In defence of the Lib Dems

What's the point of the Lib Dems? Here's what.

Mehdi Hasan asks "what's the point of the Lib Dems?" Citing five issues on which, in his opinion, the party has "sacrificed their distinctive beliefs and principles and received little in return," Hasan claims we're irrelevant. So what is the point of the Lib Dems then? To find out, he should:

1) Ask the nearly 1 million low-paid workers who have been lifted out of paying income tax altogether thanks to a Lib Dem manifesto commitment delivered in government. With the prospect of further significant reforms to come to make our tax system fairer and more progressive, this policy makes people hundreds of pounds better off in difficult times. Consider the counterfactual too - a Tory-only government cutting inheritance tax and the 50p rate for its rich pals whilst doing nothing for the low-paid. Not with Lib Dems in government.

2) Ask the millions of children, parents and teachers who are benefiting from the pupil premium & expanded childcare provision as part of the government's investment in crucial early-years facilities. Another Lib Dem manifesto commitment, delivered in government, making a real difference to the worst off and those in need of support.

3) Ask patients and doctors who've seen NHS principles protected from worst of Andrew Lansley's reforms. Of course the Health and Social Care Bill isn't yet perfect, but it's a significant improvement on the purely market-oriented reforms originally set out - largely thanks to Lib Dem conference in securing vital safeguards for accountability, integration and public health. Consider the counterfactual too - a Tory-only government turning the NHS into nothing but an unaccountable purchaser in a for-profit market. Not with Lib Dems in government.

4) Ask those who want safer banks and tough action on high pay - would either happen without Vince Cable pressing for the implementation of the Vickers reforms and the recommendations of the High Pay Commission? Consider the counterfactual too - a Tory-only government caving in to the influence of its City donors, evading the measures needed to make banking safer and tackle income inequality through transparency, accountability and stakeholder empowerment. Not with Lib Dems in government.

5) Ask the nearly 600 Labour and Conservative - or should I say, Labservative - MPs who for decades have happily aligned against Lib Dems on all five of Hasan's core issues, even if it means acting against national interest like on Europe and Iraq. Consider the counterfactual too - a Tory-only government, or Labour-only for that matter, either of whom would have removed the cap on tuition fees instead of introducing what is effectively a capped graduate tax; no attempt to reform our electoral politics as they oppose changes to the voting system, to the Lords and to party funding; likely withdrawal from the EU as either party caved in to its atavistic Eurosceptic wing; and of course the disastrous war in Iraq which both Labour and Tories enthusiastically supported against the wishes of the Lib Dems and the country as a whole.

Yes of course we want to see Liberal Democrats deliver more of our values and policies in government and to stop more Tory madness like that seen over Europe recently - that's precisely what the party's mainstream has been calling for through the Social Liberal Forum.

Prateek Buch is a Lib Dem activist and blogger

Prateek Buch is director of the Social Liberal Forum and serves on the Liberal Democrat Federal Policy Committee.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The EU’s willingness to take on Google shows just how stupid Brexit is

Outside the union the UK will be in a far weaker position to stand up for its citizens.

Google’s record €2.4bn (£2.12bn) fine for breaching European competition rules is an eye-catching example of the EU taking on the Silicon Valley giants. It is also just one part of a larger battle to get to grips with the influence of US-based web firms.

From fake news to tax, the European Commission has taken the lead in investigating and, in this instance, sanctioning, the likes of Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon for practices it believes are either anti-competitive for European business or detrimental to the lives of its citizens.

Only in May the commission fined Facebook €110m for providing misleading information about its takeover of WhatsApp. In January, it issued a warning to Facebook over its role in spreading fake news. Last summer, it ordered Apple to pay an extra €13bn in tax it claims should have been paid in Ireland (the Irish government had offered a tax break). Now Google has been hit for favouring its own price comparison services in its search results. In other words, consumers who used Google to find the best price for a product across the internet were in fact being gently nudged towards the search engine giant's own comparison website.

As European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager put it:

"Google has come up with many innovative products and services that have made a difference to our lives. That's a good thing. But Google's strategy for its comparison shopping service wasn't just about attracting customers by making its product better than those of its rivals. Instead, Google abused its market dominance as a search engine by promoting its own comparison shopping service in its search results, and demoting those of competitors.

"What Google has done is illegal under EU antitrust rules. It denied other companies the chance to compete on the merits and to innovate. And most importantly, it denied European consumers a genuine choice of services and the full benefits of innovation."

The border-busting power of these mostly US-based digital companies is increasingly defining how people across Europe and the rest of the world live their lives. It is for the most part hugely beneficial for the people who use their services, but the EU understandably wants to make sure it has some control over them.

This isn't about beating up on the tech companies. They are profit-maximising entities that have their own goals and agendas, and that's perfectly fine. But it's vital to to have a democratic entity that can represent the needs of its citizens. So far the EU has proved the only organisation with both the will and strength to do so.

The US Federal Communications Commission could also do more to provide a check on their power, but has rarely shown the determination to do so. And this is unlikely to change under Donald Trump - the US Congress recently voted to block proposed FCC rules on telecoms companies selling user data.

Other countries such as China have resisted the influence of the internet giants, but primarily by simply cutting off their access and relying on home-grown alternatives it can control better.  

And so it has fallen to the EU to fight to ensure that its citizens get the benefits of the digital revolution without handing complete control over our online lives to companies based far away.

It's a battle that the UK has never seemed especially keen on, and one it will be effectively retreat from when it leaves the EU.

Of course the UK government is likely to continue ramping up rhetoric on issues such as encryption, fake news and the dissemination of extremist views.

But after Brexit, its bargaining power will be weak, especially if the priority becomes bringing in foreign investment to counteract the impact Brexit will have on our finances. Unlike Ireland, we will not be told that offering huge tax breaks broke state aid rules. But if so much economic activity relies on their presence will our MPs and own regulatory bodies decide to stand up for the privacy rights of UK citizens?

As with trade, when it comes to dealing with large transnational challenges posed by the web, it is far better to be part of a large bloc speaking as one than a lone voice.

Companies such as Google and Facebook owe much of their success and power to their ability to easily transcend borders. It is unsurprising that the only democratic institution prepared and equipped to moderate that power is also built across borders.

After Brexit, Europe will most likely continue to defend the interests of its citizens against the worst excesses of the global web firms. But outside the EU, the UK will have very little power to resist them.

0800 7318496