Despite holding the official launch event this evening (apparently so that ‘ordinary workers’ can attend), the Lib Dems have published their manifesto, titled ‘Change Britain’s Future’.
In his foreword, Tim Farron says that he is making a “different case” to the British people. Rather than presenting a vision for Government, he wants to persuade the electorate to vote for the Lib Dems as the official Opposition party. In other words, he knows he can’t catch Theresa May, but is hoping to capitalise on Labour’s weakness, making a play for those Labour voters who reject Jeremy Corbyn’s hard left manifesto and the Tory voters that didn’t vote to leave the EU.
The party’s flagship pledge of a referendum on the terms of any Brexit deal is at the heart of the Lib Dems’ offer to voters. They promise a second EU referendum, giving people the option to vote for the final deal or choose the option of remaining in the EU, and will press to keep Britain as “close as possible to Europe”, including protection of rights for EU and UK citizens, membership of the Single Market and Customs Union and protecting freedom of movement.
As such, the manifesto makes a clear play to gather support from the cross-party 48% that voted for Britain to remain in the EU and those that never favoured a ‘hard’ Brexit. Unfortunately for Farron, much of this 48% has moved on from June last year: polling by YouGov has found that 69% of the public now believe the Government has a duty to leave the EU, including more than a third of those who voted Remain. Only 21% agree that the Government should either block Brexit or seek to prevent it through a second referendum. This means that the majority of voters are more likely to be looking at which party leader is most capable of leading Brexit negotiations rather than which will prevent Brexit. The Lib Dem manifesto’s focus on a second referendum soon starts to look misjudged if the party hopes to attract anyone but the most ardent Europhiles.
The Lib Dems also face another problem with increasing their vote share: Farron can’t hope to win in traditional Tory seats, so has set sights on regaining seats in traditional strongholds – the West Country and south-west London. But across Cornwall, Devon and Somerset, where the Lib Dems were once the political establishment, people voted overwhelmingly for Brexit. This makes a comeback in this area a difficult feat, and presents Farron with the tough challenge of appealing to these West Country voters and the metropolitan city suburbs.
Aside from Brexit, the Lib Dems propose a more modest £14 billion package of spending pledges, compared to Labour’s £48 billion. The party will raise funds for their boost in spending through their promise to put 1p in the pound on income tax, and through tax revenues from a legalised cannabis market. The manifesto also includes reversing cuts in corporation tax and planned reductions in capital gains tax: a mirror of the Labour manifesto but without specifically targeting high earners or ‘fat cats’.
The spending boost includes significant new investment in health, social care and education, and a pledge to build 300,000 homes a year by 2022 as part of a package of additional infrastructure investment. Tenants will be able to use rent payments to buy their own homes, young people will get their housing benefit back, and under 21s will get cheaper bus travel. But while attempting to appeal to younger voters, the Lib Dem manifesto does not contain a commitment to scrap university fees, unlike Labour. The party has been burned with tuition fee pledges before of course, so perhaps felt it better to steer clear this time around.
While the Lib Dem sums do seem to add up, the party’s manifesto may well fall between the cracks. Not as radical as Labour, and without the robust Brexit stance of the Conservatives, it seems unlikely there is enough in this manifesto to win their traditional voters over and get the #LibDemFightBack finally moving.