In recent days, Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats have surprised everyone by surging from their traditional third place to serious contender status - at least for the popular vote* - and even briefly topping the charts. But is 'Clegg-mania', as his rivals have charged, merely the result of voters being unfamiliar with Lib Dem politics? I decided to kick off this blog by analysing the manifestos of the three major parties, and where better to start than the unexpected newcomers (for all that they represent the last major branch of the Whigs, the ancient rival of the Tory party)?
I must give kudos to the Lib Dems for producing the most readable, concise manifesto of all three parties. Whilst it's easy to say that with no record to defend and no experience in power any manifesto from the 'third party' will amount to little more than an ideological wishlist, I found their manifesto more logically set out and with considerably less redundancy. Possibly this reflects the fact that Clegg is speaking to a much smaller tent than Cameron or Brown - not just in terms of numbers but also in ideological breadth. The confirmed Lib Dem supporter is inherently more idealistic than the other two mainstream parties - voting on principle rather than tactically (at least prior to this election). In contrast, the other two parties must attempt to appeal to a much wider, more heterogeneous audience, with the result that the language must be 'toned down' to avoid alienating a key chunk of their base.
My specific reactions to the manifesto -
Despite accusations that the Lib Dems are 'naïve' due to their lack of governing experience, the Lib Dem manifesto was most explicit about the cuts it would make, and most restrained in the new initiatives it offered. They are the only party to openly call for rollback on the erosion of civil liberties under the last government (including the restoration of double jeopardy and, elsewhere, the scrapping of the digital economy bill).
The heavy emphasis on energy policy in the Liberal Democrat manifesto is encouraging. However, their stance against nuclear power is foolhardy in the extreme, and if actually implemented as policy would likely result in a condition of rolling backouts across Britain as fossil fuels grow scarcer, possibly lasting decades. Wind and wave power do not have a sufficiently high EROEI to power a dynamic national grid alone - recently wind power in the UK passed the 1GW mark - less than 1/63rd of peak demand despite the billions thrown at it over the past decades. By contrast France produces 80% of its energy from nuclear power.*** The Lib Dem policy on greater wildlife protection will also hamper attempts to expand our wind and wave power capacity. Bio-fuel is a more feasible solution to our fossil-fuel dependent transport fleet than a hydrogen economy (which would require huge numbers of nuclear power plants to recharge the hydrogen cells), but Britain simply does not have enough farmland to refuel its cars on bio-fuel - even assuming a single mouthful of food is never again grown in these isles. Importing it from abroad is an option - as long as you don't look too closely at the massive deforestation and soil erosion the bio-fuel boom is causing in countries like Brazil. The 'rail renaissance' promised by the Lib Dems is not a bold or original idea - all three parties have some sort of plan for a high-speed rail network - but is absolutely vital if the transition away from the skyrocketing cost of fossil fuels is to be made in time.
Contrary to Tory claims, the Lib Dems do not intend to remove Britain's nuclear deterrent (South Africa would remain the only country to have voluntarily disarmed after developing nukes). Instead they plan to develop a 'less expensive option' - which could be a silo-based system, potentially capable of delivering a higher payload. But, as has been pointed out, is it simply the willingness to spend £1.4m a day on something that is essentially useless that keeps Britain on the Security Council? Since no-one in the UN, NATO, or the EU supported the integrity of Britain's territory over the recent iteration of Argentina's claims on the Falklands, it's hard to see why we should care.
