This is the third of three posts looking at the party’s messaging. The introductory post was published here, and yesterday’s on the economic part of the message is here ; this last and final post concentrates on the second part of the message: social justice.
The second part of the party’s message is “building a fairer society”. Fairness was, of course, the theme of the party’s 2010 manifesto, linking the four key policy platforms on which we fought the election (fairer taxes, a fair start for every child, fairer politics and a fairer, more balanced economy).
If creating a stronger economy is about government doing what it can to ensure that economic prosperity is sustainable in order to maximise opportunity, the demands of social justice are first to use the state’s influence to ensure people are able to maximise those opportunities, and secondly to redress some of the unfairness inherent in a capitalist economy.
On the first of these – public spending – there is no end of potential things on which to spend tax revenues. What I think is most useful, therefore, is as a party to decide – and communicate – what our spending priorities are.
In my view, fundamental to creating the sort of opportunities I talked about in my introduction is education policy. It is through education that the state can harness its power in the most effective way to really transform the lives of those (in particular) who are born into families where the odds are stacked against them from birth.
The challenge for the party is to come up with big and bold ideas that can build on the fantastic pupil premium and continue the essential work of reducing the shocking disparities in achievement between children from the poorest and wealthiest backgrounds.
In these straitened times, of course, prioritising and increasing investment in areas like education means (in my view) reducing spending elsewhere. That forces us to confront yet more difficult choices.
One of the areas Liberal Democrats need to think carefully about is welfare spending. We seem too quick to be backed into the corner of defending Labour’s welfare system, despite knowing its many flaws all too well, because we think it is either that or take the Tory line. We need a distinctive, liberal approach to a social security system that helps the neediest, incentivises work and is affordable within the levels of taxation which the public are willing to accept.
The welfare system is one of the ways in which we redress some of the unfairness inherent in capitalism. For example, frictional unemployment will always exist in market economies; those in that situation need society’s support.
Another of the ways in which we remedy some of that unfairness is through the tax system. Progressive taxation has become an almost universally accepted principle, and the UK tax system overall appears pretty progressive.
But that is not to say there are not changes we should seek to make. The lowest paid still pay some of the highest marginal rates. Continuing to reduce the income tax burden on these people is good first start to changing this, but there other areas to look at.
National insurance is the obvious next candidate, but after that the majority of taxes paid by those on the lowest incomes are those on consumption, particularly VAT and fuel duty. Unless one has complex rebates or opt-outs of consumption taxes, the only way to reduce the burden of these taxes on the lowest paid is to reduce rates overall. A big shift away from taxes on income and consumption and onto wealth has to be a liberal priority.
Building a stronger economy in a fairer society can be a message that resonates with the public, with the Liberal Democrats as a party that can uniquely combine the joint aims of economic responsibility and social justice.
But to make it more than a soundbite, the message has to be backed up by strong, distinctive, liberal ideas. The challenge for Nick Clegg and the party is to remain disciplined in selling the message while setting it in such a context.
* Nick Thornsby is a day editor at Lib Dem Voice.