This article first appeared on Liberal Democrat Voice
I find myself bemused by this report from today’s Times (£) which suggests that Liberal Democrats would steer clear of any policies that both the Conservatives or Labour disagreed with in our manifesto for next year’s General Election.
The article reports a conversation with a Liberal Democrat source:
He conceded that the party was not going to win a majority at the next general election, but said it was vital that it left open the opportunity of working with either of the other two parties. “We need to be equidistant from both the Tories and Labour,” he said. “But we also need to identify policies, such as the tuition fees, that are not going to be deliverable in any circumstances.”
Policies that could be vulnerable include the Lib Dems’ support for state funding for political parties, which is opposed by the other main parties, and its demand for proportional representation, a long-standing policy which is unlikely to be dropped. Mr Clegg came into the 2010 election promising these policies, as well as an elected House of Lords, but none has been achieved.
The Lib Dem source said two tests would now be imposed on any Lib Dem policy: whether it was deliverable under a coalition government and whether it was affordable. Once Mr Laws has coalition-tested a policy, it will be costed by Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, he added.
I have long feared that our manifesto for 2015 would be timid when it needs to be fearless and gutsy. We have to show where we are unique in British politics and that’s why I’ve always slightly worried that the “stronger economy, fairer society” riff is too narrow. We have to have something right up there in our strapline associating us with freedom. The divisions in politics aren’t just of the big state/small state kind, it’s also about liberalism vs authoritarianism. We have to be unashamedly liberal. We can’t do coalition negotiations with ourselves because we then go in to coalition negotiations with the others fundamentally weakened.
What is the point, say, of Tm Farron and Julian Huppert bringing a motion to Conference on a digital bill of rights which protects citizens from state intervention if after it’s passing David Laws can put it in the bin because neither Labour nor the Tories would agree it?
Nick Clegg has been saying bold things on drugs, necessary things, but could our excellent drugs policy end up on the spike because nobody else will like it.
Labour and the Tories are showing no such signs of being so timid. The Tories will undoubtedly seek to undermine human rights, cut ties with the EU and waste money on tax breaks for people who behave in a way of which they approve. Labour are likely to cede ground to the UKIP agenda, too. We’ve seen how both conservative parties have skewered Lords reform and party funding talks. Their reactionary stance is exactly why we should continue to press for change.
We can’t let others define us. We have to be very dear and shameless about stating the values that guide us and be robust about showing how we would put those values into practice in a second term of coalition government. To be fair, I think that the Times has gone a bit far in their interpretation of what was said to them, and I do think that the manifesto group is aware of the need to have something fresh and radical to say. In that I’d appear to have an unlikely ally in Jeremy Browne who on economic matters is about as far away as you could possibly get from me. He told the Western Daily Press:
I have some unease that we are trying to pitch ourselves as a party that splits the difference between the other two… there’s a sense of insipid centrism that is reassuringly unthreatening to people. That’s not the same as liberalism..
We could have done with more of that sort of thinking when he was at the Home Office.
Of course, the Times is contemplating something that’s not yet been completed. David Laws and the manifesto group is still collecting suggestions from party members. A pre-manifesto paper will then come to our Autumn conference in October. There will be plenty of opportunity for debate and adding extra robustness. If you have an idea you want to see in it, you can submit it via the consultation website.
Nobody else is going to offer a liberal alternative to the British people. It’s up to us. We daren’t shirk or we risk losing our soul.
Update 17:35: David Laws has written a rebuttal of the Times piece over at the swanky new Liberal Democrat website. It’s quite encouraging – and do have a good browse around the website which is a massive improvement on the old one which had been looking a little tired.