Why the front page of our manifesto reminds me of 50 Shades of Grey

Manifesto_Covers_2015So, it’s out. The front page of the Liberal Democrat manifesto gives five key policy priorities. These things are a negotiation in themselves and the version released is substantially zingier than the version initially presented to the Federal Policy Committee on Monday night. By way of example, I understand that the Five Green Laws point was initially described as a “Nature Law.” Why that makes me think of the Glee Club song “English Country Garden”, I can’t imagine.

Now, every single Liberal Democrat, being the
unique bunch that we are, will think that we could have worded these priorities much better, or we would have chosen something else. I certainly could. I’d have had housing in there and I sure as hell would not have put balancing the books as the first thing on the list. I’m not convinced of the need to do so in the next Parliament, even if I recognise that we can’t go back to the Days of Deficit Central while the economy is growing. The reason it is there, though, is because the economy, jobs and continued recovery feature highly in every survey of voters’ priorities.

There is, however, a great deal that we can agree on. Giving the NHS the money it needs with equal parity for mental health is important, as is building on the success of giving extra money to disadvantaged kids. Protecting the environment is a core liberal value – and we have a much better and more realistic way of doing it than the Tories, Labour, UKIP or the authoritarian, socialist Greens. The small print opens up the possibility of raising the National Insurance threshold, too, which would help those who are no longer helped by  further rises in the tax threshold because they don’t earn enough.

It’s also important to remember that some of our best policy successes in government did not come from the front page of the manifesto. Blocking the snoopers’ charter, Steve Webb’s pensions triple lock, shared parental leave and all the amazingly good mental health stuff weren’t on the front page, but they show most where our heart is.

My worry is that reading the front page and the accompanying blurb had exactly the same effect on me as reading “50 Shades of Grey”. I’m not saying that our manifesto is a horrible account of an abusive relationship, but I found myself editing both as I read them. Our manifesto, our shop window, should make my heart beat faster. I shouldn’t be coming out in hives at the inconsistent capitalisation of the headings.  The blurb is full of grammatical errors and the design of the front page needs, shall we say, a little work. What is it with the off-centre title? I don’t like the asymmetric design and if you are going to have nice quirky handprints, at least make them all different sizes to show that you care about all ages and stages of life.

There is one part of the blurb that really made my blood boil – the inclusion of that horrible phrase “hard-working people” which is not much better than its predecessor “hard-working families.” It’s a divisive phrase, dripping in judgement, as I wrote a couple of years ago:

The other reason I don’t like the phrase is because it has more than a whiff of judgement about it. I don’t go for the deserving and undeserving poor thing. It implies that if you’re out of work for some reason you are somehow at fault. My husband, with an unblemished employment record, took almost a year to find a job when he was made redundant in 1994. It was horrendous and he had the best support imaginable in terms of getting job applications done – the services of British Coal Enterprise in Mansfield. He went there every day as though he was going to work and completed hundreds of job applications and went for many interviews and for a while ended up coming second all the time.

You can’t talk with one hand with understanding at the horrors of long term unemployment and the effect it can have on someone and then rub salt in the wounds by making it sound like hard working families are the only people worth helping.

I should add that after that article, and a Twitter Pincer movement from me and Jennie Rigg, Tim Farron said he wouldn’t use it any more. I wish he’d been able to persuade others to choose something a little more inclusive.

Two members of the Federal Policy Committee have expressed varying degrees of disquiet. Gareth Epps suggests the publication is a little premature, that it came as a surprise to FPC members and that it wasn’t what he would like to see.

Nick Clegg has published what is claimed to be the front page of the Party’s manifesto.

This comes as a surprise to members of the party’s Federal Policy Committee for reasons probably best not gone into here.

For my part I can now say what I said at the most recent meeting of that committee what should have been included, which includes about one and a half of the five points flagged by the leader as a priority.

Mark Pack highlights a potential point of controversy – the relative proportion of the book balancing that should be met by spending cuts and tax rises. The current balance is 60:40 but Conference may debate an amendment calling for 50:50.  My instinct is very strongly to go for the latter because the former would mean much heavier cuts to social security than are fair or acceptable.

I think that this front page launch could have waited a week or two until the details were right and properly agreed. There was no great need to do it today. We could then have presented a finished, polished piece of work.

