When I wrote last week that Lib Dem MPs who had supported party policy by voting against an increase in university tuition fees were likely to receive some sort of credit for this from the electorate in 2015, a senior political journalist asked me if I hadn’t got that the wrong way round – that surely the rebels had voted against party policy?
But in fact this wasn’t the case. Lib Dems who trooped through the lobby supporting the government were in fact the actual rebels, whereas those who voted against the government were – in party terms – bowing to the will of conference and towing the line. Indeed, party policy is to review the system after next year’s election with a view to abolishing tuition fees altogether. A fact that I suspect eludes most people.
And there lies the biggest issue for the Lib Dems at present. If senior political correspondents get confused about the minutiae of party policy, what chance for an electorate where nine in 10 voters fail to recognise a photograph of the Secretary of State for Defence, and the Foreign Secretary frequently gets confused with Ross Kemp?
We saw another example of this type of contradiction the other day on the bedroom tax. You might imagine that the bedroom tax enjoys the support of the Lib Dems, but in fact party policy is to review it, Nick Clegg has ordered said review and when you know that, suddenly Tim Farron’s intervention against the tax last week all makes sense. Or at least, it makes sense until 24 hours later the majority of Lib Dem peers end up supporting it.
It’s almost like we want to confuse people.
It is into this vacuum that well-written and provocative contributions like Jeremy Browne’s new book get confused with party policy and a set of proposals, approved by conference, ready to present to the electorate as a programme for government. And before you know it, you’re being asked whether it’s true that the Lib Dems will cut the top rate of tax for the rich on the day that we take thousands more at that the other end of the scale out of income tax altogether. Which doesn’t help. And that’s not Jeremy’s fault – it’s his job to say what he thinks.
The next month will see Lib Dems campaigning hard on one policy that we are both clear about and well known for – our support for the UK’s membership of the European Union. But after that, we need to start filling in the void on every other policy area – because we’ll have just 12 months to tell people what it is we actually believe.
At the moment – EU and the Mansion Tax aside – I’m not sure many people actually know.
Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference