It’s about… money

It’s everything from “monstrously idiotic” and “insultingly tokenistic” to “well-argued and full of practical steps built on clear principle.” Why then, asks former Federal Policy Committee Member Alex Wilcock, is more attention not being paid to the paper produced by the Meeting the Challenge debate?

This September, the Liberal Democrats debate their two most crucial policy papers between the last General Election and the next one. So why is all the debate about a 50p rate of tax? You’d think it was either a holy relic or the last wicked bastion of socialism, depending on which overexcited commentator you read last. Yes, tax is an important battleground, but when our whole political direction is up for grabs, it’s bizarre to focus on one detail in one policy area and to ignore the rest. Besides, while everyone’s arguing about the tax paper being ‘a shift to the right’ – which it isn’t – the other key paper is lurching in a quite different direction.

Fairer, Simpler, Greener

The tax policy paper is the by far the better of the two big ones. Despite some very complex issues, its great selling point is its clarity: the slogan makes the message clear, leading into a well-written opening summary that then makes it easy to follow policies to put it into practice.

“The key achievement is that… we finally set out something solid.”

The key achievement is that, after years of proclaiming the pain but not the gain with ‘We’ll put green taxes up and, trust us on this, we’ll cut something, but we’re not sure what,’ here we finally set out something solid. Raising allowances with the proceeds of ‘green taxes’ means tax cuts for most – taking around two million low-paid workers out of income tax altogether. That’s excellent news, though lowering income tax with ‘green taxes’ is not as simple a message as it seems. The paper’s principal flaw is that while the proposals make the tax structure simpler, they make explanation more complex (as with the 50p rate versus more effective but more long-winded changes). Income tax may be hard on hard work, but it’s also fair – which is why we advocate local income tax too. Canvassing could become like a round from I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue: “Excuse me, madam, may I have a moment of your time? I’m calling from the Liberal Democrats. Good news! We’re going to cut your income tax by 2p. Bad news! But we’re also going to put it up by 4p. Good news! In the long term we’re going to cut at least another 6p. Bad news! But at the same time it’ll go up by around 6p again, plus or minus roughly 2p in the pound depending on your local council… Hey, don’t slam the door!”

Trust in People: Make Britain Free, Fair and Green

The ‘Meeting the Challenge’ paper fails the ‘Simpler’ test from its title onwards. A three-word slogan is one thing, a longer phrase can be memorable, but no-one’s going to remember two perfectly good titles slapped together with a bit of patriotic glue. It leaves the message confused from the start, and while most of the detail is fine, it lacks a coherent overall direction. Election Manifestos have given us plenty of practice tying everything together, yet we’ve dodged full tax policies for years; it’s astonishing, then, that the tax paper is such a success while this paper isn’t all that good.

There are two big problems. Unlike the ‘two priorities’ in the paper, I’ll tell you right out what they are:

  1. Failure to summarise its main messages
  2. Dreadfully old-fashioned economic determinism.

Has nobody actually stood back and read this? Lacking an executive summary or bullet-point summaries of each chapter, and with an uninspiring statement of purpose unrelated to the paper’s structure, it seems to want to penalise anyone who doesn’t read every single word. It boldly sets what are to be the party’s “two top policy and campaigning priorities” for the next few years, but you won’t find them in the introduction, or even the Agenda motion (a much better stab at what we stand for).

Our big two priorities are, I eventually discovered, tackling ‘inequality’ and ‘climate change’. A vote for this paper will put these ahead of any other policy area, but it only tells you that well into the lengthy paragraphs 3.2.4 and 4.3.1. It’s bound to be cock-up rather than conspiracy; in my ten years on the Federal Policy Committee the drafting of policy papers was always a nightmare, particularly big, important ones that dozens of people still want to fiddle with five minutes before the printing deadline. Yes, it’s very difficult to write poetry when you’re trying to make sure the nuts and bolts fit, but a paper this important simply has to tell a clear ‘narrative’ and sell the party’s vision in a nutshell. This doesn’t.

‘Making Britain Fairer’ (‘Within Very Tightly Defined Criteria Or We’re Not Interested’)

With ‘Make Britain Fairer’ chosen as the Conference slogan,and Ming’s launch of the paper not mentioning the environment, it’s evident that of the two “top priorities,” one is more equal than the other. Unfortunately, my biggest problem with the paper is Chapter 3 on ‘Inequality’, which commits us to a new main priority – and a huge, deeply unwise shift in direction. A lot of what’s in the chapter is fine; it’s soundly Liberal in setting the problem as something that limits freedom and the ability to fulfil your potential, and I’d agree with most of the practical policies.