It also strikes me that the Federal Policy Committee need to assert themselves a bit more. If this had been put out after being discussed by the Federal Executive, people would be running around writing motions of censure to debate at Conference.

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

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  • An opportunity missed to not put protecting civil liberties as a priority on the front page. A key liberal value which the party has lived up to in the coalition by blocking things like the snoopers’ charter.

  • *salute*

    Proud to join in a pincer movement with you, ma’am.

    “FPC needs to assert itself more” does strike me as a LITTLE harsh, though. The leadership knows the press will help them ride roughshod over federal committees in stuff like this because the press expect and enforce autocratic leadership.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 12th Feb '15 - 11:07am

    Well, Jennie, I just wanted to make the point that certain members of the FPC would have been clamouring to criticise had the FE had anything to do with this.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 12th Feb '15 - 11:27am

    Richard, I’ve always said that if a government could fix housing, it could fix a whole load of other problems too from health to poverty to jobs. I wish someone would just get on and do it properly.

  • Joseph Toovey 12th Feb '15 - 11:35am

    I’m rather upset to see nothing about civil liberties on the front page…

  • Robin McGhee 12th Feb '15 - 11:36am

    Is it true FPC was not consulted about this, or rather did not sign it off?

  • ‘Cut your taxes by an additional £400’ assumes you have at least £12,500 of taxable income…

    It is striking that the word ‘justice’ isn’t on there. The main diamond reads like the awful 1980s SDP ‘firm but fair’ (or whatever it was – I can only remember the parodies!) campaign.

  • I really don’t understand why FPC is held up to be some sort of standard of accountability. MPs are, for example, far more accountable than FPC members.

  • Bill le Breton 12th Feb '15 - 11:45am

    Wait a minute – we now have two threads on this important topic.

    Why? OK, I think I see this OP could be about the process, (timing/sign-off etc) but the comments are already directed at what is in and what is not.

    Is there a way of somehow keeping the comments together?

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 12th Feb '15 - 11:47am

    Robin, they saw one version, gave feedback but not the final amended version from what I can gather.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 12th Feb '15 - 11:48am

    Bill, there is no reason why we can’t have two threads and two discussions on the same topic. The earlier post was a simple factual one, mine is an opinion piece. No, we can’t merge the comments threads.

  • Bill le Breton 12th Feb '15 - 12:05pm

    Well, then, to repreat:

    Leaving the process to one side, People are being a bit tough on those responsible for this ‘front page’.

    If there has to be a manifesto and if it is thought wise to express it at this stage as a five point pledge card which can then be repeated, then perhaps this is as good as it can get. People will always disagree over a 5 point choice.

    David Laws did a valiant job this morning, but in the necessarily ‘waffley’ form engendered by this format, it is a hard job to gain attention and keep people ‘tuned in’.

    What the pledges are not is SMART. ( Specific, Measurable, Attainable etc.) And that misses a lot in the current climate.

    So, to be daring, why have a manifesto in a rather old fashioned format in changed times ?

    There is a probability that there will be negotiations after May 7th from which a government of some kind evolves. So why not publish today our opening negotiations in the form of SMART campaign objectives.

    A hundred should do. (I bet there ends up being a hundred points in any manifesto.) All of them SMART and expressed in SMART form.

    In this election, Liberal Democrats are campaigning for these 100 specific goals. They are measurable so you can see how effective we are at getting support for them and delivering them in Parliament, over the next five years.

    We have knocked on doors and telephoned thousands of people like you and established that they are what people want. They are attainable – not the normal political wish list. We have checked with world class experts in their fields who have told us tells us they can be done, that they would deliver better for people and properly costed.

    We are publishing them here, but your local Liberal Democrat MP and the local team have been talking to you and your neighbours and have published a list of things that we support and are campaigning for in your neighbourhood.

    But we have to warn you that, for us, there are no red lines. We shall campaign as hard as we can to achieve support in Parliament for as many of these as possible and we shall keep you informed of our progress. But there has to be give and take. So what we don’t achieve in the next five years we shall keep developing and keep campaigning for.

  • This is more 50 shades of beige.

