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Why the Lib Dems need to start drawing red lines now

To win back trust, Clegg needs to spend the next 548 days telling voters about his policy guarantees.

Nick Clegg speaks at the Buhler Sortex factory on October 8, 2013 in east London. Photograph: Getty Images.

While the phrase "we’re all in this together" has become rather devalued in political circles of late, it’s still very much in vogue in the Liberal Democrats. Over here, we’re pretty much up to our necks in it together, and the spirit of party democracy still burns brightly.

Thus the general election call to arms has taken place and we’ve all been invited to submit our contributions and ideas to the 2015 manifesto. I can only imagine what it must be like for the poor souls on the receiving end of our missives. But, hey, that’s party democracy for you.

In reference to this, the suggestion has been made that we should avoid setting out any manifesto red lines at this stage. Prompted by Nick’s resolute defence of the HS2 project (and the inevitable is it 'a red line?' question, given Labour's vacillations), Lib Dem Voice has wondered out loud about this:

"'Red lines' are tricky territory for our politicians. If Nick says, implicitly or explicitly, that HS2 (or any other policy) is a red line then he’s limiting his room for manoeuvre in any coalition negotiations. And after the party’s scarring experience of the tuition fees U-turn, we can hardly afford to offer more hostages to fortune by making categoric promises we find ourselves unable to keep."

I couldn’t disagree more. I think we need some red lines drawn ASAP.

Firstly, I think we need to do this because of the tuition fees U-turn. Trust is the main obstacle we face. We shouldn’t shy away from it. We should acknowledge it (and indeed, we’ve already had a mea culpa moment), state the lesson we’ve learned and put down some markers to judge us by. Tackle the trust issue head on.

Secondly, given Nick has already accepted that for us to remain in government means another coalition, the manifesto will turn into a 'two parter' – three or four policies that we guarantee voters will get if they vote Lib Dem, with the rest of the manifesto a statement of wishes and aspirations that will form our side of the collation negotiations. We have form on this – the 2010 manifesto clearly stated our four priorities, and those have formed the cornerstone of everything we’ve done in government. We need to state our four priorities this time – and give ourselves the maximum time possible to hammer that message home.

Why? Because of my third issue. Our (in my view misguided) 'two halves to the Parliament' strategy means we spent the first half of this government joined to the hip with the Tories, alienating many of our supporters from the left. Now we’ve embarked on our full throttle differentiation strategy, we’re hell bent on alienating those on the right. As the eminent Lib Dem blogger Jonathan Calder puts it: "I suspect that the problem here is his (Nick Clegg’s) often-declared strategy of making the Liberal Democrats a centre party. Because being such a party can easily turn you into the champions of the status quo and thus the opponent of anyone who proposes radical reforms. And, as so often, I wonder who Nick expects to vote Liberal Democrat next time."

The answer to the problem he poses is, of course, that we need to set out some chunky, bite-size, easily understood policy built on principle and spend the next 548 days telling voters 'here are our rock solid guarantees'. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being the centre party per se – it’s the zigzag on positioning that, ahem, confuses folk

Will these policies become hostages to fortune? Sure, but at least everyone would know the price of the ransom – and then they can decide whether they want to pay it.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference