Liberal Democrat Newswire #31: the tuition fees trap awaiting the Lib Dems

The latest edition of my monthly email newsletter about the Liberal Democrats looked at the trap awaiting the party on tuition fees. You can now read it in full below and sign up here to get future editions of the newsletter

Welcome to the 31st edition of my newsletter about the Liberal Democrats, this one looking at the Liberal Democrat manifesto for 2015.

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Twelve appointed to draft the manifesto

In January the Liberal Democrat Federal Policy Committee (FPC) appointed a manifesto drafting group to start work on the party’s 2015 general election manifesto. Most of the attention and debate has been over the choice of chair – David Laws – a degree of attention which rather over-states the role that the chair of a drafting group has relative to the rest of the members of a group. All the more so as the group also includes such knowledgeable experts as Duncan Brack and such strong high profile voices from other wings of the party as Tim Farron. What’s more it is a drafting group with the manifesto still having to go to the full Federal Policy Committee for agreement.

In as much as any individual on such a group can have a strong influence on the outcome, it’s also worth noting the presence of Julian Huppert – expect a manifesto that is not so embarrassingly thin on policies for the digital age as the 2010 one – and Sharon Bowles – expect plenty of ideas on financial regulation and restructuring.

Overall the committee is far less dominated by men, by people from London and by Parliamentarians than the equivalent bodies in previous Parliaments. A look at the list of names reveals that says rather more about those previous bodies than the current one:

  • David Laws MP, Chair
  • Sharon Bowles MEP, Vice-Chair
  • Duncan Brack, Vice-Chair
  • Nick Clegg MP
  • Baroness Sal Brinton
  • Tim Farron MP
  • Duncan Hames MP (Federal Policy Committee Chair)
  • Dr Julian Huppert MP
  • Lord John Shipley
  • Cllr Dr Julie Smith
  • Jo Swinson MP
  • Jenny Willott MP

Those dozen people have some rather tough questions to grapple with…

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Three problems the manifesto faces

On three key pressure points, the party’s experience since 2010 points in conflicting directions – and on each the manifesto group is going to need to find a smart solution.

Lots of major policies or only a few key headlines?
With party campaigners increasingly turning to micro-targeting, identifying different sub-sections of the electorate to target with messages specific to their needs and interests, the obvious local campaigning need is to ask for long lists of substantial policies in the manifesto so they can pick and mix the optimal combination for each niche, especially for direct mail.

Against that, there is the media perspective, with the knowledge that very few policies get much cut through with the media. That points in the opposite direction – to having a very short list of substantial policies in the manifesto, which are then repeated with even more fervour than those Bacardi Rum cinema adverts that will haunt a certain generation of cinema goes till the end of their days. (Remember Peckham, on a wet Saturday afternoon…?)

Long list of detailed policies or not?
The experience of being in government suggests the party needs more detailed policies. As I put it last year:

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.

Instead, in the past the party has often had long lists of aspirations (‘we must do something about X’) which have not had that much in the way of detailed plans for implementation (‘and this is what we will do about it…’). That lesson from being in government points towards having many detailed ideas in the manifesto next time, even if the priorities list is a short one.

But contrary to that, there is the policy-making perspective, with the harsh reality that the party’s policy research capacity is – thanks to the loss of Short Money after the 2010 election – hugely reduced. That makes it tough to produce lots of rigorous detail which will survive the heat of an election campaign or the rigours of hung Parliament negotiations, and points therefore to less, rather than more, details.

Public or private red lines?
The experience of 2010 was that the party needs to be very clear with the public about what its priorities are, and what its priorities aren’t, and then reflect that in any subsequent hung Parliament negotiations. However, the experience of negotiations in general is that putting on public display all your red lines ahead of talks is a sure way to weaken your chances of getting a good deal.

There is no easy sure course between those conflicting pressures. One thing however is sure. What will matter far more than David Law chairing the drafting group is whether or not the group gets to grips successfully with these dilemmas.

The party has already done extensive polling on how over 100 different possible policies go down with people who might vote Liberal Democrat. Unless these three dilemmas are directly addressed, plunging into that detail means the party will comprehensively fail to see the wood for the trees.

There is however some good news for the manifesto team…

The £6 billion question

Buried in the small print of the announcement of a new flat-rate state pension is a tempting pot of gold for the next Parliament, and one of a decent size no less. £6 billion a year may not go very far when it comes to deficit cutting, but  it goes a very long way when it comes to paying for popular headline policy commitments. Compare it with the £2.5 billion a year cost of the Pupil Premium, for example.