    I was hoping there was a rabbit to pull out of the hat, something to inspire, differentiate and grab headlines. From the comments it sounds like FPC were doing their best to get something headline grabbing on civil liberties.

    There’s nothing very offensive here (although I wouldn’t have made the cradle to grave pledge on education, this is the only big area of public spending who haven’t had to look at any serious efficiencies) but a big picture to sell on the doorsteps? I can see our campaign in May ignoring most of this and going ultra-local. We’ve done it before, and we’ve won.

  • @Bill le Breton ‘…for us, there are no red lines.’
    I disagree. Coalition with either of the ugly sisters will be another kicking for us, So as one of the 900 representatives who voted in 2010 at the Birmingham meeting for this coalition I say that if we repeat this exercise after the General Election I will vote AGAINST a further one if PR, preferably by STV for all local government elections in England and Wales implemented without a referendum, is not in the coalition programme!

  • Stephen Hesketh 12th Feb '15 - 12:48pm

    Bill le Breton12th Feb ’15 – 11:45am
    “Wait a minute – we now have two threads on this important topic. ”

    Bill, having shared the identical thought, I must say I agree.

    Next thing we know one of the usual suspects will be complaining about the posting of similar (critical) views in both places and blaming us for it!

  • Stephen Hesketh 12th Feb '15 - 12:55pm

    linda jack12th Feb ’15 – 12:08pm

    An excellent analogy Linda … and so true. To mix our metphors – a complete lace up!

  • Simon McGrath 12th Feb '15 - 1:05pm

    Given that last time the main role of the FPC was to force the disastrous tuition fees policy into the manifesto I can see why Nick would want to involve them as little as possible

  • Bill le Breton 12th Feb '15 - 1:17pm

    LeekLiberal, there is nothing to stop us walking away from any subsequent negotiations.

    Personally I still think that the Ts will gain a majority, but the ‘platform’ on which news is generated at the moment is one of no single party gaining a majority, so a narrative that starts from that point has news value and allows us to mount effect challenge.

    Making our points SMART would contrast them with other ordinary manifesto ‘promises’. And actually highlight or give detail to the comparisons between us & Labour and the Ts that the Leadership has decided should be a ‘main message’. ie more heart than the Ts, more head than L.

    Talking of no red lines and outlining the facts of negotiation in a balanced Parliament also helps people better understand what happened in 2010 and subsequently.

    I was hoping that people could at this stage differentiate between what an ordinary member may wish for and how an ordinary member may advise the leadership how it could better achieve it aims, given that they hold all the party cards – note the impotence of the FPC..

    Any member of the FPC that did not expect to be bounced by the leadership must be naive. THat is how they have led us to where we are and it was obvious that this is how they will continue to operate.

    Do I think it wise? Of course not.

    People here continue to judge them on their own values and their own objectives instead of appreciating that Clegg et al have always had very different opinions to most members and most activists, but are very determined political operators pushing their agenda for all they can.

  • Stephen Hesketh 12th Feb '15 - 1:22pm

    Nick12th Feb ’15 – 1:18pm
    “Frankly, FE and FPC shouldn’t be at each other’s throats over this, but should collectively be challenging the leadership about why they regularly circumvent and ignore the party’s structures and processes.”

    Spot on Nick.

  • Kelly-Marie Blundell 12th Feb '15 - 1:29pm

    We can stretch the metaphor further, I’m sure.
    50 Shades of Grey is well documented as being a badly written, badly plotted book, with out any attention to the scenes and lifestyles it seeks to recreate, much less reality of much of these situations. It is quixotic in it’s approach to relationships and lacks in depth and morality.
    Would our manifesto sell more rapidly if we called it 50 shades of gold?

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 12th Feb '15 - 1:45pm

    Nick and Stephen, I don’t think FE and FPC are at each other’s throats. I was merely suggesting a bit of humility might be in order given the hyperbolic criticism of the last FE, motions of censure etc. It wasn’t perfect, for sure, and this one will be a lot more assertive, but it isn’t always easy to keep tabs on everything federal committees need to because they don’t get the chance.

  • What Nick said.

    Caron, I get that you’re sore over the motions of censure etc, but surely the answer to both FPC and FE being bounced, over-ruled and ignored by the leadership is not to “suggest humility” to each other, but to go after the bloody leadership who keep circumventing party procedures?

