Why did the Lib Dems really U-turn on spending cuts in 2010?

Andrew Adonis's 5 Days in May offers new evidence of the party's disastrous economic misjudgement.

The Lib Dems have received no shortage of criticism for their failure to keep their tuition fees pledge (prompting that infamous apology from Nick Clegg) but there's been surprisingly little scrutiny of a far more significant U-turn, that over spending cuts. 

Although it's now hard to recall, the party ran on an anti-austerity platform at the general election, opposing any in-year spending cuts. In March, for instance, Clegg declared that "merrily slashing now is an act of economic masochism", adding that he would not compromise on this point in any coalition negotiations. "If anyone had to rely on our support, and we were involved in government, of course we would say no." On 1 May, less than a week before polling day, he reaffirmed his position: "My eight-year-old ought to be able to work this out -- you shouldn't start slamming on the brakes when the economy is barely growing. If you do that you create more joblessness, you create heavier costs on the state, the deficit goes up even further and the pain with dealing with it is even greater. So it is completely irrational."

Yet once the results were in and parliament was "hung", the Lib Dems made no attempt to keep their pledge to oppose immediate cuts, abandoning it even before they entered coalition negotiations with the Tories. Nor was this merely a pre-emptive attempt to appease Cameron and Osborne in the hope of concessions elsewhere. As Andrew Adonis's excellent 5 Days In May (which I have reviewed for this week's NS) reveals, the Lib Dems insisted in their talks with Labour that "there could and should be immediate in-year spending cuts for 2010/11 and 'further and faster' spending cuts than Labour's plans thereafter."

When challenged a month later to explain his Damascene conversion to austerity, Clegg cited "the complete belly-up implosion in Greece" and "a long conversation a day or two after the government was formed" with Mervyn King. The claim that the Greek crisis proved the need for cuts was odd coming from a man who had earlier warned that premature austerity would lead to "Greek-style unrest" and, as for King, Chuka Umunna has previously noted on The Staggers that the Bank of England governor told him during a Treasury select committee hearing that "he had given Clegg no new information on the debt situation during their chat". (Clegg, never a stickler for consistency, later confessed that he had changed his mind before the election.) 

But Adonis's invaluable account has revealed a new justification. He writes that during the talks between the two parties, Chris Huhne argued that "immediate cuts were now possible without jeopardising the recovery because the depreciation of sterling in recent weeks 'has provided a large, real, extra stimulus to the economy.'" This claim was repeated in a later meeting by David Laws, who argued that "the fall in the value of sterling made immediate cuts possible without an impact on the recovery." 

This, to put it mildly, is not a judgement that has aged well. After the coalition entered power and imposed £6bn of immediate spending cuts, including to infrastructure programmes such as Building Schools for the Future, the recovery that had begun under Labour ended and Britain fell into a double-dip recession. Those, like Ed Balls and Martin Wolf, who warned that tightening fiscal policy was the last thing a government should do during a slump were entirely right, and those, like Huhne and Laws, who argued that the economy was robust enough to bear early austerity were entirely wrong. As the UK endures the slowest recovery for more than 100 years, the Lib Dems do not to deserve to avoid their share of responsibility for this dismal outcome. 

Chris Huhne, Danny Alexander and David Laws leave the Cabinet Office following talks with the Conservatives on 9 May 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.