W(h)ither the Lib Dems?

Some musings on the state of the party I voted for last time…

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What have the Lib Dems ever done for us?

“What have the Lib Dems ever done for us?”, asks Liberal Democrat blogger Mark Pack, rhetorically, before going on to provide a helpful infographic to illustrate just that. It’s a useful data point, because the Lib Dems are not getting this information across very well to their public. For most, they’re simply the junior partners in a nakedly ideological right wing Tory government, haplessly propping up a Conservative Party eager to push through reforms that even Margaret Thatcher would have considered a little extreme.

So, what have the Lib Dems done for us? I mean, as distinct from their multi-millionaire, public school-educated plutocrat counterparts in the Tories (never mind that that’s a fair description of Nick Clegg too)? Turns out there’s a fair bit of stuff that the centre left might approve of, actually. The only trouble is, does it serve to counterbalance the right wing extremes of their Coalition partners? And is it as good as it seems at face value? As good as these measures may seem, it appears that they’re always trumped by Tory policies making the lives of ordinary people worse.

The Lib Dems have indeed lowered the income tax burden for the lower paid, with their pledge to gradually move the tax threshold so that those on less than £10,000 a year will pay no income tax. There are even thoughts about making this threshold higher. Well done, those Lib Dems; it’s hard to find anything wrong with that (though in the interests of objectivity, I’ll have a go).

It is worth bearing in mind that all those low earners may well see many of those benefits disappear in a puff of VAT, as they’re the ones most likely to have been hit hard by George Osborne’s early decision to raise it to 20%. And if that won’t do it, the ever increasing taxes and duty on fuel should, with another 3p per litre duty rise due in August. Not to mention the rising costs of TV licenses and phone bills – though if we listen to Edwina Currie’s views, the poor have no right to such remarkable luxuries.

The Lib Dems have also prevented the Tories from abolishing the top (50%) rate of income tax, and lowering inheritance tax for those poor deprived individuals whose deceased relatives leave them enormous houses. Raising the inheritance tax threshold to £1million was a key Tory manifesto pledge, and abandoning it for the sake of a coalition agreement must have hurt. But a loss of face for David Cameron does not, per se, make low and middle earners’ lives better – they’re unlikely to inherit a mansion.

And as to the 50% tax rate, the Lib Dems are already in the process of negotiations for it to be dropped. To give them their due, it’s looking like the trade-off will be for Vince Cable’s treasured ‘mansion tax’ – a 20% tax on all property worth over £2million. This is an excellent idea, as it’s hard to avoid tax by moving your house to the Cayman Islands. Trouble is, it stands a whelk’s chance in a supernova of getting past Cameron and Osborne (even though, reportedly, Osborne isn’t as opposed to it as Cameron is).

Taxing property is anathema to Tories, and immediately the big guns (well, Jacob Rees-Mogg) have been wheeled out to outline horror scenarios of little old ladies chucked out of houses they’ve owned for decades because the house is their only asset and they can’t afford to pay the tax. As so often with criticism of Lib Dem policies, this is plain wrong – the proposal is for 20% to be levied on the value of properties once they exceed £2million. In other words, if your house is worth £2,000,001, you’ll pay a 20% levy on that excessive £1. And so on (see p14 of the Lib Dem manifesto).

Good though that sounds, apart from the difficulty (well, impossibility) of getting the policy past a party who value untaxed property slightly more than human life, it would depend on getting decent valuations of houses across the country, which hasn’t been done since Council Tax was introduced in the early 90s. As this would inevitably result in almost everyone’s Council Tax bill getting higher, no government wanting to get re-elected is ever likely to do it – a shame, as reforming Council Tax to make it more progressive would be a pretty good alternative to the mansion tax.

Recognising the impossibility of this, Nick Clegg rather surprised everyone at the Lib Dem spring conference by independently wheeling out his plan for a ‘tycoon tax’. Certainly Vince Cable must have been surprised at this sudden proposal to ensure a minimum rate of tax to be paid by ‘tycoons’ – say, perhaps 30%.

