Sunday 31 March 2013

Why the next manifesto will be boring

The Liberal Democrats have already begun the process of drafting their manifesto for the 2015 general election. Dr Alun Wyburn-Powell reminds us of something fundamental the party risks forgetting:
The major political parties are worried that the voters will blame them for the state of the economy at the next election. But with opinion polls showing that voters share the blame between the last Labour government, the current coalition and the problems of the world economy, there is little to be gained for any party in trying to revisit the past and apportion blame to their opponents. Why?
Voters tend not to be interested in the past (if they even know about it). They are more interested in who can offer the best future. There are plenty of examples of voters ignoring the past (good or bad) and voting for what they believe will be the best option for the future.
This truth presents the Liberal Democrats with a practical problem. If you want to entice voters with “the best option for the future”, you need a vision, and for that you need values.

Liberals have no shortage of values, so why should creating a vision be a problem?

First, Nick Clegg is promoting the idea that he is a non-ideological pragmatist following the only possible course of action. Because he thinks his preferences are both obvious and inevitable, he will brook no argument. Left to his own devices, we will get a manifesto featuring a vague promise of ‘fairness’, an indistinguishable appeal to the mythical ‘centre ground’, patronising lectures about an endless need for austerity, inflated claims about the crumbs the party has picked up from the coalition table, and a tedious blame game (“the mess left by Labour”). What we won’t get is any vision of how society could be radically different. How can we, when above all Clegg will want to avoid saying anything that is implicitly critical of coalition government policy or that makes it more difficult to renew the coalition with the Tories?

Then there is the problem of David Laws, who Clegg has appointed to chair the working group that is drafting the manifesto. Laws has a strong ideological attachment to the failed economic orthodoxy of the past three decades. Left to his own devices, we won’t get a vision for the future but the promise of a better yesterday.

Ah, you may say, but what about the party’s Federal Policy Committee? The FPC is supervising the manifesto drafting process. Surely it will ensure the necessary vision and values? If only we could be so sure.

In 2011, the FPC produced a ‘policy development agenda’, a sort of pre-manifesto called Facing the Future. It was a depressingly timid, unimaginative and lacklustre document, which signally failed to face the future. That is why David Boyle and I wrote an alternative called Really Facing the Future, which suggested a bolder direction for the party.

As long as the Liberal Democrat leadership is reluctant to face the future but prefers to look to the past and cling to a clapped out orthodoxy, the party will fail to offer “the best option for the future” and will suffer the consequences at the 2015 election.

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