Author Archives: Lord William Wallace

Breaking the taboo on increasing public investment

You probably missed the Conservative Way Forward paper published on December 10th which argued that cutting the money allocated to equality, diversity and inclusivity staff and training in the public sector could save enough ‘wasteful’ spending to allow for tax cuts. You’re more likely to have noticed when the Daily Mail splashed the story across its front page the following week. You may also have seen this week’s coverage of the Taxpayers Alliance report that prisons have spent £11m over the past two years on equality, diversity and inclusivity staff and training, presented as another ‘gross’ waste of government spending.

The constant trickle of ‘studies’ like this has a clear purpose. They tell voters that waste in the public sector comes from politically motivated spending on ‘unnecessary’ projects. They distract from the money ministers spend on outsourcing to consultancies and private contractors, who overcharge for their products and services (and contribute to right-wing think tanks and the Conservative Party in return). And they justify continuing calls for tax cuts, rather than addressing the long-term need to increase public spending in response to Britain’s economic, educational and demographic challenges, and to the need to move towards a more sustainable economy and society.

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Brexit non-opportunities

Peers are asked to give speeches at all sorts of occasions.  It’s particularly important for LibDem peers to accept invitations to a range of events while we have so few MPs, to maintain our visibility as a serious political party. So last Friday I spoke at the ‘Christmas Gala’ dinner of a UK bilateral Chamber of Commerce for one of the member states of the EU.

An official responsible for trade policy gave an upbeat presentation of the prospects for UK trade with EU countries.  I followed with a mildly critical interpretation of the situation, mentioning that I was a Liberal Democrat and had been sceptical of the promise of ‘Brexit Opportunities’ from the start, and a promise that the Lords would do everything it could to prevent the forthcoming Retained EU Law Bill from diverging too far from common regulations with the EU Single Market.

I was struck by the response from British business people there.  One rushed up to me after I had sat down to urge me and my colleagues to do everything we could to stop the government from deliberately diverging from EU regulations, as Jacob Rees Mogg and right-wing MPs are pressing it to do.  (I have passed his name on to our fund-raising team.)  Two others told me that their companies had now transferred staff and functions to Amsterdam, in order to operate within the EU Single Market; one added that his company is now paying more tax within the EU than in the UK as a result.  The sense of impatience with the bone-headedness of the Conservatives came across strongly.  Business people, it appears, are beginning to abandon the Conservative Party.

The message for Liberal Democrat activists is clear.  You should be visiting local employers to ask them how their business has been affected by Brexit, and how it would be affected by further barriers to trade with our neighbours created by deliberately incompatible standards and regulations being introduced.  And you should tell them that Liberal Democrats in both Houses will fight hard to limit the damage and bring the UK back to a closer relationship with the EU.  And you should tell the local voters how much the whole fiasco of pursuing the hardest possible Brexit, against the illusory promises made before the Referendum, is now costing local businesses and the national economy.

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Should we take a risk and be honest about taxation?

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Liberal Democrats, we have a problem. As Max Wilkinson has commented in a recent posting, soft Conservatives are turning to us partly because the government has broken its promises not to raise taxes. But we are committed to decent public services, staffed by people who are decently paid; and after 20 years of cuts in services and real reductions in public service pay, quality can only be regained by substantial and sustained increases in spending. Furthermore, public service workers – people who believe that life is not only about money but also about what you put back into society and community – are among our natural supporters.

So what, under the current fiscal and economic crisis, do we say to potential LibDem voters about tax?

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William Wallace writes: The Westminster system is broken; so how do we change it?

The Westminster model of politics and government is broken.  A change of prime minister will make little difference to the deep divisions within both our major parties, and the deterioration in the quality of policy-making.  A change of government can only make things a bit better, but sadly not that much.  We need a major set of changes in the framework of constitutional government.

That’s not at all easy, in spite of the polling evidence of popular disillusion with Westminster politics, particularly among young people, the decline in membership of all parties, growing discontent with government instability in the business world and painful awareness in Whitehall that British prestige and international influence is slipping.  Nor that unless we change our structure and methods of government, both Scotland and Northern Ireland will probably leave the UK within the next 10-15 years.  Keir Starmer, the most likely prime minister after the next election, is cautious, concerned to hold his fractious party together, looking forward to grasping the levers of central government without weakening the powers of No.10.

Labour, of course, is part of the problem.  Its leaders cling to the current political and electoral systems because they guarantee Labour a shot at power when our governing Conservatives fall apart.  They look across the Channel at what happened to social democratic parties in France, Italy and elsewhere and cling to a system with high barriers against alternative parties, holding in place two centrally-funded organizations which parachute their favoured candidates into seats across the country.

Yes, Labour constituency parties voted in favour of a more open system of voting.  But the party leadership doesn’t want to press that case, and (rightly in current circumstances) gives higher priority to effective government in the context of a national emergency, a war in eastern Europe and a global recession.  So we are going to have to work hard to persuade the incoming government, the commentariat and the wider public that rebuilding public trust in democracy, and strengthening the checks and balances that make for stable constitutional government – which Boris Johnson did so much to weaken – need to be part of the next government’s agenda.

