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.


I would suggest that Education and NHS could be wrapped together into a distinctively localist agenda. Housing is a good choice because it is only going to grow as an issue of concern. Finally, I would go with civil liberties and focus on the issue of drugs.


1) LibDems always talk localism, but if we’re honest, the policy details have rarely been worked out and worked through properly. Putting in the effort to turn this philosophy into practical policies that can be campaigned on, that can engage meaningful discussion – well that’s a serious investment in being distinct from the other parties (who are inveterate centralisers) and by taking in Health and Education, speak to some key concerns of the electorate.

2) Housing is only going to grow as an issue. If you want to catch a tide, this is one of the places to be. The current government has no ideas which will change the dynamic here – and indeed they seem fixated on using it as a way to bribe some elements of the electorate and punish others.

3) There is no reason to believe the LibDems can go from their current base straight back to power. So it’s time to think a few moves ahead for a change. The demographics of drug use are only continuing to shift against the traditional stance. This is actually a way to get the young back on board. (Something that has to be faced up to is that irrespective of the rights and wrongs, the tuition fee situation taught young people that the LibDems speak with forked tongue. And that applies not only to university students, but to other young people too.) David Nutt’s evidence based approach, plus a sense of traditional Liberal Civil Liberties (what you do for a good time is largely your own affair, so long as you don’t harm others) makes a great platform to be distinctive and engage with the reality that the electorate is much more liberal on this issue than politicians are… Also a way to make a splash and win media coverage beyond that due to a small party.

Immigration is, I feel, a trap for the unwary. Policy (good or bad) doesn’t get a look in here. It’s all about emotion – and while emotions can be shifted, I don’t think the LibDems are in the right place to do it yet. They have to build some new, post-Clegg credibility first…

by Metatone on June 25, 2015 at 10:02 am. Reply #

[…] of issues on which to campaign are the right ones or that they resonate enough with the public. See Stephen Tall for a good analysis of […]

by How I learned to stop worrying and to back Norman Lamb to be the next leader of the Lib Dems | England is the home of lost ideas on June 25, 2015 at 9:56 pm. Reply #

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