The problem is not what it says, but what it leaves unsaid. Previously, even in our Constitution, the Liberal Democrats have been about freedom from poverty, but ‘poverty’ has been replaced here by mechanical measurements of ‘inequality’ which are entirely a matter of relative economic outcomes. There’s nothing about equality before the law, equality of opportunity is no longer important, and even the token question on discrimination and racism in the Consultation Paper has been dropped. Our party has always had a wider perspective than the solely economic, but this well-meaning, wrong-headed chapter is capable only of seeing economics to the exclusion of all else. That’s not Social Liberalism; that’s a liberal kind of socialism.

The Liberal Democrats have often failed to pay enough attention to economic concerns, but not being all about the money also meant we didn’t fit on the old left-right axis. Other parties spent the 20th Century mired in a post-Marx politics where money and economic class were all that mattered, whether they defined themselves as capitalist or socialist. We never did. This chapter doesn’t aim to better compete on ‘bread and butter issues’, but to reposition us in the last century. In this lurch to the left it forgets that, say, racism and queerbashing exist. A Liberal perspective would oppose simplistic economic reductionism, but this chapter squeezes us into the left-right spectrum just as it’s gone out of fashion around the world.

“…I see the paper’s assertion that things have become more unequal since 1980 as monstrously idiotic”

If you think I’m exaggerating, just read it. Non-economic inequality simply doesn’t exist in Chapter 3. The very first paragraph claims “One of the most serious outcomes of the past 25 years of failed government has been the reversal of the trend towards greater equality that characterised the 1960s and 1970s.” So the last quarter-century has been entirely bad, but Mr Callaghan was a total, brilliant success? Quite. This tunnel vision ignores other inequalities, and applies Eeyore-like gloom to positive progress that doesn’t fit into its world-view: how about the status of women, the social acceptability of racism, or the rights of gay people? Apparently all these have made no difference to people’s lives, yet I’d hate to imagine life without them. I look around my own life, openly gay, loving and living with my partner for twelve years so far, and I see the paper’s assertion that things have become more unequal since 1980 as monstrously idiotic.

Only one small slot in the whole chapter, sub-section 3.4.1, admits that inequality encompasses anything more. That’s flatly contradicted by the rest (as well as the whole forthcoming ‘Inequality’ paper). It’s only there to summarise existing policies that didn’t fit in, which is how a ‘Single Equality Act’ gets there; it’s insultingly tokenistic. If this paper had introduced that policy, it would not have included “religion, belief, sexual orientation, or gender identity,” because – according to the definition everywhere save the one paragraph reprinting an old policy – none of these issues have anything to do with ‘equality’. In this context, what can the Act be for? Anyone reading the chapter would be bewildered. If it’s not economic, it doesn’t exist; the lip service in sub-section 3.1.5 to age, gender, ethnicity and disability relates them entirely back to the economy. I was one of those who spoke in the consultation session last year about the hard thinking the policy review should do on balancing different freedoms, tastes and types of equality to offer freedom from conformity. It doesn’t. I talked about religious freedoms, and the need to build up new policies to appeal to gay people. They don’t.

Liberal Democrat MPs have mounted a strong and principled campaign in the last few months on the issue of homophobic bullying. For the Liberal Democrat policymakers here, that can’t be an equality issue, because it’s not economically determined. When the paper talks about “levels of inequality” which “are a serious obstacle to improving health,” they can’t mean the much higher rates of mental health problems or suicide among gay teens, because that inequality ‘doesn’t count’. Gay marriage is the biggest issue in the US culture wars; not a peep here. Read the section on Families, or worse still the entire paper on them, and lesbians and gay men simply don’t exist. In Stronger Families, Brighter Futures, for example, euphemisms about “different shapes and sizes” substitute for equal opportunities; if you don’t have kids, you’re not even a pretend family; and if you’re a gay parent, don’t look at 2.2.1, ‘Supporting strong relationships’ “whether married, cohabiting or living apart” – can you see what’s missing, readers? A few years ago, Liberal Democrats pioneered the policy of civil partnerships, rather than socially excluding them. I can imagine what these policymakers will say in reply: “We’ve got a brilliant new slogan to reassure gay people that we don’t mind if they’re, well, you know. Like that. Liberal Democrats: If You’re Gay, We Don’t Give a Toss.”

