Liberal Democrats playing it safe too – but they are the ones with the record to defend, warts and all
As with the Labour manifesto, clearly a fair amount of thought and effort has gone into the policy content this. Just not as much as with the Labour manifesto. I’m also surprised that the presentation is so poor compared to Labour’s manifesto. For a start, it’s not even in colour and there are no photographs or pictures. No group photo of the people involved, no single photographs or quotations of individuals concerned, and no links to any online content or even a mention of the website. There’s also not even a contents page.
“So…very off-putting to read then?”
I think the problem is when compared to what Labour have produced – and note they got theirs out first – is that it looks like it was produced for a past decade. At least Labour’s has a consistency of format – albeit one that perhaps betrays a little bit too much ‘central control from party HQ in London, but it comes across as much more… ‘professional’.
“Could they turn it around last minute?”
They could get in touch with some professional publishers, send a few photographs and say: “Look, make this look nicer than theirs!” for a start. But then perhaps this is a document made for mass printing on home printers rather than something produced by expensive professional publishers or printers.
“What about the content?”
The fact is that the Liberal Democrats are defending their record of political control of the council. 14 years of it as they state on in the opening text box. Hence the ‘What have the Liberal Democrats done for us?’ box. Personally I’d have gone with fewer, bolder claims that resonate with people. The one mentioning ‘clearing up after Labour’s mess’ doesn’t feel right – it’s the equivalent of Labour in 2010 talking about what the Tories did in the early 1990s.
Comparing the themes
Cambridge Liberal Democrats have gone for five themes:
- A place of your own
- A city that works for all
- Keeping Cambridge moving
- Quality of life
- Making ends meet to improve and protect basic services
This compares with Labour’s themes of:
- Protecting essential services
- Sharing the city’s prosperity
- Tackling the housing crisis
- Safety and quality of life
- Making Cambridge greener and cleaner
- Transforming the council
A place of your own
The first theme the Liberal Democrats look at has been scoped reasonably well. Personally I’d have gone for: “A place called home”. With this in mind, they’ve covered the city’s role on planning control and as a provider of social housing, with a column about the local plan. The problem is the column-style layout does not make for easy reading. Hence some of their stronger policy areas – particularly on the environment, and some of the past problems, such as Central Government’s bar on council house building (one of the old Labour Government’s big policy errors in my opinion) could have been more readable and more clear.
A city that works for all
This goes for both parties, but when making statistical claims in your manifesto, please include a footnote to reference them. We’re in a digital age – I expect to be able to click through from hyperlinks to the primary source of your claim. In this case the one that stands out is about Cambridge being the most equal UK city. That may be the case statistically, but I have no effortless way of finding out. Also, it certainly doesn’t feel like it is equal when I see homes in my childhood neighbourhood going for between £500,000 to £1million. (The area being the borderlands of the Coleridge and Queen Edith wards).
In comparing this theme with Labour’s theme of sharing the prosperity, the latter emerge the stronger. The reason being that Labour have a whole series of specific actions and policies. It’s not as clear from the Liberal Democrats what their distinguishing policies are. What are the things that make me as the reader identify with something that makes me think: 1) this is really innovative and 2), this is something that links to the values of the party? Again, the Liberal Democrats suffer because of the document’s layout. Labour have gone for sub-headings for each of their policies while the Liberal Democrats have gone for bold words within the text – the latter being harder to pick out.
Keeping Cambridge moving
Although content-wise there isn’t that much that separates the two parties, Labour’s comes across more powerfully because of how they have presented their content. There is a fair amount of work that the Liberal Democrats could be taking more credit for, if only they had presented their manifesto in a more professional manner. As a result, Labour’s plans come across with a much greater degree of focus than the Liberal Democrats, even though transport-wise they are very similar.
Quality of life
These have been randomly mixed in with the party’s values. The thing is, these values should be resonating with a lot of people – it’s not as if there’s a huge amount in there to disagree with. Again, because of poor presentation, potentially strong content gets lost in the text.
There have been a number of new innovative activities that the Liberal Democrats have piloted – such as restorative justice that many people may not know about. At the same time I also think the party could have taken a risk about being more open and honest with its policy failures – particularly around planning and building control. The developments around Cambridge railway station represent a massive missed opportunity for many of us that live near by.
Making ends meet to improve and protect basic services
The Liberal Democrats should have done what Labour did with this section – and perhaps had it earlier on in their manifesto too. Labour started with the basic numbers of the Whitehall funding cuts. Personally I’d have gone with having the numbers in bullet points to say that the picture is as it is because of decisions taken far outside the control or influence of local councillors.
They finish with a call for a unitary authority – something that Labour also calls for. Again, this is something that can only be delivered through an Act of Parliament. Both parties could have said something about how they will push for this to be included in national manifestos. The reason being is that we have a broken structure of public administration for Cambridge. Without that unitary authority, Cambridge will continue to struggle with the burdens of being a city with a global brand but the civic infrastructure of a market town.
“Does the manifesto inspire you?”
“How do you think they could have done it? They have been in political control for over a decade, so it was quite a hard sell!”
As a package it just comes across as a cheap, rushed imitation of what Labour has produced. And it didn’t need to be. I know a number of people in both political parties personally. With the Liberal Democrats, I know that they are better than the document they have produced, hence my surprise and disappointment. Perhaps after 14 years in political control of the council, as well as taking a hammering for the decisions taken by their party members in the Coalition Government in Whitehall they are exhausted. As with Labour in 2010, I can’t help but get the feeling that the fight has gone out of them, and that they need the rest and opportunity to refocus that opposition will provide.
What could they have done differently?
- Presentation and layout. Any strong content they had was lost in the text
- Fewer, bolder themes emphasising success and partnership working
- Acknowledgement of where things went wrong – one or two of the really obvious things that would give some indication of what they’ve learnt
- Photographs, references, links to online content
“Is this a manifesto to win a local election?”
It isn’t – the presentation gives the game away. Imagine you are a political activist. Irrespective of the content, which document, if printed out would you be more comfortable taking out and about with you to show to people? Comparing the two manifestos alone, the local council elections for 2014 are one for Labour to lose. Theirs comes across as more planned, more focused, better presented and one that has had far more thought put into it than their Liberal Democrat opponents. The question is can they make this advantage count at the ballot box?
“Lessons for 2015?”
Irrespective of who wins and takes political control of Cambridge City Council, there are some big lessons for the Liberal Democrats for next year’s general election and local council elections. The need to produce a manifesto that looks much more like it was made in the 21st century. Not just photographs, maps, diagrams and quotations, but footnotes, references and hyperlinks. The reason being that people will be giving a damn sight more scrutiny to their manifesto of 2015 than what they’ll give for this one. There’s the talent within their party – and through their supporters and sympathisers to produce something far better than what they have produced here.