Lib Dem rebellion over cuts highlights post-2015 dilemmas

The decision by Tim Farron and four other Lib Dems to rebel against local government cuts is a reminder of the more open debate needed about the austerity to come.

Largely unnoticed, there was a small but significant Lib Dem rebellion over cuts to local government last night. Party president Tim Farron, former defence minister Nick Harvey, Andrew George, Stephen Gilbert and Adrian Sanders all voted against this year's funding settlement. Harvey, who led the rebellion, warned during the debate: 

The whole model of local Government funding is now so fundamentally broken that there needs to be a cross-party endeavour to rebuild something from scratch on a blank sheet of paper. The situation that we are in now is untenable. Somehow or other, Whitehall convinces itself that by putting this degree of hardship on to local government, the public anger at seeing some of the services that impact on their daily lives most directly will miraculously be focused solely upon the local authorities that send out the bill. I say to my right hon. and hon. Friends that I simply do not believe that that is a sound political calculation. The public are not stupid and they will see the difficulties that local government, regardless of the party running any particular council, is facing at this time, and they will hold central Government to be responsible for it.

He is right to highlight both the undesirability and the unsustainability of the huge cuts to local government. By the end of 2015-16, the budget of the Department for Communities and Local Government will have been reduced by a remarkable 60.6 per cent, with several years of austerity still ahead. On the current timetable, publicly-funded libraries, swimming pools, youth centres, museums and parks will soon cease to exist in parts of the country. 

The rebellion last night, then, is a reminder of the far more open debate needed over the pain to come after 2015. Vince Cable has long argued that it is untenable to ring-fence some areas (the NHS, pensions, schools, international development) from austerity, while cutting others (local government, working age welfare, universities, the police) to the bone. As he said last March, "You get a very unbalanced approach to public spending. I went along with the overall ringfencing approach in this parliament – as part of the coalition we have had to work as a team – but I think as a long-term approach to government spending, it isn't very sensible." But we have heard little from him, or any other major Lib Dem figure, on this subject recently. 

With the party set to back the triple lock on the state pensions, it is worth asking whether it will take the same approach to the NHS, schools and international development. Back in 2010, Nick Clegg declared: "We’re not entering into this dutch auction about ring-fencing. Good outcomes aren’t determined by drawing a redline around government departmental budgets." But more recently he has argued: "I am absolutely convinced that at a difficult time like this, protecting our NHS spending, protecting spending on schools and honouring our international obligations to developing countries around the world was a big decision, was a controversial decision but I think was the right one to take."

The alternative, of course, to cuts to protected departments is greater tax rises. But none of the measures proposed by Labour and the Lib Dems to date, such as a mansion tax or the reintroduction of the 50p tax rate, even come close to bridging the fiscal gap. As the IFS has warned, around £12.5bn of tax rises are required merely to keep departmental cuts at their current pace. One left-wing economist, speaking very much off-the-record, recently told me that the parties ultimately may need to discuss openly the possibility of raising the only taxes that reap reliably large revenues: the basic rate of income tax, National Insurance and VAT. But that is the kind of genuinely "tough choice" that all sides seem desperate to avoid before May 2015. 

Liberal Democrat president Tim Farron was one of five Lib Dem MPs to vote against cuts to local government. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Jeremy Corbyn urged to intervene in Momentum's feud

Pressure is growing on the Labour leader to attend to the troubled organisation's splits. 

Jeremy Corbyn is being urged to intervene to help settle the breach in Momentum, as the troubled organisation’s internal divisions again spilt into the open after a fractious meeting of the organisation’s national committee left Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder, contemplating exercising his “nuclear option” and shutting down the group completely.

Proposals to give decision-making power to the whole of Momentum’s membership were narrowly defeated, with the organisation resting on a delegate system. The public argument advanced by Lansman’s allies, who backed the one member, one vote system, was that the e-ballot would give greater control to members as opposed to bogging the organisation down in hidebound procedures.

But privately, insiders admitted the plan was a gambit to see off Lansman’s internal critics, including the Alliance of Workers’ Liberty, a Troskyite grouping, who are small but well-organised, giving them an advantage over the rest of the membership.

In a blog, Laura Murray, the newly-elected women’s representative, said publicly what allies of Lansman have been saying privately for some time: that the plan of the AWL and its allies is to take over Momentum with a view to setting it up as a rival party to Labour.

Lansman’s critics, however, say that he is treating Momentum as his personal fiefdom and is stifling the internal democracy of Momentum. The division, which first flared into life following the row over Jackie Walker’s remarks at Labour party conference, has taken on an additional dimension due to the growing frustration of some at what they see as the leadership’s right turn on immigration, free movement and taxation. Clive Lewis’ remark that free movement “has not worked” and John McDonnell’s support for the 40p rate cut are particular causes for alarm.

However, Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity remains largely undimmed, and the Labour leader is coming under pressure to intervene in the row. Lansman has also met with Andrew Murray, who as well as being the father of Laura Murray is Unite general secretary’s Len McCluskey’s chief of staff and a key link into the Labour leader and McCluskey himself.   One trade union official said “I think it’s time for Jeremy and John to intervene to straighten out the situation, so we can get on with the job of holding the government to account”.

Should Corbyn refrain from wading in, Lansman still retains the ability to shut down Momentum, taking its valuable maillist with him, and starting again from scratch. However, the so-called “nuclear option” would mean crippling the left in its internal battles with the Corbynsceptics ahead of crucial clashes about conference delegates and parliamentary selections. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.