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.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.