We will have to work with friends across parties to make the case for political reform.  Yes, PR is an essential part of any reform, but we shouldn’t start with that if we want to win over the hesitant, but explain why it’s important to include it in any political reform package.  And we shouldn’t talk about ‘PR’, an offputting acronym: offer the choice between the Scottish and the Irish systems, both of which work and neither of which confuse their voters.

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Public spending and the social contract 

Raising the rate of domestic economic growth, against the background of a global economic recession which may well be worsened by the current downturn within China, cannot have been the main rationale for the Truss and Kwarteng’s ‘fiscal event’.  The underlying purpose was to force public spending cuts, to shrink the size of the state and to make it more difficult for a successor government to raise taxes sufficiently to restore the social democracy that adequate public spending underpins.  Simon Clarke, now ‘levelling up’ minister, has specifically remarked on what he sees as the over-extension of the UK’s welfare state.

If current ministers were serious about introducing supply-side reforms they would recognise that public investment is needed to repair current inadequacies.  Low productivity is partly the result of inadequate education and training, most evident in basic skills for our domestic workforce.  Years of under-funding for pre-school support (yes, we should have fought harder against the coalition’s killing of the ‘Sure Start’ programme), for state schools and further education colleges, are to blame.  But as the Conservative chair of the Commons Education Committee has just protested, the new government has only talked about grammar schools and entry to Oxbridge so far, leaving education and training for the vast majority of British citizens to one side.

The UK has a lower proportion of its population in work or looking for work than many other advanced countries.  That’s not just due to the rising number of retired; it’s also because we have such a high proportion of people under 66 who are unfit for work or long-term unwell.  Underfunding of the NHS, and in particular of public health programmes that focus on healthy lifestyle, explains a good deal of this.  Lengthy waiting times for treatment translate into absence from the workforce.

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Which public services will the Conservatives shrink further?

Liz Truss has just handed Liberal Democrat campaigners a powerful set of questions to put to Tory MPs. She insists that tax cuts are the answer to Britain’s economic problems – amounting to 1-2% of GDP, perhaps more once the full package of proposed cuts emerges. She’s pledged to raise defence spending by 1% of GDP – for which, sadly, there is a case when Russia intervention in Ukraine threatens European security. She’s promising to provide financial support for household and business energy bills, likely to amount to between 2% and 4% of GDP over the coming year, without offsetting the cost through a windfall tax on energy companies of the sort that most of our continental neighbours are levying. Other government programmes will have to be slashed to prevent public deficits spinning out of control.

So what cuts in other public services will Conservative MPs accept in order to prevent government debt spiralling and the pound sinking further on international markets? A squeeze on schools, or policing, or on the already-overstretched NHS? Holding down public service pay, while letting bankers’ bonuses soar? Slashing public investment in hospitals and transport infrastructure, and reducing local authority budgets further, thus saying goodbye to the promises of ‘Levelling Up’ that helped them to win the last general election? Or holding down benefits, leaving the poorest in our society even poorer? Ask every Conservative MP what further cuts they will support – or whether they will oppose this tax-cutting strategy.

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William Wallace writes: The chaos of single-party government

Conservative HQ has briefed the media that it plans to attack other parties in the next election campaign for offering ‘a coalition of chaos’ instead of the ‘strong and stable’ single-party government the UK has benefitted from since 2015.  Liberal Democrats should be rubbishing this fantasy.

In the past seven years we have suffered two early elections and three prime ministers – with a fourth now coming into office.  We have had four Chancellors of the Exchequer, five foreign and business secretaries, and six cabinet ministers for education – seven if we include Michele Donovan’s two-day term.  Junior ministers have turned over at an even faster rate, many moving on after less than a year without time to learn their jobs.  Rapid shifts of policy, inconsistent announcements on priorities, officials having to start again briefing new ministers often arriving without any relevant expertise about their responsibilities: chaotic government by any definition.

We can expect another round of ministerial churn in the coming week.  In 2019, what’s more, 21 MPs were suspended from the Parliamentary Party.  Only 10 had the whip restored; two former chancellors and two other former cabinet ministers were among those expelled from the party.  Ken Clarke remarked that the party that expelled him was no longer Conservative; ‘it’s the Brexit Party, rebadged.’

At a Liberal Democrat Business Network gathering last week people were telling me how they longed for the stability that a coalition government might offer after the twists and turns, factional plotting, and inconsistent ministerial directives they have suffered since 2015.  We are likely to face more infighting after the embittered leadership contest we have seen this summer, which will make it even harder for the Conservatives to present themselves as a model of stability at the next election, and easier for us to make the case for institutional change to give Britain better government.

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If business is to take more interest in the Liberal Democrats, isn’t it time to develop our response?

The business sections of newspapers often take a different angle on British politics than their earlier pages. While Matt Chorley was promoting Ed Davey in Saturday’s Times in order to make fun of Keir Starmer, Ian King, the business editor of Sky News, was writing about why business representatives and corporate lobbyists should be taking the Liberal Democrats more seriously, and making contact with party policy-makers. He suggests that larger numbers of them will be coming to the Brighton conference, since opinion polls persist in suggesting that the next election will not produce a majority for any single party, leaving the Liberal Democrats in a position to influence whatever government emerges.

