Has Making it Happen made it happen for the Lib Dems?

by Stephen Tall on July 18, 2008

Well, if the press and media reaction is anything to go by, the launch of the Lib Dems’ Make it Happen policy paper has succeeded way beyond the party’s expectations. No need for LDV to round them all up, as Centre Forum’s Freethink blog rounds up the newspapers’ responses, while Julian H’s Orange By Name has the blogosphere’s first reactions.

Why such a media splash? (And I admit the term splash is relative; but the tendency of political reporters to ignore a party which attracts almost one-quarter of the national vote means we Lib Dems get a little excited by even a handful of reports on the news pages).

Partly it’s that the economy is currently Big News, and the Lib Dems’ call for lower taxation and public expenditure cuts fits in well, and gives a fresh angle. Partly it’s that it’s summer, so political stories are thinner on the ground. Partly it’s that – for those reporters who’ve not been following Lib Dem thinking for the last two years – the party championing lower taxes seems counter-intuitive. Partly it’s that the Lib Dems again (and some might say at last) have a distinctive policy programme, placing clear gold water between the Lib Dems and the Labour/Tory parties.

The most acute critical commentary so far comes from The Times’s Daniel Finkelstein at Comment Central. Now I don’t regularly take Danny’s critiques of the Lib Dems wholly at face value: as an ex-SDPer-turned-Tory he has the zeal of the convert which frequently blinds him to the Lib Dems’ virtues. But he does at least think about politics, which is all too rare among political commentators.

His critique takes two overlapping forms: first, that the Lib Dems’ push to stake out a low-tax, smaller-state is too late – the time to push ahead with it was in 2001-03, when the Tories were at their most demoralised. Now with the Tories back in business it’s impact is lessened. And, secondly, that its principal effect will be further to detoxify the Tory brand – because Gordon Brown’s mantra of ‘Labour investment versus Tory cuts’ will seem increasingly irrelevant with ‘even’ the Lib Dems now favouring cutting taxes and public expenditure. Hence Danny’s conclusion:

I think, therefore, that Clegg’s move is very significant. It’s just that I am not sure that it is very significant for him.

I think there’s something in both arguments. But of course it’s much easier now to make the case that Labour has mishandled the economy – taxed too highly and wasted the proceeds – than it was five or six years ago, when the UK economy was cruising and Mr Brown was still lauded (and not only by himself) as one of the most successful modern chancellors. Besides, I’ve never given much credence to the idea that the Lib Dems will replace either the Tories or Labour as major parties: far more likely that all three will jostle for national prominence for many years to come. And the Tory brand would gradually be decontaminating itself now, in any case, as memories fade of John Major’s disastrous government, and people grow angrier by the day with Labour’s misrule.