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No Sign of the Liberal Democrat Revival

The Liberal Democrats are not having a good election. Bullish coming off the back of a steadily increasing tally of councillors picked up from local authority by-elections, buoyed by a yellow wave of new members that has taken them to over 100,000 members, and their triumph in Richmond, everyone was expecting great things. Well, better things. Then came the local elections, which saw a net loss of council seats (substantially more than a year’s worth of by-election gains) and, despite a local vote tally projected around the 18% mark, their polling numbers are stubbornly low. It might be that Labour are squeezing their vote as the more progressive-minded LibDem voters who returned to the Liberals over the course of the last year have doubled back. This means the notion they’re going to recover loads of seats lost in 2015 is, at the moment, looking fanciful.

Whatever is going on, the LibDems are in trouble. And this is the context in which their manifesto launched this evening. In its treatment by the media, the document has been trailed as a young-oriented programme with promises to sort apprenticeships out, dicker with the housing market through help-to-rent and rent-to-buy initiatives, and the like. On pay and particularly low pay, which young people disproportionately are on the sharp end of, all we get is a commitment to set up a review that would consult on the level of the living wage. Helpful. What has particularly caught the eye is a promise to reintroduce grants for students in Higher Education. Yet there isn’t anything I could glean about 16-18 education, and so no promise to restore EMA payments. Which, you may recall, were taken away by the LibDems and Tories when they shared a bed. Still, not to worry, the decriminalisation of cannabis is sure to get the young voters in.

Let’s have a look at their NHS section. Here, there is nothing too objectionable. A penny on each of the tax bands isn’t something anyone is going to complain too much about. Their idea of developing a workforce strategy, working toward a more joined up health service, taking mental health very seriously by starting to match resources to need and what have you is absolutely fine. Though there are two big problems here. Rightly, they attack the Tories for their funding crisis and take a lazy sideswipe at Labour for not having the solutions to deal with it. But Labour does have a solution, and it directly involves a key Liberal Democrat “achievement”: repealing the 2012 Health and Social Care Act. Yes, the NHS is underfunded. It also wastes billions on the added costs of a thoroughly marketised health economy underpinned by the taxpayer. Apparently, tinkering here and there would sort the NHS out while the glaring structural flaw remains invisible to their eyes. Another, not unrelated, problem is the proposal for a dedicated health and care tax. This, if you will remember, was a wheeze conjured up by George Osborne. His thinking was that specifying a NHS tax as part of PAYE would encourage a desire among tax payers to see that tax reduced, giving the Tories a further hook to run it down even further. I’m not suggesting the LibDem proposal comes from a similar place, though they too are neoliberal taliban when it comes to such things, yet it’s a hostage the Tories would gladly seize down the line.

Other things? How about this on page 93: “Strengthen trade union members’ political freedoms by letting them choose which political party they wish to support through the political levy.” Um, no. You can take that one back. Trade unions are organisations of working people, so why should a party of business – which the LibDems are, albeit a singularly unsuccessful one – have the right to say what voluntary organisations can and can’t do with their political funds? If a union wants to open its political funds to other parties, that’s a matter purely for them. Though don’t be too surprised if this one is nabbed for the much-delayed Tory manifesto.

Speaking of the Tories, they’ve picked up a trick from them. Or, more specifically, the Scottish Conservatives. We’re seeing how Theresa May is using personal branding to overcome brand toxicity and build a vote, in exactly the same way Ruth Davidson did in Scotland. The LibDems, in their introduction, are asking people to vote for them in order to provide an effective opposition. Just like Ruth Davidson did in Scotland. Unhappily for them, the same trick is not going to repeat.

Is any of this going to be help? It’s not looking likely. The problem is pitching yourselves as hard remainers in local (and parliamentary) by-elections is one thing. You can easily mobilise a vote motivated by this issue to pull off stunning wins on low turn outs. In a general election when the Tories are explicitly pitching as the guardians of Brexit against the “wreckers” and other such stupidity, that hardcore remain vote is spread too thinly to make a difference in all but a very small number of seats. And with that, the LibDem revival, much hyped, much vaunted, looks all set to come to nothing on 8th June.

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