If business is already talking about this, we had better put in some careful thinking ourselves. Our record on preparing for the possibility of conversations with other parties is mixed. A week before the 1979 general election, when it still looked possible that the Conservatives might not gain an overall majority, I was authorised (as the lead on our manifesto team) to contact my Tory opposite number, and discovered he was far better prepared than anyone of us.. In 1996-7, in contrast, we conducted extensive private consultations with Labour, only to be overtaken by the scale of the swing to Labour. In 2009-10 there was vigorous resistance by some MPs and activists to contemplating the hard choices that negotiating with another party about priorities would bring. I recall repeated Federal Policy Committee meetings at which attempts were made to shape our policy on student fees so that it would be defensible if we found ourselves in government, resisted by enthusiastic campaigners who insisted that it was a vote-winner.

Another recent Times business article, sharply critical of the fantasies floated in the Tory leadership campaign, wrote of the difference between ‘campaign economics’ and ‘government economics’, and the need to ensure that campaign promises do not make choices in government too difficult. Economic and political choices after the next election are likely to be fraught. We will need to have some clear and simple priorities, first for the campaign and then for any negotiations that might follow.

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The right-wing myth of Britain’s ‘liberal elite’

Warming up the audience at the Darlington hustings for the Conservative leadership on August 9th, Tom Newton Dunn as compere asked if Boris Johnson had been responsible for his own misfortune. Cries of ‘the media’ came back; and Liz Truss commented ‘Who am I to disagree with this excellent audience?’

Conservative activists thus showed their acceptance of the conspiratorial myth that enables Liz Truss to present herself as an insurgent against a dominant establishment. The idea of a dominant liberal elite, entrenched in the BBC, the civil service, universities and state schools, extending into the ‘lefty lawyers’ in the courts and the gatekeepers of cultural institutions and prizes, pops up regularly in Conservative speeches, Telegraph Op-Eds, and justifications for political reforms by Cabinet ministers. David Frost, now accepted by many on the hard right as an intellectual authority, has just published a paper for Policy Exchange (which describes itself as ‘Britain’s leading think tank) on ‘sustaining the Brexit Revolt’ which attributes the failure to make greater progress in breaking with collectivism and Europe since 2017 to the resistance of this entrenched elite – rather than the divisions within his adopted Conservative Party, or hard evidence of the irrationality of what they aimed to achieve.

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Liz Truss is still a Republican

Liz Truss was a British Republican when an undergraduate.  Now she’s much more an American Republican than a British Conservative.  Her rhetoric about tax cuts, paying for themselves through increasing economic growth, is straight out of the Reaganite textbook; which is hardly surprising, since she is on record as having asked right-wing think tanks in Washington while visiting what lessons she could learn from Reaganomics and their attacks on regulation and red tape.

It is surprising that commentators in Britain have not paid more attention to the long-term colonization of the Conservative Party by the American right.  I first caught a glimpse of the process when catching a plane to Washington for a transatlantic conference during a short parliamentary recess, some twenty years ago, and found myself accompanied by over a dozen Conservative MPs – none of them specialists in US-European relations – invited to meetings with Washington think tanks.  The stalwarts of the European Research Group look across the Atlantic for intellectual leadership, and often travel across; though they rarely interact with Conservative politicians on the European continent, except with Fidesz in Hungary and other authoritarian populists.

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Can you cut taxes and level up at the same time?

The Conservative leadership campaign has been a competition to demonstrate the best small-state tax-cutting credentials, with little concern for what that means for public services or investment.  Even Rishi Sunak seems to have forgotten the generous promises of the 2019 manifesto, which helped to win those ‘Red Wall’ seats.  ‘A Conservative Government’, it declared, ‘will give the public services the resources they need, supporting our hospitals, our schools and our police.’  There would be ‘millions more invested every week in science, schools, apprenticeships and infrastructure… to underpin this national renewal, we will invest £100 billion in additional infrastructure spending – on roads, rail and other responsible, productive investment which will repair and refurbish the fabric of our country and generate greater growth in the long run.’

The sense of betrayal in Yorkshire, the North-East, North-West and beyond at the failure to follow these promises through is already strong.  Abandoning the new Leeds-Manchester line, the key to Northern Powerhouse Rail, has been a particular source of disgust. Last Saturday’s Yorkshire Post carried a strong op-ed by Justine Greening and an interview with Ben Houchen, Boris Johnson’s favourite elected mayor, both warning their party about the absence of concern for poorer regions in the leadership campaign and the likely consequences at the next election of having let these regions down.  But Conservative party members are concentrated in the prosperous home counties, and there’s little mileage in telling them to pay more tax to level up the rest of the country.

