Wednesday, July 22, 2009


Make Some Of It Happen (This Year, Next Year, Sometime, Never…?)

This is an exciting day for Liberal Democrat campaigners, with publication of a very short new set of our priorities for these tight economic times and an interview with Nick Clegg in which he tells us which priorities got dropped (highlighting at least one major blunder). Our new approach in two Twitter-style bites: And a more populist go at it added a bit later in the day: Libdemologists’ main source of intrigue today will be in reading between the lines of the new extremely-mini-manifesto A Fresh Start For Britain, trying to work out what the very few commitments mean and what’s left out… And their task will be made easier by this morning’s interview in The Independent, in which Nick Clegg explains the strategy rather well, while also offering a couple of hostages to fortune and serving up a handy bullet-pointable list of major priorities which are still very, very important… But which no longer have a budget or start date attached, because we probably can’t afford them right now. And it’s those that Liberal Democrats are most likely to be up in arms about, rather than what A Fresh Start For Britain actually says.

Now, I spent many long years on the party’s Federal Policy Committee, so I’m just about as experienced in reading between the lines of a policy statement as anyone. Having stood down from the FPC last year through ill health (and I’m more than a little peaky today; pass me another bacon sarnie!), it’s fascinating to read through A Fresh Start For Britain and work out what the arguments over it were. Because, of course, although it’s all in the name of Nick Clegg, he didn’t write it all and he’s very unlikely to have got it all his own way. Our Leaders don’t.

So, before this comes for debate at Conference in September – and you may be thrilled to learn that there’ll be a ‘part 2’ coming soon, spelling out the status of major policies in more detail – it’s already gone through the Federal Policy Committee, in a meeting which I’m told went on for five hours, which’d make it one of the longest since the final meeting on the 1997 Manifesto, after which fourteen of us crawled out alive at a quarter to one in the morning. And I’d love to know what went on at that meeting, so if any of my former colleagues fancy giving me a ring… All of which, of course, means that although if you’ve got a pet peeve with what’s in A Fresh Start For Britain (or, more likely, what isn’t), you should not only send a probing e-mail Cleggwards, but put a rocket up any members of the FPC you happen to know. Particularly as I’m not on there any more, so it’s not my fault (ha ha, ha ha ha ha).

A Fresh Start For Britain

A completely new, bold and fresh (and a little bit patriotic) title, which tells you… Er… Um… Well, all right, it’s not the most exciting title in the world, but it does tell you one of the key themes for the Liberal Democrats now – with both the economy and the political system more infuriatingly rubbish than they’ve been for half a century, that we’ve suddenly become less afraid to say, ‘Look, the whole thing’s been really buggered up for ages, hasn’t it? Let’s chuck it all and start again (and you won’t get that from the other two)’. Ironically, this was the message of the first draft of last year’s Make It Happen, but it was felt that a wildly anti-establishment tone was too scary in what was starting to look like might be a recession, so the tone was made more reassuring. Now that the economy’s much more fucked than anticipated and politicians are being spat at in the streets, ‘tear it all down’ suddenly has a more mass appeal. In line with Lib Dem statements of principles always having too many titles, there’s also the subtitle “Choosing a different, better future,” which includes the “Future” I’ve been using to imply “Green,” but sounds even less bold and distinctive than “A Fresh Start For Britain”.

A Fresh Start For Britain is not, of course, to be confused with 1981’s statement of principles commended by a joint working party of Liberals and Social Democrats and attributed (though probably even less written by them than this is by Nick) to David Steel and Shirley Williams, a set of priorities for an economic and political crisis with the entirely different title of A Fresh Start For Britain. Though some of the ideas in today’s fresh and exciting new approach are, of course, so fresh and exciting that they were there twenty-eight years ago, the new one’s better – at least as far as I can remember. It’s a while since I’ve read it and, despite getting dusty and sneezy excavating some of my thrilling collection of old SDP literature, I couldn’t find a copy. I’m peeved that though my old university promises an online pdf, the link’s dead. We should drop our commitment to university funding as a punishment! No, hang on…

A Slightly Fresher Start For Britain is, however, available as a pdf. Slightly confusingly, it’s not on the admittedly rather fresh-looking A Fresh Start For Britain website; instead, you have to e-mail them and ask for it. Still more confusingly, if you read the pdf you’ll find that this swish new statement of our priorities for a Liberal Democrat Government has been slimmed down to just seven absolutely essential short sections… But, if you read it on the website, there are only six of them. Yes – even one of our key priorities isn’t always a key priority, though I suspect that may be a mistake [update: it’s all on there now].

