"What four pledges would you put on the front of the next Lib Dem manifesto?"
If you're following the Liberal Democrats internal elections at all, you'll have been reading closely the answers submitted to Jennie Rigg's questionnaire for candidates, and that is the second question.
But there's a problem with this approach: those pledges have to do two jobs – they have to DIFFERENTIATE us but they also have to be DELIVERABLE.
The need to have "red lines" that we can be sure the other Parties will agree to is making us pick BLAND, CAUTIOUS, "MORE OF THE SAME" policy.
We like to see it as a Lib Dem TRIUMPH that we can flourish: look at the four big pledges on the cover! We DELIVERED them all! (To a certain value of "delivered" when it comes to political reform.)
But look at what happened to us over the unofficial "fifth" pledge: tuition fees. Sure, it wasn't on the cover, but signing those pledge cards went and made it co-equal. And we had no chance of agreeing it with either Labour (authors of the Browne Report and who had form on bringing in tuition fees in the teeth of their own broken promises) nor Conservative (who were highly unlikely to disagree with making people pay for something they technically already owned).
We were completely burned for selling out one "red line".
But it makes you realise how carefully "gamed" those other pledges were: they were different enough to make a splash, but close to what the other Parties would agree.
Count Packula puts it best when he answers Jennie with:
"The best set of pledges need not only clearly represent our values, they must be electorally useful in winning support, distinguish us from the other parties and be plausible to deliver in any hung Parliament negotiations."
So I'm seeing a lot of times "keep increasing the personal allowance" and "keep investing in pupil premium" (yes, that one's on mine!), and the lack of ambition is slightly beginning to depress me.
Or to put it another way: let's have "more of the same", because "more of the same" is making us SO POPULAR AND DISTINCTIVE, isn't it.
The alternative is seeing genuinely BRAVE and INNOVATIVE policy and reacting warily to it for fear that it's going to be another bruising, busted pledge.
For example, Mark Thompson – who is an excellent candidate who I would be delighted to see on the FPC – includes in his four: "A pledge to legalise and regulate all currently illegal drugs"
Of course this is absolutely the right policy: he's done much more research into the evidence than me, but what we'd both tell you is that the so-called war on drugs is a massively expensive failure that boosts the profits of criminal gangs while putting many lives in danger from cut drugs and crossfire. Legalisation would save police time and money; allow users some certainty they were getting what they paid for and not chalk cut with horse tranquilisers or rat poison; and allow us to treat addiction medically without stigma. The levels of harm from cannabis or ecstasy (see Jennie's question one) are not nothing but are tiny compared to the levels of harm that we accept from drinking or smoking. It's obviously the liberal thing to do. And, hell, it might even boost the economy.
But Labour and the Conservatives will join forces to block it, just as they did with Lords Reform, because the status quo is in there interest – namely playing to the "law and Order" gallery for the support of certain newspapers in their ever more insane bids to outflank one another on the right.
They'll beat us up for suggesting it and then beat us up AGAIN for not delivering it!
Another example is where Prateek Buch – also an admirable (not to mention ubiquitous – how does he fit in all those speeches?) candidate who I'd be very happy to see elected – includes "coalition compromises would not cross red lines of increasing gap in wealth and power between top and bottom".
We all know that Liberalism is about dispersing power, breaking up vested interests and returning opportunity to individuals. And anyone who has read "The Spirit Level" will be familiar with the benefits, to health and happiness as well as growth, which appear to come from a more equal society. But at the same time you must see the hostage to fortune: even if you DON'T consider that an automatic ruling out of another coalition with the Conservatives, whichever Party ends up in opposition, they will immediately start looking for measurements to show that the wealth or "power" gap (however it's measured) HAS increased and that we've "sold out".
Similarly, my own manifesto includes the Citizen's Income suggestion.
Now, "raise the personal allowance" is a policy that we can sell to either other Party – the Tories would buy a tax cut; Labour would buy help for workers on the lowest incomes – but a radical change to the tax and benefit system, abolishing huge swathes of bureaucracy (read "Whitehall power")? It's too big, too radical, too scary.
So you see the problem. This need to be able to compromise AND show we've not broken our "headline policy promises" means that far from breaking the mould, we're now moulding ourselves to fit with policies that are acceptable to the old status quo of the Labour/Conservative axis. When people are crying out "you're all the same" we are literally making ourselves "more of the same".
We make a TRAP for ourselves if we say our HEADLINES are also our RED LINES.
Red lines should be the absolute MINIMUM acceptable to us. If our headlines are no higher than our absolute minimum then what are we saying? Either we are too radical to ever form a coalition with either old Party or we're already too compromised.
With Labour and the Conservatives BOTH retreating to Nineteenth Century One Nation-ism, I think we need to be braver about offering a REAL transformation, not just tinkering with the current broken system, but a genuine promise of a new direction.