This failure, however, also presents a dilemma for us.  The seats we hope to win from the Conservatives are also mostly concentrated in the prosperous home counties, where we are seeking to attract wavering voters who will look for taxes to be spent on improving investment and services in their own areas.  Richard Foord and Helen Morgan have spoken up about the distribution of Levelling Up funds to their constituencies, and Tim Farron has active interests in rebalancing the country, but this is not a priority that’s so easy to sell on the doorsteps of Wimbledon or Guildford.

Nevertheless, we are a national party, and as Liberals we should worry that our deeply unequal society – our economic inequality easily the widest in Europe – is incompatible with a healthy democracy.  What’s more, we control some Councils in the north of England, have active Council groups on many others and hopes of winning some parliamentary seats in the next election and more thereafter.

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How do we respond to the economic emergency?

Readers of the Daily Mail are still being told that the UK economy is in good shape, that there is room for tax cuts for the better off, and that the opportunities Brexit offers are beginning to benefit the country. Readers of the Financial Times, and of the business pages of the Times, are now being told a very different story: that we are in an economic emergency, with a collapse in exports to our largest – European – market, a continuing decline in the external value of the pound (which pushes up domestic inflation and makes UK companies cheaper bargains for foreign private equity to snap up), and the slowest rate of growth in the developed world.

Even without the impact of the Ukrainian conflict, our falling currency would be exerting inflationary pressures. Disruption of oil and gas flows, as well as global grain and fertiliser supplies has imposed additional inflationary pressures on everyone in Britain; and the longer the Ukraine-Russia conflict continues, the worse this disruption will get. Growing authoritarianism and antagonism towards ‘the West’ in China is further disrupting the global economy. The prospect is of zero economic growth in the coming year, a widening external trade imbalance, falling private investment and declining living standards. Yet Boris Johnson’s boosterish approach to political campaigning means that the government has downplayed the seriousness of our current situation, even as food banks report record demands for help and unions go on strike for pay increases to cope with rising costs.

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William Wallace writes: Higher Public Spending: the big political taboo

A recent Financial Times op-ed  argued that the UK should now recognise that the Ukraine conflict has imposed aspects of a war economy on the UK – shortages, rising prices, disruptions in supply – which require serious changes in economic policy.  The business pages of the serious press urge higher public investment, spending on education and apprenticeships to raise our woefully-low labour productivity, and government intervention to promote innovation, resilience against supply-chain shocks and sustainability.

Defenders of the NHS point to its much lower spending and staffing per head than comparable European countries half that of Germany and the Netherlands, far fewer doctors and nurses per head and less than half the number of hospital beds – which as the Financial Times says ‘reflect political choices, not what is affordable.’  State schools have been similarly underfunded for many years.  Teachers’ salaries, like nurses’, have been held down to a point where recruitment and retention is difficult.   Conservative MPs and others call for higher defence spending in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  Anyone serious about the ‘levelling-up’ agenda knows that it cannot succeed without a very substantial and long-term financial commitment: an additional 1-2% of GDP over a decade or more.

Yet Conservative MPs, backed by almost all political commentators outside the Guardian, still call repeatedly for cuts in taxation.  Their reactions to Rishi Sunak’s latest emergency package have expressed dismay at the rise in taxes it involves.  Sunak is still promising them that he will find a way to cut taxes before the next election, although neither he nor anyone else says anything about what cuts in spending that would imply.  And the Labour Party is silent on the subject, fearing that the Mail and the rest of the Tory press would love to label them again as ‘the high tax party’.  I saw a Labour leaflet in Wandsworth in the local election campaign that promised that if Labour won control of the Council it would keep Council tax at the same low level – a similar promise to what Tony Blair pledged for national taxation in 1996-7.

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Wallace: Undermining the roots of our democracy

If you’ve read Sally Hamwee’s account last week of the way that the government pushed the Nationality and Borders Bill through both Houses of Parliament, and of the failure of the Labour Party in the Lords to stand up against some of its most illiberal elements, you won’t be surprised to hear that the same happened at the end of the parliamentary session to the Elections Bill – rightly condemned by Alastair Carmichael in an article for the Times as ‘undermining the roots of our democracy.’

The Bill arrived in the Lords with a report from the Commons Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs, drafted after it had been through the Commons, which declared the Bill ‘unfit for purpose’. Ministers simply ignored the committee’s criticisms. They similarly ignored the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life on Political Finance, published last summer, and the earlier warnings of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s Russia Report that the Electoral Commission needed stronger powers to prevent foreign funding and influence corrupting UK campaigns.

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Wallace: Who’s patriotic now?

Liberals are too nice to go for our opponents in the way they go for us. But now is the time to throw back at them the insult that they are patriotic and we are not. Who is more committed to this country: those who work in its public services, educate its young and hold together its local communities, or those who play around with the financial markets, hold their wealth as far as they can offshore, own properties in other countries and share in the privileges of international elites?

One of the most effective epithets in the Brexit camp’s dismissal of ‘Remoaners’ was the claim that those who continued to argue for a close relationship with our neighbours were ‘people from anywhere’, betraying the honest loyalties of the good ‘people from somewhere’ who preferred England and its eccentricities to foreign ties. Theresa May used the argument repeatedly. It comes straight from the right-wing populist playbook: blaming the ‘rootless cosmopolitanism’ of the intellectual classes for popular discontent, thus distracting attention from the activities – and great wealth – of financial elites, and the negative impact on ordinary citizens of private equity takeovers and the tax avoidance.