The Lib Dems' policies on reforming the political and justice systems are by no means the least offensive of the three, but still merit criticism. The proposal that prisoners should work to pay towards a 'compensation fund' is not inherently objectionable - although not permitting prisoners to work for themselves to build up a small nest egg (as is currently the case) would inevitably increase recidivism. However, unless properly ring-fenced the money would easily be repurposed and drawn partly or wholly into the government's social coffers, adulterating the purity of the courts. The proposal to abolish the House of Lords and replace it with an elected second chamber is both laughable and disturbing. Despite the infamous indolence of our Lords Spiritual and Temporal, they provide an important bulwark against political extremism. To my mind proportional representation (which the Lib Dems are expected to make a precondition of any coalition after the election) would be a net positive if only the House of Lords were preserved intact as a partly or even wholly hereditary body - all the democratic representation with any instability checked by the Lords. I also very much doubt that 'abolishing' the House of Lords is even possible, given the labyrinthine uncompiled constitution of Britain (in particular the abolition of the Lords Spiritual could be considered a direct violation of Article I of Magna Carta, which remains in force today and preserves the 'Rights and Liberties' of the Church of England). Ah, but here's the rub - the Liberal Democrats also seek a 'written constitution with popular input', along with a lowered voting age. What monstrocities this might produce is left as an exercise for the reader.
They have also stated that they believe it is in Britain's long-term interest to join the Euro, despite Clegg's recent back-pedaling - a referendum is promised, but we were promised a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, too. Furthermore, the Liberal Democrat support for 'radically devolved powers' to councils and communities - England is conspiciously absent from the list, leading one to be believe the West Lothian Question would become ever more urgent. Meanwhile, the Lib Dems seem to be taking the softly-softly approach on immigration. By making speaking English a requirement for citizenship they may well be able to cut the Gordian knot that has given the Tories so much grief (they have only committed themselves to reducing immigration from outside the EU) - the fact that they've openly stated that they'll be 'targeting immigration at underpopulated regions' (i.e. away from the South-East) will also likely help to produce the impression, at least in the Home Counties, that there's a significant decrease occuring.
The Lib Dem emphasis on more apprenticeships in farming and other vocational higher education subjects is commendable. However, they also pledge more places at University, an absurd claim given that they still hope to phase out top-up fees for first-time students and the present state of our Universities (where about a quarter aren't actually suited for academia anyway).
Finally, despite Lib Dem opposition to the Digital Economy Bill, they still see fit to include in their manifesto a commitment to '(take) action to tackle illegal file-sharing.' Even ignoring the fact that the most authoritative reports on the damage caused by internet piracy are covered with the fingerprints of lobbyist groups, my correspondences with two Tory MPs regarding the Bill failed to turn up any indication as to how they proposed to actually enforce the law. The most likely candidate is the legalisation of deep-packet inspection, which would at a stroke remove any expectation of privacy in the UK, most probably lead to an encryption key escrow or an outright ban of encryption over a certain number of bits, and which would immediately embroil the UK in endless, expensive legal battles with the European Court of Human Rights. 'Action' against file sharing must be limited to uploaders and private hosts, accompanied by an aggressive policy of moral education - not just for the millions who download music or programs, but for the content creators who continue to lock content behind walls and make it ever more difficult for consumers to enjoy legal content (e.g. through invasive DRM).
Next up - the Conservative and Labour manifestos.
Here's my raw analysis of the Liberal Democrat manifesto, with the major points on which they're campaigning split into personal 'likes' and 'dislikes'. This doesn't just reflect policies with which I agree but also where 'truth is spoken' (or conversely, where an attempt is made to mislead the reader), or where boldness and originality appear**.LIB DEMS:1.68 likes for every dislike
Simplified fuel tariff/cheaper energy for responsible users
Enforce energy efficiency on all new homes
Renewable energy drive/energy independent Europe
Reform farming apprenticeships and enforce a supermarket code to protect agriculture
Improved water management and flood defences
Banking regulation to eliminate irresponsible practice
Improve living standard for pensioners.
More apprenticeships and vocational higher education
End gold-plating of European Directives
Reform consumer law and make watchdogs more powerful
Cut all lower priority spending.
Scrap central targets for NHS.
Increase accountability in local government and give more control over where local taxes go.
'Rail renaissance' - re-open closed lines, build a new high-speed network, encourage lower bus fares
Block plans to expand Heathrow.
