When Nick called me to ask if I would be a Peer, he said, amongst other things, that it was time I had my own political platform. So that got me thinking about what my political platform might look like. Here are some initial thoughts.
I know we are in Coalition with them but I can find few redeeming features in Tory economics. Of course work should pay more than benefits but have benefits really have reduced to the level where families have to resort to food banks? Are those with disabilities having to give up independent living and are families being forced into bed and breakfast accommodation because their housing allowance no longer covers their rent? If so, then this cannot be right and seems to me to be a false economy. If you want work to pay more than benefits, then should we not pay workers more?
To some extent we have. Liberal Democrats in the Coalition Government have pushed through tax reforms to ensure the 2.7m lowest paid no longer have to pay income tax and standard rate tax payers now pay £700 a year less tax. That’s great, but could we not enforce a ‘Living Wage’ rather than a ‘Minimum Wage’? Workers have been making their contribution to help the recovery from the economic crisis left behind by Labour, so isn’t it time shareholders made theirs? The predicted rise in unemployment when we enforced the ‘Minimum Wage’ did not materialise. Surely big business can afford to shave a little off shareholder dividends in order to pay their workers more? Perhaps changes could be made to employer and employee National Insurance contributions to help small and medium sized enterprises pay a ‘Living Wage’ without going bust. This might mean the rich paying more but is it not time for those with the broadest shoulders to help those less well off, rather than using their broad shoulders to barge them out of the way? Big businesses employing people on zero hours contracts, where the motivation is simply to maximise profit, is morally wrong.
What I would like to see is a decent minimum level of remuneration for those who work and a reasonable (but lower than employment) level of benefits for those who don’t.
Liberal Democrats in the Coalition Government have done a lot to support the disadvantaged including £1,200 a year to help with childcare and more money to help pupils from poor backgrounds. We have also restored the inflation link for state pensions to provide dignity in old age. Yet the next most important thing after being paid a decent wage (and we have helped create a million new jobs and over a million new apprenticeships) is having a decent place to live.
Providing help for people to buy their own homes is all very well but the only way to take the heat out of the housing market is to address the imbalance between supply and demand in a way that does not allow buy-to-let investors and the well off to snap-up the few homes that are being built. We need a massive social house-building programme.
When I ran for Mayor of London, we worked out that, if we used publicly-owned land and private investment, we could build high quality homes that could be rented out at low cost in perpetuity. Because the most costly element of building new homes, the cost of the land, could be taken out of the equation, we could still give investors like pension funds a decent return on their money while keeping rents genuinely affordable.
Giving people a decent wage and a decent place to live is not just morally right. It would make this country a far safer place, where very few could genuinely say “what has society ever done for me, so why should I be a good citizen?” It would make government’s attempts to eradicate poverty overseas far more acceptable to those at home and it would completely cut the ground from under the racists and xenophobes who want to blame anyone who is different from themselves for what are, in fact, injustices created by the current system.
The last 13 years of Labour government destroyed the British economy. Now the Liberal Democrats in government are making the economy stronger. The Conservatives have always looked to maintain self-interested inequality. Liberal Democrats are making society fairer but we have a lot more to do and I want to do all I can to make sure that we continue to do exactly that.