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.

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I always feel that the ‘lower taxes, cut expenditure’ mantra is political motherhood and apple pie to be honest. The question is always how why and where…..skimming through the document I have to say I have always said I oppose road tolls at this point as I feel they will counteract in practice any direct taxation reduction. At least petrol duty is slightly more enviromentally sensative because obviously gas guzzlers pay more where as road tolls do not discriminate…this move strikes me as popularism.

by Darrell on July 21, 2008 at 9:29 am. Reply #

Today, Bruce Richards in the Independent describes the Tories as “serious men for serious times”, while the Guardian points out that “Mr Clegg …. must now show voters why, given his diagnosis, he does not think the cure is to be found in a Conservative government.”

Meanwhile, we cheerfully announce that savings of £20bn can be plucked out of the air, and that it’s OK to work out later on where it is all going to come from. Does this make us look like serious people for serious times?

I accept that we were absolutely right to put an ocean of clear water between us and Labour. Now let’s have the sense to row back on the flaky overclaims and overcommitments, before we make ourselves look ridiculous.

Yes, we should regularly make a fuss when we see Labour wasting money. Today’s story that Labour wants to rebuild every secondary school in the country on the cheap by 2020 is another example. Let’s build fewer schools, and (unlike CLASP schools) build them to last.

But let’s be honest. We will need savings, first and foremost, to make room for massive investment (whether public or private) in low-energy transport and housing infrastructure. We may have to choose between tax cuts and effective action on climate change. We know which has to come first. Don’t we?

by David Allen on July 21, 2008 at 6:23 pm. Reply #

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