Thursday, 15 April 2010

The Liberal Democrat Manifesto

The manifesto of the Liberal Democrats is, in many different respects, the most attractive of the three main parties. Its layout is, for a start, much preferable to the other two. Whilst the Labour Party manifesto is divided into 10 sections and the Conservative Party into five, the Liberals, traditionally the "centre" party, have 7 sections! The cover, however, leads on 4 areas that are presented as central to the whole document and each of which includes the term that is meant to guide the overall understanding of the policies set out, the term "fair". So we have fair taxes, a fair chance for your child, a fair future and a fair deal. I'll say something about each of these but, first of all, let's record the contents page in terms of its seven divisions. Each of these is laid out with a stress on how they belong to us, the voters and citizens, so here we have your money, your job, your life, your family, your world, your community and, finally, your say. After all this the manifesto closes with a detailed costing of all the proposals made, something not included in either of the other two party manifestoes.

The four areas that are stressed on the cover and with which the manifesto opens are clearly indicative of a general stress that the party hopes will be remembered and also meant, in some sense, to provide orientation in the wealth of detail that follows. The key "fair tax" pledge is to take the first £10,000 earned out of income tax entirely. This has one good and one less obviously good consequence. The clear good side is that it removes the lowest earners entirely from consideration for income tax and also ensures that all lower-income earners have a large tax break. The less good element of it is that this tax break is extended to all so that it will be enjoyed as much by the wealthiest as everyone else. Since income tax is the most progressive tax this is, in some respects, a strange move though it is likely the thought behind it was one of not increasing means-testing in tax and benefits and so may be a price to pay for a generally worthy objective. Under the "fair future" area is included a pledge to break up the banks and get them lending again to businesses, both good objectives. The "fair chance" is indicated by focusing spending on struggling pupils, a pledge specifically costed. Finally, the "fair deal" includes a specific freedom bill. Since these headline areas are clearly meant to attract most attention it is notable that two of them (the tax pledge and the chance pledge) involve focus on lower income people. 

Going past the staged setting of the four areas the details of the general approach begin, as was the case with both the other parties, with focus on the economy. In addition to the removal of the lowest-income groups from taxation the response to the economy includes emphasis on reduction of tax evasion and taxing capital gains in the same way as income, both policies clearly targeted at the wealthy, as is the introduction of a Mansion tax. All of this amounts to the basis of a clear social democratic programme. Similarly, like the Labour Party, they pledge to wait before cutting spending programmes, delaying at least until 2011-12 on the assumption, shared with Labour, that cutting too soon will damage the recovery.

When it comes to tackling the budget deficit the manifesto also includes more specifics than are found in either of the other two programmes. Like the other two parties they will effectively freeze public sector pay and, like the Conservatives, will restrict the scope of tax credits (though, unlike the Conservatives, they do not say how they will restrict their scope). There is a mention of a specific Banking Levy so that banks pay for the support they have received, something not mentioned in the other two manifestoes. The basis of the cuts to come is assigned to the findings of a proposed review based on the findings of the National Audit Office and the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee. The general response to the whole credit problem is, however, assigned to a Council of Financial Stability on which there would be all-party representation. These proposals effectively indicate that there is no specific plan going to be laid out in the rest of the manifesto over how to tackle the crisis and rather suggest the format of an effective National Government to deal with it.

One might think, after this has become clear, that there would be less left to say in this manifesto than in the others unless one recalled that neither of the main two parties said very much at all about the deficit. Some specific proposals are forthcoming, such as the notion of setting up a National Infrastructure Bank that would determine ways of directing investment for the general economy and is surely a good idea. Similarly the commitment to implement a version of Glass-Steagall by distinguishing between retail and investment is a clearly necessary requirement, surprisingly missing from the manifestoes of the other two parties. 

The first mention of higher education is, as with the other two parties, in terms of science budgets. This depressingly familiar picture is accompanied by proposals with regard to research that are less adventurous than the ones set out by the Conservatives. Unlike the Conservatives, who pledge to suspend the Research Excellence Framework until a review reports, the Liberal Democrats are very vague and merely state that research funding should be dependent on peer review though they do attack reliance on "narrow impact factors". Despite these disappointments the Liberal position on student finance is easily the boldest on offer, pledging, as it does, abolition of tuition fees, starting immediately for final year students. Like the Labour Party, however, they drop the notion of expanding higher education to 50% of young people, suggesting instead a balance of "college education, vocational training and apprenticeships", a policy, like that of Labour, that involves a clear devaluation of higher education. As with the other two parties nothing is said at all about the place of humanities and the social sciences. 

The discussion of foreign policy is fronted not by terrorism and the army as is the case with the other two parties but instead with suggestions concerning climate change and the environment. Reform of the World Bank and the IMF is mentioned but the principles of such reform and the mechanisms of achieving it are not spelled out. The claim that there should be an inquiry into allegations of torture carried out by British forces does, however, indicate a welcome commitment to an ethical foreign policy of a kind that was once expected to emerge from Labour. 

As with the other two parties immigration is primarily thought of as a problem with the argument advanced that there needs to be created a National Border Force and regional points-based systems in terms of migration instituted. This is, to an extent, off-set by the commitments on asylum which include ending detention of children and ending the detention of people for whom there is no imminent possibility of deportation unless there is substantial risk from them. Housing policy is focused on bringing a quarter of a million empty homes back into use, something eminently desirable and the mechanisms of grants and cheap loans are plausible ones. The pledge to introduce a Freedom Bill also makes this party the one with the most developed view of civil liberties.

This manifesto contrasts to a certain extent with that of the other two major parties. It is more accessible to the reader, being fuller of specific pledges and containing much less by way of padding than the other two and clearly it is expected that it will be read by both party members and independently minded people, unlike the other two manifestoes which are evidently not expected to be read by anyone other than journalists. The general feel of it is one in which there is an understanding of the scale of the problem although, disappointingly, most of the response to this problem has been pushed to the creation of large investigations to be carried out later. The priorities of the party are, however, clear. From reading it one definitely comes to the view that it is the most philosophically informed approach, guided by Rawlsian kinds of convictions. Whilst not all of its recommendations are different enough from the other two it is evident that this party is the only one open to ideas and debate of a sort that has any chance of reinvigorating politics. Although the Liberal Democrats are pretty much incapable of attaining a parliamentary majority, increase in their representation, on the basis of reading the manifesto, is certainly desirable.

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