Oh God. Here we go again. Remember all that nonsense last year when Nick Clegg started claiming that the Lib Dems were about to unveil a package of £20 bn of cuts – the “vast bulk” of which was to be passed on in the form of tax cuts? Remember how, after an ugly row at party conference, he first capitulated (explaining that by “vast bulk” he meant “teeny tiny amount“) and then ended up dropping the whole charade about finding these enormous spending cuts in the first place? Remember how that left so many people feeling, not least of all myself, feeling demoralised? Well, it seems to be about to kick off again. And once again it is due to that nasty habit of over-clegging, ahem over-egging, the pudding.
The party’s pre-manifesto – A Fresh Start – has been launched today. Let me start by saying how happy I am with the overall pre-manifesto document. It is very sensible. It’s priorities – a green economy, fairness and cleaning up politics – are spot on. And it’s recognition that hard choices are ahead and that the party should not increase overall spending is surely correct. I even agree that we will have to go into the next general election making fewer spending commitments than we have in previous years.
There is a clear danger in flagging such a situation up however, and that is that it will immediately lead to speculation about what will and what won’t be cut. Now, you can choose to dampen such speculation or you can encourage it. The FPC played a delicate game, being careful to avoid the suggestion of a hierarchy of which cuts are needed and avoiding the sort of language which would suggest there will be a bonfire of the spending plans. Clegg, for whatever reason, has chosen to ramp such language up.
In his interview in the Independent yesterday, he made such posturing a centre point. Now, we can blame interviewer Andy Grice for the nonsense about the party having “traditionally had a long shopping list of policies but been less convincing about how it would pay for them” (not true, for the past three general elections at least, our manifestos have been fully costed and vetted by the IFS) and for providing a remarkably specific list of spending commitments that will be axed. But we can’t blame him for statements such as:
Our shopping list of commitments will be far, far, far, far, far shorter.
You don’t repeat a word five times by way of emphasis unless the point you want to make is that your default position on every commitment will be to cut it. Even George Lucas only used “far” twice (small mercy that, at least, it was no more than thirty). And you don’t frame your argument in terms of “shopping lists” unless you have contempt for those spending commitments. This doesn’t sound like making tough decisions at all; it sounds like making the incredibly easy decision of just throwing everything into the bin.
We are perilously close to “vast bulk” territory once again. How to respond to this clear difference in emphasis between Clegg and the FPC is tricky: unlike Make it Happen where the central problem was a poorly worded document, here the problem is purely the spin on which the leader is putting on it and its potential implications further down the line. This deserves chewing over.
But since Clegg has fired the starting gun for a debate about priorities (according to Grice: “Mr Clegg wants to kickstart a debate that he claims Labour and the Tories are denying the voters as they squabble over headline departmental budgets in a Whitehall-speak that leaves ordinary people cold” – fine Nick, let’s debate). Let’s get one thing well and truly out of the way first: the commitment to scrap tuition fees has got to stay.
To be honest, I’m not interested in revisiting the debate about whether we should scrap fees or not. That debate happened within the party, in excrutiating detail over a two year period. In Harrogate this spring, conference voted overwhelmingly to retain that policy. Despite the fact that neither the motion nor any amendment called for dropping the policy, speaker after speaker queued up to talk about the need to retain the policy. It was possibly one of the most emphatic non-debates I’ve ever witnessed.
The fundamental problem here is that right now, our target seat candidates have nothing they can say about tuition fees. After Harrogate, the party’s campaigners breathed a collective sigh of relief: finally, after two years, they could get on with promoting one of the party’s most popular and distinctive policies once again. Those plans were dashed by Nick Clegg today. Can you really afford to put that leaflet sitting in your garage out? What is Liberal Youth going to say at this autumn’s freshers’ fairs? Won’t you just be attracting criticism from your opponents if you do so?
I’m the last person to say the party should only adopt policy on the basis that it is distinctive and popular. I remain stubbornly wedded to the idea that policies should be the right thing to do as well. But in this case the policy most certainly is right and the reason for getting it reaffirmed earlier this year (something which almost certainly should have happened 12 months before – there is no excusing the delay) was precisely so we could get on and campaign for it.
What’s more, does anyone really believe that either conference or the Federal Policy Committee will not insist on the manifesto having this specific commitment in it? I suppose it is just possible that the broad coalition of people in the party who oppose tuition fees might suddenly decide that they will take this lying down, but I wouldn’t put much money on it. It is slightly more possible that this policy might get dropped after an enormous and highly damaging debate resulting in swathes of resigning candidates and members – many of whom will do so from the conference stage. But the most likely result, by far, is that the party is going to go into the next general election with a firm commitment to scrap tuition fees.
I write this as someone who, in Lib Dem terms, isn’t that wedded to the policy. I certainly support it but in my own awkward way would – in an ideal world – like to explore other options as well. The strength of support for this policy at Harrogate this gear caught me by surprise. Surely no-one who attended that conference (or who knows who currently sits on the Federal Policy Commitment) can be in any doubt that this policy will almost certainly be retained?
That being the case, I have to ask, why revisit the debate again? In what way is it valuable for the party to have yet another internal discussion over the next few months instead of just getting on with campaigning?
There are other policies that you might want to make special pleading for and we almost certainly will end up with a somewhat longer “shopping list” than Clegg’s Independent interview implies, but our anti-tuition fees policy is different because it is such a central campaigning priority. The party supports this one with its feet. By contrast, we’ve never been this far away from a likely general election date with a fully costed and priotised policy on pensions and benefits for the elderly for example, and so it is reasonable for this package to remain at least somewhat up in the air at the moment. Tuition fees is different because all parties are committed to supporting pensioners in one way or another and so the party’s policy can’t hope to be a key dividing line; by contrast you are either for or against tuition fees and in the case of both Labour and the Tories you are very much in favour of them. You won’t find a clearer dividing line (with the exception of electoral reform and even that might change before polling day).
And can we seriously contemplate scrapping this commitment whilst also arguing, as stated in A Fresh Start, that “We need to ensure that the next generation does not pay the price for the mistakes made by government and bankers today”? Promising to not force the next generation to pay for our mistakes via tax hikes will ring pretty hollow if we insist they have to pay the same amount in the form of graduate debt. What charlatans we would sound!
My generous analysis of this situation is that Nick Clegg has simply been blindsided and didn’t anticipate that this failure of communications would happen. Part of the problem however is the way the party communicates. Up until a few years ago, we used to be able to take it for granted that whenever the party made a new policy statement that a new pack, providing local parties and candidates with promotional materials, a standard press release and outlining possible lines of attack and their rebuttal. This simply no longer happens and I am at a loss as to why. One of the useful aspects of such a pack would have been, I suspect, that the party’s press office would have been forced to think through how exactly this new announcement was likely to play. Clegg sounded horribly ill-prepared for some fairly underarm bowling from Eddie Mair on PM this evening, even if the Evan Harris factor did somewhat take him by surprise. Once again, I don’t think this is being thought through properly.
There are two simple solutions to this immediate problem over tuition fees. The first is for Nick Clegg to make it very clear over the next few weeks that the policy is safe. The second is for the party to carry on campaigning as if it was regardless. The two can potentially be complementary and mutually reinforcing, but if the former doesn’t happen it is all the more crucial that the latter does take place. Waiting until April 2010 to get this message across will be a farcical wasted opportunity.