So, What’s In It?

Having been mean about A Fresh Start For Britain, actually… It’s pretty good. If you’re going to pick out eye-catching headlines rather than make a compendium of all known policy, this is pretty good – though I’ll come to two key things that aren’t there later. If you read it, you get a pretty good idea of what we’d do, and a pretty good impression that we’d actually be able to deliver it. And you’d be able to remember both of those points five minutes later.

In comparison with many election manifestos, that’s not to be sneezed at.

It’s phrased – as these things usually are – as a personal message from the Party Leader, and reads rather better than these things usually are. Whether or not it captures Nick’s ‘voice’, it comes across as a person (I remember writing an introduction “by Charles” for a manifesto in 2001, which was partly cobbled together from something attributed to him in 1999, etc, etc). Still more importantly, though I’d use even more vehement language, it’s the nearest to an angry, anti-establishment introduction I think I’ve ever seen in a Lib Dem manifestoish. It recognises people are angry with politicians and bankers – and sets out a narrative where a vote for the Liberal Democrats is a vote to tell the old parties, the greedy bankers and the whole old way of doing things they’ve got it wrong.
“Many people believed they would get change for the better in 1997. Instead, under Labour, the gap between rich and poor has got bigger, our politics has got even dirtier, our civil liberties have been eroded, the environment around us is in danger and our international reputation is at a new low. Labour let us all down.”
But, as well as pointing the finger, this is about choosing the right answers. And before you can provide them, you need to analyse the problem. Well done again, then, for succinctly putting it:
“Britain is in the teeth of three crises: a huge banking crisis and recession, a rotten Westminster system abused by too many MPs for personal gain, and the threat of climate change.”
I agree that those are the three biggest crises – though I’d emphasise a crisis of freedom as part of that crisis of politics – but, of course, not everyone would agree with that analysis. What you choose as the problems ought to determine what your solutions are… And you can see that, with the other parties afraid of taking action on the solutions the Liberal Democrats want, they’re afraid to admit to some of the same problems. That far, the narrative Nick’s telling hits home with me.

I’m less sure about where it goes next. Yes, we need big changes, and they need action. Read the problem, but see if you can spot my wariness at the alternative:
“We need big changes to fix our economy, our discredited politics and our environment, yet both Labour and the Conservatives are letting the City, the House of Commons and polluters off the hook. No action against bankers’ bonuses. No action to give people the right to sack MPs guilty of breaking the rules. No action to slash emissions. They say just enough to get in the headlines, but when the spotlight moves on it’s back to business as usual.
“I believe there’s a better way. This country can be fairer, it can be safer, greener, and stronger in the world.”
Despite the party deciding again and again that, when it comes to our philosophy, “It’s About Freedom,” I worry that freedom is, again and again, the bit that drops out of our priorities. Remember “Free, Fair and Green”? That was a good list of our aims, not always met in the detail – but, as so often, while we have “fairer” and “greener,” “safer” and “stronger in the world” convey a very different message. When the British and world economy’s in turmoil, “safer” has to be part of what we offer – but it’s not the be-all and end-all. When the political system’s in turmoil, too, playing it safe isn’t an option; safety for people in trouble, yes, steadying the financial system, but by freeing up the political system and having people bossed about much less. And the tone of A Fresh Start For Britain really isn’t all about playing it safe. In fact, it’s the furthest from that that any statement of our priorities has been for decades.

Add “stronger in the world” to “safer,” and I get actively worried. The detail here is about choosing our commitments more carefully; the rhetoric of “stronger in the world” just doesn’t match. It sounds like we’re desperately trying to butch up to cover up, say, dropping Trident. And that merely sounds confused, not strong. After Iraq, after ID cards, after any amount of Labour bossiness and politicians saying ‘We know best’ that’s got us into all this mess, I don’t want a Liberal Democrat Government to be butcher still, actually. I want us to have the courage to say, government’s done too much, and too much of the wrong things, and you should have more freedom to live your own life rather than throwing a new law at you for every hour of the day. And that will strike a chord with people even if for no other reason than because enforcing stupid laws wastes money, too.

