November 22, 2019 by Paul Goldsmith
I’m reading the party manifestos so you don’t have to. Here’s the Liberal Democrats
So, the Liberal Democrats have released their election manifesto. It was a massive opportunity for them to separate themselves out from the other two parties and give voters a clear reason to vote for them and not Labour or a Conservatives, despite warnings from the big two that a vote for the Lib Dems was effectively a vote for the other one. I think it was a massive missed opportunity, and I would like to explain why.
Firstly, the policies include some classic ‘retail offers’. Liberals have always focused on education, because it in turn leads to more opportunities to flourish. So recruiting 20,000 teachers, raising starting salaries to £30k and guaranteeing pay rises of 3% will not harm them, nor will pledging £7bn to improve school buildings. There is a 1p increase in income tax to go to the NHS, free childcare for parents in work for 9 months and freezing train fairs. Legalizing Cannabis is, I suppose a retail offer too.
On the environment, the Lib Dems are not as ambitious as the Green Party, but ambitious enough that the Greens have felt able to enter into an electoral pact with them. There is a commitment to 80% of the UK’s energy coming from renewables in 2030, and a tax on frequent flyers which could raise the price of their flights by about £100.
BUT, but, but, how do I put this? It’s all a bit underwhelming, and, for someone who wants there to be a credible alternative towards the centre of politics, a bit unnerving. Here’s why:
There is a massive focus in the manifesto and at the launch on Jo Swinson, their leader. This could be a mistake. For reasons that aren’t clear yet, the more she is put out into the forefront, the less people seem to like her. One has to hope there is another trick up the Lib Dem’s sleeves, because if it really is just Jo, it is not clear it will work.
The Revoke Article 50 pledge that became the centrepiece of the Lib Dems Conference has not worked as well as they thought it might. Firstly, because there is a likelihood of a deal, revoking Article 50 no longer has the piquancy it did when it could have saved the country from No Deal.
Secondly, quite frankly, it looks to voters as if it is extreme. Whilst if the political earthquake that would be the Lib Dems winning a majority in this General Election could be argued to be a mandate to revoke Article 50, the thought that it could override a referendum result, and more importantly how over half the country would react to a party with, say, 35% of the vote invalidates their vote, is making even Lib Dem activist worried.
Thirdly, the idea, as the Lib Dems insist, that some of their policies can be funded by a massive ‘Remain’ bonus is almost as ridiculous as the idea that the Conservatives can fund any of their policies with a ‘Brexit Bonus’, and the Lib Dems should not have allowed themselves to go down that road.
But it’s more than that.
When did the Liberal Democrats run out of ideas?
This was the party of John Maynard Keynes (smooth out boom and bust to maintain full employment) and William Beveridge (Welfare state and NHS to end the five giant evils of want, disease, squalor, ignorance and idleness). It is now the party of Jo Swinson (um…Stop Brexit?).
I don’t blame Swinson. She didn’t become leader until a few months ago. Prior to that was the moribund leadership of Vince Cable, the illiberal Tim Farron, and the political chameleon that was Nick Clegg. So it should be no surprise that so little has changed in this manifesto since 2010.
Gone are the days when Clegg and friends were writing ‘The Orange Book’ to try to reconnect the Lib Dems with their Liberal past. Gone are the days when there were big transformative ideas coming out of the Liberal Democrats that would really make a difference to the country.
There IS a space for a radical centrist party, taking ideas from both the right and the left to transform the country. Instead, the Lib Dems are tinkering around the edges, hopeful that they will pick up votes from disgruntled ex-voters of the other parties, instead of people voting for them for a reason.
I have a feeling, and I could be wrong, that the Liberal Democrats could be squeezed out in a lot of seats because of this. If that happens, perhaps it’s time to not just assume a new leader every two years is the answer. Perhaps it’s time to come up with new ideas as well.