What next for the Liberal Democrats? Part 1 – Policy

One thing the Liberal Democrats weren’t short of during the European election campaign was media coverage of the party’s European policies. But one thing the party ended up short of was votes.

The usual post-European election complaints from within the party, itemising how few press conferences were dedicated to European issues or how rare European stories were in party leaflets, don’t apply this time round.

Nor should we simply assume that a magic new popular party leader would solve all the party’s problems overnight. Look, for example, at what happened to party membership under Charles Kennedy at the height of the party’s post-Iraq war popularity (clue: it didn’t go up). There are policy and organisation issues the party needs to address even if this week sees an unlikely joint statement by Naomi Smith and Linda Jack professing their undying love for Nick Clegg.

Tomorrow I’ll look at organisation, but first policy. The party has some big decisions to make about its 2015 general election manifesto over the summer, running up to the pre-manifesto document to go to the party’s autumn federal conference.

Fiscal policy and bank shares

First amongst those is the party’s fiscal policy through the 2015-20 Parliament. As with Labour and the Conservatives (and as agreed by previous party conferences) we will go into the election promising to remove the structural deficit. On current schedules, that won’t take the whole Parliament to achieve. So what will the party’s vision beyond that be? As money becomes available, should it go on tax cuts, further cuts to debt or on extra spending?

Within that, there is one tough and controversial decision to make. The idea of giving bank shares to the public when RBS is eventually denationalised has much to commend it from a liberal perspective and in other times I’d be quite keen on the policy. But given the huge financial squeeze, should the party drop this policy and instead use the revenue from RBS shares to pay off debt or fund extra public spending?

Keen though people such as Stephen Williams MP are on the shares for the public idea (and kudos to him for helping develop one of the all too rare areas of new party thinking in the last few years), when it comes to the crunch the needs of our public infrastructure are just too great by comparison.

We should drop the idea and use the money for investment instead.

Keeping the public’s priorities in mind

The second big policy question is how the party ties its own particular policy interests with the public’s priorities. The European election campaign started out with good intentions on this – talking about our record in supporting job creation and segwaying from that to the need to be in Europe to protect and create more jobs.

But during the campaign it became overtaken by an enthusiasm for talking about Europe for the sake of Europe rather than Europe for the sake of the economy.

As I told one colleague a little abruptly when looking at some draft artwork during the campaign, ‘Just because a story is about Europe it doesn’t mean the first word in the headline should be Europe. Start with what interests the public and they agree with us on, and then later in the story link that to Europe’.

For 2015 it’s the environment and Europe that will offer those challenges – important areas to liberals, important areas for our country’s future but not ones that many voters mention as being top of their proprieties. Finding ways to frame both through the eyes of the public’s priorities, such as by talking about green jobs – and then sticking with it – will be crucial (and is a topic on which David Howarth has wise advice).


The third big policy question is immigration. Many in the party used to consider it so awful even to talk about immigration that simply mentioning in a Lib Dem leaflet during the Crewe Parliamentary by-election that immigration can sometimes cause pressure on public services generated a heated debate over whether the leaflets should ever have been produced.

But not talking about immigration leaves the issue simply to those who don’t like immigration.

The party’s recent immigration (and asylum) policy paper contains many good measures – and polling shows that reforms to make immigration work better, such as English lessons for new migrants and cracking down on abuses of the national minimum wage by employers using illegal migrant labour, are popular. Judging by the output of local campaigns last month, however, talking about these policies isn’t yet popular with the party. There’s much policy work still to be done to win over the party and then in turn the public to the logic of the party’s recent immigration policies.

Forget the nonsense that being a party of power doesn’t mean being a party of protest

There’s a false dichotomy set up by some in the party, such as Nick Clegg and Jeremy Browne, that the party needs to grow up, become serious and stop being a party of protest. It’s nonsense. The party isn’t a conservative party. It’s a party that wants to change our political system, our economic system and our society. There’s always plenty to protest about – and yes, we should make sure protest become action through the exercise of political power. But not all political power comes through holding office and holding office isn’t the end in itself. It’s simply a means to translate protest to change.

As I wrote before:

Being a party of government without also being a party of protest means you end up being a party of the status quo. Fine if you are a conservative (of the Conservative or Labour type) or fine if you are happy to let the civil service and vested interests to be in charge. But if you want to change things, then you need to go into government protesting against the status quo and not forget about those protests once you’re there.

Or as Keith House put it:

We have to be a party of change, not a party of the establishment. 

That means we need to burnish our desire to change things – change in the name of the priorities the public holds dear (such as change to the balance of power in society in the name of making our economy work better), and change repeatedly and vigorously promoted instead of the misplaced language of how good it is to be in political office as if that’s all we are in politics for.

And once the policies and understanding of them are right, then there’s the little matter of having an organisation up to the task of communicating them. On which topic, come back tomorrow…

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