The inside story of how the Lib Dem general election manifesto will be drawn up

The debates and disputes around the Liberal Democrats’ Bournemouth conference give a taste of what is likely to be a tricky process of drawing up the party’s manifesto for the 2010 general election.

Formally, there is a three part process to that manifesto: the manifesto working group chaired by Danny Alexander will present work to the Shadow Cabinet which will then in turn (quite possibly amended) go to the Federal Policy Committee (FPC).

How will this process work and who will the key people be in drawing up the manifesto?

In practice, the manifesto drafting process is highly iterative, with the party’s spokespeople and support staff feeding in proposals to the Manifesto Working Group which then cycle round all three parts of the process, getting refined as they go. It is also a process in which the text of motions passed by party conference has a real importance. Motions aren’t treated as 100% sacrosanct, particularly as events have often moved on since the conference at which they were passed, but at the very least if a proposal contradicts a conference motion that is seen by (nearly) all the players as a problem that needs resolving rather than just a quirk to ignore.

As far as the party’s past practice – even under Paddy Ashdown – and its rulebook go, the FPC very much has the final say on the completed manifesto document. Assuming that a quote from Danny Alexander suggesting otherwise was either a slip or a misquote and we’re not facing a complete meltdown in relations between the party leader and the party’s democratic structures, this is the process that will be worked through in the next few months.

Key party posts

The three stages process has been used repeatedly before – including under Ming Campbell for the election that wasn’t in 2007 – but previously had a key fourth, informal, component: Chris Rennard. His influence came not just from attending Shadow Cabinet but also from looking after the design of the manifesto and from the other players in the process having sufficient respect for his campaigning judgement that his views on what would, or wouldn’t, help gain votes were frequently crucial. With Chris’s departure there is a vacuum that, in their different ways, Chris Fox (Chief Executive), Jonny Oates (head of general election communications) and Hilary Stephenson (Director of Campaigns) will aim to fill.

Although they all have electoral experience – Chris Fox as a Parliamentary candidate, Jonny Oates as a twice-winning general election agent and deputy leader of a council and Hilary Stephenson as a repeatedly winning constituency agent and organiser – they do not, at least as yet, quite have the influence which Chris Rennard had.

Another key player is Willie Rennie, the new chair of the Campaigns and Communications Committee (CCC). He’s been widely praised for his work in pulling together the policy and campaigning processes for the European elections and being both an MP and an ex-Campaigns Officer is well placed to play a similar role again.

The party’s policy staff are also vital to the manifesto process, though as their role is to service MPs, committees and others their role is much more in helping to ensure the process works smoothly, the words make sense and the numbers can withstand scrutiny than in shaping the overall direction and headline policies. (Indeed, given the acerbity of some of the recent policy debates, it’s a tribute to the party’s policy staff that in my researching for this piece I didn’t find anyone who criticised their role in them.)

Manifesto Working Group

The Manifesto Working Group is made up of Danny Alexander (FPC Vice-Chair), Vince Cable, Nick Clegg (FPC Chair), Ed Davey, Richard Grayson (FPC Vice-Chair), Jeremy Hargreaves (FPC Vice-Chair), Susan Kramer, David Laws and Steve Webb. It is unlikely that the manifesto, which emerges from it and then the Shadow Cabinet, will be in any significant way different from that which Nick Clegg would wish to see.

Federal Policy Committee (FPC)

The FPC may be another matter, especially as the politics of the FPC will be in the minds of people preparing proposals to go to the FPC. Both the Federal Policy Committee’s own debates, and the knowledge of those submitting proposals to it that they need to get through the FPC, will significantly shape the final manifesto.

Largely unheralded in the party, and completely unnoticed by the media, the FPC has undergone a significant shift in the last year. Whilst the party leadership won the high profile vote on tax and spend in the Make It Happen paper in 2008, the subsequent FPC elections saw the emergence of a very strong block of people who can loosely be characterised as “social liberals”.

