How the Lib Dems are being defamed
This piece by CentreForum’s Julian Astle appeared today on the Guardian’s Comment is Free:
“Bye then, Tory!”
So said my wife as I headed off to work a couple of days after the Liberal Democrat–Conservative coalition had been announced.
As a former Lib Dem adviser, now the director of a liberal thinktank, I knew this would be the first of many such digs that I, like thousands of Liberals up and down the country, would receive in the coming years. I also knew that it would be the gentlest; that once the Labour party got the bit between its teeth, mischievous ribbing would give way to venomous attacks.
Now that these attacks are being launched against the Lib Dem leadership on a daily basis, with the destructive dynamics of the Labour leadership campaign ensuring that each insult is more pointed and personal than the last, how do Nick Clegg and his colleagues feel? In particular, how do they feel about the central accusation that they have betrayed the progressive cause by providing political cover for an unreconstructed Conservative party hellbent on shrinking the state at the expense of the most vulnerable in society?
The answer is that, for the most part, these criticisms have simply strengthened their resolve. No Liberal Democrat takes pleasure in introducing the sort of deficit-busting measures contained in last month’s budget: they know that you can’t raise taxes and significantly reduce public spending without making life tougher for families and businesses up and down the country. But they also know that this a job that has to be done; that dealing with the massive burden of debt we would otherwise bequeath to our children and grandchildren is not a choice, but a duty; that all the things progressives care most about can only be delivered if we first get our public finances on a sustainable footing; that a country that is adding £150bn a year to a national debt hurtling towards £1.3 trillion cannot continue indefinitely to provide education, healthcare and other services in the quantity and of the quality the British people expect; and that the consequences of implementing this budget will be as nothing compared with the pain our creditors would inflict on us if they decided that we, like the Greeks, were either unwilling or unable to get our finances in order.
Deficit denial may have its advantages if you are an opposition politician vying for the leadership of your party. Take that denial into government, however, and the consequences would be catastrophic.
The Lib Dems also believe they have helped deliver a budget that, in terms of its distributional impact, meets the fairness test. There are some who argue that the entire focus of the deficit reduction strategy should be on taxing the rich. And last month’s budget, building on Alistair Darling’s budget three months earlier, did significantly increase the tax burden on the wealthy. There may be more that can be done here, not least by cutting back more aggressively on middle-class welfare – the bus passes, winter fuel payments and free TV licences awarded to millions of comfortable, even wealthy, retirees. But the sums of money that can be raised or saved by squeezing the rich will never come anywhere near the amount needed to eliminate the deficit.
The uncomfortable truth is that, to bring in a lot of money, governments have no option but to raise those taxes that are paid by the many, not the few; just as they have no option but to reduce spending on the benefits, services and salaries of the many, not the few. To do this while ensuring that the richest end up bearing a bigger burden, proportionate to their incomes, than the poor, is not easy. Yet, this is exactly what the government has attempted to do by raising the income tax allowance, increasing the child tax credit, linking the state pension to earnings and exempting low-paid workers from the public-sector pay freeze. More will no doubt be done in future budgets to underpin the coalition’s unequivocal commitment to poverty reduction, and the Lib Dems will certainly be arguing for that. But to claim, as Labour has been doing, that this budget is a carbon copy of the Thatcher budgets of the 1980s, is simply not credible.
What Liberal Democrats find more surprising than Labour’s attitude to the deficit, however, is its attitude to many of the other things the coalition is seeking to do – things that those who describe themselves as progressives should cheer.
For example, Nick Clegg has begun the process of reforming our bankrupt political system and replacing our miserably disempowering electoral system. Yet, Ed Balls and others are now preparing to line up with the forces of reaction, urging people to reject the very voting system the Labour party promised in its election manifesto.
Look also at the law and order debate, where the justice secretary, Ken Clarke, has unilaterally sought to end the 30-year rhetorical arms race between the two main parties. By stating one simple truth – that prison does not, in fact, work when it comes to preventing crime and reducing reoffending – he has created the space in which a more rational and enlightened discussion of criminal justice policy can now take place. But again, he has been roundly criticised by a Labour party still stuck in an authoritarian rut.
Progressives should also welcome the announcement by the prime minister that accusations of MI6 collusion in torture will be fully investigated. This sends a clear signal that, despite Tony Blair’s claim that “the rules of the game have changed” post 9/11, the law remains the law and no one is above it.
You might also expect them to welcome the coalition’s efforts to safeguard people’s privacy and freedoms, abolishing or more tightly regulating the ID card scheme, the biometric passport programme, the DNA database and the ContactPoint children’s database. Again, nothing but criticism from Labour.
None of this is to say that the coalition isn’t doing some things that liberals and progressives find baffling, even worrying. The imposition of an annual immigration cap is illiberal, the ringfencing of the £120bn NHS budget illogical.
But the important question isn’t whether the coalition is built on compromise. Of course, it is. The important question is whether the Liberal Democrats believe these compromises to be in the interests of good government; whether, in the round, they feel they are doing the right thing by the people of this country. And, despite all the abuse being heaped upon them, the answer is that they do.