Where I’d say Nick’s introduction does go for freedom at the end, he doesn’t frame it as such.
“Above all, we must do everything to protect the next generation from the mistakes made today. For me, how we treat young children is the most important measure of what kind of society we want, what kind of values we hold dear.
“Even in these difficult times, giving all children from all backgrounds the life chances they deserve will always be my personal priority.”
And I believe he means it. That does indeed come across as a personal priority, and all the more powerful for it. But – and particularly for all those of us who don’t have kids – he also misses a huge opportunity. What kind of society do we want? What values can be seen in a commitment to education? Because just ‘awhh, kids’ is going to leave a lot of non-parents cold. What about tying our priorities together, and showing our approach to kids as the key to our approach in general, as the importance of education has come back round (as it was in the ’90s) to being our USP?
‘Giving all children from all backgrounds wider life chances is the single most vital part of building a fairer society. It’s about helping every child grow up having the freedom to live their own life. And we need to tackle both climate change and the debt crisis today – because if we leave it to our kids, they won’t forgive us the rocketing financial, social and environmental costs we’ve dumped on them.’
“Change for real, change for good” is the punchiest bit of politics in A Fresh Start For Britain:
“Britain is in crisis, the worst in modern times. People are right to be angry. There is a great deal to be angry about.
“The economy is in a mess, but the people responsible are still in charge. The political system is rotten, but the establishment is still blocking change. The gap between rich and poor keeps growing, making British society so unequal that everybody suffers. Dangerous climate change threatens us all, but world leaders won’t act.
“…The two old parties have had their chances and failed.”
It frames the problem as one that only the Liberal Democrats can tackle – because only we understand the mess the country’s in, because only we have the ideas to tackle it all, and because only we’ll be honest enough to tell it like it is. And, rather than using headings like “Trust” and “Honesty” as we’ve rather unwisely done in the past, this section uses one of the simplest, most effective ways of communicating political honesty. As I said yesterday, if you want to tell people what you stand for so it actually means something, it’s got to put some people off:
“If you are happy with the way things are, the Liberal Democrats are not the party for you. If you want business as usual, choose Labour or the Conservatives – we know they won’t really change anything.
“But if you want things to be different, really different, choose the party that is different – the Liberal Democrats. There is hope for a different future, a different way of doing things in Britain, if we’re brave enough to make a fresh start. The Liberal Democrats are ready to make it happen.”
Another curiously familiar turn of phrase, there.

That – well-structured, this thing – leads naturally into setting out what our principles for government would be. And here they are! There are two key points that mark out our different approach… Different from the other two parties, and from what we’ve said before: Over this decade, the Liberal Democrats have moved increasingly towards fiscal neutrality – but, while it looks like these two points are upholding that approach, they aren’t. Each of those two commitments sounds balanced, but is actually one-directional. The reason in both cases is that Britain’s balances are in a deep hole: tax takes down as people fall out of work; spending up to look after them; and debt rocketing most of the way to a trillion pounds. We quite literally can’t go on that way. So, look carefully at those two pledges: there will be spending on our new priorities, but always paid for by cuts elsewhere, and that means public spending won’t go up overall. But, with government finances in crisis, will there be cuts that don’t pay for other priorities, but instead aim to cut public spending overall? And all tax cuts will be paid for by tax rises elsewhere… Careful readers will realise that the Liberal Democrats have for some time promised that all tax rises will be paid for by tax cuts elsewhere, and that those two clauses have now been swapped – so the corollary may no longer be the case.

