Yesterday, the BBC published a round-up of the policies of the two Lib Dem leadership candidates. I was surprised at quite how close they are to one another. Indeed, it reminded me of John Major’s quip following Tony Blair’s statement that his three priorities would be “Education, education, education”, that the Conservative government of the time had the same three priorities, but in a different order.
So for example, under the rubric Constitution we read that Nick Clegg “Believes coalition government is only possible after electoral reform [and would introduce a] Freedom Bill to roll back ‘unnecessary, outdated and illiberal’ legislation like ID cards…” and would enable parliament to set aside time to consider petitions. By comparison Chris Huhne, along with enabling petitions to trigger referendums, believes that “Proportional representation [is a] prerequisite for any talks about partnership government [and would introduce a] Freedom Bill to repeal ‘unnecessary and illiberal legislation’.” Oh, and they both support a fully elected House of Lords.
And under Housing Huhne believes “Councils should be allowed to build more houses ... Three million homes should be built in next 10 years”, in stark comparison to Clegg’s desire to “Free councils to build 100,000 affordable homes a year, pushing up total housebuilding [sic.] to 3.3 million in 10 years.”
Well that’s helped me make my mind up. I’m off to man the barricades for whichever one has the warmest handshake at the door outside the hustings.
They both also support more money for schools (which makes a pleasant change from the platform of “Less money for schools” which every other politician has cried during their election campaigns) and to reach out to uncommitted voters (the willow-the-wisp of that elusive 40 per cent, the lumpen masses who could sweep us all to power if only they could be motivated by an inspiring leader).
Even where there are differences, they are more minimal than the various camps are suggesting. Nick believes that we need to maintain our nuclear arsenal as a bargaining chip in future multilateral disarmament talks (and he should know, having been a negotiator in previous talks), while Chris believes that we should maintain “a minimum nuclear deterrent...” while at the same time “rejecting Trident” because it would “tie us irreversibly to dependence on the United States”. The BBC list (itself probably drafted by the two camps following a request from the Beeb) places the importance of localism in tax-raising for Clegg and planning for Huhne.
On only a couple of areas do big differences appear to emerge. Nick has already fathered a policy that commits the Lib Dems to more “managed migration” [sound of head thudding repeatedly against wall], Chris appears to have been far stronger is suggesting that he would be tougher on non-EU immigration if it could be shown that this was leading to rapid short-term effects. So shocking do I find this that I feel the need to point out that I have not seen this policy first-hand from the Huhne camp; I am willing (almost eager) to believe that his position has been misrepresented.
But basically the two are disturbingly close together. This was summed up on Question Time when a member of the audience asked what the differences were between them on tax, to which they replied there was none. That was the end of that discussion. Both have of course explained that they are standing for the leadership of the same party and as such are bound to have much in common, but personally I have been frustrated by the lack of really radical thinking and genuine debate. In part I blame this on Chris’ apparent tactics of attempting to undermine Nick by demonising him and those around him for having dangerously liberal ideas: this has forced Nick back towards the party’s comfort zones; back towards the median voter. But I also suspect that even without the alleged dirty-tricks campaign there would have been an inevitable self-censorship by both potential leaders, recognising the sad reality that it is easier to alienate a voter than enthuse one.
The result is that we have missed a golden opportunity to have what the Liberal Democrats sorely need: a real debate about the soul of our party that would clarify that much-needed narrative that we are trying to formulate. Instead we must resort to looking for differences between the two large enough to slip an voting paper into.