The Guardian’s approving verdict on the Lib Dems’ manifesto principles is correct … but for the wrong reasons

Nick Clegg will have enjoyed reading this morning’s Guardian editorial (Nick Clegg: Liberal parenting) over his breakfast porridge today. The paper commends Nick for yesterday’s launch of the principles which will underpin the Lib Dems’ election manifesto.

At the same time it betrays the Guardian’s usual unawareness of the party’s democratic decision-making principles. According to the Grauniad, Nick “ordered his party to drop some of its favourite policies”, issuing “instructions” in order to transform the Lib Dem manifesto from “a third-party wishlist” into “a credible agenda for directing a government”.

Hmmm, not so much.

In fact, all that Nick talked about yesterday – the Lib Dems’ new ‘fairness agenda’ – has been seen by, debated by, and approved by the Lib Dems’ Federal Policy Committee (FPC) whose members are elected.

How the FPC made the Lib Dem manifesto

The party’s pledge on tuition fees is a notable case in point. Though the Grauniad inaccurately claims the Lib Dems “no longer promise to scrap tuition fees”, that is not the case – the party has re-stated its pledge to scrap them, albeit over an affordable six years. This position was reached only after some tough wrangling at FPC.

Or take the so-called mansion tax – the launch of which by Vince Cable the Guardian notes was a “fiasco” – when, again, it was the FPC which amended Vince’s version, and determined the actual policy which will be in the manifesto: a 1% annual levy on householders with homes worth more than £2m.

Perhaps it’s too much to expect the Guardian to be able to follow the Lib Dems’ democratic policy-making. The media appears to make the assumption that all parties act like Labour and the Tories in particular, with the leadership making pronouncements which party members must dutifully accept.

This is how a democratic party works

In fact, what the last few months’ debate have shown is the party’s structures working at their best, with a constructive dialectic between the leadership and party members (as represented through FPC).

Nick and Vince have been continually pushing their point of view: that the party’s election manifesto has to be more rigorous in this economic climate than was necessary in the previous three elections.

At the same time, the FPC has been pushing back, making clear there are certain principles which party members will not tolerate being ignored (abolishing tuition fees), and certain policies which need to be more carefully though through before they’re announced if they’re not to cost the party votes (introducing a mansion tax).

The outcome is that the party has arrived at a set of manifesto principles around which all members can unite. As The Guardian – rightly – notes:

In some respects the party’s manifesto at the next election promises to be bolder, if simpler, than anything that has come before. … By trimming his promises, Mr Clegg hopes to clarify his message. He is trying to overturn the old claim that no one knows what the Liberal Democrats stand for. He says his priorities are fair taxes, better-funded schools, a revamped economy and a new politics, which is a reasonable list to put to the electorate … With Labour’s cabinet at odds with its leader, and the party likely to be cut ideologically loose by defeat, Lib Dems know this is their chance.

However, this is not the result of the leadership laying down the law to party members. It is the result of at times heated debate and lengthy discussion, and is all the better for it. Yes, Nick can be pleased with yesterday’s pre-manifesto launch. But so, too, can the wider party.

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  • It has been a media meme, since the abolition of Labour’s Clause IV, that it is a jolly good thing for party leaders to fight and win against their party’s membership. “Every woman loves a fascist” – every editor too.

  • Bill le Breton 12th Jan '10 - 2:47pm

    Stephen, the Guardian is only reporting how the speech was spun to them. As I mentioned yesterday, the BBC’s web report of the speech revealed all:
    “Sources told the BBC the decision to downgrade key commitments to long term aspirations involved “difficult” conversations with senior Lib Dems and a “Herculean struggle” on Mr Clegg’s part. ”
    To the tune of Mand S advertisement music: “This is not just a speech about the manifesto, it is a reassertion of his leadership over the insubordination of the likes of Harris and Webb at Bournemouth.
    Nothing on health, nothing on welfare – that’ll teach ’em.

  • Of course, there’s an argument about whether the democracy in the Liberal Democrats policy making, as elsewhere, is meaningful.

    I have a say in who my local party’s voting reps are, but they’re under no obligation to vote any particular way according to the wishes of the membership, or even to tell people how they did vote. And given that fewer than 10% of my local party attended the AGM, the selection of candidates wasn’t very representative to start with. There’s a “can’t take a horse to water” argument here, of couse, but I’m sure my local party isn’t atypical in having the same people repeatedly elected as voting reps and never held to account.

    Likewise, if I don’t like the policy motions that are going to conference or in the manifesto, I can have a say in FPC elections, but I have no idea on what criteria I’m supposed to make a meaningful judgement about how I vote…

  • Bill le Breton 12th Jan '10 - 3:59pm

    Niklas, what about the loss of the policy commitment to care for the elderly and child care? When a pay rise for the services is a feature.
    Stephen, to repeat, it was spun deliberately as an example of assertive leadership. Comms would be very pleased with the Guardian’s interpretation – the Guardian took the line offered to it.

  • Can someone explain why if the federal policy committee were meeting last night to discuss the manifesto, that policy announcements were made before they had met rather than waiting for the result of the meeting?

  • Anthony Aloysius St 13th Jan '10 - 4:01pm

    Is that really true? They announced the policies before they had been agreed by the FPC?

  • Matthew Huntbach 14th Jan '10 - 10:46am

    Considering that the Guardian, unlike most other newspapers, has no ideological or paymaster reason to be against us, why is its coverage of what we do so appallingly bad? They often seem to rely on sloppy stereotypical ideas on how we might be, rather than put a little bit of effort into finding out how we actually are. Is there really such a shortage of people wanting to be journalists that they can’t find someone willing to do a little bit of research and investigative reporting on our party?

  • Malcolm Todd 14th Jan '10 - 11:17am

    I think at the moment the Guardian has taken a clear decision that the only way of stopping a Tory government is to back Labour to the hilt, and that’s what they’re shamelessly doing. Their columnists in particular discuss every issue in terms of “either the Labour Party does what it’s supposed to do, or we allow the evil Tory alternative”. The idea of a progressive argument existing outside of the Labour Party has dropped from their radar. It is no surprise if this attitude also affects their news reporting. The Guardian are only the best of the newspapers; they’re not immune to the general blight of newspaper journalism.

  • That a once proud Liberal newspaper should have come so low …

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    […] leadership  have demonstrated their maturity – and bravery in the face of often passionate grassroots – in abandoning various favourite schemes, because national solvency has to come first.  Does it […]

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