Neither left versus right nor social liberal versus economic liberal really captures the range of views in the party very well. But there is no doubt that a manifesto drawn up by, say, Jeremy Browne would look significantly different than one written by, say, Evan Harris.

Evan Harris

In those FPC elections, it was people who are nearer to Evan’s outlook who did extremely well, taking around half of the slots up for election by conference representatives. Overall, of the 29 members of the committee between 10-15 are of this viewpoint. Nearly all of the rest can be categorised as willing to give the party leader plenty of free rein on policy but are instinctively keener on social liberal rather than economic liberal approaches.

Thus, The Guardian’s Martin Kettle really couldn’t be more wrong to have said after Bournemouth, “Evan Harris has confirmed his role as a marginal figure in the party”. Far from it, Evan Harris has never been more influential than he is now.

Nick Clegg’s approach

The policy-making style of Nick Clegg and his senior advisers is one of the most contested issues around the party’s policy makers. Do they have a record of slipping in major changes to policy documents at the last moment? Or is the issue not the changes but how they were spun to the media? Or is primary reason some people believe either of these points because they weren’t paying enough attention in advance when they could have known what was coming?

The truth is a complicated mix of all three, but what is clearly the case is that there is has been widespread unhappiness about how some policy proposals have played out, and that extends far beyond the “usual suspects”.

A charitable person would say this reflects the paucity of detailed experience of the party’s policy-making process amongst the closest leadership advisors. A less charitable person would mutter about deliberate conspiracies. I’ve heard both views expressed by people closely involved in the events but in the end I err on the side of cock-up and confusion rather than conspiracy, in part because if it was a conspiracy it was a remarkably badly planned and executed one.

It all makes for an interesting contrast with Paddy Ashdown’s approach. He frequently seemed to make the placing of nearly every comma and absolute fight to the death. But to his great credit his underlying motivation was that he and the party had to be in agreement – and his way to do that was to confront policy critics and get them to change their minds.

A two-part manifesto?

One particular area where some of the disputes over conspiracy or not are likely to flare up again is the question of producing a split manifesto.

The logical extension of this year’s debates and also the European elections manifesto, is to have a two-part document: a short, punchy summary of our main campaign and media messages and a long detailed document with all our other commitments.

However, attach a set of financial promises to the former whilst downgrading the latter and you have not a sensible division of documents but a controversial sidelining of the bulk of party policy.

Questions for the future

How then will this all play out? Here are the main questions:

  1. Will a split document approach turn into a sensible way of handling media and campaigning needs or will it be seen as a Trojan horse for sidelining policies popular with party conference but which come with a price tag?
  2. How on the ball will FPC members be about detailed wording changes and where the division between two documents is drawn?
  3. What will happen on tuition fees? In a sensible world, the obvious compromise is for the manifesto to include a commitment to abolish them during the term of a Parliament. This keeps the principle and gives much more room for manoeuvre on costings. However, in a sensible world a majority of FPC members would not have (felt the need to) write a letter to the Guardian in the middle of party conference criticising the messages being fed to the media by the party leadership.
  4. Will the tuition feeds debate obscure other issues? Tuition fees are by no means the only party policy with a significant price tag. It is all too easy to see how the debate on them could, though, distracted – whether through conspiracy or cock-up – other policies that get dropped or delayed.
  5. Who will learn what from the way policy proposals misfired in the party and in the media at Bournemouth Conference? From what people have told me so far, there is a split between those who as a result are digging deeper into their trenches, determined to do over what they see as the other side, and those who have reacted by wanting to get different people working together better.
  6. How much will the manifesto really matter in the end? With huge uncertainty over the country’s economic outlook, any manifesto can quite legitimately have numerous caveats about what will be done and by when. Add in the possibility of TV leaders’ debates (with no FPC off camera to shout down policy comments) and the next election may see the content of the manifesto matter far less than previously. Or will it, via Willie Rennie, matter more than ever due to much tighter integration with the party’s campaigning?

Interesting times…

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