The coalition was the best option in May 2010, and it's the best option now

Why Lib Dem members should support their leadership.

Liberal Left's opposition to the Liberal Democrats' involvement in the coalition, as set out by here Linda Jack, is based on a number of questionable premises and an unwillingness to consider the realistic alternatives.

The group's vice-chair, Richard Grayson, criticises what he sees as the party's change of view on the deficit. He is wrong. Pre-election, Vince Cable's key message on the deficit was that a judgement on the timing of austerity had to be based on economics rather than politics or ideology. On that basis, in the run up to the election, the party adopted the working assumption that cuts would start in earnest in 2011-12, with some savings made immediately as a "down payment".

Yet by the time of the coalition negotiations the economic situation had changed. Alistair Darling was attending emergency meetings in Brussels as the threat of contagion loomed large over Europe. With one of Europe's biggest budget deficits, Britain was in a perilous position. And it's for this reason that the party's judgement changed. And in my view we've been proved right - yes, the economy might be growing more slowly than we would like, but the deficit is coming down and we avoided being caught in the centre of the fiscal crisis that spread through Europe.

And there is a more compelling reason why Liberal Left are wrong to oppose our involvement in the coalition: the alternatives would have been much, much worse.

A coalition with Labour and a number of the smaller parties in Parliament was never a serious proposition, both because of the numerical difficulties and because of Labour's intransigence. In hindsight it's clear that most in the Labour party weren't interested in joining a coalition. They'd rather be in opposition.

A confidence and supply arrangement was another option, but in my view those who think this would have been better for either the country or the Lib Dems are mistaken; it would have all the downsides of coalition with few of the benefits.

That left only a coalition or a minority Tory administration. Within weeks of forming a minority government, George Osborne would have produced the most populist, tax-cutting budget imaginable and, when it failed to get through the Commons, David Cameron would have visited Her Majesty, Parliament would have been dissolved and a new general election - probably in autumn 2010 - would have ensued. And at this point, both Labour and the Tories would have had one message: "it's time for you to vote for one of us - the Lib Dems have rejected the option of power". The Lib Dems would have been squeezed like never before; every marginal - virtually every Lib Dem seat - would be vulnerable. We'd have been reduced to a miniscule Parliamentary Party.

And the Tories would have got their majority. Even the most anti-coalition of Lib Dems can't seriously say that that would have been a preferable option.

The combination of being in government and being members of a truly democratic party leaves Lib Dem members with an immense amount of influence. We should use it as best we can to make this government is fair and as liberal as possible - not blindly supporting but constructively engaging, working with Lib Dem ministers, who we know to be honest, caring liberals, to achieve as much as possible.

We won't always get our own way, as we shouldn't as a party that received 22 per cent of the vote and fewer than one in ten seats in the Commons at the last election. But we are punching above our weight to implement hundreds of long-standing party policies.

Going into coalition was the best option for the Liberal Democrats and for the country, and the arguments why remain just as compelling today as they did on 11 May 2010. Party members must concentrate on making it work, for the country and for the party. Opposing from the sidelines is no solution at all.

Nick Thornsby is a Liberal Democrat member and activist. His own blog can be found here

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.