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 Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.