Monday, September 15, 2008

Do the Lib Dems know who they are?

I'd genuinely forgotten the Lib Dems existed - so it shows there is value in having a conference after all if you can get press coverage for it. I've got no particular beef with the yellow ones. The two Lib Dem MPs I've had (Bob Russell in Colchester and David Howarth here in Cambridge) have both been alright. I'd even go so far to say they were quite satisfactory, in a safe, sound constituency MP sort of way.

But I guess new leaders want to show they are bringing something new to their party and whatsit has decided to orientate on the Tories. This is to both protect a number of their seats where they feel threatened and possibly because it's pretty pointless scoring at Labour's open goal.

If society is moving to the right then the Lib Dems seem to want to be swimming with the stream, not against it. Although the pointlessness of a third party that shares the consensus of the main two does seem rather overwhelming from where I am. Still I'm sure they know what's best for their marginals, at least we'll see if they do at the General Election.

I also get the impression that the LibDems are preparing for a Tory victory whilst Labour's current chances of winning a General Election are, well, pretty slim. Sorry guys. Whether that's just to batter off a confident foe or line up a coalition I've got no idea.

So how to combat the Tory threat? Become like them of course. In fact, go even further than they are and promise tax cuts. Vince Cable said "Struggling families are asking can you give us a bit more freedom to spend the money we have earned... Pensioners are saying can you give us a bit more freedom to spend the money we have saved." Which is frankly, balls. Balls we've heard before which was code then and code now for looking after the affluent and is simply about fluttering their eye lashes at Tory voters.

The best way to tackle pensioner poverty is by raising the state pension, pure and simple. Not giving tax breaks to those fortunate enough to have a tidy sum tucked away. In fact the message is put pretty starkly by Mark Littlewood of a right leaning Lib Dem think tank when he said "We have to wean ourselves off this public sector addiction that, if you save £1bn with the right hand, you spend it with the left."

Don't get me wrong there's plenty of waste we could cut. Whether that's overseas troop deployments, new nuclear weapons, ID cards or the Royal family I'm sure I could knock up a list of clean and efficient ways to save money that would be better placed elsewhere. But are the Lib Dems talking about that?

I don't think so. Earlier in the conference they remained committed to PFI. Private sector involvement in public services has, in general, meant worse delivery at a far higher cost. But challenging the privatisation agenda of the two main parties does not fit with wooing the right, even though this is a set of voters that are unlikely to defect to the Lib Dems.

Aping the Tories is a way to disillusion your current support and is unlikely to win over those who have a real and resurgent Tory Party to vote for. Why go for second best? A commitment to tax cuts at a time when confidence in public services is sliding and economic problems are deepening just seems, well, a bit stupid.

Amendments committing the party to decent public services before tax breaks were beaten by a two to one majority, so even when a softer approach was given to delegates they chose to follow their leader into what may turn out to be a tactically disastrous move. This shift away from public investment, that has attracted a good number of voters in the past, particularly those disillusioned by Labour, allowed the Lib Dems to rise to a record high in Parliament. Where do those voters go? Or do the Lib Dems really believe they can take those votes for granted?

It looks like it's the end of the days when the Libs Dems posed as a sort of left alternative to Labour, which certainly makes things simpler for those of us are actually trying to build left of Labour alternatives.

Don't get me wrong they are far from a down the line neo-liberal party yet, but frankly, if they're going to be blown so easily by a political wind and ditch something that many thought was a defining feature then they're moving in the wrong direction. Where's Simon Hughes when you need him? Surely he has something sensible to say about all this?


Joe Otten said...

Simon Hughes spoke in favour of the paper unamended, because it is not the lurch to the right you paint it as.

It is absurd to describe tax cuts for the poor as aping the Tories. They are only talking about tax cuts for the rich.

But with taxes having gone up by more than the 1p we campaigned for previously; with record food and fuel prices; with spending on public services having gone up massively in the last few years with little to show for it, surely a few pounds in the pocket is going to be more use to huge numbers of us than yet more spending.

scott redding said...

Fraser Nelson is interesting this morning on this.

Peter said...

The logic behind it would be:

Labour are very unpopular. Their supporters will want to make a protest vote against labour. The lib dems would need to move very far to the right to put off protest voters, who don't usually read the lib dem manifesto in detail.

