Liberal Democrats looking ahead to the 2015 General Election
At their October conference the Liberal Democrats will debate and vote on a ‘pre-manifesto’ document. Closely based on existing party policy setting out up to a dozen key policies under the ‘stronger economy, fairer society’ banner it will form the basis of campaigning in the months leading to next May’s General Election. When the Lib Dems will enter uncharted territory campaigning not only on their manifesto but also on their track record in Government.
Whatever they may say publicly the Lib Dem manifesto will be written with one eye on possible coalition negotiations. Wanting to avoid the position they found themselves following the last election over their “pledge” to oppose increases in university tuition fees. Three to five policies are likely to be highlighted as integral to taking part in a further Coalition (or supporting a minority government); though it is unlikely to be so explicit.
In the meantime we have seen a series of policy announcements unveiling specific Lib Dem proposals. So while they will stick to the Coalition’s plans to get the structural deficit in balance by 2017/18. They will achieve this differently involving tax increases and as well as spending cuts. Including a ‘Mansion Tax’ which will now be delivered via additional council tax bands for higher value properties. With all early years’ education, schools and the NHS budget protected.
Parents will be given a guarantee that all pupils will be taught the same core curriculum by a qualified teacher in every state-funded school. New child poverty measures will be introduced on reducing relative poverty, reducing gaps in life chances, and reducing entrenched poverty. While the ‘spare room subsidy’ rules (also known as the ‘Bedroom Tax’) will be changed so that existing social tenants will only lose their housing benefit if they are offered a suitable smaller home and then turn it down; while disabled adults will be exempted from the policy.
What else can local government expect from the Lib Dems?
- While lifting the housing borrowing restrictions on councils they will launch a major house building programme with at least 40% new build social or intermediate tenures leading to 300,000 new homes a year.
- Improving the protection for those who rent in the private sector by introducing a licensing scheme for all landlords and mandatory registration for all letting and managing agents.
- Incentivising zero carbon homes through Council Tax discounts and surcharges.
- Delivering more childcare support by extending the number of hours to which young children are entitled.
- Empowering local authorities to oversee all schools including academies and free schools.
- While pooling greater proportions of health and social care budgets to promote integrated care.
As a potential partner to either Labour or the Conservatives the Lib Dems could prove to be a useful local government ally in seeing more powers devolved from Whitehall. But while they want to significantly increase the share of resources which are determined and controlled at a local level. They appear to have shied away from the fundamental reforms they had previously campaigned for; where the bulk of local government’s revenue, over time, would come from local income and property taxes. Instead the focus is now on widening the scope of current initiatives around growth and city deals, pooled budgets (the Better Care Fund and the Single Growth Fund) and partnership boards (Health and Well Being Boards); taking in a wider set of public services and budgets. Where coincidentally there is more synergy with both Labour and the Conservatives.
It is also notable that the Lib Dem working group that developed their decentralisation policy see the introduction of proportional representation in local elections as a priority. Given the importance that the party attaches to electoral reform will this form part of their red negotiating lines?
The indications are that both Labour and the Conservatives do not want to go as far as the Lib Dems in completely removing the housing borrowing restrictions on councils. A compromise might be found around the size of the house building ambition and to what extent this involves new social housing and intermediate tenures.
The parties have differing views on the fitness of local authorities to fulfil the school accountability role.Conservative views are well known. The Lib Dems want to empower local authorities to oversee all schools including academies and free schools. While Labour’s emerging plans would see all schools become accountable to new statutory independent local directors of school standards but not return to local democratic accountability.
All this will become clearer in the coming weeks and months ahead, but there is still some seven months before the Lib Dem manifesto (and those for the other main parties) will be published and when the election campaign will start in earnest. This is still an evolving picture.
This post was written by Mark Upton, Freelance Consultant at Public Policy Strategies and Associate at the Local Government Information Unit and is based on his LGiU member briefing:“Liberal Democrats – policy development in the lead up to 2015 General Election”