The Lib Dems’ policy shortage

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.

As I’ve written elsewhere:

“Amongst the many hard tasks Liberal Democrat special advisors face, one of the toughest is a lack of detailed policy. Going in to a room to negotiate with a Conservative opposite number, you need a long list of potential demands to be able to negotiate down to a good overall balance. Go in with far fewer demands and the inevitable trading off of demands results in an overall package that has far more Conservative than Liberal Democrat policies.

“It is a strange problem for Liberal Democrats to face, who for years were used to facing teasing from opponents and the media over the amount and detail of the party’s pile of policies (including even over the treatment of goldfish – a point on which the Lib Dems had the last laugh when in government Labour changed from mocking the policy to implementing it).”

That policy shortage manifests itself in three ways.

First, the lack of short-term policies. In opposition, the Liberal Democrats had many long-term policies, but in government with half a term to go, there is a huge opportunity to implement short-term policies. Land value taxation illustrates this. It is a good long-term Liberal Democrat policy, one which would help address a myriad of different policy problems such as how to tax wealth fairly compared to income and how to have a more sensible property market. But it would not be quick or easy to implement. It is a long-term objective. In opposition saying that land value taxation should be introduced would suffice. In government, it would be a huge missed opportunity if other, complimentary but quicker to introduce policies, were not enacted in the next three years.

Second, a paucity of Liberal Democrat approaches to improving public services. It is an unfair caricature, but only slightly unfair and only slightly a caricature, to say that the party’s approach to public services is to say, “We believe in decentralised decision-making, local autonomy and a diversity of suppliers… but just not for the public service we’re talking about at the moment”.

Third, what next on tax? The £10,000 income tax allowance is well on its way and a mansion tax will be a key bargaining chip in future Budget rounds. But what beyond that? Already a lack of further tax demands in future rounds of coalition Budget negotiations is easy to foresee. Moreover, saying the basic rate income tax allowance should in future be pegged to the equivalent of a fulltime job on the national minimum wage is almost a dead cert to be a popular headline policy in the 2015 election, but on its own it would be pretty thin fare and does little on its own to fill the policy gap before 2015.

There are plenty of policy-generating opportunities coming up for the Liberal Democrats, including the opening created by the departure of Chris Nicholson from the post of Chief Executive of CentreForum (to become a special adviser to Ed Davey), the Social Liberal Forum’s summer conference and the launch of the new Liberal Insight think tank.

Looking long-term is often considered the virtuous approach to politics. But on this occasion, more short-term thinking is needed.

One response to “The Lib Dems’ policy shortage”

  1. I do not expect the proportion of Liberal Democrat policies in this coalition to be any higher than the Liberal Democrat share of the two parties' votes (note I say votes, not MPs, as an ardent supporter of PR). Near the top of your piece you seem to be implying that it should be 50%. Personally, I am happy as long as I hear enough Tory backbench squeals of discomfort. Some of them, however, do not even seem to be aware that they are in a coalition.

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