What to make of Nick Clegg’s four steps?

To recap, the four steps to a fairer Britain which Nick Clegg laid out yesterday were:

  • Fair taxes.
  • A new, fair start for all children at school.
  • A rebalanced, green economy.
  • And clean, open politics.

In terms of what’s there, no huge surprises. After the MPs’ expenses scandal, it’s no great shock (and very welcome to many members) to see political reform back in the list of top issues for the party.

The emphasis on early years education reflects a common theme of Nick Clegg’s speeches before and after becoming party leader. Expect that story about ‘a young child in Sheffield…’ to be said many, many more times before polling day – and a good thing too, because it’s only when party members are utterly sick of hearing it that the public is likely to have started to remember it.

The marrying of the environment, fairness and the economy also reflects long-standing Liberal Democrat beliefs and even if it’s in part been forced upon the party by circumstance (recession), it’s good to see us talking more about the economy than in the past.

But there’s no magic about the number four. It could have been five steps. So what’s been left out is significant, because it’s not been judged important enough to stretch four to five.

What is missing? Internationalism yes, though understandably perhaps. But also missing are two issues that have dominated the party’s election campaigning in key seats, and nationally, in 1997, 2001 and 2005: health and crime. More generally, the four steps are about how we pay for public services (fair taxes, health economy) but not about how we make public services better.

It is, at the moment, perhaps the weakest area of party policy. We have some good ‘big picture’ themes – such as devolving budgets and responsibility as a way of improving quality. But the detail is often lacking and a rather mixed-bag of nice ideas without clear themes.

Coming up with a convincing answer to “how would you improve public services?” that goes beyond “devolve power” – and coming up with convincing ways of explaining why devolving power will work – looks to be the party’s biggest policy challenge.

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