Politicians don’t have the luxury of waiting for events to finish before having to draw lessons from them. Hindsight and perspective come too slowly. Hence before even the end of the current Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition, many attempts have to be made at learning the lessons ahead of the likely second hung Parliament in May.
Such attempts dominated much of the discussion at the party’s spring federal conference in Liverpool this weekend. The weekend was lighter than usual on MPs and their caffeine carriers (the morning after the Glee Club, it is coffee not bags they need trailing around them), with many instead choosing to stay in their seats for another weekend of intensive campaigning.
Those at conference were, however, also campaigning, with the excellent Team 2015 volunteer programme once again excelling, arranging for over 6,500 phone calls to swing voters in marginal seats to be made by conference reps.
One major area for necessarily pre-emptive lesson learning is the manifesto. Is the lesson of coalition that having large numbers of policy details beyond the front page commitments is a bad thing? The record of delivery of the front page of the manifesto is very good (especially when you recall that tuition fees did not feature until p.33), but those very words in brackets indicate the argument for a short manifesto which minimises the number of commitments beyond the front page priorities.
However there is also the lesson about needing policy in government. As I wrote back in 2012:
Performers who make the leap from stage show to the TV very often run into a simple problem: TV eats up material at a fearsome rate. A stage show can be repeated around the country for months with only a few tweaks as events or audience feedback requires it. TV, however, requires completely new material each week.
A similar problem has befallen the Liberal Democrats when it comes to policy. In opposition sticking to saying only a few things repeatedly was an advantage; in government the press of events and demands of the civil service machinery requires policy decisions on an industrial scale week in, week out.
That points not to a brief manifesto but to a long, detailed one. As passing public comments revealed, the size verdict on the manifesto is to go large, not small. Moreover, as I pointed out in Liberal Democrat Newswire #55:
[There is an increasing preference] for clear statements about the direction the party wants to move in. As I said after this attitude was on show at Glasgow conference: “It’s most obvious on tax. Simply saying the Lib Dems want to raise taxes a bit and the Tories are against raising taxes at all makes for a decent hung Parliament negotiation. Get any tax rises then and it shows the Lib Dems making a difference. Trumpet plans for £x billion of tax rises, however, and then end up with negotiating a smaller number – well, however unfairly, that looks to many voters like having a policy and then ditching it.”
There were, however, some specific numbers – including the commitment made in the amendment I successfully moved to the ‘manifesto motion’ that once the deficit is cleared, the party wants to return to uprating welfare rates in line with inflation once again. (This was a negotiated compromise over the original 50:50 amendment which also strengthened the policy on protecting public services with taxes on pollution and the richest as well as stronger action on tax evasion and avoidance.)
There were also many numbers on mental health, fleshing out the party’s increasingly successful push to give mental health issues parity of esteem with physical health, and to introduce major improvements in the provision of mental health treatment and support by the NHS.
In addition to its inherent importance, concentrating on mental health issues polls very well and therefore will feature highly in the party’s general election campaign – just as it does on the front page of the party’s general election manifesto.
The risk, however, is that this becomes just another point in a bullet point list of figures with decimal points in them and millions or billions succeeding them. £2.5 billion on this, £10.6 million on that, even when spiced up with the occasional moving individual account, do not add up to an effective political message – a story that explain why the party does what it does, how getting some but not all your policies implemented is part of a successful battle for your believes and how fighting hard for limited progress is a sign of principled dedication not deal-making sell-outs.
How did Nick Clegg’s concluding set piece speech measure up against that challenge? A key theme running through it was a vision of a liberal society or – in his preferred terms – an outward-looking or open society:
If we want to remain an open, confident, outward-looking society, it will only happen if political parties who believe in compassion and tolerance step up to the plate.
Set against the the “angry nationalism” of Ukip, the “red faced bluster” of Conservative right-wingers and the “us versus them scaremongering” of Labour, that optimism underpins a belief in changing being possible and positive.
It was supplemented by the end of austerity being in sight: “we can end the era of cuts” – in three years time austerity will be no longer required. As long as George Osborne is not running free in an unfettered Conservative government, that is.
The fear of what either a single-party Labour or Conservative government might do was the most powerful – and well-received – part of the speech. Tied in with the open vision of liberalism it might deliver the right mix of hope and fear to propel the Lib Dems to success in those key Parliamentary seats.
We’ll soon know.
PS The oddest sight at conference?
And the moment of blessed relief?