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Wednesday, April 15, 2015 

The Liberal Democrat manifesto.

For the second day in the row, the Liberal Democrat "battlebus" broke down.  As metaphors go, they don't come much more obvious and yet all but impossible to avoid using.

Only it's probably too kind to how the party has gone about the campaign thus far to say it's merely having a few mechanical problems and will be up and running again shortly.  In actuality the Lib Dem campaign hasn't so much as got started.  The party has been all but invisible, and when it has succeeded in getting coverage it's been possibly to its detriment.  Clegg was anonymous during the leaders' debate, the party's reliance on their desperately unpopular leader baffling.  It's not as though the party doesn't have other communicators it could push to the fore when they have Vince Cable, Tim Farron or Jo Swinson to name but three they could choose from, and yet it's Calamity Clegg every time in front of the cameras.

The campaign's biggest misstep isn't the reliance on Clegg so much as the patently false, confused and deeply negative message they've decided can't be reiterated enough.  You see, the Tories, the party they've propped up for the past 5 years are heartless bastards, whereas Labour are economically incontinent.  Only the moderating influence of the Lib Dems can ensure the Tories won't bring back the workhouse, while if the numbers go in the opposite direction only the mellow yellows can ensure Labour won't immediately increase the deficit by eleventy trillion pounds.  This assumes firstly that everyone accepts there's going to be another hung parliament, which despite being highly likely isn't a certainty, and secondly that the past five years have been such a wonderful experience everyone will vote for the party that wants to do it all over again.  Precisely who this is meant to appeal to beyond past Lib Dem voters isn't clear.

It also assumes it's accepted the Liberal Democrats have been that moderating influence, when this is a view held almost only by right-wing Tories.  Yes, they did prevent the very worst instincts of the Conservatives from becoming reality, stopping the snoopers' charter, the repeal of the Human Rights Act, further cuts to welfare, but this has to be offset against their support for the immediate austerity that stalled the recovery, the imposition of the bedroom tax, the hardening of attitudes to those on benefits, the welfare sanctions that hundreds of thousands have suffered for the merest of infractions if that, and every other destructive policy the coalition has pursued.

This knowledge makes the party's claims that either the SNP or UKIP will hold their prospective partners to ransom all the more risible.  The UKIPs aren't going to win enough seats to be able to govern alone with the Tories full stop, while the SNP would have to extract a far better deal from Labour than the Lib Dems did the Tories, and they would be making demands not so much for a coalition as a confidence and supply arrangement.  It simply isn't credible, and that the party hasn't realised its pitch has failed to hit home and switched tactics strikes as being in denial.

Nor would it matter as much if the manifesto (PDF) had been written with the intention of being genuinely open to coalition with either Labour or the Tories.  Instead the policies on the front cover, declared by Clegg to be all but non-negotiable are almost a mirror image of the ones announced by their coalition partner yesterday, right down to the £12,500 personal tax allowance.  The only real sticking point would be Clegg's one other declared "red line", the further £12bn in welfare cuts, and that isn't too massive a stumbling block when few realistically expect the Conservatives would even as a majority government eliminate the deficit wholly through reductions in spending as they claim.  Dropping opposition to the Tory pledge of holding a referendum on EU membership all but gives the game away.

Which leads directly on to the other obvious problem: you therefore can't take seriously a single other policy set out in what is by far the most extensive but by the same token least enlightening manifesto of the main three.  Those who like me will cheer the promise to take the very first steps towards reforming our drug laws will at the same time know it'll be one of the first proposals to go.  Then there are the sections that are just embarrassing: the party that as Ian Dunt says went along with the disgraceful ban on sending books into prisons still claims it will put an emphasis on rehabilitation and reducing the prison population.  There isn't so much as a hint of the crisis inside as a direct result of the cuts and overcrowding the Liberal Democrats have to take ownership of, while the spare room subsidy, aka the bedroom tax, which the party belatedly discovered was cruel and unfair is relegated to the very last point on the unbelievably patronising "improving support for the hardest to help" page.

The decision to hug the Tories close, understandable as it is considering most of the former Labour-Lib Dem marginals have been written off as a lost cause with a couple of exceptions, has some especially perverse consequences.  The effective choice in the south-west for instance, likely to be the party's one remaining stronghold come May the 8th, is between the Tories and the Lib Dems.  Following today's manifesto launch that choice has effectively become a Hobson's choice, with all that entails for disenchantment and resentment.  Nick Clegg talks of being the alternative to a coalition of grievance, yet the Lib Dem decision to move to the centre-right when 5 years ago there seemed for the first time to be a real third party alternative is a manoeuvre guaranteed to create very legitimate grievances, with so many of those voting for a change left feeling abandoned and unrepresented.

Nick Clegg opens his introduction to the manifesto with the line "few people expected that many of the policies it [the 2010 manifesto] contained would be implemented by the next Government".  Least of all, the statement begs, the party itself.  We could also quibble on just how many of its policies have been implemented also (three quarters, Clegg claims, hardly any, the Graun answers back) but frankly my will to live is ebbing just thinking about it.  On this day back in 2010 I concluded my post by saying what was holding the party back was knowing when to go further and "most pertinently, their leader himself".  In 2015 the only thing motivating the party is holding on to the vestige of power, and that self-same leader is in a position where he could oversee the loss of half of his MPs and still remain deputy prime minister.  Funny thing, politics.  And by funny I mean hateful.

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