Tuition fees to be progressively phased out again over six years for first-time University students
Encouraging realism in the media's portrayal of women
More British influence with the UN, EU, NATO and WTO
Regional peace process in Afghanistan
Full independent public enquiry into extraordinary rendition + torture involvement + rules on arms sales
Better family housing for troops
'Less expensive' options instead of a like-for-like replacement of Trident. Not disarmament
Work to increase accessibility of scrutiny of the EU.
Scrap ID cards, freeing up 3,000 police officers
Criminal justice policy reform - evidence-based prosecutions.
Focus on recidivism rather than increasing sentences.
Reintroduce entry and exit checks on borders, giving the NDF the power of arrest.
Speaking English a requirement for citizenship.
Targeting immigration at underpopulated regions (i.e. away from the SE).
Proportional representation for Westminster, European and local elections.
A cap on individual donations to political parties.
Party spending at a local and national level to be capped during elections.
Tighter MP's expenses rules + transparency
Number of MPs to be cut overall
Freedom Bill - restores Double Jeopardy, abolishes character evidence, affirms right to silence, curtails surveillance powers
Establish right to protest and freedom of speech.
Data protection laws strengthened.
Ensure public sector broadcasting remains funded and free from interference.
Independence of National Lottery funds restored.
Upgrades to digital infrastructure.
Stop public playing fields and tennis courts being sold off.
No new nuclear power
Wildlife protection - will hamper renewable energy exploitation
Reduce relief and close tax loopholes on businesses (morally right but will punish customers)
More places at University (seriously?)
Job Centre removes the 'need' to claim benefit for months before schemes start - will forced unemployed graduates into unsuitable jobs
'Working with businesses to repeal red tape' - why not work with consumers?
Split Post Office network from Royal Mail and sell 49% of Royal Mail shares.
Promise affordable houses to rent ... but haven't we heard this before?
Scrap regional house-building targets
19 months of paid parental leave and paid childcare for both parents.
More patronising 'diversity' legislation, including classing women as a minority
'Making employers check for pay discrimination' - either a purposefully ignorant policy (it's already in force) or positive discrimination
20 hrs/week free childcare
Ending 'headline chasing' on honour-killings, gun and knife crime.
More cooperation with NATO and EU partners on military control
Lisbon treaty good for Britain.
'Community punishments' as an alternative to prison sentences.
'Too much violent crime' - actually violent crime has decreased markedly over the past decade.
All prisoners to work to pay towards compensation fund - sounds like adulterating the purity of the criminal justice system.
House of Lords abolished, replaced by elected second chamber (whut).
Written constitution with popular input.
Lowered voting age.
Radically devolved powers to councils and communities, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland assemblies.
'Taking action to tackle illegal file-sharing.'
'Strengthening school links with local sports clubs' - pointless and potentially harmful to the academic emphasis of state schooling.
PRO: Have pledged to repeal Digital Economy Bill.
CON: Many members of party favourable to Euro.
* Although thanks to our current first-past-the-post system, even a majority of the popular vote would likely fail to suffice to grant Clegg a workeable majority - accordingly, most of the speculation around his rise to prominence has centred around whether his party would support the Tories or the ailing Labour Party in a possible hung Parliament).
** Or conversely, where a hackneyed and meaningless phrase is inserted to reassure but gives the converse impression. For example, the Conservative manifesto makes loud and repeated assurances that they will oppose hatred and support equality - something no modern political manifesto should have to do - leading all but the most unobservant reader to conclude that this is a problem for them. Accordingly, it went straight in the 'dislike' column despite being a statement with which I agree.
*** Peak Oil advocates sometimes assert that uranium is also peaking or that fissile materials are not abundant enough to support the energy demand currently being met by fossil fuels - without mentioning that availability has peaked because demand faltered and fell after Chernobyl. More reputable estimates have conventional resources (high-quality ore extractable with current technology) sufficient to meet the needs of human civilisation for hundreds of years.