The smaller the party, the bigger the manifesto. Labour, the Conservative, Green and UKIP all clock in at around 80 pages, but Nick Cleggs little monster, channeling a 70s wallpaper designer, is 158. The pages are a bit smaller, and a couple of them are taken up with an index (bravo!). As with Labour, and the Conservatives, here are a few things which stood out.
1. There is some genuinely radical stuff in here, which the Libdems have either been a bit coy about, or the mainstream media aren't interested in because they'd rather have arguments about maths. That's a shame, because the radical stuff is potentially the most significant.
2. At the same time, spot the consensus: more free childcare, more nhs funding, 0/7% on overseas aid, control immigration, devolve power both to the countries of the UK and to local governments and cities, reduce tax on the low paid, build more houses. All 3 main Westminster parties are saying the same thing in these areas. They all use the word 'plan' on their first page as well. Snore....
3. It may be that the other parties have put their detail elsewhere, or just left it out of public gaze entirely, but there is a lot of detailed thinking and policy here. This document has the only fully-fledged strategy on climate change and the environment, nearly a fully-fledged strategy on mental health (see below), and a lot more finesse in several areas than Labour or the Conservatives. Before you think I'm getting carried away, there are several things I'm completely opposed to....
4. Greenery: there are more nods from Labour towards this than the Tories, but the Libdems tackle climate change and the environment head on. It's one of their 5 'front page' priorities, along with education, balancing the budget, fair taxes and the nhs, and there are '5 Green Laws' which cover a whole raft of stuff, from conservation areas, to zero emission cars to renewable energy. 60% of energy from renewables by 2030, zero carbon economy by 2050 with zero carbon traffic, 70% recycling rate by 2020 and (I liked this) a commission to look at what resources we're using in an unsustainable way, with power to push us to cut consumption. At the same time there's the only proposals I've seen to build houses resilient to rising temperatures, and a lot more incentives towards insulation, energy efficiency etc. And every time a child is born, a tree will be planted. Not many of these will be popular, or cheap, or give a short-term gain, but the Libdems seem to be the only party who are thinking beyond the 8th of May in these areas. Well done.
5. The other one I really like, and you'd expect me to say this, is their policies on mental health - more money, better standards of care, clear waiting time targets. There's a target of getting 25% of of those suffering mental illness into appropriate counselling treatment - that seems a very low target, but perhaps its symptomatic of how poor the support currently is. Imagine of only 25% of people with a broken leg got a plaster cast.... But, for a party which has clearly done a lot of thinking, there wasn't enough on prevention. Yes there's a plan for a '5 a day' type public health campaign on mental health, more on reducing stigma etc. But a lot of mental illness is rooted in what happens when you're young: family breakdown, poor parenting, poor relationships with main carers. As with Labour, and the Tories, this seemed to be a no-go area. Nobody has the courage, or the ideas, to tackle the epidemic of fatherlessness and family breakdown, or to use the network of health visitors and new mums support to give input on parenting and relationships, as well as caring for the new baby. The Libdems are streets ahead of the rest on mental health, but there are still some streets that are no-go areas, and until we walk them, we'll always have a massive problem on our hands. To be fair, the Libdems say more than the Conservatives about promoting and expanding the Troubled Families programme, and want mediation for all separating couples, but wouldn't it be better to build stronger relationships to start with?
6. Cunning plans: everyone is offering more free childcare, the Libdems is are a bit more tailored - 20 hours per week from age 2, but if you're a working parent then it's available from 9 months in, which is when a lot of new mums go back to work part-time after having a child. Discount bus travel for students aged 16-21 is good, to get them into the habit, out of cars, and support the bus network. Getting landlords to insulate houses to an approved standard, putting RE back into the core curriculum alongside some key life skills like finance management. Oh yes, and giving local authorities more power to cut down on betting shops and the use of addictive betting terminals in their communities.
7. A few contentious ones: minimum unit pricing on alcohol (which has been suggested for a while but nobody has done it), legalising cannabis for medicinal use, and a looser drugs law put under the Health department rather than the Home Office. Decriminalising having drugs for personal use would raise a storm of protest at other times, but there hasn't been a peep about it (yet). Perhaps the Daily Mail is too busy looking for celebrities in badly-fitting bikinis.