Chapter 3 confuses the sensible analysis that money is the biggest single cause of inequality with believing it’s the only one, like some student socialist yet to live in the real world. The paper’s most important statement of principle is that “Underpinning our entire approach is a fundamental belief in the autonomy and worth of the individual,” yet that’s shoved deep inside Chapter 6 and has nothing to do with ‘equality’ at all. By 7.4.1 they seem baffled that people are not becoming happier purely because of money; well, strike me pink. And when a sub-section in Chapter 3 itself (3.1.6) complains that “Poverty has been seen in simplistic economic terms,” I wonder if whoever wrote that line had seen any of the words surrounding it. So before committing the Liberal Democrats to this blinkered, superficial approach above all else, it’s time to take hard look at the ‘narrative’ we’re signing ourselves up for and see those priorities in full. Inequality as a socialist would view it, plus tackling climate change: in what way does that ‘distinctive message’ differ from the Green Party?

Look, the Rest of It’s All Right…

“The chapters on climate change and on the economy, in particular, are excellent; well-argued and full of practical steps built on clear principles.”

It’s a real shame that that one chapter turns us into such a blind alley. The chapters on climate change and on the economy, in particular, are excellent; well-argued and full of practical steps built on clear principles. Both even talk about economic inequality in context and in proportion. My only problem with the chapter on climate change is that a “top campaigning priority” misses the opportunity to suggest help with campaigns; health and dozens of other issues make it easy to reflect a national message with a ‘Green Action’ flash on your FOCUS. The chapter on the economy sets out a strong Liberal direction, making good sense about free-market enterprise while recognising that markets can fail or lead to monopolies.

Education appears frequently, with a welcome emphasis on creating self-confident and articulate citizens. There are, however, contradictions, not least on the National Curriculum, which seems thought to be both too prescriptive and to have not enough in it (5.5.2 and 7.3.9). The health proposals are more sure-footedly decentralist, with a spot-on answer in 8.3.2 to claims of a ‘postcode lottery’ outside people’s control – local choice through the ballot box is instead a ‘postcode democracy’. On the other hand, since 1997 we’ve had an easily-remembered ‘3 Ps’ on the root causes of ill health, tackling Poverty, Pollution and Poor housing. The problem with this paper is summarised when 8.5.1 turns that trio into a long-winded six points, three of which repeat each other.

Economic reductionism apart, much of this paper works, but the writing’s so dry and the structure so poor it makes the reader work to unearth the good bits instead of bringing them all together. From the outset, it hits at Labour’s biggest failing: that they try to run everyone’s lives. It’s a strong Liberal message, but once you’ve waded through to find the hidden priorities (inequality and climate change, remember), you’re left wondering how they relate to that message. Under Green Britain, for example, the best they can do is this non-sequitur: “Because we trust people, we know they understand that protecting the environment is an urgent priority.” KERR-CHUNK! Yes, that was the sound of a grinding gear change. It all reads too much like a first draft, or more probably a 493rd draft that everyone had become tired of. In many ways the best page is Ming’s Foreword, setting out what we stand for, referring back to the paper on the party’s beliefs, It’s About Freedom (a much better work), and with just the right finish: “I urge you to read it and to use it as a spur to your thinking and your campaigning”.

Making The 140-word Challenge

What this paper should have done is set out a clear message for people to say, “Oh, that’s what the Lib Dems are for, and I like it.” That’s easier said than done, and there’ve been worse attempts than the 140-word statement of purpose in that box at the start of TIPMBFFAG (catchy, eh?), but it’s still not good enough. It’s only fair, then, that I should offer a real alternative for you to take pot-shots at:

“The Liberal Democrats stand for freedom for every individual – freedom from poverty, ignorance and conformity. Everyone should have the liberty to live their lives as they choose, without harming others. For freedom to be real for everyone, it needs fairness: equality before the law, with public services funded fairly and the people they affect trusted to control them. Freedom comes from good education, so people can make their own choices and realise their potential. Freedom needs good health, which must be safeguarded by a decent environment both for people today and for future generations. A free democracy needs open decisions, with as many people as possible having a say. Governments must trust the people before people will trust them. To build freedom, fairness and a green future, we must pool our efforts in effective communities, locally, nationally and internationally.”

Can you do better? Then what’s your answer to the 140-word challenge?

Alex blogs regularly at

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Liberalhomo 10th Sep '06 - 1:29pm

    Isn’t economic inequality the only major inequality left? I’m gay too, but you have to admit we have equality now.

