Nick Clegg speaks at the Liberal Democrat spring conference in York last month. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The progressive Lib Dem policies that no one knows about

How many know that the party still aspires to abolish tuition fees and plans to review the bedroom tax? 

When I wrote last week that Lib Dem MPs who had supported party policy by voting against an increase in university tuition fees were likely to receive some sort of credit for this from the electorate in 2015, a senior political journalist asked me if I hadn’t got that the wrong way round – that surely the rebels had voted against party policy?

But in fact this wasn’t the case. Lib Dems who trooped through the lobby supporting the government were in fact the actual rebels, whereas those who voted against the government were - in party terms – bowing to the will of conference and towing the line. Indeed, party policy is to review the system after next year's election with a view to abolishing tuition fees altogether. A fact that I suspect eludes most people.

And there lies the biggest issue for the Lib Dems at present. If senior political correspondents get confused about the minutiae of party policy, what chance for an electorate where nine in 10 voters fail to recognise a photograph of the Secretary of State for Defence, and the Foreign Secretary frequently gets confused with Ross Kemp?

We saw another example of this type of contradiction the other day on the bedroom tax. You might imagine that the bedroom tax enjoys the support of the Lib Dems, but in fact party policy is to review it, Nick Clegg has ordered said review and when you know that, suddenly Tim Farron's intervention against the tax last week all makes sense. Or at least, it makes sense until 24 hours later the majority of Lib Dem peers end up supporting it.

It’s almost like we want to confuse people.

It is into this vacuum that well-written and provocative contributions like Jeremy Browne's new book get confused with party policy and a set of proposals, approved by conference, ready to present to the electorate as a programme for government. And before you know it, you’re being asked whether it's true that the Lib Dems will cut the top rate of tax for the rich on the day that we take thousands more at that the other end of the scale out of income tax altogether. Which doesn’t help. And that’s not Jeremy’s fault – it’s his job to say what he thinks.

The next month will see Lib Dems campaigning hard on one policy that we are both clear about and well known for – our support for the UK’s membership of the European Union. But after that, we need to start filling in the void on every other policy area – because we’ll have just 12 months to tell people what it is we actually believe. 

At the moment – EU and the Mansion Tax aside – I’m not sure many people actually know. 

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.