It sounds good – although the fact that 30% is an acceptable ‘minimum’ is a revealing indicator of just how little tax the hyper-wealthy currently pay. But in practice, surely it’s even more unworkable than the mansion tax. After all, there are so many loopholes for tax right now that it’s easy to make it look like your income is far lower than it is, if you’re in that hyper-wealthy 1%. And if your income appears lower than it really is, how will paying 30% of a spuriously low figure hurt?

Other laudable Lib Dem policies include:

Put like that, I realise it sounds like I’m determined to find the cloud in the Lib Dem silver lining. The Lib Dems undoubtedly have good intentions; though so did Neville Chamberlain (am I exempt from Godwin’s Law if I don’t mention the feller he was appeasing?). These are the kind of policies I could happily support, and perhaps I’m unduly pessimistic about the positive impact they’ll have. Trouble is, does that offset the genuinely nasty bits of Tory legislation currently being hustled through Parliament with the Lib Dems’ apparent support?

Playing doctors and nurses at conference

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Andrew Lansley’s shambolic NHS reform bill is a very good example. This is a bill, it seems, which almost nobody wants – a huge proportion of the medical profession, the public in general, more than a few Tories and even the Daily Telegraph want it dropped.

It’s hard for those of a centre-left bent to defend this bill. True, the claims that it will reduce the NHS to a US-style insurance based private system are largely hysterical hyperbole; but even with the amendments proposed by last spring’s Lib Dem conference, and the House of Lords, it will permit hospitals to gain up to 49% of their income from private healthcare. This is massively worse than the 2006 Labour bill which allowed market forces in in the first place; that, at least, banned private income from exceeding 2003 levels, apparently an average proportion of 2%.

Critics of the bill are regularly countered with the accusation that they “don’t understand it”. And yet it’s hard to see how so many august medical bodies, journalists and legislating peers have all somehow misconstrued its intent. It is true to say that many of the proposed amendments have yet to be included; and yet the bill has already been described as “incomprehensible”, by people who have gone through it thoroughly. With more amendments yet to come.

Even among those who support its basic premise, there is plenty of opposition on the grounds that it is, quite simply, a terrible attempt at legislation, appallingly mishandled politically. The Lib Dems are in a key position to restore a lot of their pre-Coalition support if they bow to the undeniable pressure to stop it, and vote against its passing. Nobody, it seems, wants this bill to happen. Except, weirdly, Nick Clegg.

So what did they do at last weekend’s spring party conference? Uniquely among the major parties, the Lib Dems have a truly democratic process by which attending party members may vote on overall policy, and the leaders would be unwise to ignore the feelings of their grassroots members. This, in theory, is more truly democratic than either Labour or the Conservatives, though it does occasionally produce the appearance of a Monty Python sketch as factions debate endlessly over obscure minutiae.

On the NHS bill, they had the choice of debating one of two emergency motions. One, with the support of 204 conference reps, was to drop the bill entirely. This had the less-than-exciting title “Withdrawal of the Health and Social Care Bill”. The other, supported by a mere 15 reps, was to support the bill, and was emotively titled, “Protecting our NHS: The Shirley Williams Motion”. Guess which one was voted through for debate?

The bizarre implication that to oppose the bill was to abandon the ‘protection’ of the NHS was trumped by the naked populism of appending Lib Dem grandee Shirley Williams’ name to it. I like Baroness Williams, and have a lot of time for her views, but on this she’s just plain wrong – despite having changed her mind at least twice on the issue. More importantly, even if she sanctioned the use of her name to sway doubters, Shirley apparently had never even seen the wording of the motion until five minutes before the debate, which, for added emotional blackmail, she personally got to summate at the climax.

Shirley made an emotive speech in support of the amended bill (although her interpretation of it seemed at odds with that of others). Nick Clegg chimed in his own two cents’ worth at a Q & A session, in which he got members’ backs up by proclaiming that opposing the bill was the same as agreeing with Andy Burnham – perilously close to George W Bush’s assertion on the ‘War on Terror’, “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists”. Bush is hardly a man Clegg should be looking to emulate; but he reiterated his reductive binary assessment in Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday, using the slightly different tack that to oppose the bill is to oppose any reform of the NHS, as though this were conclusively the only way to do that.

