Liberal Democrats enter the impending general election campaign with a sense of foreboding. Battered and bruised from our experiences in coalition with the Tories, we can expect to face the wrath of those left leaning progressive voters who, with some justification, feel that we gave too much in exchange for too little.
The value of Liberal Democrat ‘currency’ is probably the lowest it has ever been in my lifetime. I’ve spoken to many people who bought into the Lib Dem vision in 2010 who feel they have been short-changed. The U-turn on tuition fees has almost become a cliché for what our target voters perceive to be broken promises, unpalatable compromises and illiberal decisions in government. There is little political capital to be made from the good things that we have done because they simply aren’t listening to that message.
Against this backdrop, we are preparing for the worst in May 2015. Another hung Parliament looms, our opinion poll ratings are dire and Nick Clegg is the most unpopular party leader of modern times. Party strategists are basing our general election campaign on the premise that voting Liberal Democrat will keep the worst excesses of either the Tories or Labour in check, arrogantly assuming that the party will be involved in another coalition.
The Federal Policy Committee (FPC) motion on the economy proposes, among other measures:
“Balancing the cyclically-adjusted current budget by 2017/18, on time and fairly, protecting the economic recovery and bringing down Britain’s debt as a share of national income." (F6, 1 a)
The FPC’s present stance is that 60% of this balancing should be achieved by further cuts in expenditure and 40% by tax increases. SLF is supporting an an amendment by Mark Pack that says the ratio of cuts to tax increases should be 50/50.
No Liberal, least of all SLF members, should be supporting this at all, even if the 50/50 amendment is accepted. To compare it to rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic is too weak a comparison: arguing about the rules for marbles as the ship sinks would be closer.
The deficit is not an immediate problem. Accepting that it is is cravenly swallowing, alas along with Labour and most of the media, the very successful Tory PR spin. Frankly, it never was our most urgent problem, even in 2010. The comparison with Greece is and was ludicrous: their debt was mostly short-term and held abroad - ours is mostly long term and mostly held within our own economy, and our DEBT/GDP ratio was and is relatively modest. The deficit is certainly not our most urgent problem now.
The SLF blog has received the following Valentine’s day message from a secret admirer of the Pensions Minister…
Most of the other boys (and girls) in the coalition have been something of a disappointment, but you have been a real star. While too many other Liberal Democrat ministers failed to deliver (House of Lords Reform, PR, drugs law reform) or supported the opposite of what they should have (tuition fees, secret courts, bedroom tax), you alone have delivered a truly Liberal agenda.
No more will British workers be discouraged from saving for retirement because of complex means-tested benefits, nor will they lose huge chunks of their savings to ludicrously large 'management' fees. And when they get to the finish line, their pension pots will be there to do with as they please, not automatically swapped for bad value annuities.
If only all ministers could be like you Steve - this government could have been a shining example of what Liberalism can achieve.
Keep on, keeping on Professor Webb.
A Liberal admirer
The 2010 election was notable for the failure of the three main parties to spell out clearly how they would reduce the budget deficit. No-one wanted to scare the voters away. 2015 is already proving different. Nick Clegg has announced that Liberal Democrats would increase taxes by at least £8 billion and bring in a further £6 billion by tackling tax avoidance. There would still be up to £16 billion cut from expenditure, £12 billion from government departments and £4 billion from welfare. Whilst not exactly a return to Keynesian economics, this is nevertheless a huge step away from the Tory approach which seemed to have dominated coalition fiscal policy. The balance between expenditure cuts and tax increases under Tory plans for the next parliament would be 98:2 whereas we will be proposing 60:40.
The days to come are going to be a severe test of the mettle and nerve of the party as we try to impress and connect with our voters. We are still a party of reasonable, idealistic souls set on improving our community, our nation in a way that balances individualism and free expression with the need to promote social harmony and the sheer joy of human togetherness. We are in a word still “Liberals”.
But we have been through some strange experiences that have scarred us and blurred the public view of who and what we are - so we fight under a burden. I am not talking about the perils of government and having to make tough decisions in severe financial circumstances. Nor am I talking about the misapprehension of those who formerly thought we were a brand of “Labour-lite”. I am glad people know we can make tough decisions and are not closet socialists. If our burden was just that, it would be not be heavy at all.
What slows our footsteps, weighs us down and holds us back in the polls is the result of the party falling under the spell of two dangerous enchantments or delusions.
As we draw closer to the general election it is important to remember the big ideas of social liberalism. Here are five big social liberal ideas to inspire Liberal Democrats and social liberals over the next few months.
1. Land Value Taxation
Social liberals have long championed the taxation of accumulated assets. We often talk about the mansion tax but it is important to remember that for 100 years British Liberals have advocated land value taxation (LVT). At the heart of LVT is the transition of taxation from income to land.
David Lloyd George originally proposed land taxation in his famous People’s Budget of 1909. Liberal Democrats recall the great campaign for land taxation by singing the party anthem "The Land" at Glee Club.
In an age of vast economic inequalities, land value taxation will ensure that wealthy landowners are properly taxed and that the great wealth accumulated in land is redistributed and used to fund welfare provision and public services.
An all too familiar story has dominated the headlines in recent weeks. Queues are mounting up at Accident and Emergency Departments across the country. Apparently A&E performance is now at its worst for 10 years, with hospitals missing their target that 95% of patients are seen within 4 hours.
Labour’s Health spokesman, Andy Burnham, blames the crisis on government cuts, while the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt maintains that he has given the NHS the £700m that it asked for to tackle rising demand. Nick Clegg has responded by pledging an additional £8m for the NHS.
So, here is my question: is lack of money really the problem here? Pumping in more money doesn't seem to have had the desired effect so far.
It is encouraging to be part of a Lib Dem chorus from across the party denouncing Osborne’s damaging, ideologically inspired, proposals for further deep cuts in spending on public services throughout the next Parliament.
Being in coalition means that we have to go out of our way to differentiate ourselves clearly from the Tories on the central issue of economic policy. The Tories want to create an election narrative of Tory competence versus Labour incompetence (with the LibDems portrayed either as marginal to the story or cheering the Tories on). Next week’s parliamentary debate on a fiscal charter makes the issue of differentiation particularly topical.
Commenting on Nick Clegg’s decision to appoint Danny Alexander as Lib Dem Treasury Spokesman for the General Election Campaign, SLF Chair Naomi Smith writes:
“Vince Cable has a long and proven track record of sound judgement on our economy, whereas having been resident in the Tory-led Treasury for the past five years, Danny Alexander is much more closely associated with some of the Coalition’s least popular policies including the austerity agenda.