Saturday, 13 November 2010

Why I'm still a Lib Dem

A lot of people recently have been asking me why I'm still a Lib Dem and it seems it is now de rigeur for any Labour or Green party supporters to ask that of any Lib Dem they meet. So, partly for the sake of convenience, I am writing this so that all my reasons are in one convenient place which I can direct people to.

So, let's start with the Coalition. Did I support the Coalition and do I still support it? Absolutely.The reason for this is quite simple. On the 6th of May the electoral arithmetic meant that there were only three options for government. The first was a so-called Rainbow Coalition of Labour and the Lib Dems and anyone else who could be convinced to hate the tories. This was patently unworkable. For one thing, even if everyone had fully committed to the Rainbow Coalition it would have still lacked a majority and even if it had managed to achieve one it would still lose it any time a single MP decided to rebel on an issue - it would have led to a deadlocked and unworkable government. For another thing, Labour entered the coalition negotiations with an inflexible position which would have essentially seen a fourth Labour government with a few minor things thrown into please the Lib Dems - on all the key issues we would have just been going along with Labour policy. Couple this with outright statements by people like Ed Balls that they would refuse to work in a coalition with the Lib Dems and the whole thing became impossible.

The second option was a minority Tory government with perhaps a Lib Dem confidence and supply agreement. This, on the face of it, would have been feasible. But with no clear agreement on the economy, and dozens of issues where the parties disagreed, parliament would have been deadlocked. The tories would have published an emergency budget, heavily influenced by their now very influential right wing, and had it rejected by the House of Commons. With market confidence in Britain weakening, the tories would have called a second election which they would have won. What very few people seem to realise is that after the May election Labour was £20 million in debt, the Lib Dems had spent everything, and the Tories still had Ashcroft cash burning a hole in their pockets. The Tories would have been the only ones able to afford a decent campaign, the right wing media would have stirred up fear about the markets, and people would have come to the conclusion that hung parliaments were too dangerous and returned a slim tory majority beholden to its far right backbencher MPs. The Lib Dems would be seen to have lost their courage and to have shown themselves unfit for government - we would have not recovered for a generation. Now, it may be possible that this might not have been how things turned out but it was certainly too probably an outcome to take the risk.

This left only Coalition with the tories. The tories went into the negotiations ready to compromise. They showed a willingness to find a middle ground and we ended up with an agreement containing 65% of the Lib Dem manifest (and this is according to the Guardian). The Coalition has a substantial majority which means it is not constantly dependent on rebellious right wing tory backbenchers to govern. This enable Cameron to put people like Iain Duncan-Smith in prominent positions - leading to One Nation Conservatives  in the top positions instead of Thatcherites. This is why I supported the Coalition agreement - it was the only option which allowed us to deliver on the majority of our manifesto while moderating the worst of the tories.

Now, I don't pretend that I like everything the Coalition is doing. There are some areas which really make me angry. Tuition fees are one of them. But, when it comes down to it, tuition fees and the economy have been our only two big u-turns.

Now, I still think that the cuts should be slower so as to give the economy more time to recover but I think that the current plan isn't too bad. Unless we cut now our interest payments on our debt alone will continue to grow year on year leading to even less money to spend in the future. But, the indications from the government are that, if the economic situation suddenly worsens, they will reconsider their plans on cutting. This is a sensible approach and, pragmatically speaking, I think that the cuts will be good for our economy as a whole even if they do damage public services. And, in 2015, once the economy has recovered and the cuts are over, the new government will have the ability to fix the damage done to public services but we as a nation will be in a stronger position. Do not forget, these cuts are not Thatcherite style cuts which will flog off national assets dirt cheap and make millions unemployed, these are plans which will see 490,000 lose their jobs in the public services but it will be over 5 years with the majority of the job losses coming through natural wastage. It's unpleasant, but it's nowhere near as bad as it could have been. The next five years will not see the demolition of public services and that is something we can be thankful for.

I'm still extremely angry over tuition fees and I don't intend to roll over and accept the party leadership's betrayal on this issue. To put it bluntly, we made a cast iron promise and we must keep it and any of our MPs who don't will be showing their complete lack of integrity. However, I do think the new system will be marginally more progressive than the current system and it's still completely possible that a backbench rebellion will defeat the government on this issue - I very much doubt that the majority of our backbenchers will break their pledge on this issue and I've heard of at least two tory backbenchers who will rebel. If the NUS and the rest of us keep the pressure up I'm not sure we can't win.

The party does not agree with the leadership on this issue as surveys of our members have shown. In one survey 59% of members thought that all our MPs should keep their pledges on tuition fees and another survey showed that 41% would not support an increase in tuition fees no matter what. I personally have pledged not to campaign on behalf of any of our MPs who break their pledge and Liberal Youth conference, as well as every other regional conference (with the narrow exception of the south west), passed motions against an increase in tuition fees and I know that Liberal Youth in particular is taking an active part in the campaign against fee increases. In Guildford (my home) the local party and all of our councillors have come out against an increase in tuition fees and will be working to oppose it. Our newly elected party president, Tim Farron, has also stated that he will oppose an increase in tuition fees, describing them as the "poll tax of our generation".

To me this shows that the party is still the same party it was before May and, by staying a member, I can work with others using our (uniquely amongst the major parties) democratic internal structure to ensure that it remains our party and not Nick Clegg's. I'll be addressing what I think will happen to him in another post, possibly later today.

Finally, here's a list of reasons why I'm still supporting the Coalition:
  • The individual tax allowance to be raised to £10,000 by 2015, with a £1,000 increase already
  • The end of child detention - happening slower than I like but it's still happening
  • The new Green Investment Bank and the Green Deal - weaker than what would have happened under a Lib Dem government but still a massive step forwards
  • Welfare reform - some parts of it I really don't like but overall I support it. Ending the cycle of dependency, simplifying an overcomplicated system and making work pay for the first time in decades will be a huge achievement
  • Costed cuts to the police budget which will reduce the bill without cutting front-line numbers
  • A switch to a more preventative approach in dealing with crime - far better than continuing to lock up ever increasing numbers of young people
  • Trident renewal postponed until after 2015 - a huge victory considering that both the Tories and Labour are dead set on renewal.
  • A referendum on AV - a chance to finally start sorting out our broken electoral system and a cause which has attracted huge grassroots, non-partisan support
  • The banking levy - smaller than I might like but a strong step in the right direction
  • The link to earnings returned to pensions - after years pensioners will finally get a fair deal
  • Capital Gains Tax increased - an end to the injustice where millionaires can end up paying less tax than their cleaners
  • Science spending protected in cash terms - vital to a strong recovery and economy
  • Cross rail and the High Speed Rail Link to the north to go ahead - infrastructure building that will provide thousands of jobs and provide a permanent boost to our economy
  • An elected House of Lords via proportional representation to be introduced - about bloody time
  • People will have the power to recall their MPs
  • Fixed term parliaments - giving more power to the Commons and less to the Prime Minister
  • ID cards scrapped - a very good thing as all those fears over them were completely justified
  • The end of dozens of other attacks on civil liberties - at last an end to Labour's most poisonous legacy
These are all great policies which will change Britain for the better and which every Lib Dem can be proud of. If Labourites could stick with their party after an illegal war which lead to the deaths of a million people and the most authoritarian attack on civil liberties in decades then I can stick with my party when we've done so much better.

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I'm indebted to Birkdale Focus for the following choice of words:

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