  • Andrew Duffield 12th Sep '06 - 7:17pm

    The myth that income tax is based on an individual’s “ability to pay” really needs outing. This economic fallacy has been a sacred cow in our party for far too long. PAYE is paid by your employer and passed on to your customers. It’s the same for the self-employed. Those who really pay income tax – and all taxes on wealth creation – are the end users; the young and the old, the unwaged and the poor, the excluded and those at the economic margin. Still think income tax is progressive? Think again.

    ‘Green Switch’ goes so far but, with 4p LIT hanging round our necks still, a 2p cut in national income tax isn’t far enough. And there’s nothing in our tax plans to solve generational inequity either. We pander to pensioners ‘cos they bother to vote, but fairness has to apply across the generations too – or it simply ain’t fair! Roll on ‘Green Switch 2’…

  • Alex

    This is a very thoughtful and well written article which made this opponent of the lib dems pause for thought.

    Clearly other forms of inequality exist other than financial. Its true that many of these inequalities have actually been reduced over the last 20 years. However the financial inequalities have in fact got worse. Sadly the Lib dem tax proposals, if ever implemented, would make this inequality worse. Under the current proposals an individual earning £50,000 pa will get a tax cut worth £70 per week. An individual on national minimum wage (full time) will get £7.50 per week. The “spin” of taking millions out of income tax sounds nice. However given the increases in domestic fuel bills petrol etc proposed its clear that those on low incomes will hardly benefit at all. The other inequality, which you do not mention, is more complex. The concentration of wealth, high earning jobs etc in just two or three areas of the UK is a “spatial” form of inequality. The old argument that house prices are higher in the South of england thus justifying higher wages etc, has become redundant since house prices in many areas are now beyond the reach of people on average or just below average wages (for their region). Again Lib dem tax proposals will further widen this gap between regions of the UK .

    As a nationalist who might welcome the break up of the uk perhaps I should be happy about this however its hard to see why lib dems in Wales should support this policy.

  • Yes Will but the huge tax cut they get will mean they can afford it and the extra cost of petrol etc…thus defeating the point of the “green” taxes….

  • Innocent Observer 15th Sep '06 - 5:15pm

    Mark Jones – have you checked out the calculations in the appendix to the tax commission paper? (on the website) It has worked examples showing how much better or worse off people would be at different levels, even after Green taxes. These are number that the IFS have reviewed and I think you’ll find the package is a lot more redistributive than you imagine.

    Incidentally, Arnie Gibbons (whom I believe you know from Leicester days) was one of the authors of the tax commission paper, so can’t be all bad, eh? 😉

  • Innocent.

    Yes I know Arnie. I wpould think he will know that many of the plans to “hit the super rich” will fail to deliver the amount of revenue predicted although I would happily support many of them.

    I have not read all the details in the appendix. However its a simple fact of life that raising indirect taxation hits the least well off the most. I dont mind paying higher fuel bills to combat global warming. I object to paying them to give someone on £50k per annum a massive tax cut. The six pounds a week the “millions who will be lifted out of income tax” will receive may be enough to pay the extra taxes however the current proposals will widen the gap in our society between the well off and everyone else.

    I think these might not be bad policies for England in many ways but they are a potential disaster for Wales.

    If you are at party conference go along to the ALDC AGM where they are launching the new edition of “Theory and Practice of community politics”if only to heckle my former landlord Bernard Greaves!

  • Hello, i love! Let me in, please 🙂

3 Trackbacks

  • By Liberal Democrat Voice » Help Lib Dem Voice this conference time on Fri 15th September 2006 at 4:39 pm.

    […] Also, I think the thread on the 50p tax rate and the Meeting the Challenge post have both been helpful ‘warm runs’ of the debate that will occur in Brighton. If the web site has informed your thinking, please consider mentioning from the podium – the more Lib Dems come on board, the better this site will be. […]

  • […] Also, I think the thread on the 50p tax rate and the Meeting the Challenge post have both been helpful ‘warm runs’ of the debate that will occur in Brighton. If the web site has informed your thinking, please consider mentioning from the podium – the more Lib Dems come on board, the better this site will be. […]

  • By Quaequam Blog! » Blog Archive » I enjoyed conference shocker! on Thu 21st September 2006 at 8:29 pm.

    […] Ed Davey’s plans for revamping our campaigns and communications was better than I was expecting, despite having heard some very good rumours beforehand. The tax paper, while not perfect, has respectable underpinnings and is taking the party – at last – in the right direction in terms of economic policy. Notwithstanding Alex “crass, boorish and more a bruiser than blogger” Wilcock’s mean comments (some of which are very much spot on), as a first attempt at moving away from the party’s usual sloganeering, it isn’t bad. The important thing is to keep padding it out and to keep revisiting it. […]

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