What to make of Nick Clegg’s four steps?

To recap, the four steps to a fairer Britain which Nick Clegg laid out yesterday were:

Fair taxes.
A new, fair start for all children at school.
A rebalanced, green economy.
And clean, open politics.

In terms of what’s there, no huge surprises. After the MPs’ expenses scandal, it’s no great shock (and very welcome to many members) to see political reform back in the list of top issues for the party.

The emphasis on early years education reflects a common theme of Nick Clegg’s speeches before and after becoming party leader. Expect that story about ‘a young child in Sheffield…’ to be said many, many more times before polling day – and a good thing too, because it’s only when party members are utterly sick of hearing it that the public is likely to have started to remember it.

The marrying of the environment, fairness and the economy also reflects long-standing Liberal Democrat beliefs and even if it’s in part been forced upon the party by circumstance (recession), it’s good to see us talking more about the economy than in the past.

But there’s no magic about the number four. It could have been five steps. So what’s been left out is significant, because it’s not been judged important enough to stretch four to five.

What is missing? Internationalism yes, though understandably perhaps. But also missing are two issues that have dominated the party’s election campaigning in key seats, and nationally, in 1997, 2001 and 2005: health and crime. More generally, the four steps are about how we pay for public services (fair taxes, health economy) but not about how we make public services better.

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.

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8 Comments

  • I tend to agree with Lonely Wonderer. Although perhaps I’m being a little harsh, I think fair is often synonymous with bland. I hope this is all tidied into a unifying and distinctive theme by the actual election. “A rebalanced, green economy” is particularly vague and cumbersome.

  • Since when has fairness – rather than freedom – become the *defining* characteristic of liberalism?

    All the major parties can claim, with at least some plausibility, to believe in fairness. They just have different conceptions of it. Labour would claim it believes in a fairer distribution of income, the Tories that it’s fairer for people to be able to keep a greater proportion of what they earn, etc… Both those views have something to commend them.

    We may be sceptical of their commitment to fairness and believe their policies will do nothing to further it. And/or we may have a different conception of it. But it’s simply silly to believe that the idea of fairness is an idea whose meaning all right-thinking people agree on, and which we can uniquely lay claim to.

    I’m not arguing that fairness doesn’t matter, but rather that a simplistic focus on things like greater equality of outcome is (a) one particular interpretation of fairness that is highly debatable, and (b) not what is distinctive about liberalism.

    In the words of a former party document, It’s About Freedom. Personally I would like that word to get a bit more of a look in amid all the talk of ‘fairness’ and a ‘job-rich green economy’ and other unobjectionable but largely meaningless aspirations.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 13th Jan '10 - 12:03am

    Alex

    You should hardly be complaining!

    Less than four months before an election, Clegg has used the state of the public finances as a pretext finally to bounce the party into the kind of slash-and-burn, tax-cutting, service-cutting vehicle that he’s always favoured, but not so far been able to bring about by democratic means during the two years of his “peace-time” leadership.

    Whether the electorate will buy it is another matter. Quite possibly they will decide they may as well vote for the real thing rather than a pale and pointless imitation. But I suppose it’s too much to hope for that we’ll get our party back afterwards, even if that does happen.

  • Malcolm Todd 13th Jan '10 - 8:13am

    I agree that “fairness” is a rather anodyne concept; but to complain that all the main parties would claim it is beside the point. All parties would claim to believe in “freedom” too. To be truly distinctive we would have to adopt something like “an end to all state involvement in society and the economy” – but then we would have become the Libertarian Party, and lost me (and 99% of the electorate) in the process. I suppose the point is not to say “unlike the other parties, we believe in some distinctive but controversial principle”, but to try to get the public to associate a widely shared, positive idea with our party rather than the others. Don’t know whether it works, that’s why I’m *never* in charge of campaign messages…

  • Anthony Aloysius St (of East Cheam, no doubt! great name tag by the way) – I was arguing against the endless and often mindless refrain of ‘fairness’ as a playground word, not against the substance of it like more progressive taxation (although I do think the soaking the rich impulse is not necessarily synonymous with equity in taxation, and I would justify cutting taxes on the low-paid more on the basis that it enhances their freedom and independence rather than it being the generous act of a beneficent state).

    You accuse Clegg of using “the state of the public finances as a pretext finally to bounce the party into the kind of slash-and-burn, tax-cutting, service-cutting vehicle that he’s always favoured, but not so far been able to bring about by democratic means during the two years of his “peace-time” leadership”.

    It seems to me this characterisation is utterly divorced from the reality of both the UK public finances and Clegg’s policy positioning.

    You say he’s using the public finances as a “pretext”, as if the cavernous £178bn fiscal deficit can be just wished away by someone more compassionate. That’s not how any reputable financial or economic commentator, or more to the point the bond markets – our creditors – sees it. It’s fantasy economics.

    The real problem is that, like the other two parties to different degrees, we haven’t yet come clean about the scale of the cuts necessary to tackle the deficit. Vince argued in his Reform pamphlet last year that the government’s approach was insufficiently ambitious in its timescale as well as not open or credible enough.

    He was right then and he’s right now, but the party leadership has given no indication that it means business on this, instead reheating policies the party is keen on anyway – like scrapping ID cards and Trident renewal – as “tough choices”. The reality is that these are chickenfeed in relation to the size of the deficit. (Admittedly there has been some realism on public sector pay and tax credits for the better off, but only the minimum required to have any credibility.)

    Also, Clegg is not advocating any reduction in the overall tax burden so it’s strange to ‘accuse’ him of being a foaming-at-the-mouth tax cutter. Even when he was (implausibly, a year or so ago) it looked like being just a token few billion or so once all the additional spending was paid for. At the time I thought this was wishful thinking, given the ruination of the public finances already well underway, and now it’s completely off the table.

    Whoever forms the next government is likely to have to raise taxes, not cut them, as undesirable as that is. A likely candidate seems to be a hike in VAT to 20%, which would bring in £11-12bn per year.

    But it’s notable that Vince (in his Reform guise) argued that tax rises should not be countenanced until an ambitious programme of spending cuts is undertaken – a position he seems to have rowed back from since.

    Malcolm – A fair point about the meaning of freedom; in many ways it is as contestable and problematic as ‘fairness’, and as much of a ‘hooray word’ that everyone pays lip service to and no one openly opposes.

    It is, however, the single idea most associated with liberalism, as opposed to conservatism or social democracy, and therefore I would hope it remained an important part of our lexicon. It’s also the thing that most clearly differentiates us from Labour – or certainly should be – and therefore if we are to claim the so-called ‘progressive’ mantle (another question-begging word) we should emphasise it not downplay it.

    But more important than emphasising it in our rhetoric is to give effect to it in our policies. I fear that if you polled the public on the value they most associate with the Lib Dems, it would not be ‘freedom’. And yet freedom (economic, personal and political) has never needed more defending.

  • libdemsupporter 17th Jan '10 - 11:10am

    Slightly better piece by Nick Clegg on Andrew Marr this morning. However although helping other countries is very important, he did give the British public enough fact on how he was going to help them. We have to sort out our own country FIRST alongside doing our best to help others.

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