Page last updated at 08:24 GMT, Wednesday, 16 September 2009 09:24 UK

Manifesto Man: Danny Alexander

By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News

He would never admit it, but it must be a bit frustrating being Danny Alexander.

Danny Alexander
Danny Alexander chairs the Lib Dem manifesto group

As chairman of the Liberal Democrat manifesto group, he has the job of putting together the party's programme for the next general election, which is a matter of months away.

This is a far from simple process.

Mr Alexander and party leader Nick Clegg are determined to produce a slimmed-down, tightly-costed manifesto in keeping with the current mood of austerity and the pressing need to cut Britain's budget deficit.

"Given the economic circumstances, we are going to have to make some pretty tough choices on which of our policies we think are viable and which aren't," says Mr Alexander.

"It's my job to work with all the other people in the party to make those choices."

The only problem is that "all the other people in the party" - many of whom will be heading to Bournemouth at the weekend for their annual conference - are unlikely to give up some of their favourite policies without a fight.

The left of the party reacted with horror at an interview given by Mr Clegg to The Independent just before MPs headed off on their long summer recess, in which he warned: "You can't promise the same menu of goodies. It's just not plausible."

He told party members that some of their most cherished policies would have to be downgraded to mere "aspirations".

Hit list

The Independent helpfully listed some of the pledges that might be facing the chop - including scrapping university tuition fees, providing free personal care for the elderly, and bringing in a higher basic state pension.

Evan Harris, a member of the Liberal Democrat Federal Policy Committee, which has the final say over the manifesto's contents, immediately pointed out that the party had only just voted to keep its commitment to free university tuition - and was highly unlikely to accept some of the other cuts suggested in The Independent.

LIB DEM MANIFESTO TITLES
Charles Kennedy
2005: The Real Alternative
2001: Freedom, Justice, Honesty
1997: Make the Difference
1992: Changing Britain for Good
1987: Britain United: The Time Has Come (SDP/Liberal Alliance
1983: Working Together for Britain (SDP/Liberal Alliance)
1979: The Real Fight is for Britain (Liberal Party)

But when pushed at the time on whether tuition fees and other policies that are popular with grassroots members are really facing the axe, all Mr Clegg would say was that nothing was off limits.

It did not help that A Fresh Start for Britain, the pre-manifesto document which was supposed to set out details of Mr Clegg's bonfire of the policies did no such thing.

Beyond stressing Mr Clegg's commitment to young people, the creation of "green jobs", and, of course, constitutional reform, and outlining a few existing policies, such as not procuring a like-for-like replacement for Trident and curbing public sector pensions, it was pretty short on specifics.

Now Mr Alexander has been forced to table an amendment to a conference motion endorsing the Fresh Start document, reassuring party members that it is not a hit list of doomed policies after all.

The amendment says: "Despite reports, the document neither abandons nor downgrades any existing policy commitments, and that the process of prioritising policy commitments will only be carried out in the preparation of the General Election manifesto."

'Ghastly mistakes'

The conference is due to vote on A Fresh Start for Britain on Tuesday. Mr Alexander, who is also Nick Clegg's chief of staff, says he is not expecting a major row, but also concedes that that could be "famous last words".

The Lib Dems may, as Mr Alexander argues, have a more "democratic" way of producing a manifesto than some other parties, but it can also seem like an unnecessarily tortuous process that could, if not carefully handled, lead to a bland, "catch-all" set of policies.

Does he never cast an envious glance at the way other parties write their manifestos?

"I really don't. One of the reasons why Labour and the Tories have made such a mess of the country over the past few years in their government is because they don't listen widely enough in drawing up their ideas. It leads them into making all sorts of ghastly mistakes.

"The idea may sound fine in some smoke filled room in Whitehall but when it's actually applied in the real world it doesn't work."

Tory coalition?

The point of the Fresh Start document, he says, is to get party members to sign up to the principle that there will be no spending commitments without cuts elsewhere to fund them, and no promises of tax cuts without increases in other taxes.

And when it comes to writing the manifesto, nothing will be off limits.

One of the great strengths of our manifesto process is the fact that our members both in Parliament and outside can get very involved in drawing it up
Danny Alexander

"There are lots of policies, and some might be deeply held policies by some people, that can't be included in the manifesto because there isn't the resource to deliver them because they don't fit with the priorities we are trying to put across now," he says.

There have been mutterings from some in the party that A Fresh Start for Britain is an attempt to prepare the ground for a coalition with the Conservatives in the event of a hung Parliament, by emphasising the party's financial credibility and willingness to slash public spending if necessary.

Others have said the leadership is seeking a "blank cheque" from party members, who will vote on the document on Tuesday - leaving the leadership a free hand to start slaughtering sacred cows.

Treasury spokesman Vince Cable, who has been calling for Labour and the Conservatives to be more specific about public spending cuts, has come up with a list of nine areas where he says cuts will be needed, including curbs to public sector pay and cuts in family credit to the better-off.

But there is no mention of some of the savings suggested in the now infamous Independent article - such as ending the pledge to save the rural Post Office network and cutting free personal care for the elderly.

'Story to tell'

Mr Alexander, who was a spokesman for the now defunct Britain in Europe lobby group before becoming an MP in 2005, rejects the "blank cheque" argument, saying the pre-manifesto document is merely part of the normal process the party goes through every time it produces a manifesto.

"One of the great strengths of our manifesto process is the fact that our members both in Parliament and outside can get very involved in drawing it up," he says, although he stresses it is down to Mr Clegg, as the party leader, to set the overall policy direction.

He insists the manifesto group, which draws on contributions from frontbench spokesman like Mr Cable and numerous other policy committees, is still open to new ideas, even at this relatively late stage.

Because the economic situation is so uncertain and official figures - where they are available - are "optimistic", he says significant parts of the manifesto will not be written until the last possible minute.

"This is a process in terms of the economy and the finances that is going to go right to the wire.

"We don't know when the recovery will get underway, if it does, what the fiscal position will be next March, when presumably we have a Budget before an election, and for all those reasons getting that balance right is difficult for any party."

He is endearingly reluctant to admit that the finished document, which he describes as "a key piece of source material for the election, for candidates, for MPs, for campaigners in the field and also, obviously, for journalists", is, like any party's manifesto, unlikely to top the bestseller lists.

"The content of it is very widely read across the country, even if the document itself doesn't fly off the shelves in WH Smiths," he finally concedes.

And he promises that, as well as having a clear "story to tell" it will include a few last minute surprises.

"I think you would be pretty disappointed if you met the chair of any manifesto group, of any person who is writing a manifesto, who didn't have a few ideas in their head."

Let's hope, for his sake, that the party's policy committees like them.


Here is a selection of your comments so far:

Biggest policy that stops liberals ever becoming serious contenders...EUROPE. They killed any chance of a vote on the Lisbon Treaty. Many will never forget what they did.
darren, Bilston

The Lib Dems were right on the Iraq war, predicted the housing crash, were right on splitting up the banks and on the grave necessity of securing our environment. I just hope that their message gets through: we can't allow for business as usual from the Tories and Labour.
Simon, Hertfordshire

If the truth be known, whatever the Lib Dems do is not going to change the way any government is going to govern. Really. Is it a wasted vote? Yes, sure is. No matter what they say or do in their manifesto, it will come to nought.
R Joseph, Stafford, UK

What I would like to see rather than concentration on "what we can do in the space of the next parliament" is what can be done over the next 60 years to ensure that our children have a decent fit society to grow up in. Short termism in politics is no longer an option and it is something that all the political parties have to stop doing otherwise this cycle of delcine will continue
Richard Hurst, Huddersfield

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