next General Election. He figures the GE will be hung , so he’s looking for Con/LD coalition again, with the LDs restraining the worst nonsense of the Conservatives. Apparently Osborne’s proposals regarding removing Housing Benefit from U25s was the last straw, but there were a number of other issues. Like myself, he was relieved that IDS wouldn’t be shifted from the DWP.

    I was thunderstruck. The fellow has never had a good word to say about the Lib Dems in the last fifteen years that I have known him. I didn’t tell him what I really thought about the current Tory re-toxification strategy and I won’t write of it here, either, as it is simply unprintable. I was underwhelmed by the Labour conference, particularly Ball’s statement about the need for spending restraint in the *first year* of a Labour government, as if such a weak promise is at all convincing. However, Labour is at least trying. The Tories, though, they are clearly desperate to become the “Nasty Party” again. I’m glad, though, that at least one core Conservative voter has had to reconsider his views, based on the current garbage coming from their conference. There is some sanity in this world, after all.

  • Paul McKeown 9th Oct '12 - 12:13am

    Oh, while I’m on the subject. Another thing that had annoyed my Tory voting friend was Cameron’s inability to sack Hunt, Mitchell and Chapps. It isn’t just Lib Dem or Labour voters, apparently.

  • Peter Watson 9th Oct '12 - 8:04am

    @Mark Pack “Its a negotiating position by the Chancellor.”
    I would be delighted if this were the sort of genuine, open negotiation that this coalition has sadly lacked, but I am not yet convinced.
    Perhaps the two sides have already agreed a policy and are now simply making party friendly statements in order to give the impression of polite compromise. I don’t see an obvious halfway between wealth tax / no wealth tax, benefits cut / no benefits cut, but maybe I’ve missed the loophole (a new council tax band and some benefits cuts?) that would allow both sides to say “We got exactly what we said.”.
    Or perhaps it is all about post-2015 tax and spend policy so is a mutually agreed step towards differentiation in the election.
    Either way, for two coalition partners who work closely together for the rest of the year, to me it seems unlikely that Clegg, Cameron, Alexander and Osborne would suddenly step up to contradict each other without having discussed it in advance. Conspiracy theorist, moi?

  • @ Paul McKeown – yes, I think there are first time Lib Dem votes to pick up, I think that is what some of the Lib Dem leadership were trying to communicate at the Conference, that the Lib Dems have lost the protest vote for good, but there are new votes to tap that could replace those. Disillusioned Conservative voters, who were hoping they had learned not to be foolish or nasty are just the start, there is also all the people who wanted a liberal and democratic party that were not too radical, there is the USP for the next General Election – Liberal and Social Democracy for the real world,

    @ jedibeeftrix – pleased to meet you

  • @ Liberal Eye – I get your point, but what is the “new narrative”? Do you have any ideas?

  • A UK bill of rights, not to replace the European convention on human rights but along the lines outlined by Franklin D Roosevel in 1944 (as mentioned in another thread) could be the way to go,

    FDR said, “We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. Necessitous men are not free men. People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.

    In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all – regardless of station, race, or creed. Among these are:

    Opportunity
     the right to a useful and remunerative job…
     the right to a good education.
     The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies…

    Security
     The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment.
     The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health.
     The right of every family to a decent home.
     The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation.”

  • tam langley 9th Oct '12 - 6:53pm

    I work in communications, and every time I have a conversation with a Lib Dem working in my sector, or in marketing/advertising/branding, they all say the same thing as you Mike. In PR-speak I’d put it this way: we don’t know what our brand is, nor do the voters. There is a reason that big business and our political opponents spend money on branding: it works. By branding I don’t mean new colours or logo – that’s just the visual identity – I mean ‘brand strategy’. I’m afraid we need some professional help from a branding expert, first to understand what our brand is now, then to help us tell the ‘brand story’ better to voters. I understand there was some work undertaken on this in the 90s, but most recently a head of marketing post at HQ that could have looked at this was only temporary, and so I’m unclear who, if anyone, is working on this. Would be good to know, as we need it badly!

  • @ Liberal Eye – that is okay, if you are working on it, good luck.

    More random thoughts from me about what Liberals are:

    The only political philosophy that understands/respects the fact that everybody else is a person too.
    Unifying, not divisive. Inclusive, not oppressive. Not judgmental, not superior.
    Keen to allow people to participate, willing to leave people in peace.

    Willing to help the poorest whenever we can, able to make hard choices when we have to.

  • Matthew Huntbach 10th Oct '12 - 2:08pm

    A good rule of thumb in politics is never promise anything unless you are sure you can deliver. I think most of us are grown up enough, and many of us have local government experience, to realise that anything which is party policy has to be implemented, should we be in government, in accordance with what is possible, other circumstances permitting. With tuition fees, for example, there’s a “blame the activists” line going round. Now, come on. It wasn’t the activists who insisted this policy must be singled out and made a “pledge” which candidates should sign – it was the PR people running the campaign. Those of us who supported this policy realised implementing it would be as funds permit, and any of us who have thought through how coalitions work, or experienced balance of power situations in local government know full well that which party policies get implemented depend on which don’t conflict with the other party we are fired to work with.

    We need actually to go out and say what politics is for and how it works. Part of that involves dropping this idea of the manifesto as a rigid five-year plan. If you look at manifestos from not that long ago, you find they were more brief statements of aims and objectives, not detailed policy lists. Only Stalinists go for rigid five year plans which must be implemented even if circumstances show they are unworkable. In any case it makes little sense for us to make election “promises” as if we were going to form a government alone, since we never were likely to do that.

    By the way, can we stop using “in hock to the unions” as the standard line of attack on the Labour Party? It makes it sound as if we think trade unions are by their nature a bad thing, which I hope we do not. The old days of the trade union barons have gone, because the industries they used to be barons in have gone. Going on about it as if we were still in the 1970s and Arthur Scargill et al were still important and influential figures makes us sound like old fogies fighting last year’s battles, or new Tories who don’t think workers should have any rights whatsoever.

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