The Liberal dilemma: electoral reform or policy influence?

The third party has a history of being more ambiguous about proportional representation than is usua

Dr David Butler, the grand old man of British psephology, was on to something when he observed on BBC News this lunchtime that he thought electoral reform would come about only if two general elections in a row resulted in a hung parliament.

We've just had one -- two in a row would take high odds -- and some will say that Nick Clegg will have failed completely if his party's new-found presence on the national stage does not result the Lib Dems securing some form of proportional representation.

But the third party has a history of being far more ambiguous about PR than is generally thought. It has not always been the glittering prize the BBC's political editor, Nick Robinson, suggested it was this afternoon. When asked by his colleague William Douglas Home what he should emphasise in a by-election campaign in 1957, for instance, the then Liberal leader, Jo Grimond, replied: "Proportional representation. Wouldn't it be awful if we ever got it?"

A week before the general election of 1964, Grimond sensed that Harold Wilson was heading for, at best, a very slim majority (it turned out to be four). But using any bargaining power he might have to extract a Liberal-friendly electoral system was not on Grimond's mind.

As Michael McManus puts it in his biography of the Liberal leader, Towards the Sound of Gunfire:

He said that, in the event of a hung parliament, "it would not be our object to make political capital . . . We would not expect a government to bring in proportional representation . . . we would try to press policies which certainly we want enacted, but which we also think would be particularly relevant and command wide support in the country."

And the day after the election, "Grimond again preferred caution to threats: 'Some time we shall have to change the electoral system . . . not immediately . . . the most important thing to face is the economic situation.' "

Sound familiar?

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: whatever you hear, don't forget - there is an alternative

The goverment's programme of cuts is a choice, not a certainty, says Jolyon Maugham.

Later today you will hear George Osborne say there is no alternative to his plan to slash a further £20bn from lean public services by 2020-21. He will also say that there is no alternative to £9bn cuts to tax credits, cuts that will hit the poorest hardest, cuts of thousands of pounds per annum to the incomes of millions of households.

But there is.

As I outlined here the Conservatives plan future tax cuts which benefit, disproportionately or exclusively, the wealthy. Suspending those future tax cuts for the wealthy would say, by 2020-21, £9.3bn per annum.

I also explained here that a mere 50 of our 1,156 tax reliefs cost us over £100bn per annum. We don't know how much the other 1,106 reliefs cost us - because Government doesn't monitor them. And we don't know what public benefit they deliver - because Government doesn't check.

What we do know, as I explained here, is that they disproportionately and regressively benefit the wealthy: an average of £190,400 per annum for the wealthiest.

And we know, too, that they include (amongst the more than 1,000 uncosted reliefs) the £1bn plus “Rights for Shares Scheme” - badged by the Chancellor as for workers but identified by a leading law firm as designed for the wealthiest.

Simply by asking a question that the Chancellor chooses to ignore - do these 1,156 reliefs deliver value for money - it is entirely possible that £10bn or more extra in taxes could be collected without any loss of  public benefit

To this £19bn, we might add the indiscriminate provision - both direct and indirect - of public money to wealthy pensioners.

Those above basic state pension age enjoy a tax subsidy of up to 12% on earned income.

Moreover, this Office for National Statistics data (see Table 18) reveals that the 10% of wealthiest retired households - some 714,000 households - have gross pre-tax and pre-benefit private income of on average £43,983. Yet still they enjoy average cash benefits from government of £11,500 per annum.

Means testing benefits to exclude that top 10 per cent of retired households would save £8.2bn per annum. And why, you might wonder aloud, should means testing be thought by the government appropriate for the working age population, yet a heresy for retired households?

Add in abolition of that unprincipled tax subsidy and you'll save even more. 

So there are alternatives. Clear alternatives. Good alternatives. Alternatives that enable those with the broadest shoulders to bear some share of the pain. Don't allow yourself to be persuaded otherwise.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.