Yesterday, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, and the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, announced that the Liberal Democrats would commit to greater spending on science and innovation. They said increased emphasis on science would allow the UK to become Europe’s largest economy by 2035 and help tackle climate change. What’s more, this would be best achieved as part of the EU and with an open approach to immigration.
For a party that has struggled to get its messages across as a junior coalition member, and has often focused too much on issues with little public interest, this announcement joins the dots between many of the Lib Dems’ strongest attributes and packages them in one tidy announcement. Importantly, as discussed in a prior article for this website, it offers a positive vision for the future.
The policy will go into their manifesto, not the Budget. However, the Lib Dems will be wary of the Conservative Chancellor, George Osborne, claiming this ground; he’s an advocate for science investment and is not above taking credit for his Coalition colleagues’ ideas, such as increasing the personal income tax allowance. Fortunately for them, tax cuts are a proven election sweetener and Osborne might not want to draw attention away from his commitments in this area.
Additionally, Osborne’s interest in this area is no bad thing; the Lib Dems are the party of coalition after all. It helps that Labour’s Shadow Science Minister Liam Byrne also supports greater spending on innovation. If you need policies you could push through in coalition with either of the ‘Big Two’, and the Lib Dems do, then this is a winner. The Lib Dems now have competition from the likes of the SNP for a junior role in Government. They need to show that they would be a more productive and collaborative coalition partner.
Nonetheless, while the Conservatives and Labour support greater science investment in principle, the Lib Dems are the only party to commit to further spending in this area. Traditionally, science hasn’t been an election issue, but it is becoming one for a number of reasons.
Firstly, as the Lib Dems have acknowledged, science spending supports economic growth. For every pound spent on science, the UK gains between two to three pounds. With the economy a key issue in the election campaign, this is a compelling argument.
Secondly, it’s now obvious that for the UK to compete in the future, it will need to build on its strength in science and technology. The public is fully aware that Apple and Google are amongst the world’s largest companies and that society will become more technologically advanced, not less. The UK is already a world leader in research, and hosts innovative MNCs of its own, but increased investment could build on this. Small companies with big ideas often fall victim to the ‘Valley of Death’, where funding disappears before their innovations are sufficiently commercialised. They get rescued by US venture capitalists or fail. Either way, the UK does not benefit. The announcements on innovation sit comfortably alongside the Lib Dems’ work on what they call ‘Finance for Growth’, as they seek to take advantage of these opportunities.
Thirdly, science now has pop culture clout. Films like Gravity and Interstellar get people excited about the future of humanity; and they know science has a big part to play. Debates about nanotechnology, medical innovation and artificial intelligence take place in pubs and at dinner tables across the country. NASA and its ilk have strong social media presences. While traditional election issues speak to short-term pragmatic concerns (at least for swing voters); science speaks to our dreams. If you’ve been paying attention, you may have noticed that hope is a powerful vote winner.
Finally, and this is crucial, we haven’t yet found solutions to climate change and dwindling energy supplies; the greatest challenges of our time. Current technology is clearly insufficient and solutions will likely only come from new technologies, like nuclear fusion or advancements in sustainability.
There are votes to be won here, particularly on that final point. With the Greens gaining ground, the Lib Dems need to shore up their base and regain their claim to being the party most serious, and most able to deal with environmental concerns. Through announcements such as these, they communicate a vision that climate change can be tackled through new approaches within the current system, rather than by undertaking a radical overhaul of society.
By advocating membership of the EU and its collective influence, which the public increasingly supports despite UKIP’s protestations, they can appeal federalists and free trade advocates. Support for an open Britain, attracting highly-skilled immigrants, will resonate with economic liberals, both in the centre and to the right.
The announcement marks the start of an important week for the Liberal Democrats. On Wednesday, they will expect the Government to pass an amendment to the Small Business Bill they have fought hard for. The amendment will require companies employing more than 250 people to publish the gap between average pay for their male and female workers and will appeal to a voting base supportive of greater equality.
Clegg and his colleagues will hope this positive start will carry through to the weekend, when they hold their Spring Conference in Liverpool – an opportunity to boost members’ spirits and gain media coverage in a campaign in which they have often been ignored.
It’ll be hard to turn the tide of decreasing electoral support, but a Spring Conference punctuated by coherent, unified messaging – all the dots joined up – might save them from sinking into the Mersey and give them a fighting chance in May.
Image source: Lib Dem Flickr