In other words, even according to what information Labour lets out, the public finances are in a bloody disastrous hole and need filling in. But if we’re elected and actually get to see the proper books, we may well find out they’re even worse, and if spending cuts or tax rises are needed to fill in the hole, while we’re ruling out extra taxes for extra spending and ruling out extra spending cuts for tax cuts…

Having set out the Liberal Democrats’ values, analysis and approach, it then turns to what many will consider the meat – our specific priorities for changing things. And it’s noticeable how very few of them there are, published here as cast-iron commitments. It means that everything here can be delivered – though what’s here isn’t all we would deliver, it’s all that strict honesty means we could say for certain. That’s quite a risk, and there are, for me, two glaring omissions, only one of them for obvious financial reasons…Usually, I advise people to read the small print in any Lib Dem pre-manifestos. That this one doesn’t even have any small print tells its own story. And because the strongest underlying message of A Fresh Start For Britain is that only the Liberal Democrats will be up-front about the terrible mess the economy’s in meaning no government can do everything it wants to any more, it finishes with our approach to public spending – a short-term priority of maintaining investment to see us out of the recession, and a long-term priority of being far stricter with the public finances. And it outlines some of the major spending areas to be cut as the centralised state of quangos and databases, Trident, future public-sector pensions, deliberate expansion of higher education and tax credits for high earners. And there, at last, is the implication of more freedom.

As I put it yesterday in a Tweet-limited line:
“Can’t afford Labour? We won’t boss you about. We won’t knacker the environment. & We won’t waste your money on nukes, invasions or ID cards.”
So, What’s Not In It?

If you’ve noticed a lot that wasn’t in A Fresh Start For Britain and were wondering why, or how much more was missing, Nick Clegg helpfully gave an interview to this morning’s Independent which, as published, is about fifty-fifty underlining the new narrative and, er, being a bit iffy. Though I suspect rather less than 50% of the iffier bit is Nick’s fault.

The main strength of the article is that it positions the Liberal Democrats as making the tough choices up front about public spending that the other parties are petrified of admitting out loud.

The main weakness of the article is that it frames setting new priorities that can definitely be delivered as a great big retreat on all the other policies that might not be.

That strength is very obvious as the key aim of A Fresh Start For Britain; that weakness is partly in how a newspaper decides to spin it, but also reveals some weaknesses in the manifestoish itself. Perhaps the one that most gets in the way of a stronger narrative (there, even I’m butching up now) of a fresh, bold start is that the fresh, bold start is, er, a great big retreat, with nothing much to show for it. I can only guess at the even more eye-watering belt-tightening that would have been required to do it, but there’s an obvious ‘…but this is what you get instead’ positive message that’s missing that might have taken the place of ‘oops, bang go all our goodies’: to make cutting debt explicitly one of our priorities. To say that, if you’ve maxed out your credit cards and then your pay’s been cut, you need to start paying it off before you buy everything you want to.

Instead, the message The Independent delivers is far less about what Liberal Democrat priorities are, than about what they aren’t:
“Nick Clegg will today jettison many of the Liberal Democrats' long-standing policy pledges in an attempt to convince voters they would make the deep spending cuts needed to fill the hole in the public finances.
“In an interview with The Independent, Mr Clegg revealed that many of the promises cherished by his party will be downgraded from official policy to "aspirations" since there would be no money to fund them. They are expected to include flagship pledges to scrap university tuition fees, provide free personal care for the elderly, and bring in a higher basic state pension.
“The Liberal Democrat leader will ask his party's conference in September to make firm commitments in just three areas at the general election: a boost for education, the creation of "green jobs", and constitutional reform.”
You see, even they don’t fit in the bit about tax cuts, do they? But, still, there’s an impressive level of seriousness to the bulk of the article, where Nick talks about asking the difficult questions, and says clearly that while policies aren’t being dropped, we can no longer say for certain we’d implement them, and certainly not implement them immediately, because Labour’s totally fucked the economy. I paraphrase.
“Some of these might be retained as policies that we could not honestly place at the forefront of our manifesto, because we could not honestly claim they could be delivered in the first few years of the next Parliament.”
I know, I know. Saying it’s not the top priority isn’t the same as dumping a policy altogether. But if I were a Parliamentary candidate again, I’d be very careful indeed about what I said about policies that weren’t ‘on the list’. Getting politically involved when the Liberal Democrats were being up-front about what exactly we would spend, if necessary by raising taxes to do it, and when Labour were making mealy-mouthed noises to every interest group going that implied goodies, but termed them all “aspirations,” I learnt to treat every “aspiration” as something that will never happen. So, while in practice I know that governments usually find the money to do more than the few cast-iron promises they’ve pinned themselves to in advance, I can’t apply any less rigour to Liberal Democrat somewhere-down-the-line policies than I did when I was rubbishing Labour windbags. And that’s why it’s so important that the party debates what is, and isn’t, on that list – because if you want a reputation for honesty, you have to stick only to the bits you can be absolutely honest about.

