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Wednesday, April 14, 2010 

The Liberal Democrat manifesto.

There's a school of thought inside the Conservatives, and one that even I have to admit that I'm partial towards, that thinks their entire campaign, rather than revolving around the "Big Society" or fixing our broken society, should instead entirely focus on Gordon Brown. Not in the way that their truly dismal "attack" adverts did, featuring Brown and his various "triumphs", but instead simply asking whether they can bear the thought of another 5 years of Brown.

The obvious problems with this approach are not just the negativity and personal nature of campaigning in such a way, nor that 5 years of Cameron and Osborne is an equally appalling vista, but that there is alternative to both Brown and the Tories. This is the area that the Liberal Democrats' relatively limited campaign finances have tried to home in, with probably the most success of any of the advertising campaigns thus far, melding both Labour and Conservatives into one whole, emphasising the 65 years which the two have spent in power combined. It's certainly been different to anything else thus tried, and has also been incredibly difficult to spoof, both major bonuses with us political obsessives but perhaps not with those potentially confused by the whole thing. When you remember the polls suggesting that a majority (60%) are unable to identify Nick Clegg, it further hits home the difficulty the party has in attracting attention, gaining recognition and also successfully registering their distance from the opposition.

In that sense, their advertising up till now has been a far greater success than the manifesto launch was today. In an election where the other two parties are trying to outdo each other in their claims as to just who will make the country fairer, with neither prepared to use that dreaded socialist word equality regardless of whether it's what they mean or not, Nick Clegg spoke of his ambition to make Britain... fairer. He also did so with all the rhetorical weight and forced passion of Nick Griffin laughing at the accusation from a member of the public that he was a racist. The problem, which has been ever present since Clegg assumed the leadership, has not been the relative wealth of policies which the party has, which are of much the same, high, reasoned standard as they have always been, but the simple fact that Nick Clegg does not seem to be comfortable in his own skin, that he can't seem to decide just who it is that he, rather than party, is appealing to, and that on the big occasions, whether it be his speech to conference or his performance today, he doesn't manage to strike the right tone or have the gravitas which his role requires.

There is of course absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to base your campaign around fairness, it's just that when you're fighting to get the attention of what seems to be a highly apathetic, and with reason, electorate, you need to be saying something other than what the others are only in a slightly different tone and order. Understandably, everyone is focused on the economy, although even that seems to be slipping slightly as most appear to be optimistic about the growth figures shortly to be announced, but just when the Lib Dems needed to be distinctive they came up short. Even more infuriating is that they dumped their best case for drawing a line of difference between themselves and Labour and the Conservatives onto the Guardian's front page, something which they could instead have easily appended onto the manifesto launch and got full television coverage for. Here was their case for promoting liberty, attacking New Labour's authoritarianism, with Clegg's brilliant observation that their manifesto didn't once mention it, although it did claim that they were "proud of their record on civil liberties", which just shows how perverse a once liberal party has become, and it just became part of the background noise.

This is, sadly, reflected in the manifesto itself. It alternates between the great and the not so good, almost as if the party are convinced they need to counterbalance some of their best policies with ones that either haven't been thought through or, although nowhere near as awful as though proposed by Labour and the Tories, aren't much better. Following on from Nick Clegg's truly insipid introduction, which is so nondescript that it doesn't really invite further comment, you encounter a style which is by far the cleanest and most eminently readable of all three manifestos, straight-forward while in places becoming forthright. It also goes further than the other two parties in getting at the very heart of the problem in sections, as it does early on here:

At the root of Britain’s problems today is the failure to distribute power fairly between people. Political power has been hoarded by politicians and civil servants; economic power has been hoarded by big businesses. Both kinds of power have been stripped from ordinary citizens, leaving us with a fragile society marked by inequality, environmental degradation and boom-bust economics.

As a brief description of what's wrong with Britain today, it would be difficult to be more succinct while also painting a broad enough picture of the nation's problems. Perhaps the media and especially the tabloid press could be added to those hoarding political power, but it's difficult to disagree or qualify much else. The Liberal Democrats are also the only party that pledges to break up the banks, separating the retail sides from the investment operations, the only real proposal likely to prevent a re-run of the 2008 crisis. It's not exactly declaring a philosophical opposition to neo-liberalism itself, but as an attempt at reform, it goes far further in the right direction than the mainstream is prepared to go.

On far less solid ground is the obvious attempt to replace the formerly totemic policy of a 50p top rate of tax for those earning over £100,000. Ever since it was dropped they've struggled to replace it, and while their proposed raising of the income tax threshold to £10,000 on the surface seems a step in the right direction, in practice, and as the Fabians in Labour have showed, because the very poorest do not earn above the £10,000 level, the main beneficiaries are not the poorest fifth the Lib Dems have been complaining pay a larger proportion of tax than the richest fifth (also a shaky claim) but rather those on middle incomes, exacerbating the income gap ever further. While most can agree that Labour's main method of redistribution, tax credits are bureaucratic, cumbersome and in fitting with the party in general, they are also targeted in a way which helps the poorest in the way that a threshold rise does not. Add into this how the £17bn which needs to be raised to fund it is partially based on the admirable aspiration of cracking down on tax avoidance and evasion, which is far harder in practice when those tasked with finding loopholes are being paid vast sums themselves to do so, and you have a policy which falls apart once you even begin to probe it. That wasn't true of the 50p rate, and isn't usually true of the Liberal Democrats in general. The sloppiness is deeply regrettable, and it makes you wonder whether the centralisation which has happened under Clegg and Cable hasn't directly affected the discussion within the party over policy which previously took place.

This nagging sense of doubt is what stops the manifesto from being very good rather than simply adequate. Why not go all the way on so many things rather than stopping at a half-way house? Why not scrap Trident altogether rather than pledge to not build a "like-for-like" replacement? Why not axe the national curriculum altogether and trust teachers rather than putting in place a slimmed-down "minimum curriculum entitlement"? Why not abolish SATs or Key Stage 2 tests altogether than scaling them down? Why connive in the stupidity which is putting more police "on the beat" when it doesn't cut crime? Why not have a general amnesty for illegal immigrants rather than one with silly and unworkable conditions? Why not make the case for immigration rather than apologise for it while copying the points-based nonsense, even if making it regional is more an improvement? Why not be wholly critical of the insanity which is our involvement in Afghanistan rather than a critical supporter?

Of the three main party manifesto published this week, there's no doubt whatsoever as to which is the best, which poses the most unanswered questions and which is the political equivalent of treading water. The shame about the Liberal Democrat manifesto is that the policies are far more convincing than the politicians, and that it's sadly the latter rather than the former which will be the most scrutinised. This should be, and is, Lib Dems' greatest opportunity in those 65 years they talk about, greater even than that which the Liberal-SDP alliance had in 83 and Charles Kennedy had in 05, and there's still every chance that they could hold the balance of power. Holding them back is their failure to recognise when to go further, and most pertinently, their leader himself.

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