The announcement on Friday that the UK economy contracted again in the last quarter of 2012 offers a damaging blow to the Government, and our leadership in particular, who have rightly and continually reaffirmed during this parliament that generating economic growth is by far their greatest priority.
And so it should be. Not only is the economy considered by far the most important issue for the public at large, but more crucially, a growing economy would do more than anything else to improve the collective well being of society, making things like the Government’s spiteful raid on benefits seem relatively minor.
However, the problem of the looming triple dip recession presents the Liberal Democrats with great problems. Not only does it suggest that our leadership has shown the wrong judgement on the biggest issue of the day, but it also blows a hole in attempts to portray the Party as more economically literate than Labour and more compassionate than the Conservatives in 2015.
This narrative, with echoes of the SDP Liberal Alliance, offering a back handed compliment to the Tories’ economic competence, has seemed highly questionable to some of those who believe the Conservatives are far less well placed as Liberals to help increase the productive capacity of the economy. See historic Conservative opposition to shifting taxation onto unearned income; their silence over state backed capitalism, such in our banking sector, and their fickle support for open markets, evident in the recent restrictions on the number of foreign students studying at our universities, one the UK’s biggest export industries. Likewise, some may question the back handed compliment to Labour’s compassion. However, regardless of any previous thoughts on this campaign narrative, defining ourselves in opposition to our opponents in this ways now seems simply too implausible to be put the country after two and half years of almost continual downgrades to predicted growth, and the ignominy of a triple dip.
The Party must therefore come up with a fresh vision for the future upon which to campaign in 2015, and if it is to have credibility, the Parliamentary Party must rethink its corporate approach to economic policy, and allow differences with its coalition partners in this area to be known. We should not be short on ideas, with dissenters from the Government’s current economic orthodoxy within the Parliamentary Party, and outside of it, such as ‘Plan C’, authored by Dr Prateek Buch, and published by the Social Liberal Forum last year. Unsurprisingly, we also have positions on economic policy put forward by the Party in the run up to the 2010 election to draw from. With trust having been placed at the centre of our last two General Election campaigns, the Party should in turn also then seriously consider who are best placed to articulate that vision.
If we instead do not change tack and the electorate judge us on the economy, as we have continually invited, then we will have failed by both our and the public’s most important measure.
* Paul Pettinger is a Liberal Democrat member in London. He was formerly a Party SAO employee and District Councillor.