Unfortunately for Clegg, his members declined to vote in favour of the motion. Unfortunately for the party as a whole, voting against supporting the bill is not the same as voting to stop it – it is, in fact, exactly the kind of fence-sitting the Lib Dems were frequently pilloried for in Party Political Broadcasts of the mid-80s. It’s less a statement of principle than an exercise in sophistry that will be completely lost on the wider electorate – all they’ll see is that the Lib Dems could have stopped the bill, and didn’t.

‘Nice’ vs ‘Nasty’ – being weighed in the balance

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In just the same way that, however many piecemeal tax concessions and minor social victories they may have scored, they’ve been unable to stop the Tories’ other massively controversial pieces of legislation. The Coalition agreement may permit them to abstain from voting in extreme cases, but it doesn’t permit party whips to allow outright opposition to ‘government’ (read ‘Conservative’) policies. Hence, the public have seen the Lib Dems appear to support Iain Duncan Smith’s draconian welfare reforms, Michael Gove’s clueless education reforms, and George Osborne’s suspiciously ideological and dubiously effective austerity policies.

What’s more, thanks to the doctrine of Cabinet Collective Responsibility, Lib Dem ministers have even had to publicly appear in favour of all this, whatever their personal feelings (even though Clegg, bafflingly, genuinely seems to think the NHS bill is a good piece of legislation). The upshot of this is that the public at large, or at least the genuine majority of the country who oppose the Conservatives, have come to see the Lib Dems as little more than a powerless adjunct of the Nasty Party, basically the crutch that enables their masters to trample on the poor. As a result, their popularity has plummeted from the 30%-odd at the election to around 8%.

This is actually rather a shame. The protests of Lib Dems that “it would have been worse without us” are very probably true; imagine an undiluted NHS bill, or Cameron getting his tax cuts for the rich through unopposed. But they’re still politically naive, as can be seen by the haste and overeagerness which they rushed into the Coalition agreement in the first place (an agreement that looks worth less than the USB stick it’s stored on, considering its pledge of “no top-down reorganisation of the NHS”).

I’m not sure Clegg and David Laws realised what a powerful negotiating position they were in when the Agreement was drawn up. After 13 years of increasingly bad Labour government, the electorate were still not ready to forgive the Conservatives for their 18 year reign before that. Cameron was desperate to get into power; sure, the negotiations dragged on for days, but I still think they were too rushed. Had the Lib Dems held out harder for some of their aims – or for freedom to oppose those of the Tories – they could have come out in a far stronger position.

Or they could have exercised the ‘nuclear option’ – simply stated they were unable to reach an agreeable compromise with the Conservatives and just walked away from coalition, leaving the Tories looking like the intransigent bad guys and having to try to get their reforms through a minority government. I’m not at all convinced that this would have led to another general election within months, as others have speculated; but even if it had, and the Tories had gained a slim actual majority, I think they’d have had a far harder time getting their legislation through. And I think they’d have been a one term government if they had managed to be the ‘unmoderated’ Nasty Party.

Sadly, that’s all speculation, which of course can’t be proved either way. In the mean time, we’re stuck with what we’ve got – the risk of the Lib Dems being so thoroughly absorbed (in the public’s view) into the Conservatives that they may as well no longer exist.

I’d regret that immensely. Unlike many who drifted from the increasingly authoritarian Labour Party to the Lib Dems, I’d hate to lose them. Many of those defectors have now drifted back to Labour, perhaps missing the point that, socially liberal though they may be, the Lib Dems were never a left wing party. Yet if you think the disappearance of our third party would be a good thing, take a look at how well an entrenched two-party system works in the US. Look how much tribalism we’ve already got – aren’t you sick of hearing the mantra about “the mess we inherited from the last Labour Government” being responsible for everything from the financial crisis to the Black Death?

The Lib Dems are – or could be – good for democracy. If they learn a little more political nous, and stop putting themselves in lose/lose situations as with the Coalition Agreement and the NHS bill, they could regain some of the support they’ve lost. They’re starting to learn that, but it’s still stumbling baby steps, as last weekend’s party conference showed. They could maybe do with abandoning the increasingly isolated Nick Clegg, who’s now beginning to look like a figurehead for his party’s identification with the Tories. Their increasing ability to assert distinctions from their senior partner offers a shred of hope. But there’s still three years till the next general election, and they’ve still got a lot of learning to do if they want to survive their partners’ policies.