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Are policy motions at Conference too long?

All active Liberal Democrats know that the messages you write on a leaflet have to be clear and short.  So why when we come to party conferences do we insist on debating motions which are astonishingly long and complex?  I challenge most attendees at party conferences on whether they have read through the full texts of all the motions.

I have just ploughed through 1,000 words of a motion for Spring Conference on an issue I care strongly about – having already read the much longer and more detailed policy paper to which it relates.  What we want from conference motions is the equivalent of an executive summary – the headlines of our detailed policies, brief and clear enough to be put on the back of our leaflets, ideally: 3-400 words at most.   But the established style of LibDem policy motions is far longer and more intricate.

The crush of business in the Lords has made me acutely aware of the need for brevity and focus in making speeches.  A generation ago peers (and MPs) were permitted to luxuriate through lengthy speeches of 20-30 minutes; in Victorian times Parliament would listen to speeches of an hour or more.  Now we have ‘advisory timings’ of 3-6 minutes in many debates, with 10-12 minutes for front-bench speeches.  I’ve therefore had to learn to count the number of words in a draft carefully, to prioritise points and to cut out things I would like to add but are only of secondary importance. At around 130 words spoken a minute, 1,000 words takes between seven and eight minutes to deliver in a speech – twice as long as the conference chairs are likely to offer someone from the floor.

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William Wallace writes: Can we campaign on local democracy

One of the assumptions of political campaigning is that voters are not interested in political machinery.  Schools, hospitals, trains and buses, yes: Councils, regional authorities, elected mayors and voting systems, no.  But have we now reached a point where this has changed, where it might even help us to include in this year’s local election campaigning arguments for stronger local authorities and less dictation from Westminster?

In the much-delayed Levelling-Up White Paper Michael Gove has promised ‘devolution’: by which he means imposing elected mayors, with limited local scrutiny, on most urban areas that haven’t yet accepted them, and ‘governors’ on rural counties.  Governors are what empires send out to keep distant districts under control, while money and power remain at the centre.  Ministerial treatment of almost all elected mayors except Ben Houchem (Teeside’s Tory mayor) has been patronising – expected to do Whitehall’s bidding and be grateful for the Packages of money they are offered.  Michael Gove treats even Andy Street and Andy Burnham with disdain; Grant Shapps has attacked Tracey Brabin and Dan Jarvis (West and South Yorkshire mayors) as ‘irrational’ for their criticisms of the Integrated Rail Strategy.

This Tory government is irrationally against public service (and public servants) in general, and autonomous local authorities running local services close to ordinary people in particular.  One of the many scandals of the past 3 years is Johnson’s instinctive preference for outsourcing companies to run Test and Trace when the pandemic erupted, ignoring the public health officers with their established local knowledge and contacts across the country – who would have organised a better scheme at a fraction of the vast among of money paid out to these multinational firms.  Education is micro-managed from Whitehall, in partnership with academy chains, with intermittent attention to what local parents want.  ‘Levelling Up’ is packaged as hand-outs from the centre, with competitive bids and ministerial discretion to favour places with Conservative MPs.

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Who will deliver on Levelling Up?

Apart from the rumbling crisis developing around No.10 and the Prime Minister’s behaviour, the launch of the Levelling Up White Paper will be one of the defining moments between now and the next election.  Already delayed by disagreements within government, it’s now promised by the end of January.   If it’s a damp squib, deflating the hopes of voters in ‘red wall’ seats that Boris and Brexit would transform the poorer towns and cities of England, many of those seats will be lost again next time.

Many Conservatives cling to what cynics call ‘hanging basket’ levelling up: offering money in small packets to tidy up town centres, to bring back local pride and confidence.  Over 100 packages of funding are now on offer, through competitive bids biased in favour of Conservative-held and target seats.  Local authorities are spending money they can ill-afford writing bids for sums as little as £250,000 a time.  The maldistribution of levelling-up funds is a scandal in the making. 5 of the 10 most deprived LAs – Blackpool, Knowsley, Sandwell, Hackney and Barking – have reportedly received none; most other LAs have received far less than they have lost in core funding since 2016-17.

Gove would like to be more financially expansive – but the Treasury and Tory right-wingers are resisting. In his model central government will remain firmly in control.  This government distrusts local democracy.  Gove has talked of power for directly-elected mayors for cities, and ‘governors’ for counties, under central government direction, with a sharp reduction in numbers of councillors and local scrutiny.

The Liberal Democrat response needs to be robust.  The scale of the challenge of reducing regional and individual inequalities in the UK is such that it needs a long-term commitment to investment in a linked group of policies: education, from pre-school to FE, infrastructure and transport, local innovation and regeneration, and the revival of local public services.   The budgetary cost will require higher taxes, fairly distributed and carefully justified.  The need for consistency over 10-20 years means that an effort must be made to build some cross-party consensus, so that it will continue through changes of government.  And it MUST be led by local government, locally accountable – not dribbled down in penny packages by ministers and officials in London.

