James Graham moved Amendment 3 at the Liberal Democrat Special Conference which reads:
Insert after line 23:
“Conference calls for Liberal Democrats to work constructively in government to ensure that the the net income and wealth inequality gap is reduced significantly over the course of this parliament.”
There is no question at all that Nick Clegg and his negotiating team wrung a string of key concessions out of the Conservatives in this agreement.
Cuts in services is a deep concern, but let us be frank. The difference between all three major parties’ spending plans was not all that great. When the former Labour Chancellor promised “deeper cuts than Thatcher,” the fact of the matter is that we would be committing to a pretty similar plan whichever party we ended up in government with.
Our key task in this parliament is to ensure that the glint that appears in George Osborne’s eye whenever there is talk of cuts in public services never becomes more than that.
In my view there are two fundamental tests we should apply to this government and whether this agreement ultimately advances liberalism or conservativism.
The first is whether this government protects human rights or weakens them, especially those of the most vulnerable and least popular in society such as asylum seekers and prisoners. The agreement text gives us some grounds for hope on this score, but we have not yet seen how our new Conservative colleagues will respond to a renewed tabloid attack on the Human Rights Act. We must not go along with this under any circumstances.
The second, which is the focus of my amendment, is whether this government manages to narrow the rich-poor divide. The case that equality does not just benefit the poor but decreases a whole host of social problems and is even of benefit to the wealthy has been comprehensively made by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their book The Spirit Level. Its thesis has not been seriously questioned by anyone on the Conservative benches.
But there are signs that many of them simply don’t get it. Delivering the Hugo Young lecture last November, David Cameron astounded many in the audience by asserting that the real problem is not the rich-poor divide but the gap between the poor and those on middle incomes. So much for the big society. So much for “we’re all in this together.”
And while we have stopped them from forcing through their plans to cut inheritance tax for multi-millionaires, they in turn have blocked our plans for increasing wealth taxes. This leaves our plan to raise personal tax allowance partially unfunded. The burden of this tax cut must not end up being paid for by the poorest. That is not what we signed up for. There must be no VAT bombshell.
One way to make this plan more affordable would be a pound-for-pound reduction in the higher income tax threshold. At this time of economic uncertainty, handing out tax cuts to the wealthiest cannot be justified.
And while we may not have won the argument for wealth taxes in drawing up this agreement, I hope that Liberal Democrat ministers will use the resources they have in office to build the case for such a tax shift. They must seize this opportunity.
Narrowing the inequality gap is about much more than tax. I would urge every Lib Dem minister to set themselves a personal mission to do what they can to drive the equality agenda over the next five years.
I am willing to concede that the best we might be able to achieve is that the rich-poor gulf holds steady. But if we fail to prevent the Conservatives from indulging their instincts and widen the rich-poor gulf in the name of 80s style trickle down economics, we will have comprehensively failed. I hope Chris Huhne will make it clear in his speech that that is a line we will not cross.
I want to end my speech on a note of hope. I believe this coalition agreement could lead to one of the great reforming governments in history. Throughout my entire life I have never been more excited by the eventual outcome of a general election. Like many in this hall today, I worry about what it means for my party. But if it leads to a fairer, freer, more humane Britain, we should not hesitate for a second. We serve a more noble purpose than mere partisan advantage.
Over the next few years we must dare to dream. If we can do that, and hold firm to our principles, then anything is possible.
The amendment was passed with no objections.