Two thoughts on Clegg’s Manchester speech (1 of 2): how not to repeat the tuition fees mistake

by Stephen Tall on June 23, 2013

Nick Clegg’s pitch to the Lib Dems’ local government conference in Manchester yesterday was given the kind of build-up that seems to be an inevitable part of leaders’ speech-making. Nick was going to ‘deliver hard truths’ to his activists, ‘issuing a warning’ that we shouldn’t return to the safety of opposition, and urging us instead ‘to embrace the future’. That’s the way you get journalists’ attention, y’see.

But the billing wasn’t so very wide-of-the-mark. Nick Clegg did in fact offer the party a stark choice. And as the vigorous comments thread on my post yesterday attests, it hasn’t been met with universal acclaim from members.

Personally, I thought it was a pretty good, pretty powerful speech. I’m going to quote two sections which caught my eye. First, let’s look at Nick’s section on tuition fees:

Despite that, however, we still made a pledge that, in the end, we could not deliver: tuition fees. Partly because of the compromises of Coalition… Partly because of the worsening fiscal crisis… But, either way, something we should not have done – and a mistake I will not repeat.

So, as we go into 2015, we are going to work harder than ever to produce a manifesto that is practical, responsible and deliverable. With coalitions increasingly likely in British politics, every line in our manifesto will be a potential government policy. And this manifesto will be scrutinised like never before.

I’ve been crystal clear with David Laws since the day I asked him to coordinate this process: I want the manifesto to set out our ambitious vision for a liberal society… But it must be a to-do list, not a flight of fancy. That doesn’t mean “pre-negotiating” our manifesto – producing a bland, generic set of plans we know either of the other parties could sign up to. Far from it. We can and must fight the next election on a platform of distinct, forward-looking, liberal policies. We must not stifle our vision, our creativity or our boldness with either political or technocratic excuses.

But, building on the approach we took in 2010, we will be even clearer with people about the commitments which are priorities… And the ambitions which we accept may be affected by resources and circumstances. As a party with compassionate instincts, the desire to offer big spending commitments will be as strong as it has ever been… But we will resist the temptation to talk big and end up delivering small. You’re used to this kind of rigour in your day jobs… And as the party agrees the manifesto in the lead up to the election, I need you to get behind this approach.

I saw a number of complaints yesterday that Nick’s self-critique was misleading: our 2010 manifesto was fully-costed, and the tuition fees promise was affordable. Hmmm, only up to a point.

It’s quite right that the Lib Dem 2010 manifesto was fully-costed, and that all spending increases were balanced by identified alternatives (either cuts or tax rises). But — and it really is a big but — our manifesto in no way anticipated the scale of cuts that any party would have had to implement during this parliament. As I wrote way back in April 2010:

No party has yet set out anything like enough public spending cuts to meet their objectives of cutting the deficit. The Lib Dems have produced the most detailed measures, totalling over 25% of the cuts needed; the Tories have identified 17%, and Labour just 13%. It’s fair to say, then, that the Lib Dems are being the most honest and open of the three major parties – but that we have a long, long way to go.

The idea that in the current economic context the Lib Dems would have been able not only to resist higher fees but in fact to phase them out is absurd. It always was absurd. It’s why Nick Clegg tried to ditch the tuition fees pledge by the back door before the last election. Quite why, when he failed in this attempt, he then decided publicly to sign that NUS pledge promising no fees increases in this parliament is one of those mysteries which will still baffles me.

But he is quite right now to say the party needs to “resist the temptation to talk big and end up delivering small” and quite right too to ask all of us to get behind this approach.

* 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.