Learning the lessons from last week #1: The missing policies

Aside from the major changes in tax rates (such as income tax allowances up, capital gains tax brought much closer to income tax levels, cuts in tax breaks for the richest on pension contributions), one of the most significant economic policies that the Liberal Democrats have brought to government is the massive expansion of apprenticeships.

With Vince Cable overseeing the creation of a minimum of 250,000 more apprenticeship places by 2014, the number will be at record levels – and should bring three major benefits.

First, they are good for the apprentices, giving people the opportunity to learn skills which help them escape low-paid poverty.

Second, they are good for British businesses, which often complain about the shortage of skilled labour – so much so that we’ve seen the large influx of skilled workers from other countries because skills couldn’t be found in Britain.

Third, they are good for the government’s own finances. According to a recent study carried out by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, for each pound that the government invests in apprenticeship jobs, apprentices generate a return for the government of £40 during their lifetime.

That leads to a political conundrum for this should be an extremely popular policy, both in its own right and because –as I reported previously – the public highly values ‘fairness’ from political parties and view reducing unemployment as one of the best ways of increasing fairness in our society.

Yet I wonder how many Liberal Democrat members, let alone voters, are aware of this? Doing some straw polls of Liberal Democrat members at various events over the weekend, the answer looks to be a minority even amongst activists. Looking through leaflets from last Thursday’s elections, this policy is certainly a hard one to find (although, to give due credit, I have seen it mentioned in several emails).

So whilst I’m instinctively sceptical of people who react to a poor election result by saying ‘we’ve just got to explain better’, I think there is an important point about the big gaps in how our achievements in government are being communicated, both internally and externally.

I’d much rather have turned out to be wrong, but it looks as if at least one of the “Liberal Democrat challenges for 2011” which I identified at the start of the year was spot on:

The trickier question … is whether a collection of liberal victories scattered through government will add up to a convincing overall picture for the public of what Liberal Democrats have achieved in government. The danger is that, rather like a good speech writer, the party may end up making many significant changes to government, improving what is being done, but whose good work is not noticed by the public as it is behind the scenes.

It’s not as if Liberal Democrat achievements are few and far between. With three-quarters of the Liberal Democrat manifesto being enacted by the government, there is a huge list of them. But turning that list into a coherent, simple and compelling story of what the party is about has not yet been managed.

One reason for that is that we have co-opted the language of others rather than staking out our own ground; but more on that later in the week.

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