Fightback or Fallback? Lib Dems seek momentum with manifesto launch

May 17, 2017 | By Elizabeth Beck | Posted in Politics

Analysis of why health could be an important issue for the Lib Dems and whether the Party’s manifesto commitments will be enough to establish the momentum it needs.

The Liberal Democrats went into the election full of optimism. The stunning success in the Richmond Park by-election suggested that the #libdemfightback had begun in earnest. Yet, at least so far, it hasn’t quite happened. The Party has slipped back in the polls and the local election results were disappointing. The campaign has failed to catch fire and Tim Farron has become bogged down in a series of rows about social issues.

The manifesto launch is therefore an important opportunity to establish some of the force that is craved by all parties at election time: momentum.

The Lib Dems face an electoral conundrum: opposition to Brexit has helped it rediscover its sense of purpose following a dispiriting period in Coalition Government and the hammer blow of the 2015 near wipe-out at the polls. Suddenly the Lib Dems were not only relevant again but – in the eyes of many Remainers – vital. Yet the Party’s best prospects for an electoral fightback are in the south west marginals, where the majority of people voted to Leave. A position which is cheering to activists (and may lead to some gains in cities) is not so appealing to voters in what was Lib Dem country. There is a risk that any gain the Lib Dems achieve in the national vote share could come in the wrong places.

So the manifesto is important in demonstrating to an electorate, who may not vote solely on the basis of their position on Brexit, that the Lib Dems are more than a one trick party.

Although health has not traditionally been a Lib Dem preoccupation, it is an issue that matters to voters, and we know that it swayed many who voted Leave in the referendum. It could, therefore, be an important issue for the Party to build a bridgehead beyond hard Remainers.

In Norman Lamb, the Party has someone with a long track record on health issues and who is well-liked within the health community. However, as a former health minister who worked closely with the current Secretary of State, there is inevitably a challenge in creating differentiation.

The headline commitments on mental health come as no surprise given the Party’s driving of the issue in recent years. Pledges to extend waiting time standards for mental health care; increase provision for new mothers and people with eating disorders; help schools to promote good mental health through training teachers and better access to counselling; end out-of-area placements for acute patients by the end of 2018 and incentivise employers to promote staff wellbeing will all be welcomed by campaigners. Whether the public sees this as distinctive from Theresa May’s commitments on the issue remains to be seen.

Commitments to provide substantial increases in funding – paid for by a penny on income tax, to be replaced in the longer term by a dedicated health and care tax – are reiterated. The Party got to this position before Labour and Lamb will hope that this is recognised by voters. The extent to which this might be an electoral asset in the marginals probably depends on whether the Conservatives also move on health spending.

The pledges to establish a cross-party health and care convention and an independent body to monitor and report on health and care budgets are repeated, although the doorstep appeal of this policy is probably limited.

As with the Labour manifesto, there are commitments to reinstate student bursaries, including for nursing, midwifery and allied health students and remove the 1% public sector pay cap. There is also a pledge to guarantee the rights of all NHS and social care service staff who are EU nationals.

On social care, there is a commitment to implement the cap on social care costs and to provide more choice on end of life care, as well as putting hospices “on a more sustainable financial footing…allowing them to expand their services.”

Third parties, who usually struggle for media exposure, normally gain a bump in the polls as broadcasters pay them more attention. It has yet to happen for Tim Farron and the Liberal Democrats. If the story of this election is to be about a fightback, not a fallback, then the launch of their manifesto will need to prove to be a turning point.

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