Postponed: Lib Dem pre-manifesto launch delayed owing to international situation

by Stephen Tall on September 3, 2014

Liberal Democrat manifesto front coverThe news of a further murder of a US hostage by ‘Islamic State’ broke last night. The Lib Dems have, therefore, decided to postpone today’s scheduled launch of the party’s pre-manifesto.

The pre-manifesto is the document agreed by the Lib Dems’ elected federal policy committee (FPC) to be submitted to this autumn’s conference for approval. Its contents have been heavily trailed throughout the summer. By my count, 19 policies (mostly policies already agreed by conference, and listed at the foot of this post) have been unveiled, as the party gears up the publicity machine to try and get its key messages heard by the voters ahead of May’s general election.

Party process purists won’t much like the publicity preceding the official conference vote, but the reality is unless the Lib Dems take every opportunity to hammer our policy messages home then what we have to say won’t ever be heard. A bit like leaflet delivery in an election campaign, it’s only when we’re sick and tired of hearing the message that there’s a slim chance the electorate might have noticed it even once.

There are further examples in today’s media, with both the BBC and Guardian leading on the Lib Dem pledge for 15 hours of free childcare for all two-year-olds in England. On a different note, the Financial Times reports the party’s aim of abolishing first-past-the-post in local elections in England, replacing it with the single transferable vote system used in Scotland. (This is what we should have argued for in the May 2010 Coalition negotiations, rather than a referendum on the Alternative Vote – ah, hindsight!)

It’s clear the party will use the pre-manifesto for two purposes. First, to emphasise how much the Lib Dems have achieved of the 2010 manifesto in government – from tax-cuts for low-earners to the Pupil Premium to the Green Investment Bank and so on. And secondly, to show how the party would build on those achievements if given a second chance in government – more tax-cuts for low-earners, extending the Pupil Premium to early years, setting up a Housing Investment Bank and so on.

This is the traditional “A record of action, a promise of more” style of electioneering. However, it’s also intended to counteract two of the most common criticisms made against the party. First, that this is a Tory-led coalition in which the Lib Dems have been squashed; secondly, that the party’s breaking of its tuition fees pledge means it can’t be trusted on anything else.

There’s another purpose, too. The party’s internal research shows that one of the biggest reasons our 2010 voters will no longer vote for us is not anger at the party’s supposed “betrayal” by going into coalition (there are some to whom that applies but they’re a minority). Rather it’s the belief that the party hasn’t actually achieved anything in power. When voters hear about the policies for which the Lib Dems are responsible they’re much more pen to voting for the party. The real question, then, is this: are we able to get our message across to enough voters in the time remaining?

When the pre-manifesto is launched, there will be three key questions unanswered:

First, how do we pay for it all? The party has committed to balance the budget but has also committed to some major new spending initiatives, albeit some are openly billed as aspirational. Take, for instance, the party’s pledge to continue raising the personal allowance until it reaches £12.5k (the current minimum wage level), and then, as an aspiration, to start raising the national insurance threshold to £12.5k too. Each is hugely expensive. Combined with other spending commitments and the need for continuing severe austerity to reduce the deficit and something will have to give.

Secondly, what are our top-lines? In 2010, the party listed four top priorities: tax-cuts for low-earners, the Pupil Premium, the Green Investment Bank, and political reform. Four years later, we can put ticks against the first three, and a cross against the fourth (though that’s mostly the result of Labservative opposition). What will be our equivalents in 2015? That’s still to be decided.

Thirdly, what are our red-lines? In 2010, the party vetoed a number of Tory manifesto ideas, such as prioritising inheritance tax-cuts for the wealthy. However, we infamously didn’t draw a red-line around our tuition fees commitment (the Coalition Agreement enabled Lib Dem MPs to abstain, though when it came to the vote the parliamentary party split three ways). It’s safe to say the leadership has learned its lesson: there will be no open-ended commitment to vote for/against individual policies no matter what the circumstances. That does, however, run the risk of looking slippery.

**

The 19 manifesto policies announced over the summer:

Protecting education spending: Extend the protection to all education funding from early years through school to college
Parental Guarantee: A core curriculum taught by qualified teachers
Curriculum for Life: Children in state-funded schools, including academies and free schools, will be guaranteed age appropriate sex and relationship education, as well as financial literacy and citizenship lessons
Early Years Pupil Premium: We will more than triple investment in the early years pupil premium from £300 to £1000 per child under manifesto plans
‘Daddy Month’: We will expand shared parental leave with an additional four week ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ paternity leave period
Balance the budget: Aim to balance the structural current budget by 2017/18 and set a course to reduce debt as a share of national income. Make deficit reduction fair by ensuring high earners and the wealthiest pay their share. Set new fiscal rules to balance the budget while allowing borrowing for productive investment. Increase public spending again in line with growth in the economy once the budget is balanced.
Cutting taxes for working people: Raise the income tax threshold to £12,500 before beginning to raise the National Insurance threshold
Making our tax system fairer: We will increase taxes on the wealthiest, including raising Capital Gains Taxes and introducing a High Value Property Tax. Our manifesto plans include: Introducing a banded High Value Property Levy on residential properties worth over £2m; limit tax relief on pensions to a pot of £1m; maximising revenue from Capital Gains Tax by aligning rates more closely to Income Tax
300,000 homes: Set an ambitious target of increasing the rate of house building to 300,000 a year
Ring fence NHS budget: NHS spending will rise by at least the rate of inflation over the next Parliament. We also announced they will pool health and social care budgets. This would help make care more tailored towards individual patients and reduce inefficiencies
Help for Carers: We will support carers with a package of measures designed to make their lives easier. The package includes an annual Carer’s Bonus of up to £250 and raising the amount carers can earn before losing their allowance. It also contains measures for more flexible working hours, support in returning to the jobs market and a scheme informing carers of their rights and giving them access to facilities
Mental health: We will establish a mental health research fund worth £50m per year to help bridge the gap between physical health and mental health treatment
Drugs: We will end imprisonment for drug users whose only crime is possession for personal use. They will instead receive non-custodial sentences and appropriate medical treatment
Safe Standing: Clubs in the Premier League and Championship will be allowed to work with their supporters to introduce standing areas, which provide better atmospheres and allow clubs to offer cheaper safe standing season tickets
Stop and Search: We want to help transform community relations and the public’s trust in the police through tightening the laws on stop and search, and requiring some police officers to wear body cameras when they stop someone. We will introduce rules making the wearing of body cameras by officers mandatory for: Section 60 stop and search areas; officers armed with firearms; members of Territorial Support Groups
Tree planting: Within the first year of entering government we will develop the national tree planting programme in order to plant one tree for every child born in England. We estimate this will be approximately 700,000 to 750,000 trees per year
Benefits yellow card: Under manifesto proposals people claiming unemployment benefit would be given a final warning for failing to stick to claimant conditions. Claimants would be given a reminder of their obligations and clear information about the sanction process which would only be triggered in the event of a further misdemeanour
High Pay: Companies will be forced to publish their highest earners pay. Our outline plans to encourage fair pay deals by requiring companies with over 250 employees to publish the pay levels of their highest paid employee and median pay across the Company. And we will require these larger companies to consult employees on executive pay proposals to help put downward pressure on excessive awards

Update: make that 21 – here’s another 2 policies also pre-announced:
Scrapping the Severn Bridge tolls once the bridges are returned to public ownership and any outstanding debts are paid off (see here).
Reforming funding to the Welsh Government to make up the shortfall (see here).

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.