One wince-inducing moment that I’m willing to bet is down to The Independent, not to Nick (note the lack of quote marks):
“Mr Clegg issued a wake-up call to a party which has traditionally had a long shopping list of policies but been less convincing about how it would pay for them.”
I very much doubt that is what Nick said, but it still needs stamping on. A Fresh Start For Britain is by a long way the toughest ‘spending round’ the Liberal Democrats have ever faced – but I’ve sat on the party’s Federal Policy Committee for three separate General Election Manifestos (and one that never was), and I can tell you that not saying how we’d pay for our commitments is a pile of bollocks. Every single time, we’ve said how we’d pay for every promise, always causing great distress to those wanting more spending, and the Institute of Fiscal Studies has given us a clean bill of financial health – unlike Labour and the Tories, who have never, ever published their manifesto costings, and always been frowned at for not saying where the money comes from. And, no, ‘I told you so’ is rarely an attractive line – though it’s not doing Vince any harm – but rubbishing a record of consistently getting it right is no way to build up trust for the future.

And another wince-inducing moment that suspect means Nick and the FPC should have thought a bit harder:
“Could the NHS, protected by both Labour and the Tories, face cuts? In theory, yes, because no area would be immune. In practice, Mr Clegg admitted, he found it "almost impossible" to think his party would not maintain health spending.”
This is, I’m afraid, the worst of both worlds. The Tories, terrified that Labour’s single campaign message of ‘We’re shit, and we know we are, but, ooohh! The Tories! Scary!’ actually has some bite on the NHS, have tied themselves in knots saying that they won’t cut a penny from the health budget (which, as it’s such a massive proportion of public spending - over £100 billion out of around £700 billion – means Labour are gleefully talking up the concomitantly bigger slashes to everything else). Do the Liberal Democrats avoid that political danger by saying ‘Not a penny cut from the NHS’ too, or do we get the ‘honesty’ gain by saying, ‘We hate cutting anything, in fact, but look – the NHS is vast and do you seriously think every penny’s well-spent? Let’s look at how every single bit of public spending adds up’? It appears we’ve decided to fall between the two stools.

Whether these came from Nick himself, from our background briefings, or from The Independent looking at our previous big spending commitments and simply circling the missing ones with a big red marker, the article concludes with a handy list of bullet-points summarising the priorities that were – and that might not be any more:
“Mr Clegg has grown in stature in recent months, winning over doubters in his own party with high-profile and timely interventions on the Gurkhas, the former Commons Speaker Michael Martin, the Trident nuclear missile system, and Afghanistan. Now his call for "candour" and a "grown-up" approach to public spending will test whether his party is prepared to grow up too.

Safe policies
  • Education £2.5bn "pupil premium" for a million children from disadvantaged backgrounds, smaller classes and extra tuition.
  • Tax Raise personal allowance to £10,000, reducing bills for most earners by £705 a year, funded by £17bn package of tax increases including abolition of top-rate tax relief for pension contributions and closing tax loopholes.
  • "Green jobs" Package to create zero-carbon homes, insulate existing homes, schools and hospitals, and expand rail network.
  • Political reform To clean up politics after MPs' expenses scandal, including proportional representation for Commons, elected House of Lords and state funding for parties.

Under threat
  • Universities Free tuition for first undergraduate degrees for full and part-time students.
  • Care Free personal care for those over 65 at cost of £2bn.
  • Pensions Higher "citizen's pension" with immediate restoration of link between state pension and earnings.
  • Disabled £200 a year winter fuel payment.
  • Post Offices £2bn pledge to keep open rural post offices.”

So, What Are The Two Big Misjudgements?

A Fresh Start For Britain has the right idea, and most of the right detail (that is, not much). But it makes two serious mistakes, in my view. One of them I’ve mentioned several times along the way already – it needs to punch up freedom as well as security. Because by keeping the balance still towards “safer” and “stronger” and not towards “freer,” it misses a key reason for doing much of what we do, and sabotages its own narrative by making us sound just like the two old, failed parties that boss people about and think they know all the answers. It wouldn’t have taken a major redraft: thinking about the rhetoric; adding the Freedom Bill to our list of priorities (a repeal of some of Labour’s thousands of bossy laws, something which in itself adds no extra public spending, and instead takes a lot of burdens off government departments, the police and people alike)… A major missed opportunity.

