Nick Clegg should follow Labour and support a complete reversal of the bedroom tax. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.

Show Hide image

How Devon's humpback whale is dredging up the politics of the sea

The arrival of a humpback whale at Slapton Sands has caused a local splash. But the history of the village has a warning for those who think of the sea as spectacle alone.

The Devon coast road from Dartmouth to Torcross is as pretty as it is treacherous. After winding through a cliff-top village, the road ahead falls away to reveal a giant lake – the Slapton Ley - flanked by green hills on one side and ocean on the other. 

Tourists (or "grockles") gasp at the view and, in recent weeks, even locals have been staring out to sea - where a giant humpback whale has taken up residence in the bay.

Not seen at Slapton in living memory, the whale has swum into rural stardom. Hundreds have lined the beach with cameras and telescopes. The nearby pub and farm shop have seen levels of trade only usually enjoyed in the summer.

According to Keith Pugh, (the ice-cream-van-man who has been keeping the crowds supplied with tea) one lady from Plymouth caught the bus here every day for six weeks just to catch a single glimpse. That’s a four-hour round trip.

If this all sounds a bit fishy, that's because it is. Experts believe that the whale is feeding on the bumper numbers of small fish and mackerel that have been reported in the area. But even these are behaving in unexpected ways. “The mackerel are further north than usual for this time of year,” says Mark Darlaston, a photographer who first identified the whale as a humpback (and jokingly named it after storm “Doris”).

So what is the humpback up to, so far south of its northern feeding grounds? And should its presence be seen as a sign of recovery - for whales and UK waters in general? 

Not yet, say conservationists. And not if the history of Slapton is anything to go by.

Troubled waters

Villagers at Torcross, at the far end of Slapton sands, are familiar with secrets from the deep. In 1944, a military training in the bay went horribly wrong, when nearly 1,000 American servicemen were drowned. The tragedy was hushed up for decades.

But the greatest threat to the community comes from mismanagement of the sea itself. On 26 January 1917 the entire neighbouring village of Hallsands was swallowed by a storm. The tragedy was partially manmade. The underwater sandbanks, which had helped protect the shore from longshore drift, had been thoughtlessly dredged to supply building materials for the Plymouth docks. Some 660,000 tonnes of material were removed and never replaced.

The results of that plunder are still felt at Slapton today. In 2014, a gale-force storm swept away part of the road that runs between the sea and the ley. Just last year, the seawall at Torcross crumbled, as the protective beach beneath was carried away by waves.

Into the Brexit deeps

So much in our oceans is tightly connected to human activity. If whales are a rare sight on the UK coast, it is partly because of the human campaign against them for many years in the form of whaling. According to Sally Hamilton from the conservation charity Orca, the 1980s moratorium on whaling has helped some populations to recover. 

But others are still fighting to survive in the face of pollution, noise, and over-fishing. The UK’s last resident pod of killer whales looks likely to die out after high levels of PCB chemicals have stopped the females reproducing. In Norway, a stranded whale was found to have over 30 plastic bags blocking its digestive system.

There is also no certainty that the glut of fish that the whale is feeding on will come again next year. “There is still masses we don’t understand about the ocean,” says Will McCallum from Greenpeace, “Climate change and the threat of over-fishing mean that where fish are moving to is more unpredictable that it has ever been.”

And it's not just whales that could get caught out. Some UK politicians have demanded that a Brexit deal include blocking foreign vessels from fishing in British waters. With 58 per cent of UK-caught fish caught by non-British fleets, it is argued that a ban would benefit the UK industry.

Yet with migration patterns becoming more erratic, McCallum is sceptical. "Re-territorialising our waters would be an absolute potential disaster because we just don’t know where fish stocks are going to move," he says. 

Out of the Blues

At Torcross, the sea has long been a source of worry. Claire, the landlady at the Start Bay Inn, recalls the many storms that have pelted the seafront pub since she was a child. Just last year she was “running from one end to the other” trying to sweep the water out, while bottles rattled and the chip-fryer shook.

So it was perhaps unsurprising that news of the whale’s arrival first met with local concern. “I can’t bear to see it,” one woman tells me. She had read in the press that it had come so close in to shore to “beach” itself and die, and heard rumours it was in mourning for a lost calf.

But thanks to the investigations of Mark Darlaston and the divers at the British Divers Marine Life Rescue, such fake whale-news has been corrected - and its visits are fast becoming a source of wider hope. The owner of the Stokely farmshop has joked about replacing it with a decoy “nessie” when it leaves. Claire cannot wait to put its picture on the front of her menus (where the picture is currently of the recent storm).

It is not yet known what lies ahead for Brexit fishing policy, or for whales. But dip into the history of the village of Torcross, and it's clear that understanding and protecting the sea is inseparable from protecting ourselves.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.