‘Red lines’ v ‘a long shopping list’: Clegg sets out plan for slimline 2015 manifesto

by Stephen Tall on June 22, 2013

Nick Clegg will be speaking today at the party’s local government conference in Manchester (Nick Thornsby will be covering it throughout the day here on LDV) and The Independent is one of the newspapers which trails what he’ll say.

Here’s my quick take on the top lines on which they’ve been pre-briefed…

The Deputy Prime Minister will take on his internal party critics by demanding a slimline manifesto at the 2015 election setting out the Lib Dems’ non-negotiable “red lines” in another coalition rather than a long shopping list of policies.

There’s been much discussion recently about ‘red lines’ in parties’ 2015 manifestos — ie, the bits that come what may in coalition discussions won’t be up-for-grabs. It’s an inevitability of the fall-out from this Coalition’s experience: the tuition fees U-turn for we Lib Dems; or the Tories’ obsession with an in/out referendum.

Like ring-fencing specific areas of public spending, I’m not a fan of ‘red lines’. It boxes you in, stifles negotiations. I bet David Cameron regrets making such a firm pledge on pensioner benefits now he’s starting down the barrel of a yet-still-greater cuts in public spending: but he had no choice at the time.

And of course any policy that doesn’t have a thickly crayoned red line around it will be taken as evidence you’ll ditch it if you can, which means activists/campaigners will double-down on their efforts to get that red line re-drawn. Personally I’d rather judge a coalition agreement in the round, rather than on the basis of it containing my own pet project.

The one consolation is this: at least all parties will be asked for their ‘red lines’ in 2015, not just the Lib Dems. Unlike in previous elections when journalists have been obsessed by what the Lib Dems would do in the event of a hung parliament, ignoring the fact that such a situation would impact just as much on the Tories or Labour.

… the Lib Dems need to decide whether they are “a firm party of government” or consign themselves to being “the third party” forever. “The truth is this: the Lib Dems can do more good in a single day in local and national government than in an eternity in opposition,” he will say.

True enough. That fact, after all, is why the party voted so overwhelmingly to go into coalition in 2010, and why remaining in coalition has been the choice of c.80% of party members ever since.

Yes, opposition can have its days of glory — think of the Ghurkas, or defeating Labour on detention without trial for 90 days — but these are few and far between.

Note, too, how much easier it is to make the political weather in government than in opposition. Just as Labour won the argument for increased public spending in the 2000s, the Tories are winning the argument now for reducing it. Meanwhile it is the Lib Dems who’ve made the running on putting tax cuts for the low-paid at the centre of the taxation debate.

“Hankering for the comfort blanket of national opposition, seeking to airbrush out the difficult decisions we have had to take [would] condemn our party to the worst possible fate – irrelevance, impotence, slow decline.”

The party’s decision to go into coalition with the Tories defined our 5-year strategy. Though there is a vocal minority which would like to see the party get out now while the going’s bad, no-one has yet mapped out how that will help the Lib Dems one iota in 2015. Most voters will take it simply as confirmation that those flaky Lib Dems just haven’t got the guts to stick with the difficult task of governing. And I wouldn’t count on those 2010 Lib Dem voters who have returned to Labour suddenly re-re-ratting out of gratitude.

No, the die was cast in May 2010. For better or worse — and opinion in the party on which it has been is probably about evens — we have to see this thing through. To show the voters we can surf the waves of unpopularity just as Labour and the Tories have had to. More importantly, we need to show how we’ve learned from the experience and why that means we’re better equipped to be entrusted with their vote in 2015.

Before 2010, the only way the Lib Dems could get a foothold against the two biggest parties was through targeted, street-by-street campaigns. But he will argue this will not be an option at the 2015 election now that his party has been in government and demand a disciplined central message about a “stronger economy and fairer society”. He will say: “The idea that in a general election we can be under a national spotlight and yet run the campaign as a series of loosely linked by-elections just isn’t possible.”

I’m not too sure what this means (perhaps the full speech will offer context). The party’s message must be about how we would govern as Liberal Democrats. The party’s campaigning must be ferociously targeted, however, if we’re to focus our resources where they’re needed most. As Tim Farron put it to me a few months ago: “The reality is we have to survive. Our electoral system defaults to the Lib Dems winning a dozen seats. It’s vital we defend our position so we don’t go down the plughole.”

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.