You might expect the other big problem I have with all this to be that it doesn’t make paying off the debt a big enough priority. Well… Actually, I’m torn on that one. It makes for a clearer narrative, but blimey, to make a really big impression there’d need to be so much cash paid off that almost all the spending we’d shift couldn’t be to other spending but just to keeping the interest down. So I suspect we just have to pay it off over even longer, as the final section on public finances implies, because there are some things so vital they simply need paying for.

No, the other serious misjudgement in A Fresh Start For Britain is one of its relegated priorities. It means finding more money – but not doing so would simply do us too much damage, in terms of narrative, in terms of practical aims, and in terms of hard-headed politics. While I wish we could find the money for all of those bullet-points The Independent this morning reports us putting a bullet into, dropping – I’m sorry; indefinitely postponing – free tuition fees for first degrees is the killer.

It cuts across our narrative. What are our priorities? Education is back to being our biggest issue… Yet we’re dropping one of our two biggest commitments on it. We’re firm on protecting government spending to keep jobs up and the debt down… So what message does it send to explicitly add to massive student debts, at the very point when graduate jobs have gone through the floor and everyone who’s just been to university realises they’ve got a mortgage-sized hole in their pocket and none of the promised salaries to make it worthwhile? We’re committed to investing heavily in early years education, which I accept is the key place to increase social mobility – but making university the place for the richer and richer clamps down on it too.

And then there’s the hard-headed politics of the issue. Tuition fees and Iraq were Labour’s greatest betrayals. This has for so long been a Liberal Democrat USP that we will be absolutely clobbered for dropping it – I’m so sorry, de-prioritising it into the unguessable future – and, looking at those other big-spending commitments we can no longer afford, to be cynical about it, for all the money we’ve kept down every other priority to throw at them, old people don’t vote for the Liberal Democrats, while students do. Despite the fact that I hope to get help in old age eventually, and have nothing direct to gain from making tuition fees free again – though I believe the economy and society as a whole will gain. And, of course, for those who say that a lot of the cost of tuition fees is a middle class pay-off… Yes, it is. And with taxes rising, pips squeaking and every kind of job looking insecure, with tax credits for the better-off one of the Liberal Democrat targets for cuts, tuition fees are a crucial way to persuade the people who pay most of the taxes that they get something out of it. And on top of all that, free education – at the very least, the education itself – is one of the clearest principles in public spending. Like being a little bit pregnant, this is one of those that’s an absolute.

On grounds of our political message, then, and on the fairness we’re trying to achieve, and naked political calculation, and even – good heavens, I’m so old-fashioned – of sheer political principles, the Liberal Democrats can’t afford to say ‘We can’t afford to pay for tuition fees’.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

And in at number 63 on The Golden Ton for 2008-9.

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I'm glad to see that your many years' experience of FPC has found a use!

Yes, the meetings that led to this document did take a bit of time (I eventually got back to Abingdon at about 2am after the long one!), but also played a very useful role in honing down what we wanted to get across.

You will note that the second of the three stated priorities is about 'fairness', although the Independent didn't highlight it as such.

The material on the website makes up on 'part 1' of the fuller document that will go to conference, and it includes much more detail about the overall policies.

I think you are right to identify the 'freedom' agenda as having been underplayed. I think this is largely because of the increased prominence given to the economy and setting out what our approahc will be to spending priorities. BUT there is more in the fuller document about this area and there is certainly no intention to downplay it.

Your comments about the reality of the public finances are quite right, and clearly a lot of this document is about our response to it. We cannot possibly know what the figures will be in a year's time, or what the size of the gap will be that any incoming Government will have to fill.

Therefore the real debate will be about spending priorities and the timing/phasing of them, and you are quite right that that is a debate which the party needs to have.
This was a good article but I'm confused as to why you think saying "we can't afford to pay for tuition fees right now" is a bad decision when earlier in your piece you are critical of the way in which the Lib Dems aren't moving towards fiscal neutrality?
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