The Lib Dems unveiled a manifesto (pdf) this morning that was chock-full of bright ideas and sensible fair thinking, but lacking a unifying theme.
The party appears to be pitching for the sort of person who's unhappy about fat cat salaries, rude people in hospitals and is likely to switch vote based on whether night buses stop on their doorstep.
This one reads like Little Brother to Labour’s big 'un, Mary Poppins to Labour’s Nanny McPhee - forever torn between a desire to impose social improvement, yet conscious of traditions as a party of Liberty. The Lib Dem desire to make the world a fairer place is encapsulated in its four key points: fair taxes, fair future, fair deal and fair chance (for children).
Supporting that aspiration are a range of measures, some quite far-reaching and radical and some tinkering at a level way beyond what one would expect of a party seriously preparing for government. At the high level, the manifesto proclaims "The Liberal Democrat philosophy is built on a simple ambition: to distribute power fairly among people".
At the same time, the manifesto finds room to insert a proclamation that the Lib Dems will "clamp down on anyone who is aggressive or abusive to staff in accident and emergency departments". Or even more nitpicking, they will "bring in stop-on-request for night buses. You should be able to ask the driver to let you off between stops, so you’re as close to home as possible".
On the economic front, there is an openness and an earnestness that is lacking in the other two manifestos. At the end of the Lib Dem document, there is an attempt to cost out their economic plans in some detail. Some might reckon it a hostage to fortune. There is even an index!
The main plank of their economic approach appears to be fairness, represented by what it claims is "the most radical tax reform in a generation". This turns out to be mostly about removing the need to pay income tax on on the first £10,000 earned and closing a series of loopholes: under a Lib Dem administration, tax relief on pensions will be only at the basic rate, capital gains will be at the same rates as income and there will be new powers for HM Revenue & Customs to tackle tax avoidance and evasion.
They have already identified over £15bn of savings in government spending per year, and these will include a £400 pay rise cap for all public sector workers, the scrapping of ID cards and the next generation of biometric passports, cancelling Eurofighter Tranche 3b and probably a decision not go for a like-for-like replacement of the Trident nuclear weapons system.
There will be a council on financial stability, involving representatives of all parties, the governor of the Bank of England and the chair of the Financial Services Authority.
Beyond that, the Lib Dems want to break our historic reliance on the financial sector, and invest heavily in new technology and the green economy. They would begin their term in office with a one-year job creation and green economic stimulus package: £3.1bn of public spending that can be used to create 100,000 jobs, which would be a first step towards their target for a zero-carbon Britain by 2050.