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

by Stephen Tall on January 12, 2010

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.