Lib Dem manifesto launched. It’s kinda fine. But here’s what’s missing…

by Stephen Tall on February 12, 2015

lib dem manifesto 2015The Lib Dems have today proudly published page 1 of the party’s 2015 election manifesto. Serialising your own policy book is a new way to drum up interest. Though — *spoiler alert* — tomorrow’s instalment, page 2, may be less so: [This page has been intentionally left blank.]. 

As ever when a Lib Dem policy announcement is made there’s an inevitable row about the sign-off process. Did the party’s elected Federal Policy Committee approve it, etc? Though I fully recognise the importance of the party’s democratic structures — apart from anything else, they give the Lib Dem leadership much greater leverage in hung parliament negotiations (“I’d love to say yes, but I know my members won’t”) — I don’t overly care about that. To be honest, most of our messages already suffer from being too obviously written by committee.

Usually I’m all for cutting the leadership and its advisers some slack. Party activists are an uppity lot, sometimes rightly, but oftentimes keener to put the boot in than is either fair or accurate. However, reading the comments on LibDemVoice and on Twitter/Facebook the complaint against the front page’s 5 priorities — that they are, to borrow Lord Fink’s phrase, “vanilla” — seem undeniable.

Vanilla policies. I’ve always been more of a Neapolitan guy

The economy, taxes, education, health and the environment. I mean, I can hardly complain they’re not big issues: they are. And I’m sure the party’s strategy director Ryan Coetzee has tested them out with our key voting audiences and found they respond well. So what’s my problem?

These five issues are billed as our red lines for any Coalition negotiations: up without these we will not put. But let’s look at the items on the list…

Economy – “balancing the budget fairly”. The party’s decision to eliminate the deficit but allow borrowing-to-invest is sensible, certainly more so than the Tories’ theological pursuit of an absolute surplus. Essentially, the Lib Dems and Labour, though they differ on the details, are proposing the same policy here. Net: more spending.

Taxes – “raising the tax-free allowance to £12,500”. An expensive brag of a policy which will do most for the better off. If we can afford tax cuts (I’m not sure we can) we should, as I’ve said for at least two years, focus on raising the National Insurance threshold to benefit the most low-paid. Net: more spending.

Education – “guarantee education funding from nursery to 19”. Real-terms rises on a per pupil basis are more generous than the Tories’ promise of a flat cash settlement (a de facto 10.5% cut) and of Labour’s promise of real terms rise in the overall budget at a time when pupil numbers are rising (a de facto 9.5% cut). Net: more spending.

Health – “£8bn to improve our NHS”. That was the amount NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens said the health service needed (over and above inflation increases) in the next five years to meet the needs of an ageing population with  more complex physical and mental care requirements. Net: more spending.

Environment – “Protect nature and fight climate change”. To be achieved through “five laws”, details here (a mix of energy efficiency, zero waste, renewables investment, decarbonisation, clean transport). Net: more spending.

More public spending: the answer to everything

You may notice a theme there. Each one of the five highlighted areas requires more public spending.

Some of these are justified. I think it’s right, for instance, that we borrow-to-invest (Gordon Brown’s Golden Rule was a good one even if it’s become subsequently tarnished). I’d like to see the Lib Dem Pupil Premium, currently £2.5bn per annum, continued to support schools help the most disadvantaged pupils. And in healthcare, I think there’s little alternative but to combine investment and reform to give the NHS a chance in the next five years.

One is spectacularly unjustified: tax-cuts.

Taken as a whole, it’s hard to know how we will square the circle of promising both to balance the books and spend lots and lots more money.

Housing, immigration. We’re liberals: we can’t ignore these issues

But it’s not the SPEND MOAR nature of these five policies which bothers me as much as their mushy indistinguishability. We’ll spend more on infrastructure, on schools and on hospitals and on renewables. I’m not saying any of these are bad things; they’re probably mostly good things. Even raising the personal allowance to the level of the minimum wage is a good idea in principle (just not a priority now).

But I’m not sure how these set us apart from Labour, or indeed the Greens. I don’t like the idea of political success being measured by financial inputs (money’s usually a necessary but not sufficient condition of success).

And I don’t see enough to rebuild our support among the part of the electorate most likely to vote for us: young people. A clear commitment to increase house-building — as the party’s begun to set out here — would have helped.

So, too, would accepting immigration’s a top issue, whether we want it to be or not. Being the party that’s not afraid to stand up to Ukip on this — being clear the system can be improved so that (exaggerated) abuses are curtailed but the UK continues to be welcoming to those who come here to build their lives — would allow us to develop our brand as a genuinely liberal party that’s not afraid to stick up for policies that help those who need most help.

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