    The solution to this is, of course, what several of us have been saying for some time now: the entire internal structure of the federal party is more patch than plaster, and we need a constituional convention. Desperately.

    Joe Otten: seriously? SERIOUSLY? MPs might be accountable to their constituents, but in terms of party policy, decided by the members, they are not in the slightest accountable and it’s worrying in the extreme that you would assert that they are.

  • Incidentally: if I was to be involved in the constitutional convention, I would ensure that bodies like FE and FPC, if they haven’t got the resources and time to do what they need to, GET the time. I’d also have some strong words to say about bodies like the Wheelhouse that are specifically set up to circumvent the party’s democratic structures.

    Anyway, I feel I’ve been a bit brusque in this thread, so sorry about that Caron.

    * hug *

  • matt (Bristol) 12th Feb '15 - 4:00pm

    I can’t help wondering what other (supposedly) erotic novels the other party manifestoes could be compared to…

  • matt (Bristol) 12th Feb '15 - 4:05pm

    Oh, and if we gave this front cover to a focus group and photo-shopped out the bird logo, how would they know it was a LibDem policy document and not something that either the Tories or Labour could have composed?

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 12th Feb '15 - 4:30pm

    I agree with Jennie that it is really important that whatever structure emerges after the Constitutional/governance review must have clear lines of democratic accountability to the members and must give redress the imbalance of power between the leadership and the membership. I don’t want to make this a big FE/FPC thing, but I thought the observation was worth making in passing.

  • Eddie Sammon 12th Feb '15 - 5:46pm

    The capitalisation inconsistencies look poor, but I don’t think it will lose any votes.

    Considering the article and the comments do mention the Federal Policy Committee: I struggle to emphasise concisely how bad a major power grab by this or the other internal committees would be.

    They aren’t even paid proper wages. The country can’t be run by a back office bunch of amateurs and part-timers.

  • Eddie Sammon 12th Feb '15 - 6:16pm

    Oh sorry, looks like I was a bit harsh about the FPC, but still, I meant to argue against the general idea that the party and potentially the country should largely be run by a rather unknown internal committee. I’ve read the website part of the committee and I still don’t understand what it does.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 12th Feb '15 - 7:53pm

    That also is a fair criticism, Gareth. I shall have a think about that. It basically needs a party structure where the leadership has to value or at least take account of the internal democracy of the party. And to be honest, keeping people on side is in this election much more important than it has been in any other. We need everybody out knocking on doors/touring the pubs in their seat/delivering leaflets and the like.

    Can I just ask one question? Why did nobody weed out that horrible “hard-working people” phrase?

  • Stephen Donnelly 12th Feb '15 - 9:06pm

    There is a lack of strategic thinking. There are far too few differentiators on the front page of the manifesto. All the main political parties could subscribe to the headlines on each point, not the detail, but who reads the detail.

  • I don’t often post on here but I’d like to address the suggestion of having ‘no red lines’. This would be a very grave mistake in my view. The Tories have red lines over benefits for pensioners, and I guess over Trident. To their credit they have looked after those who naturally vote for them. The mistake made by Lib Dems was that they failed to do so, by not making an increase in tuition fees their red line. How are we to know what a Party stands for if there are no points of principle which they will defend, no matter what.

  • Stephen Hesketh 12th Feb '15 - 10:04pm

    Stephen Donnelly 12th Feb ’15 – 9:06pm

    Stephen, I agree but it only reflects NC’s on going approach … anchored firmly at the centre … stronger economy, fairer society … enabling every one to get on in life … hard working people …

    Uninspiring, aliberal soggy centrism – the natural terminus of a dispassionate equidistant strategy.

  • There is clearly a big debate as to what the commitments on the front page are for. The commitments listed are essentially on the basis that, these are the things that polling tells us, if repeated enough times will help us win more votes in target (mostly Tory facing) seats. If this is the only aim that matters, then we have 5 general promises that most people should respond positively to.

    However, I believe that in those seats, the sheer volume of literature people will get highlighting the messages from our manifesto we want them to hear, makes what’s actually on the front irrelevant. The front is instead about setting out a distinct identity to inspire people, not just to vote but to join, deliver and canvass.

