The Lib Dems must not accept more welfare cuts in return for new taxes

Higher taxes on the rich will not protect the poorest if spending is slashed.

We may no longer be in recession, but the nation still faces a critical year ahead. Choices that the government makes over wealth taxes and welfare spending in particular will shape the political economy, not just for the year ahead but for decades to follow, and recent signs are not encouraging. Beginning with George Osborne’s Autumn Statement on 5 December and culminating with a short and probably bitter Spending Review, the next year or so is the political equivalent of Alex Ferguson's "squeaky bum time" – only with livelihoods, not football, at stake.

The Tory party’s re-toxification under Cameron has continued apace since their party conference, whether through atavistic evidence-free posturing on crime and punishment, employment law or on welfare cuts – the latter, in particular, would ruin any chance the government has of keeping its promise of not balancing the books on the backs of poor.

Osborne doggedly adheres to a macro-economic platform being shown day by day to be more broken and discredited than previously thought. His insistence that reducing the deficit takes precedence over balancing the economy distorts spending decisions, and leaves today’s government and those that follow with their hands seemingly tied to a dangerous spiral of ever-harsher spending cuts. An alarming report from the Social Market Foundation and the RSA shows that closing the deficit on a rigid timetable, primarily through cuts, with neither tax rises nor growth playing a larger role, leaves us facing an additional £48bn of austerity. The knock-on effects on both demand and the quality of public services, and hence prosperity, are unthinkable – there comes a point, when you’re in a hole, to stop digging, and that time is now.

The determination to bring the deficit down by cutting welfare spending stems from the fallacy that feckless workshy scroungers are raiding the Exchequer, when the evidence shows that 93 per cent of new housing benefit claims are from in-work households and that the main driver of higher welfare spending is that we live longer. It’s the failure of wages to keep pace with spiralling cost of living – housing and fuel in particular – that means so many require in-work support. The Tories should be arguing for a living wage and investment in green growth if they want to shrink state spending in the long run, not cutting support to those who lose out in a dysfunctional economy. Senior Liberal Democrats are realising that further welfare cuts are unjustified – the party must not just reject £10bn in welfare cuts but anything in that region should universal benefits for better-off pensioners remain untouched.

Coalition is of course about trade-offs and compromise, but only up to a point. If the government decides to cut yet more from the welfare budget – without fixing the dysfunctional markets in pay and housing that leave millions needing in-work benefits – then is some form of higher tax on property an adequate trade-off? Most Lib Dems would say not, and those who will suffer the most from such a deal would no doubt agree. Alternatives to slashing welfare spending for the poorest do exist, including some from CentreForum, which advocates reforms to tax breaks for the wealthy. Using a mix of such reforms targeted to those who can afford to pay, and further flexibility in the speed of deficit reduction, the poorest could be protected from bearing the brunt of austerity; if only we had a more politically aware Chancellor.

The country faces a crucial twelve months, and of course we need a government that shows coalition can work, a united government. The question is, for whom should government be made to work, the parties who constitute it or the people they serve? Behind which policies should we unite? The Tories clearly refuse to make it work for millions whose living standards have fallen and whose lives have become more insecure, as their refusal to tax wealth and insistence on further welfare cuts shows.

Now more than ever, Liberal Democrats need to do more than just show that coalition works, but that it works for people in real world who are bearing the brunt of our economic malaise. Acquiescing to Tory demands in the vain hope of benefiting from government unity is not enough. The party’s leadership needs to show that the value of having Liberal Democrats in government is more than diluting Tory regressive tendencies, by clearly setting out how they’ll navigate next 12 months, and what they will not countenance.

Prateek Buch is director of the Social Liberal Forum and serves on the Liberal Democrat Federal Policy Committee. He writes in a personal capacity.

Nick Clegg speaks at the Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

Getty Images.
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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.