The tories are popular - it's much harder work to win over their supporters. So they need to present themselves as acceptable to the right wing.

When the tories were unpopular and labour popular, the strategy was reversed.

The lib dems are stuck in the middle, so need to play that game to maximise their support.

Anonymous said...

There's now a lot of space politically for us Greens to cash in on. Gareth Epps a decent Lib Dem Parlimentary candidate in Reading I know was complaining about this new direction on TV a few days ago.
The Lib Dem's as usual are being pulled in different directions, Clegg appears to be no more than Cameron Lite!

scott redding said...

The similiarity between the Tories and Lib Dems is that they both want to cut the state. The Lib Dems want to say the difference in how they would apportion the tax cuts: bottom up vs being "trickled" on. I think Greens should be saying, it's not about more of the state, or less of the state, but a different kind of state. The Lib Dems are talking about bottom-up tax cuts, not bottom-up control. Would people accept greater taxation if they had a greater say in what was going on in their name?

Peter said...

Scott - sounds dirty - all this talk of bottom up versus being trickled on.

Isn't it ducking the question to say that it's not about the state being bigger or smaller, but "different". Surely this different kind of state is still going to be taxing and spending. Is it going to be taxing and spending a lot or a little?

Joe Otten said...

Scott, bottom-up control is what we are talking about. 'Make it happen' includes radical decentralisation in health and policing for example.

Jim Jay said...

Joe, the Tories aren't talking about tax cuts at all in the present climate. I think it is fair to see this as a move to the right (which I'd have thought you'd approve of, although I might be wrong) as people are explicitly talking about this being a move to appeal to Tory inclined voters.

Tax cuts can effect some of those in the bottom half of society - but they can't effect those who are in the deepest poverty. Only a decent state pension and well funded public services can do that (which makes everyone better off) - and for that you need a decent tax base.

As the new leader's first conference he is attempting to define what his party is all about and whilst the Lib Dems on the ground can be for all sorts of things a national strategy that seeks to woo Tory voters through promising tax cuts is certainly something of a shift from previous policy.

Ed said...

I suspect this is a high stakes gamble. The Lib Dems have been telling themselves that they've been on the verge of a breakthrough for as long as I can remember and it's never quite materialised. So they see that the political scenery is a bit fluid at the moment with NewLab charging into oblivion and the Cameroons moving towards the centre. So the Orange Book lot say let's gamble on a lurch to the economic liberal Tory right and to a party whose governing anxiety is that they will always be the third party also rans if they don't do something decisive to break out, the gamble looks attractive.

Joe Otten said...

Jim, public services help nobody with the cost of food and fuel.

Now if you had said benefits, you would have a point, and while there is a moral case for higher benefits, nobody is prepared to take the flak for the cost, the loss of incentives and the damage to the economy that higher benefits would bring.

Ed, have you read the Orange Book? No? Read the review of it on my blog and then at least you can convincingly pretend to have read it.

Tory governments don't cut taxes overall. They talk about it but in fact taxes only go down for the better off, and therefore go up in the long run for everybody else. So in no way do tax cuts for the poor compete on conservative territory.

Peter said...

Joe - "a review of the orange book on my blog"- from recollection, isn't your review almost as long as the orange book itself :p

Charlie said...

'If society is moving to the right...'

Hmmm... New Labour has been moving right since 1997, and its vote declining in tandem. Meanwhile fewer and fewer people can find a party to vote for - which suggests a vacuum on the left. In 2005 under 50% of the electorate could bring themselves to vote New Labour (21.5%) or Tory (18%).

Then, just at the moment that the neoliberal project begins to crash and burn, the Lib Dems reject social democracy in favour of emphasising their economic liberal heritage (i.e. before c.1890). One gets the feeling that timing isn't Nick Clegg's strong point.

Jim Jay said...

"Jim, public services help nobody with the cost of food and fuel."

I didn't say they did - that's why I have mentioned a decent state pension more than once, although I suppose I could have used the term benefits if you'd prefer, although I was specificly thinking of pensioners in this instance - but decent public services *do* ameliorate the worst aspects of poverty, as well as improving the quality of society for everyone.

These tax cut proposals are seen as lobbying for the Tory vote - or don't you think that's the case? - what do you think the strategic vision behind this is? It's hardly traditional Labour territory for instance.

Rayyan said...