The £6 billion a year pot of gold comes from the linked changes to the National Insurance rules. With a flat-rate pension, there will no longer be any opting out of a state second pension and hence no longer any National Insurance rebates for doing so. That means extra National Insurance income for the government.

On the launch of the plans a Treasury aide defused any negative political fallout about a £6 billion stealth tax by promising that, “We won’t use it for net revenue raising” but did not specify how it would be used instead.

With the money not yet allocated and likely to be available each year from early in the next Parliament, that gives the Liberal Democrats (and other parties) some financial freedom to come up with policies which come with a price tag.

Most obviously the money could go on further tax cuts for working people and businesses who pay National Insurance. However, it would not be hard for a party to defend using the money on a closely related area of public services, such as improving social care in old age. Given the importance the party has attached to that policy, and the high voter turnout levels amongst older people, that could be a very tempting idea.

An economic problem

That £6 billion can help fund some mix of tax cuts and spending. The manifesto will need more than that, though, for as David Boyle puts it succinctly:

The truth is that the Lib Dems badly need a central organising economic idea.They have survived for too long now on a bundle of issues around fairness and civil liberties, which – although important – are not winning reasons for government.

The exhaustion of Liberal Democrat policy

Take a look at the 10 priorities the Liberal Democrats showcased as recently as the general election before last and you quickly see just how dated much of the party’s accumulation of long-running policies has become. Events added to the opportunities of being in government means those 10 are now nearly all redundant when it comes to headline policies for the party.

It is impressive that half of them have become government policies, being implemented since 2010, even if in some cases the details of the ‘how’ have changed in the intervening years. ID cards have been scrapped, care costs for the elderly are being capped, climate change is being tackled, extra money is going in to improve schools and a flat-rate pension is on its way.

For each of those five areas, though there is more progress on details to put into a future manifesto, there is not much scope for new headline grabbing initiatives, save perhaps for extending the Pupil Premium to a Nursery Premium too. They provide good material for the party in 2015 to say ‘look what we’ve done’; much less so for saying ‘and this is what we want to do next’.

Of the other five priorities from 2005, three have been made redundant by events. Iraq is no longer an issue for manifestos, promising no tax rises other than one increase in income tax for the richest is no longer feasible (indeed the party has been making a virtue of a multitude of other tax increases which are making the overall tax system fairer) and promising to axe tuition fees would be a political disaster with zero credibility.

That just leaves two other areas – faster diagnosis on the NHS and replacing council tax with a fairer system. Although both could make it into a future manifesto, neither are currently given much emphasis. The 2015 manifesto is therefore likely to end up very different from 2005, giving a particular premium in the manifesto drafting process to those who have well thought out and rigorous fresh ideas.

Comedy interlude: How to write minutes

The tuition fees trap

Ah, tuition fees. That turned out so well, didn’t it? (Although the latest university data is well worth a look as is the decline in the gap between applications from the most and least disadvantaged areas.)

The party’s current review of its higher and further education policy is ruminating over options to improve the tuition fees system, such as reducing the current £9,000 cap to £6,000. There are also some other very promising ideas floating around, such as how to improve help for PhD students given the high fees and paucity of financial support they face.

Promising ideas all – for a policy think tank, or indeed for another political party.

The danger for the Liberal Democrats, however, is stark.

Any policy that involves touching the tuition fee system then absolutely must be delivered in any hung Parliament negotiations – or the party will have the political epitaph, however unfair, of ‘broke its word on tuition fees two elections in a row’. That means other parties can extract a very high price in such talks, seeing off plenty of other Liberal Democrat policies in return for agreeing to one the party will know it absolutely must deliver.

Even worse, any manifesto commitments to change the tuition fees system will simply result in plenty of attention in the run up to polling day for an area which, given recent history, will not be a vote winner for the party. It will cue up endless interview questions, even if the policy is put on page 94, with every interviewer able to ask every Liberal Democrat speaking about anything to do with the manifesto, “So about page 94, can the public trust you this time…?”.

The danger is that however good the reform proposals are in policy terms, they end up being a negotiation handicap and a campaigning burden. Which would be a bad trap for a political party to fall in to.

What The Hell Have The Liberal Democrats Done?

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