8. Being liberals, there's quite a bit on civil liberties, control over what data people can hold about you, freedom to be rude about people and to swim where you like, more support and promotion of equality for people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, and gay, bisexual and transgender people. The cuts to legal aid are going to be reviewed, and different forms of punishment trialled (badoom-tish) for crime. 'A large prison population is a sign of failure to rehabilitate, not a sign of success'. So they want more tagging, curfews, weekend prison etc., and if you go to prison there's a skills and education assesment in your first week. After the confiscation of books by the Tories, this is a welcome change of direction.
9. Fair play to Clegg, he hasn't given up on proportional representation, there it is again, alongside an elected Lords, more devolution, caps on donations to parties, and a formal process for working out who is in the leaders debates (tick).
10. One which elevated my eyebrows: 'liberalise rules about the location, timing and content of wedding ceremonies'. I guess it depends how liberal, but the gay marriage reforms raised question marks over whether the government even knew how to define marriage, and this takes it a step further. At what point does marriage stop being marriage, and start being something else? There's a difference between pledging 'all that I have I share with you...till death us do part' and singing each other something by Robbie Williams.
11. Housing - again, plenty of detail and evidence of a lot of thinking. Right to Buy is there, but left up to local authorities not enforced by central government. But again, it's frustrating that a party which has done so much work misses some obvious issues. One is housing density - new estates are crammed, with every home overlooked, miniature gardens, and short on facilities. Many new homes have more space for the plasma telly than for a meal table. Joined up thinking on mental health and wellbeing would ask for a maximum housing density and a minimum standard on social space within a home. The Libdems mention loneliness as a problem - well at least give people the space to invite friends round then!
12. There's some thinking on faith, discrimination etc., mostly around supporting interfaith work, protecting Jews and Muslims from hate crime, but also putting RE back in a more central role at schools and giving freedom for 'religious doctrines' to be explained.
13. British Sign Language will be recognised as an official language of the UK. Excellent. Now offer it at GCSE. Outside London and premiership football, most of us are more likely to come across a deaf person than a Frenchman.
And great news for anyone from the SW who likes the Brecon Beacons - once the debts on the Severn Bridge are paid off, the tolls will be scrapped.
Overall, I was quite impressed. Much more than either of the other two parties, the policies seem to be designed with people in mind, and the stress on the environment and mental health is the kind of long-term thinking we need from our politicians, but rarely get. There are some sensible policy reviews (e.g. the constitutional convention on devolution, rather than Camerons divisive populism, legal aid), and more of a sense that this is rooted in vision and values, rather than managerialism and presentation. It's the nearest thing to what the bishops were asking for a few weeks ago, and is mercifully free of the snide political bashing you find throughout the other manifestoes. I wonder if somewhere in a backroom there are Labour and Conservative strategists going 'why didn't we think of that?'
Because of course, that's the context. Clegg is pitching to 2 sets of people. One is us, the voter. The other is the two other main parties. The Libdems main shot at power is to be a more attractive coalition partner than either the SNP or UKIP. To do that he needs as many votes and MPs as possible, and as many policies as possible which the other parties think they can work with. Given all that's in the manifestoes, a coalition with Labour looks much the better fit: the Conservatives will spend 2 years taken up with an EU referendum and take their eye off the ball, and Labour is offering much less in terms of policy anyway, so there are plenty of gaps for the Libdems to fill. Libdems and Labour are both ok with borrowing to invest, and the Conservatives are riddled with people who simply don't get climate change and green energy, from Owen Paterson to Eric Pickles.
However, I still think that doing all this is a massive challenge if 300,000 new people are arriving in the UK every year; all the money and effort that goes into the nhs, housing and education will only enable us to stand still. Meanwhile there aren't any big ideas, from anyone, on how we integrate communities at a local level. Nobody is producing an evidence-based immigration policy (why do people come here, how many will stop coming if we do x or y) based on a sustainable level of immigration, and leaving the EU is a blunt instrument with too much collateral damage. So we still need UKIP to keep this debate on the table, but probably not UKIPs solution.
AND IT DOESN'T MENTION HARD WORKING FAMILIES ONCE! YIPPEEE! If you're as intermittently lazy as I am, at last, a party you can vote for.....