I think all this talk of "tax cuts", whilst on paper a vote-winner, in reality does not fire up the public imagination and connect with voters in a way that will help the Lib Dems get the seats they want. It sounds like something they say in the US: "Tax cuts for the middle class". In fact, Nick Clegg seems intent on using the word "families" as much as possible. Again, it might sound like a vote-winner to try to appeal to middle England with an emphasis on families - but it's not how the collective British political mind works.

And I frankly find any allusion to Make It Happen's tax-cutting agenda a bit silly. I was paying close attention and I don't recall any talk of taxes:

Ed said...

Joe - no I haven't read the orange book. To be honest, life's too short (have you read the Alternative Economic Strategy (1980, CSE Books) by the way? I have.) I'm pretty sure that Vince Cable is an economic liberal, however - a free-market equilibrium economics sort of chap, and that's all fine and dandy if you like your policies based on a kind of back to the 19th century nostalgia dressed up as fresh, modern thinking. Abolishing the corn laws may have been the high point of Whig-liberalism for some, but I prefer Lloyd George myself.

Victor, NW Kent said...

Joe Otten said "It is absurd to describe tax cuts for the poor as aping the Tories. They are only talking about tax cuts for the rich".

That is arrant nonsense as it is the declared Conservative policy to remove all workers at the lower income levels from income tax altogether. That should be applauded as it is simpler than fiddling around with means-tested tax credits.

I have not heard of any Conservative policy to reduce taxation on the rich. That is unless you count the IHT proposal which only prevents too many extra kinds of tax on the same original income. After all, tax was originally paid on the money earned before the residue became part of a decesaed estate - probably largely at the higher rate.

Fortunately the LibDems will never need to deal with the problem at all - the Conservatives certainly will.

scott redding said...

All this "hard working families" stuff just got blown out of the water. Clegg is revealed as a guy, with a £1.3 million house, who thinks the state pension is £30 a week. If he was a little bit off, fine, but the pension is £90 a week and £145.45 for a couple.

Someone should ask him what JSA is.

Clegg told the BBC: "I got it wrong; I got it spectacularly wrong. I was doing 11 back to back interviews and I had questions thrown at me and I got the figure wrong."

He went on: "I'm just a human being, sometimes you just get the wrong number before the zero and I did that today. I don't pretend to try and spin it in any way. I got it wrong but of course I know full well what the state pension is."

No, you don't! It's like asking someone who much 2 pints of milk cost, and instead of saying 80p, they say £2.40 ... and then they say, I know full well how much milk is.

Jim Jay said...

If he really thought that pensioners only get £30 a week I wonder how much benefit a tax cut would do for someone on that little...

Rayyan: "And I frankly find any allusion to Make It Happen's tax-cutting agenda a bit silly. I was paying close attention and I don't recall any talk of taxes:"

I wanted to reply to this earlier but the libdem website was down...

I don't know what you were paying close attention to but tax cuts are top of the make it happen agenda e.g. it's the first of the bullet points;

"Deliver big tax cuts for people on low and average incomes"

Rayyan said...

Jim, it was a tongue-in-cheek reference to the other Make It Happen released at the same time:

I think his repeated use of the phrases "tax cuts" and "families" really doesn't work at all. I can see what he's trying to do but he can't, ironically, make it happen. Look at him floundering around on stage trying to outdo Cameron:

He hasn't used that considerable personal wealth to hire a speech coach, someone to tell him when and when not to try to go dramatic. I think Chris Huhne is a better public speaker, certainly more assertive, but it seems like they don't have much to choose from in terms of leadership material.

Jim Jay said...

Ah, sorry Rayyan, I missed that - but now you say it I understand.

I think a lot of people are going to blame the new leader for the Lib Dems coming problems but I think they have a genuine political dilemma ahead of them that even a leader the public liked would have difficulty with.

Unless they're willing to try to replace the Labour Party (which would only be fair because the Labour Party replaced them way back when) they'll be squashed.

Rayyan said...

Precisely: the Tories will be the default choice of disgruntled voters too fed up with Labour to actually realise the Tories offer no solutions at all. As such, it doesn't make sense for Clegg to hop around squealing "We're like the Tories, only better!" when the Tories are grunting "We're like Labour, only better!" Tory voters will go with the Tories, Labour voters will go with the Tories, so who's going for the Lib Dems? Presumably not enough for them to double their seats in two elections time.