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What a mess! The Brexit fiasco

Brexit has not been done. There never was an oven-ready deal. Whatever Johnson thought was ready for the oven is now burnt to a cinder.

It’s time to use ridicule to explain how this UKIP-Tory government has made such a mess of Brexit. Five and a half years since the Brexit referendum, and Liz Truss has just become the sixth minister in charge of getting Brexit done. The public are beginning to understand that Johnson did not have a clue what sort of Brexit he wanted when he was campaigning to leave and is now struggling to come to terms with the failure to deliver.

A succession of incompetent ministers have attempted to reconcile the Leave campaign’s contradictory objectives. We started with David Davis – who went to meetings with Michel Barnier without any briefing papers. He lasted nearly two years as Brexit secretary. Olly Robbins did most of the work, reporting to Theresa May, against a backdrop of hostile briefings from Tory MPs. Dominic Raab picked up the poisoned chalice when Davis and Johnson resigned over May’s Chequers package. He lasted four months, a period distinguished only by his admission that he had not understood how important the port of Dover was.

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Tax to invest, or cut taxes to neglect?

The weekend media have been full again of Rishi Sunak’s promise to return to tax cuts before the next election: cutting income tax and VAT further to win over – as Conservatives hope – wavering voters. But is it possible that the majority of voters would now prefer good public services, and targeted spending on long-term projects, to tax cuts that will squeeze public services further?

Martin Wolf in the Financial Times the other week argued that ‘we have to accept higher taxes to fund health and social care’, pointing out that the UK is still a modest spender on health compared to similar states. But it’s not just health that needs investment. The ‘Levelling Up’ agenda implies a generational commitment to higher investment in education, infrastructure, and economic innovation in the UK’s poorer regions. ‘Red wall’ seats the Conservatives won in 2019 will be lost again if all that happens is a trickle of money for specific local projects.

The contradiction between Sunak’s fiscal austerity and Johnson’s and Gove’s grand ideas about levelling up is becoming the deepest fault-line within the Conservative government, and a major threat to its credibility. November’s announcement of cutbacks in investment for northern rail was greeted across the region as a betrayal of promises to promote economic revival.

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Liberalism and Freedom of Speech in universities

As the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill moves slowly through Parliament, Liberal Democrats are having to grapple with contested assumptions about freedom of speech and its limits. This is a culture war bill. The polarization of American politics is seeping into Britain. Britain has become a far more liberal society over the past 50 years. We must resist attempts to push the clock back.

The Bill starts from the assertion that universities are incapable of defending free speech. It asserts that a new ‘free speech champion’ and a new right to sue universities are required to restore this freedom for those (staff, students, or visitors) who claim to have been denied the right to speak. It follows Policy Exchange papers, and articles in right-wing papers, that assert that university staff are now overwhelmingly left-wing, that they indoctrinate their students, and that academic culture has a chilling effect on staff who hold divergent views.

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Bending the Constitution: can we make this a campaigning issue?

Austin Mitchell, a wonderfully maverick Labour MP, once described the British constitution as ‘whatever the government can get away with.’. A government with a big Commons majority can get away with a lot, so long as the polls remain in its favour. This government, above all this prime minister, has got away with a great deal so far, and intends to push its advantage a good deal further through changes in law and electoral regulation now before Parliament. As one of his Eton teachers remarked, Boris Johnson does not think that rules and conventions apply to him.

Press commentators have noted …

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William Wallace writes…Promises of tax cuts deny reality

Rishi Sunak reassured the Conservative Party conference on Monday: ‘Yes, I want tax cuts,’ though not until public finances have been ‘put back on a sustainable footing.’ That’s code for cutting public expenditure and public investment. The substantial proportion of Conservative MPs who believe in a small state repeatedly call for tax cuts without saying where they would cut spending. IN committing to balancing the budget Sunak is committing himself to cutting spending as well – or breaking the manifesto pledge not to raise taxes again. He will be well aware that Republican Administrations in the USA have repeatedly run rising deficits as they cut taxes but failed to cut spending.

Liberal Democrats should resist any temptation to criticise the Conservatives for raising taxes. We should condemn them vigorously for raising taxes unfairly – for hitting lower-paid workers through raising National Insurance while sparing higher earners. Fair taxation has to be progressive taxation, oriented to take more from those who have more. The UK is more sharply unequal in terms of both income and wealth than almost all other developed democracies except the USA. Repeating ‘give us tax cuts and a smaller state’ sweeps aside the social and economic challenges that the UK faces.

Like other developed democracies, we have a rising number of elderly people drawing pensions and using health and other public services. We have cut public spending on education and training well below comparable countries, with results that are apparent in our shortage of skills. We have invested too little in housing and public infrastructure for decades. Transition to a more sustainable economy, including moving toward net zero carbon emissions, will require major public as well as private investment. The UK has also invested much less in scientific research and development than other leading states. Boris Johnson has promised to make us ‘a scientific superpower’, but has not yet explained how that will be funded.

