Are Lib Dems doing enough to distance themselves from the Bedroom Tax?

The party's conference voted overwhelmingly that it was the wrong thing to do, but does that get across to the average voter?

I was spending a pleasant evening last week in front of the box, shouting via the medium of Twitter at the Tories in general (and Anna Soubry in particular), when a Labour supporting follower engaged in a spot of good natured leg pulling by telling me Ms Soubry was "my Minister". When I demurred, he added . . .

“Do you agree with the present coalition? If so, she IS your minister. If not, call on your party to dissolve . . .”

I’m presuming he meant to add "the coalition" (well I’m choosing to interpret it like that – it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to) and it's been preying on my mind all week, given the context of Bedroom Tax vote which took place on Tuesday.

Now, of course using an Opposition Day motion to make the junior party in the coalition feel uncomfortable is a trick used by Labour before, to little effect - but this time was different. It's one thing trying to play games around the Mansion Tax - which no matter how clever your procedural chicanery may be, you’re never going to persuade anyone that it isn’t a Lib Dem policy. It’s quite another thing to turn the focus onto the Bedroom Tax (sorry HQ, I meant "spare room subsidy") - because the party, let alone the country, doesn’t seem too sure if is "ours" or not.

It’s a Tory policy – well actually it’s a Labour policy extended by the Tories but let's not quibble - that our MPs supported in the Commons. Then Lib Dem conference decreed overwhelmingly that it was the wrong thing to do – almost the sole defeat for the leadership in Glasgow. This seemed to engender a change of heart in Nick Clegg – who announced an investigation into the implementation of the tax. Then, when invited to vote on it again this week, two Lib Dem MPs voted with Labour – including the party president. Four more Lib Dem MPs put down their own early day motion condemning the Bedroom Tax. And 22 members of the Westminster party abstained on the motion – including more than half the cabinet, one of whom was the Deputy Prime Minister. Sure they were probably paired. But if they cared that much. . .

On the other hand, more than half the Parliamentary party in the Commons merrily marched into the government lobby with the Tories.

Together with at least 23 of our MPs and most of conference, I’d like to think the Bedroom Tax, as it currently stands, isn’t "our" policy . . .but I’m not sure we’re doing nearly enough to turn our face away.  And if our MP and activists don’t know  - what hope for the average voter?

 

Nick Clegg seemed to have a change of heart after the conference vote. Photo: Getty

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

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.