Joe Otten said...

Okaaay, yes the pension gaffe was shit.

But this accusation of being similar to the Tories, just doesn't stand up.

Why not watch, or read, the speech itself, before parrotting the opinions of Tory commentators.

Anonymous said...

At the last election, the Lib Dems aimed to win Tory-held seats (especially high profile ones like shadow cabinet members). I think this time the Lib Dem move to the right is a plan to make themselves acceptable to Tory voters in Labour-held seats where the Tories can't win. While still talking vaguely about social justice to hold on to left votes as well.

scott redding said...

Fine. Let's take a lengthy/meaty transcript of recent Clegg and go to town.

"We are not shying away from spelling out how you pay for it."

"If we can't find three per cent of total government spending that can't be spent better elswhere and handed back in tax cuts, then we aren't doing our job properly."

Well, the upshot of a 3% cut overall is that if you have one-third of government receiving a spending increase (Clegg's diversion of funding to what the Lib Dems want to do), one-third of government held steady, then the remaining third will have to be cut by 15%. On Newsnight, Clegg floundered and floundered when Paxman pulled out a pad of paper and started adding up the various parts of the £20 billion in spending cuts, and only came to £7-8 billion. It's a good soundbite to say, we'll cut Chris (DBERR) but won't some of that money be reallocated to other ministries? Clegg said, we don't have to tell you now, we'll tell you when a general election happens. Which sounds an awful like the Tories.

"We will say that above average income families should be taken out of the tax credit system altogether. That would save us £2.5 billion."

Or, put another way, Lib Dems don't believe in universal social programmes anymore.

"I am answering to something new in British politics which is a profound sense of anxiety about our economic future, a profound sense of anxiety about paying for the food on the table, filling the tank of petrol in the car, paying the heating bills, paying the mortgage bills."

Tax cuts are a short term solution to all of that. Unless, of course, he'll keep cutting 3% every few years once in government ...

Joe Otten said...

wow, Scott, you really have gone to town there.

It is true that we haven't announced the full £20bn of savings yet, nor should we. Things like ID cards and wars have been mentioned, which should give you some idea. Does the Green Party have a budget for after the election? Do the Tories? No. So come on, be consistent.

Anyway, we will find £20bn in savings, some of which will go on our spending priorities and some on tax cuts for low and middle income earners. Preferably, in my view, by raising the personal allowance.

You can complain that that is not fully specified. Fine. The Tories have no policies whatsoever at the moment. Are you saying that parties should always be in a state of either having no policies or a complete manifesto and budget, and never anything in between? Even if, as in our case, individual policies are agreed democratically by the conference?

Taking above average income families out of tax credits is a great idea. Tax credits are a bureaucrats wet dream. How stopping MEANS TESTED benefits for ABOVE AVERAGE INCOME families means opposition to universal social programmes, is something you'll have to explain to me very slowly.

As for tax cuts being a short term solution - I don't suggest they are a solution at all. It is not in the state's gift to make everything all right, but it is the state's duty to reflect the voters' and taxpayers' actual priorities.

Rayyan said...

I like what you did with the Chris De Burgh reference there, Scott. Despite Joe's responses to your specific pointing out of the gaps in Clegg's sums, I still think the biggest problem is that phrases like "tax cuts", whilst designed to appeal to people in the same way they do in the US, simply hasn't had the PR effect Clegg must have hoped for. The cold-calling tactic seems to have got a bad press: it is probably too early to gauge whether or not it yielded anything beyond increased publicity.

scott redding said...

There's this "the election is 20 months away" idea, on both the part of Lib Dems and Tories, that gives them a free pass to not spell out policies.

We don't have fixed terms. We live in a parliamentary democracy. The PM can go to the Palace and ask for a dissolution tomorrow. If Gordon falls under a bus, or gets knifed by Miliband/Straw/Hutton/Milburn and Labour has a leadership election, they'll require a general election for legitimacy/mandate.

There's no point saying "£20 billion" if you don't spell out how much of that (Simon Hughes told Andrew Neill that the "bulk" of it would be reallocated to other spending) will be kept and how much cut, and how much goes to tax cuts, and how much for redundancy payments for everyone at Chris and the unspecified 2nd ministry.