Nick Clegg should follow Labour and support a complete reversal of the bedroom tax. Photo: Getty
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Why the Lib Dems should back Labour and completely oppose the bedroom tax

The Lib Dem's "u-turn" on the bedroom tax isn't enough; they should come out completely against the policy.

Following the announcement by the Lib Dems that has been widely interpreted as them wanting to "axe" the Bedroom Tax the party is likely to soon be left in a dilemma.

What they are actually calling for is in line with the policy that the party's activists voted for at their conference which is to reform the hated policy. The changes proposed would see only those who were offered a smaller house who then refused it penalised and disabled people would not be expected to move if they needed the extra room.

So far so sensible. The problem is that after the coverage and the way the Lib Dem leadership has allowed this hare to run they will be in real trouble if as expected Labour manage to table a vote to scrap the Bedroom Tax altogether.

This would yet again leave the yellows in an excruciating position. In order to maintain governmental coherence and collective responsibility under these sort of circumstances you would expect a party of government to back the agreed and already voted on, established policy. But we've just had days of headlines about how Clegg wants to "axe" it which they are reportedly happy with (as they consider their policy tantamount to scrapping it). It will of course look ridiculous to most people if just days after this "u-turn" the party appears to then "u-turn" again and vote for the policy they just told us they were against. After they were for it before.

Let's just pause for a minute here. Nick Clegg can be accused of many things and regularly is but I think lots of people recognise he has been on a sticky wicket since May 2010. However one criticism I think it fair to level at him is that he seems incapable of looking more than a couple of moves ahead in the political chess game. We have seen this time and again. If he had properly considered what was going to happen if the Lib Dems ended up in government in 2009 he would never have urged his PPCs to sign the (now disastrous) tuition fees pledge. If he had thought long enough about how to get meaningful electoral reform through in this session he may well have decided getting some form of PR for local council elections may have been doable and even palatable to some Tories living in areas dominated by Labour councillors instead of the huge defeat AV was.

And we see the same pattern played out again here. Shouting loudly about how much the party now dislikes the bedroom tax is all well and good but where's the beef? It did not take a strategic genius to work out that Labour would take the opportunity to try and embarrass the Lib Dems (yet again) by calling for a vote to scrap it (yet again).

The Lib Dems have been in an impossible position for years. They are unable to get all the policies they want to in government and as a result they have been "punished" by the electorate. They are to an extent authors of many of their own misfortunes but the electoral system is against them, collective responsibility is against them and almost all the press is against them.

Enough is enough.

The time has come for the party to do something completely left field. If Labour do bring forward a motion to scrap the bedroom tax, Clegg should instruct his party to vote for it. It may not be exactly what party policy is (they want to improve it but keep the essential principle) but frankly the Tories will never allow what the Lib Dems want while they're in government anyway. So what Labour would be proposing is close enough.

Of course there will be consequences from this. It could conceivably bring down the government. At the very least it could make things difficult for both coalition partners.

The issue has become so totemic to so many people that a totemic response is required. If it brings the coalition to a premature end then so be it (although once his bluff is called I expect Cameron will ultimately not force this). At least Clegg will have done this on an issue worth fighting for. The alternative is to yet again be cast as unprincipled, untrustworthy and essentially a liar.

Oh and to those who will claim I am politically naive to even suggest this or that it would be too damaging to the running of government I will just remind them that a few weeks back when the Tories wanted to get a policy through on knife crime that their coalition Lib Dem partners did not want what did they do? They teamed up with Labour to push it through anyway.

Clegg should bear that fact in mind when deciding whether to stick to "the rules" that only ever seem to shaft his party.
 

​Mark Thompson (@MarkReckons) is a political blogger and commentator who edits the award-winning Mark Thompson's Blog.

He is also co-host of the House of Commons podcast.

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era