And then there is ‘Levelling Up’, which is becoming the defining measure of Johnsonian government – and the likeliest source of public disillusion at the gap between easy promises and poor delivery. Long-term reduction of regional inequalities cannot be achieved without higher investment in education, local as well as long-distance transport, the revival of local government and public services, housing and local enterprise. That’s a huge agenda, reversing decades of neglect by successive government, and requires a sustained increase in public spending.

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Lord William Wallace writes….News from the front of the Culture War

It’s worth reading the right-wing media to try to understand where the policies our opponents are advancing come from. In the Sunday Telegraph some weekends ago Simon Heffer was encouraging Michael Gove to continue to fight ‘the Blob’, which for Heffer includes the staff of the NHS as well as school and university teachers, most civil servants and others in the public sector, theatres, museums and charities, the BBC (of course), and the clergy of the Church of England – a large chunk of our population, possibly even a majority of its university graduates. On September 26th Eric Kaufmann warned the Telegraph’s elderly readers that ‘Britain’s education system and cultural institutions have succeeded in shaping the worldview of millenials, which will make conservatism unelectable.’ The task for Conservatives is therefore ‘to change the direction of the culture’ before too many young people have been indoctrinated by ‘woke’ radicals.

Robert Shrimsley’s Op-Ed in the Financial Times in July was headlined ‘Tory culture war is fight for a new establishment.’ He notes that ideological Tories realise that ‘the Conservatives have lost the establishment and with it many of the shapers of society’s values’. He adds the judiciary and big business to their perceived progressive ‘blob’. He discerns ‘an attempt to create an alternative establishment, … that much of what happens in society happens outside of government and in places where conservatives feel outnumbered.’

The struggle to regain ground stretches from reorienting the BBC, through reshaping cultural institutions through public appointments, to bringing Britain’s universities under tighter control. The appointment of Nadine Dorries as Culture Secretary demonstrates that public appointments will be a central focus for coming battles. The next chairs of OFCOM, of the Charity Commission, of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and others will be chosen with careful regard to their ‘anti-woke’ stance. The Equalities Commission and the Office for Students have already been reoriented; British Museum trusteeships have been fought over, and other similar bodies closely examined.

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How does the UK finance ‘Building Back Better’?

If the UK ‘s economy and society are to recover from the shock of the COVID pandemic, the damage inflicted by Brexit and the after-effects of several years of austerity, it needs a long-term increase in public investment. Boris Johnson has promised to ‘level up’ Britain’s poorer cities and towns, to ‘Build Back Better’ after Brexit and COVID, and to tackle the costs of social care. The Brexit campaign promised to spend more on the NHS. British chairmanship of the Climate Conference in November will risk embarrassing failure unless our government commits to an ambitious programme to move towards Net Zero.

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Libertarians and Liberals

The difference between Liberals and Libertarians is that Liberals position liberty within community: the limits on individual freedom are set by consideration for others.  (In this Liberals follow J. S. Mill, Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and many others.)  Libertarians reject the idea that individuals are rooted in communities.  They are for individual freedom without qualification.  For them the pursuit of individual self-interest provides the dynamic for economic growth and personal freedom; state interference only limits both.

Reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic have brought out these differences in British politics.  Liberals have regretted the emergency powers that government has resorted to, but recognised that the situation required extraordinary measures.  We have focussed on accountability for measures imposed, limits on how long they would last for, and a preference for voluntary compliance where possible.  Libertarians, inside the government, writing for the Telegraph and sitting on the Conservative back-benches, have resisted lockdown when the evidence strongly supported it, have refused to wear masks whenever and wherever they can, and have urged the government to put the economy first and social considerations last.  The exaggerated rhetoric from the Tory right has touched hysteria.   William Wragg, currently Conservative MP for Hazel Grove, recently declared that the restrictions of lockdown were an “abomination” that “you’d expect in a Communist country.”  (I hope the Hazel Grove Liberal Democrats will keep that quotation for future use.)

Boris Johnson, you may remember, was heard to have claimed that the success of the Oxford team that developed the Astra Zeneca vaccine was driven by ‘greed’.  He thus swept away the possibility that scientists and doctors might be driven by concepts of public service rather than a simple desire to get rich.  It’s notable that so many of those who dominate the Conservative Party have made their careers in high finance: a world in which large egos make for success and considerations of social responsibility are secondary at best.  Saj Javid, one of the most successful self-made men in the Conservative Party, spent several years working for Chase Manhattan in New York, before becoming a director of Deutsche Bank International.  He has spoken of his agreement with the philosophy of Ayn Rand, whose influence on libertarian Republicans rested on her celebration of the selfish individualism of dynamic men.

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Politics and gardening

Politics and gardening don’t easily mix. I remember ruefully discussing this with Councillor Stuart Galton as I was giving out the prizes at a West Yorkshire Allotments event years ago.  Long before that, Ian Stuart said it to Helen and me in 1973, standing in our spare room and looking at what we had just achieved in our Manchester garden after two years of limited political activity (triggered by discontent with Jeremy Thorpe’s leadership and the drift within the party).  He’d moved in for the duration of the Manchester Exchange by-election, where our good friend and university colleague Michael Steed was candidate.

