Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Fresh Start for Britain smells a little stale

Last night I fully intended to write a post on A Fresh Start for Britain. The trouble is that reading it - or as much of it as you are allowed to read on the website without sending in your email address - left me feeling uninspired.

And reading Nick Clegg's interview in the Independent left me terminally uninspired.

Of course, Nick is right to say that the economic crisis means that whoever wins the next election will have to cut public spending sharply. In fact, I suspect they will have to cut it more sharply than most commentators have begun to grasp.

But I was deeply puzzled to read that:

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. Such an approach was fine for "an era of plenty", he argued, but would no longer carry conviction in times of "austerity".
Puzzled, because this is the complete reverse of the truth. At recent elections the Liberal Democrat manifesto has been scrupulously costed. Like Alex Wilcock I shall be charitable and assume that Nick is having words put into his mouth here.

But what depressed me was that from reading neither the interview nor the Fresh Start was it possible to gain an idea of who the Liberal Democrats think they will appeal to at the next election.

What about students? We won a several university seats at the last election and hope to win several more. But the pledge on abolishing tuition fees appears to be one of those headed for the party's back burner.

What about pensioners? At the last election much of our campaign seemed to be aimed at them, even though (as Simon Titley once pointed out in a Liberator article I cannot locate at present) the Lib Dems do worse among them than any other group. Now, free personal care and a higher basic state pension are headed for that crowded back burner too.

Maybe this is taking too narrow an approach. Forget sectional interests: think of wider philosophical themes.

Are the Liberal Democrats the party who support local community facilities and oppose centralisation and giantism? Not enough to spend money on saving rural post office any more.

Are we the party that cares above all for liberty? That is what I would tell people, but there is precious little about freedom on the Fresh Start website.

So I am left wondering what the intended audience is for our new approach.

Talk of "tough choices" could have an appeal in the austere new climate. Except that it is not at all clear that we are going to make any such choices.

The Independent says that Nick:
He announced two rules that will govern his party's policies: no spending commitments without cuts elsewhere to fund them, and, similarly, no promises of tax cuts without increases in other taxes.
Yes that sounds tough. But think about it.

We are saying that we will not change the level of taxation in the economy. And we will not change the level of public spending. That sounds more like ducking hard choices to me than taking them.

And isn't it churlish not to add a word of congratulation to Messrs Brown and Darling if we believe they have got things so exactly right?

I expect a battle over tuition fees at Bournemouth and I hope that the leadership is defeated in it. But that will only be a token.

The deeper problem is the lack of ideology in the Liberal Democrats. I thought the same when Engage, the new Lib Dem policy network, was launched. I will never oppose debate and discussion in the party, but were are the deeper beliefs that should inform that policy?

Without them you end up with something like Fresh Start - a selection of moderate, sensible views with no particular pull on the attention or support of the wider public.


Alex Wilcock said...

I agree with almost all of that - particularly the lack of liberty.

But I think you've missed something. As you've read my piece yesterday, I must have been a bit too cryptic!

"We are saying that we will not change the level of taxation in the economy. And we will not change the level of public spending."

Actually... We're not. We *used* to be, but not any more. As I pointed out yesterday, if you read it carefully, we're saying we won't lower the overall level of taxation, and we won't raise the overall level of public spending. It carefully doesn't rule out raising taxes or cutting spending to plug the debt!

Anonymous said...

I think you need to distinguish a bit more between what Nick is quoted as saying, and the Independent's interpretation of it.

Nick says very clearly that we will NOT be ditching any policies, just that we may not be able to (honestly) promise to deliver them imemdiately.

In the current financial situation that seem sensible to me.

Liberal Neil.

Simon Titley said...

The evidence for the lack of support for the Liberal Democrats among the elderly is in two polls.

An ICM poll conducted for the BBC at the 2005 general election ( showed that Lib Dem support was highest among the 18-24 and 25-34 age groups (26% in both cases) and lowest amongst the over-65s (18%). This was despite the fact that the party's general election manifesto that year was heavily skewed towards the interests of the elderly.

A more recent ICM poll (October 2008 - see: underlined this trend; Lib Dem support was strongest in the 25-34 age group at 31% and weakest among the over-65s at only 4% (unadjusted figures).

The reason is basically this: the most important factor determining the extent to which one has small-l liberal values is education. The better educated you are, the more likely you are to hold liberal rather than conservative values. Our current generation of over-65s went to school in the 1930s/40s/50s, when most people left school at 15 or 16 without qualifications, and no more than 5% went to university.

This generation also first had the vote when the Liberal Party was at its lowest ebb and class-consonant voting at its highest, and is therefore more likely to have a strong attachment to Labour or the Tories.

I wrote at more length on the nature of Lib Dem support here:

lifeonmars said...

"The better educated you are, the more likely you are to hold liberal rather than conservative values." So that's why all those public school types vbote they way they do.

Clegg seems to be following the same approach as Labour - reacting to each drop in support with a shift to the right - which is invariably met by another drop in support and another shift to the right. As a result the centre-right is getting awfully crowded, while ever large swathes of the electorate become effectively disenfranchised - who do you vote for if you oppose tuition fees, benefit cuts, and more privatisation of public services?

The tuition fees debacle is a signal failure of liberal values. The reason for their introduction, that graduates have higher earnings so should contribute more, actually proves the opposite that university education pays for itself in the form of higher tax revenues - while deterring those from lower income groups will prove counter-productive by lowering aggregate earnings and tax receipts.

The New Liberals recognised this but Clegg's remains in thrall to the neoliberals.

The question left hanging is - why would anyone vote Lib Dem when they offer exactly the same range of 'tough choices' as the Lab/Tory alliance?

Steve Comer said...

That is indeed the question left hanging.
It looks to me as if the whole 'Fresh start' thing is designed to make us look like sound and reliable coalition partners for Cameron if the Tories don't get an overall majority.
Call me an old cynic if you like, but there is an echo of the mid '90s 'end of equidistance' much touted at the time.