The Liberal Democrat policy-making process is very democratic in character with ultimate approval on official policy being put to party members. This ethos is carried through to the manifesto process. The Federal Policy Committee (FPC), the group with ultimate responsibility for the manifesto, is made up of, and elected by, party members.
In 2010 the process ran as follows: the manifesto working group presented a draft to the Shadow Cabinet, which then presented an amended draft to the Federal Policy Committee (FPC). In reality, this was a cyclical, iterative process in which the draft cycled around the three groups, being amended and refined as it progressed. Whilst the process is likely to be slightly different for 2015, the broad structure will remain the same.
The working draft of the manifesto is coordinated by the manifesto working group, with input from many different sources. But ultimately the FPC has the final say on the manifesto. It is likely that no draft of the manifesto will actually be produced until well into 2014, but there are several stages of the process that lead up to that point.
Back in August 2010, the FPC commissioned Facing the Future, a major agenda setting exercise on policy development throughout this Parliament and into the next, chaired by Norman Lamb MP.
This was debated at Conference 2010, amended and finally approved at Conference 2011.
It identified a total of fifteen areas for focus in the future.
2. Sustainable sources of growth and jobs
3. Housing, tackling inequality and improving social mobility
4. Working families
7. Immigration and identity
8. Public services
9. Skills and post-16 education
10. Transition to zero carbon Britain
11. Gender equality
12. Political reform and participation
13. Crime and justice
14. Mutualisation and employee ownership
15. Challenges and opportunities of an ageing population
In many cases these individual issues will be taken forward through formal Policy Working Groups, which will result in policy papers presented to and debated at the Party Conferences over the next few years (2013-14).
Much to the disappointment of large sections of the membership who would like to return to opposition and reclaim the ‘party of protest’ identity, the goal for 2015 is to hang on to as many seats as possible and end up back in Government as part of a Coalition.
In theory the leadership remains open to coalition with either the Conservatives or Labour, and bridges with Labour are beginning to be rebuilt after the perceived betrayal over electoral reform. On issues such as Europe and the boundary review, Labour and the Lib Dems are finding common ground, and the personal relationship between Clegg and and Miliband is thawing.
Ultimately, whether the preference is for Labour or the Conservatives depends on who you ask. But the message will be clear – the Lib Dems represent a real party of Government with a strong record of delivery, and voters no longer need to be afraid of coalitions.
Recruiting Paddy Ashdown to run the campaign is a popular move, and is guaranteed to buoy the activists, and even lure back some voters who deserted after the election. It is likely that Jonny Oates, currently Nick Clegg’s Chief of Staff at the Cabinet Office, will reprise his 2010 role as Director of General Election Communications, a move that will be popular with Party staff.
Messaging and audiences
Nick Clegg’s recent set piece speeches have reasserted his belief that the Party needs to stop talking about whether it is ‘left’ or ‘right’ and instead focus on seizing the centre – where elections are won and lost.
The Party’s key message going into the election will be ‘A stronger economy in a fairer society, so that everyone can get on in life’ – a development of the strategy to outdo Labour on the economy and the Tories on fairness. This strategy relies on the economy recovering, and recovering soon – something which looks less likely with each set of disappointing GDP figures. It also relies on the Conservatives moving faster and further to the right and alienating one of their key target groups – the ‘strivers’ or, as the Lib Dems call them, ‘alarm clock Britain’.
In reality, the Lib Dems know that they have an almighty fight on their hands just to save what they have before they can think about new target seats. This means securing what is left of the grassroots support, who favour traditionally ‘left’ leaning policies like constitutional reform, renewable energy, and scrapping Trident. Balancing what they want to hear with what ‘alarm clock Britain’ wants to hear will be a tough challenge.