The Lib Dem policy dilemma – and the 3 issues I think we need to make our own

by Stephen Tall on June 24, 2015

lib dem manifesto 2015One striking thing about the Lib Dem leadersip contest to date is the lack of debate about policy.

To some extent this is unsurprising. So devastating was the party’s defeat in May that there’s been more interest than usual in discussions about organisational structure – how to rebuild, how to involve new/existing members etc.

It’s also a reflection that few believe we lost because of the policies in our manifesto – rather it was because of the Coalition / failure to be sufficiently ‘proalition’ / tuition fees / Nick Clegg / the ‘split-the-difference’ messaging of “giving the Tories a heart and Labour a brain” / austerity / etc (delete according to taste).

It’s also because few think there’s some ‘silver bullet’ new policy which will fix our problems by 2020.

All that said, though, the debate about policy has been thin. So far I’ve heard way more about same-sex marriage, abortion and assisted suicide than I have about the economy, public services or taxation – yet it’s the latter three which will decide how the public votes in 2020.

Tim Farron has said that the party needs to be realistic about the amount of public attention we’ll get and focus on three policy areas to champion: “I think if I become leader a leader should lead, and to lead is to choose, and I’d choose three areas that really stand out to me.”

He’s identified housing, civil liberties and climate change. Perhaps this is the right approach. However, Tim’s 3 issues highlights the party’s dilemma.

Here’s the latest Ipsos MORI index of public concern about issues facing the UK.

You’ll notice only housing features in the top 10. The environment / pollution is ranked the most important issue by just 5% of the population. Civil liberties isn’t even included.

issues index

So we can make Tim’s 3 issues our distinctive USP within the increasingly crowded political market-place. And maybe that is the only way we can find a niche for ourselves, get media cut-through, given the lack of exposure we’ll get as a rump opposition party.

But it means we’re dedicating ourselves to campaigning on issues much of the public don’t rate as of great importance.

My personal choice of 3 would be: education, immigration and climate change.

* A liberal party which doesn’t make education one of its top three priorities strikes me as a little odd (especially with schools facing a real challenge in the next five years with rising pupil numbers, reduced funding and a likely recruitment crisis).

* A liberal party which doesn’t stick up for immigration vacates this territory to the Tories, Labour and Ukip who will continue to foment people’s fears.

* A liberal party which doesn’t take climate change seriously leaves it to the stop-the-world Greens who would prefer to see the global poor remain poor than see us work out how to manage sustainable growth.

Three big issues, the first two of which rank within the top four concerns of the British public.

Now I’d like to hear what the candidates have to say about them.