Several weeks of campaigning, with a succession of Young Liberals sleeping on our floor, did for the garden for the rest of that year.  Reviving the Manchester Liberal Party, with Helen becoming chair and me agreeing to become candidate for the Moss Side constituency, through two general elections in the spring and autumn of 1974, ruined our garden for the next year as well (and threatened to ruin our careers).  When we moved to London, we restored a neglected garden, planted several fruit trees and even kept hens.  But then I stood again for a Yorkshire constituency through two elections, the fruit trees grew too large and the weeds invaded the vegetable patch.

Local elections present the greatest challenge to the political gardener.  Just when you should be planting out vegetable seedlings, watering devotedly, and keeping spring weeds down, there are leaflets to deliver and doors to knock on.  Miss that stage in the gardening year, and you will be struggling to catch up for months afterwards.  A by-election in June or July is as dangerous a distraction: weeds proliferating everywhere, and the peak of the soft-fruit season, with picking, processing and freezing to be done before everything becomes overripe or the birds eat them.

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Academic freedom and its enemies

On Monday 12th July the Commons will debate the 2nd Reading of the Higher Education (Academic Freedom) Bill.  This Bill, which closely follows the recommendations of two Policy Exchange papers and of Toby Young’s Free Speech Union, provides for the Office for Students (OfS) to regulate and enforce rules on free speech within universities, and establishes the new post of ‘Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom’ in the OfS.  It gives students, staff and visiting speakers the right to sue universities and student unions for alleged breaches of free speech, with fines to be imposed.  The OfS may also impose penalties.

This is a culture war bill.  The evidence that threats to free speech in universities are greater now than they were 10, 20, 30 or 40 years ago is thin.  The Policy Exchange papers are heavily dependent on US sources and examples – yet another example of the increasing capture of English Conservative thinking by US Republican ideas.  Gavin Williamson decries an attempt to prevent an ambassador speaking at a university – but my wife as a Young Liberal demonstrated to block the South African Ambassador speaking in Oxford in 1963.  He deplores the withdrawal of an invitation to Amber Rudd by an Oxford student society; but I recall at Manchester University in 1968 students disrupting the Education Secretary when trying to speak at an official university event.

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What’s our approach to ‘Levelling Up’?

Andy Haldane, about to leave the Bank  of England where he has long been its respected chief economist, told the audience at Policy Exchange, the Conservative think tank, on Monday June 28th that ‘Levelling Up’ should now be the central issue in our domestic politics.  That’s a radical statement, which should make Liberal Democrats think carefully about how we develop our response to this challenge.

Haldane pointed out that there are only two EU member states where inequality between the richest and poorest regions are as high as in the UK: Romania and Poland.  He noted how economic (and social) imbalances across the UK have widened over the past 30-40 years.   He did not add (though Liberals would underline) that gross inequalities undermine social order and democratic government.  His broad agenda includes investing in education and skills, encouraging local enterprise and innovation, and a far larger British Business Bank, in addition to improving transport infrastructure and housing.  And he emphasised that this agenda cannot simply be directed from the centre: it requires regional and local initiative, with substantial powers and finance devolved.

On Tuesday Sir Michael Marmot issued his latest report on regional and local inequalities, focussing primarily on England’s North-West. This further spelt out the gulf between the wealthiest and poorest in our society, including the wide differences in health and life expectancy between prosperous and deprived communities.  His agenda for change is similar to Haldane’s: investment in education, local public services, job creation and housing, in addition to the government’s current plans for improved infrastructure.  ‘We need to spend for future generations’, Marmot told the BBC.

Boris Johnson promised to level up Britain – and to ‘Build Back Better’ after the pandemic – without defining what that meant or how it would be paid for.  Others, outside partisan politics, are now spelling out what will be required if the promise is to be fulfilled.  Polls show that many who voted Leave five years ago saw Brexit as the opportunity to rebuild British industry (blaming the EU for globalization, foreign takeovers and technological change).  They also show that Johnson’s rhetoric on levelling up resounded with voters in ‘red wall’ seats.

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Should Liberals still believe in ‘free trade’?

Commitment to free trade has been one of the core elements of British liberalism for nearly 200 years.  It went along with peace through open borders and shared prosperity, with opposition to aristocratic landowners and cheap food for the working man.  There’s a picture of John Bright (joint founder with Richard Cobden of the Anti-Corn Law League) in my living room, inherited from my wife’s Liberal forebears.

The economic liberals who left the Liberal Party in the late 1950s to set up the Institute of Economic Affairs still do believe.  For them it’s an article of faith as much as their commitment to a smaller state and a deregulated economy.  Liz Truss, a student liberal transformed into an ideological free marketeer, is celebrating the conclusion of the UK-Australia Trade Agreement and promising more deals to reduce tariffs and lower regulatory barriers. Our party press office has criticised her for neglecting the interests of British farmers – not something that Bright or Cobden would ever have said.

But trade isn’t as simple as it was.

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