    I also have concerns that, for the past 5 years we’ve been telling everyone the coalition has been good for us as we’ve achieved our front page commitments. In so doing, we’ve created our own measurement of success in a future negotiation, and so the media will judge us on how much of these 5 things we achieve. As such, these 5 things now supersede other issues in the manifesto, even if those other things matter to the party more.

  • I have a vote in a seat where the Lib Dems are third. What reason does this give me for voting?

    The top prioirty is apparently education, where the big commitment is not to change anything. So suppose something weird happens and a majority Lib Dem government is elected, the great mission of that government would be to carry on as they did as the junior partner in a coalition.

  • suzanne fletcher 13th Feb '15 - 11:07am

    Strongly agree about the lack of mention of anything to do with Civil Liberties, Justice. As Gareth says the ending of Indefinite detention would reflect our values, save money, and be achievable – as well as measurable. there are over 35 organisations that are signed up to doing this, so we get their support. it is one of the 3 main pledges Citizens UK will be asking all candidates (concentrating in marginals of all colours) to sign. what is not to like about it ?
    Also agree re lack of mention of housing. it does matter to people, and people who care about people.

  • suzanne fletcher 13th Feb '15 - 11:10am

    Another thought. every political party, even UKIP, care about (or say they do) fair tax, good economy (maybe not the greens), good NHS, good education, motherhood and apple pie.
    one thing that makes us distinctive is our belief in LIBERAL DEMOCRAT values, including justice and liberty.
    for goodness sake – IF YOU’VE GOT IT, FLAUNT IT. We don’t have to go and invent it.

  • matt (Bristol) 13th Feb '15 - 11:40am

    Some words if slapped on manifesto front page might just kick my personal buttons, engage me from being less of an armchair member into being more of an activist and get me talking up our agenda to others I meet:
    – devolve
    – empower
    – challenge
    – reform
    – change

    What’s wrong with ‘citizens’ instead of ‘hardworking people’ – recognising all people in this country as stakeholders with democratic power in their own hands?

  • Drew Durning 13th Feb '15 - 11:57am

    I agree with Suzanne! (And everyone else that wants a clear vision of liberal values).

    It’s not too late to have an inside front cover dedicated to liberal values. It could even have a few big liberal red (or yellow) lines, for example:

    We will not support any threats to the Human Rights Act specifically or civil liberties generally
    We will not support any legislation which treats immigrants or minorities unfairly
    We will end the indefinite detention of asylum seekers
    We will demand constitutional reform including devolution for England and the regions and a fairer voting system for General Elections as part of any coalition agreement

    I could go on!

  • “What’s wrong with ‘citizens’ instead of ‘hardworking people’ – recognising all people in this country as stakeholders with democratic power in their own hands?”


    An EXCELLENT question, and one I suspect many of us here would like to see answered. I DETEST the “hard-working [whatever]” phrase, because all it does is increase division and we have far too much of that in this society as it is.

  • suzanne fletcher 13th Feb '15 - 5:37pm

    hear hear Jenny. they ditched “alarm clock britain” that sent me under the duvet, we don’t have to have this right wing labeling of people for a start it does not chime with our emphasis on mental health.

  • Here is a positive suggestion —
    Print out copies of The Preamble to the Liberal Democrat Constitution give it to the Media and deliver it door to door.

    The Preamble might enthuse a few activists, it might attract some new members, it might get some people to vote for us for what we actually believe and who knows it remind our dear leader which party he actually joined and why it is time for him to go.

  • Malcolm Todd 13th Feb '15 - 11:49pm

    matt (Bristol) 12th Feb ’15 – 4:05pm

    Oh, and if we gave this front cover to a focus group and photo-shopped out the bird logo, how would they know it was a LibDem policy document and not something that either the Tories or Labour could have composed?

    That. Exactly that.

  • No-one has attempted an answer, but it is a fairly key question! “I have a vote in a seat where the Lib Dems are third. What reason does this give me for voting?”

  • Paul In Wokingham 16th Feb '15 - 6:26am

    @Hywel – that reflects my own thought on the manifesto front cover: if the Lib Dems didn’t exist would I feel the need to invent them to implement this manifesto? Based on the commitment to motherhood and apple-pie of the front cover the answer would seem to be no.

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