The Liberal Democrats have published their election manifesto, which can be read here: https://​www​.lib​dems​.org​.uk/​l​i​b​e​r​a​l​-​d​e​m​o​c​r​a​t​s​-​2019​-​m​a​n​i​festo. Below we go through some of the major policy announcements it contains. 

As each person will have different priorities in this election, the aim here is not to summarise every policy. Instead, below are four areas of interest based on four good questions to ask when reading a manifesto: 

  • What are the headlines?
  • What long-standing ideas are applied to new problems?
  • What new issues is the party discussing?
  • What unanswered questions remain?

Headline: EU Membership

Some manifestos can be accused of hedging their bets on key issues. This one, however, is very clear from the front cover: STOP BREXIT” is written there in big letters. The Lib Dems pledge to revoke Article 50 without a second referendum. They write:

We are unashamedly fighting to stay in the European Union, and we are the strongest party of Remain. We believe that our best future as a country is as a member of the European Union. Any form of Brexit will damage our economy, put jobs at risk, hurt our NHS and put our family of nations under enormous strain. There is no Brexit deal that will ever be as good as the deal we currently have as a member of the European Union.”

As you would expect, many subsequent policy areas then hinge on this continued EU membership, from Lib Dem assumptions about the economy, to proposals which tackle other issues. For example, instead of looking at trade deals outside the EU, the Lib Dems pledge to strengthen European ties, such as on the Iran nuclear deal. Again, on the environment, many of the Lib Dem global policies are tied to continued action within the EU institutions.

Questions of course remain on the mechanics of revoking Article 50, on our future relationship with the EU in this context, and on how the divisions unearthed by Brexit would be dealt with post-revocation. And as it is unlikely that the Lib Dems will be a majority party – even after this unpredictable election – it remains to be seen how this policy will fare in negotiations with others. These may be good questions to put to your local Liberal Democrat candidate.

Old News: Constitutional Reform

Manifestos are often where long-standing political parties will try to show where their consistent principles are applied to new challenges. And a consistent argument advanced by the Lib Dems (as the smaller, third party) has always been that our current electoral system does not represent all voters and is in need of reform. In the current context, they write:

The failure of the UK’s democratic system to reflect the diversity of the public’s views in parliament has played a major role in creating the current political crisis – fixing this is a matter of urgency.”

One of their key proposals is a written constitution, which will codify many of the changes which they want to implement. More specifically, they propose reforms to the voting system to make it more proportional, greater devolution to the nations and regions, and reform of the House of Lords. In light of current difficulties, they also propose to give further powers to Parliament (as opposed to the Government), to decide on such things as prorogation, and to make most military action overseas require a parliamentary vote. 

As some have remarked, constitutional law shouldn’t be a popular subject of discussion – as it has been over the past few years. Any new parliament and government will need to think through whether our current system can be improved. On the other hand, questions remain as to how we will achieve the consensus needed to bring about any changes, divided as we are. And there is also the question of whether the means we have used in the past to change our constitution (i.e. the popular referendum) is itself fit for purpose. 

New Ideas: Education and Skills

One of the most interesting questions about manifestos is whether a party is talking about something new – when they’re distinct simply by posing the question rather than in the answer. You may not agree with the party’s answer, buy you will know that that party’s MPs are going to start the debate. The Lib Dems want to do this for work and the skills needed for it. They write:

The great advancements in technology and the ever-changing nature of the world of work mean that more of us will change careers throughout our lives. And it simply isn’t good enough to say that education stops after school or university.”

They are therefore concerned to protect workers in precarious employment (with a Worker Protection Enforcement Authority) and review employment law to adapt to the gig economy’. In addition, a headline policy was that of skills wallets”, in which the Government would fund lifelong education and training (contributing £10,000 to education over each person’s life).

Again, any Government will need to think through the new work context, how to keep people employable as skills rapidly change, and how to defend people’s human dignity as workers in the midst of these changes – and Christians should be keen to participate in this important discussion. The Lib Dems propose lifelong learning as a key part of the solution to this new work context. 

Unanswered Questions: Freedom of Conscience

Any manifesto will include a few gaps. Even in 100 pages or so, it is impossible to answer each question of every voter. That’s why it’s important to engage with your parliamentary candidates, to see what their answers to such unanswered questions would be. And for many evangelical Christians along with others, questions will arise over freedom of conscience. Among the Lib Dem proposals are:

  • Enabling the Church of England and Church in Wales to conduct same-sex marriages” -presumably by removing the prohibition on these marriages added in 2013
  • Extend equality law to cover gender identity and expression.” 
  • Teaching about sexual consent, LGBT+ relationships, and issues surrounding explicit images and content will be included in [age-appropriate] RSE.”
  • Decriminalise abortion across the UK while retaining the existing 24-week limit and legislate for access to abortion facilities within Northern Ireland.”

Leaving aside any other objection which evangelical Christians may have to these policies, they all throw up questions around freedom of conscience. From church ministers who will not conduct same-sex marriages, to those who seek to preserve women-only spaces, to parents who feel best able to decide on the age appropriateness of explicit material, to medical and pharmaceutical staff who will not participate in abortion, there are many who will want to know how the Liberal Democrats intend to honour the diverse views that exist in our society. 

As a matter of fact, we know that freedom of conscience is an important issue for the Liberal Democrats. The manifesto begins with the preamble from their constitution: We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals, we acknowledge and respect their right to freedom of conscience and their right to develop their talents to the full.” 

In addition, the Lib Dems also propose to appoint an Ambassador-level Champion for Freedom of Belief”. Globally, this role must involve standing up for minorities around the world (religious and non-religious), against their being coerced by global majorities. No doubt, therefore, this role will mean reflecting on how we can be above reproach ourselves on conscience, practising at home what we preach abroad. In that light, it’s worth asking Liberal Democrat candidates how they will approach freedom of conscience on these issues.