Generosity is the only acceptable antidote to the UK’s cynical politics

Even by the standards of the UK’s post-Brexit decline, this is a banner week for the cynicism that now acts as a cipher for political debate.

10 years after the passage of the Same-Sex Marriage Act – one of the only remaining positive legacies of the Liberal Democrats’ ill-fated coalition with the Conservatives – both the Tories and Labour have chosen to double down on their respective impulses towards the mean-spiritedness that a supine media has long mistaken for competence.

On one side, you have Rishi Sunak, standing for a forward-to-the-past elitism by pledging to reduce the chances that young people have to access one of the last drivers of social mobility going: higher education. 

No need to wonder whether the breathtaking, cognitively dissonant claim that a policy capping student numbers is somehow ‘widening access’ is a true reflection of his beliefs: he is on record talking to Tory members about how cutting numbers is “great news for the universities largely full of, you know, people who don’t vote for us anyway.” He has a tendency to ‘gaffe’ – that is, say what he really thinks – in this manner: remember how he also proudly boasted of taking money from deprived urban areas?

Surely, with the incumbent government so transparently wedded to such callous cruelty, the government-in-waiting just needs to sit tight and wait for a population that already appears to have signed Sunak’s P45 to vote them in? After all, this weekend saw the pre-resignation of Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace – presumably on the basis that his chances at the next election range from zero to absolute zero.

Instead, Sir Keir Starmer went on Laura Kuenssberg’s Sunday show to offer up his most brazenly cynical u-turn to date: not just leaving wiggle room on his previous commitment to end the Conservatives’ 2-child benefit cap, but saying quite emphatically that Labour will keep it.

The evidence for the impact of this heartless, anti-family, anti-child policy is clear: its main effect is to push families with three or more children even deeper into poverty, without creating any of the compensatory ‘benefits’ claimed for it in terms of fertility decision-making.

Starmer’s statement has apparently created consternation within Labour, including at Shadow Cabinet level. Presumably that’s because everyone in the Shadow Cabinet has, at some point, described the two-child policy as ‘heinous’ or other words to that effect – including Starmer himself.

Really, I don’t know why this kind of thing surprises me any more. Anywhere you look, the two big parties are in a battle to match each other for brutality. Starmer’s U-turn not enough for you? How about Yvette Cooper saying Labour would keep using barges to ‘house’ refugees, while also promising a nonsensical, unworkable ban on generative AI? Or Kemi Badenoch’s Section-28-on-steroids guidance for schools on trans pupils, which leaves vulnerable children without a right to privacy from abusive or unkind parents?

The cruelty is the point, in all of this. We live in a country where cruelty is feted as competence; where elitism is dubbed efficiency; where greed is masked with the false generosity of political donations.

The party best placed to offer an alternative to this parade of ugliness is – or ought to be – the Liberal Democrats. The clue is, or ought to be, in the name: at least, if you have the kind of expansive understanding of the word ‘liberal’ that, to me, distinguishes our party from those in others who like to cosplay at being liberals when it suits them. (I’m looking at you, Ken Clarke.)

But when was the last time you heard a genuinely generous and open policy announcement from the Lib Dems – one that got national attention? Policies that Conference has endorsed in recent times – like the vote for a Universal Basic Income, an idea that could not be better suited to a moment full of anxiety over AI and automation – have not been carried forward with any enthusiasm or boldness.

Three years ago, I published The Generous Society. The covid-19 pandemic had stirred some kind of optimism in me about the possibility that such an enormous, shared, collective tragedy could prompt a reimagining of politics. 

We’ve all seen how that turned out. But I remain convinced that no one is going to put forward a real alternative unless and until liberals do. I also remain convinced that we’re running out of time to do it.

* Tom King is a Liberal Democrat member and activist. He has worked for Liberal Democrat MPs and served on three policy working groups. He is the author of The Generous Society.

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7 Comments

  • “He has a tendency to ‘gaffe’ “
    Should be plenty of soundbites for a election campaign.

  • I don’t see the point in bashing the Coalition govt. I happen to think it was the sanest govt we’ve had in the last 25 years. No major disasters like Iraq or Brexit. If we diss libdems in govt why should voters vote for us?

  • Mel Borthwaite 20th Jul '23 - 11:26pm

    @Russell
    I see things differently. If I ever thought there was a chance that the Liberal Democrats could back the Tories to be the government after a future election, I would vote Labour rather than vote for the Tories by giving my vote to the Liberal Democrats. For my, seeing that the Liberal Democrats regret the huge mistake they made by joining the coalition reassures me that a repeat is unlikely. The more dissing of the coalition, the better.

  • David Goble 21st Jul '23 - 8:20am

    @ Russell. I agree with you; the Lib Dems, as part of the Coalition, stopped the potential extremism of the Conservatives. This is why I believe that a form of PR is now essential;
    to prevent extremism in Government.

  • @ David Goble. A minor quibble from me — PR was essential, surely, before the Tories’ celebrated ‘austerity’, so that it didn’t happen.

    And, surely, once the Tories are out and PR is in, won’t we quickly get the National Income Dividend [aka UBI]? It is my belief that we might do well to indicate in our campaign for the Election now bearing down on us, to make it clear that these two policies will be ours again, in the following Election in roughly 2028.

  • Peter Hirst 22nd Jul '23 - 2:31pm

    Concerning how we identify with the electorate going forward to the GE, it is hard to come up with the right word. We have frightening levels of inequality. Our core message must be to reduce it. Empowerment is too long a word and equality has a long heritage. Whatever the word we must show we are the Party that cares and is inclusive. “Opportunity for all” rings right to me.

  • David Garlick 22nd Jul '23 - 9:19pm

    Nothing wrong with coalitions in principle.
    When you sup with the devil be sure to sup with a long spoon…

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