LibLink: Julian Astle – How Lib Dems are being defamed

Over at The Guardian’s Comment is Free website, the director of liberal think-tank Centre Forum, Julian Astle, gives a personal take on what it’s like as a Lib Dem to be taunted as a Tory by Labour’s “deficit deniers”, and parises the Coalition measures he believes should cheer all progressives. Here’s an excerpt:

Deficit denial may have its advantages if you are an opposition politician vying for the leadership of your party. Take that denial into government, however, and the consequences would be catastrophic. … The uncomfortable truth is that, to bring in a lot of money, governments have no option but to raise those taxes that are paid by the many, not the few; just as they have no option but to reduce spending on the benefits, services and salaries of the many, not the few. To do this while ensuring that the richest end up bearing a bigger burden, proportionate to their incomes, than the poor, is not easy. Yet, this is exactly what the government has attempted to do by raising the income tax allowance, increasing the child tax credit, linking the state pension to earnings and exempting low-paid workers from the public-sector pay freeze. More will no doubt be done in future budgets to underpin the coalition’s unequivocal commitment to poverty reduction, and the Lib Dems will certainly be arguing for that. But to claim, as Labour has been doing, that this budget is a carbon copy of the Thatcher budgets of the 1980s, is simply not credible. …

None of this is to say that the coalition isn’t doing some things that liberals and progressives find baffling, even worrying. The imposition of an annual immigration cap is illiberal, the ringfencing of the £120bn NHS budget illogical.

But the important question isn’t whether the coalition is built on compromise. Of course, it is. The important question is whether the Liberal Democrats believe these compromises to be in the interests of good government; whether, in the round, they feel they are doing the right thing by the people of this country. And, despite all the abuse being heaped upon them, the answer is that they do.

You can read Julian’s article in full here.

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23 Comments

  • David Allen 13th Jul '10 - 7:39pm

    This is a relatively well argued defence of the Lib Dem role within the coalition. However, there’s a great deal more on the downside than the immigration cap and the ring-fencing of the NHS which Astle mentions. After we signed up to a “dodgy dossier” called the coalition agreement, the Tories rewrote the deal. Most recently, we have seen a massive programme for change within the NHS which was not mentioned in the agreement, and which we are supposed to believe has all been worked up in the space of a month. The food industry, which is responsible for an epidemic of ill-health and obesity, will now be allowed to police its own behaviour without irksome constraints from an independent standards authority. Perhaps the next thing will be to put the porn industry in charge of film censorship and the criminals in charge of the prisons?

    An argument which helped sway me in favour of the coalition, a month back, was that we would be a restraining influence and that things would be worse if the Tories ruled alone. I am no longer sure that this is even true. Everwhere that dirty work has to be done, there is a junior Lib Dem minister to do it. Our presence in government seems to have emboldened the Tories, who seem to think that there is more they can get away with when they have us to act as their figleaf.

    The industry lobbies and the cuts zealots have clearly been making hay. Who has been speaking up effectively within government from the opposite side to redress the balance? Ironically, nobody except Ken Clarke. We cannot go on with a leadership which gives us no leadership.

  • It’s not a question of deficit denial, it’s the fact that the haste and the extent of the cuts being implemented threatens to make the economy even weaker (as well as doing massive damage to our public services). David Allen’s very eloquent post sums up my own feelings.

  • tonygreaves 13th Jul '10 - 9:16pm

    David Allen makes a very sensible contribution.

    But to claim, as Labour has been doing, that this budget is a carbon copy of the Thatcher budgets of the 1980s, is simply not credible. …

    The statement is not credible since the budget (including the ludicrous level and speed of proposed public spending cuts, particularly the cuts in capital spending) is far worse than anything that Thatcher ever did.

    I don’t think that people generally yet understand what is due to happen. When they – and private sector businesses that will be affected in a savage way – come to understand the madness that is proposed, there will be a massive reaction, even a revolt. I live in hope that this will cause a substantial change of approach and reduction in the level of cuts. Otherwise the future for all of us – and the poorest in society the most – is bleak indeed.

    And it will all be made worse by the utterly unnecessary, destructive and dangerous changes that are being proposed in schools and the health service by the two madcap loose cannons in the government, Mssrs Gove and Lansley. (Oh, I forgot Mr Pickles whose inevitable lunacies are yet to be unleashed on us all).

    Tony Greaves

  • I’m really confused by all this post election revisionism in which what we really
    said was black while the rest of us ( wrongly) thought is was white.
    Most of what I’ve seen so far I neither campaigned for nor against.
    How much worse would it have got if Cameron had won a overall majority?
    Not much I suspect.

  • tony greaves I understand what is to come and I weep (and I mean this literally) for all those who are going to be destroyed by the mean and petty cuts. Yes we need to support defecit reduction, however I fear that all the cuts are due to the dismantling of the state support for those most in need,

  • @Geoffrey Payne – Absolutely agree

    The Astle article represents a coalition apologist trying to rationalise the indefensible. Nothing that has happened since the General Election suggests that the Lib-Dem pre-election analysis was wrong. Perhaps the only thing that has so far proved wildly inaccurate is the early suggestion that the Cameroonies are in any sense more caring/centrist and less ideological than the Thatcherites of the 1980s. The Health “reforms” outlined yesterday are of historic significance, and not in a good way.

  • Yes, of course Labour, and others outside the party are going to have a go at the coalition – people would and should have known that anyway. But surely, Julian, the point is, the majority of what is said here is by Lib Dem supporters, sympathisers, members and activists. You must surely take some account of the analysis of your predecessor Richard Grayson in your thinking on this. I hope tomorrow’s “Awayday” gets some of the necessary points over to ministers in the coalition – and I hope the group attending is wide enough to achieve that properly. I still think the coalition talks did not try hard enough to involve Labour, not just in a two way Lab Lib Dem coalition but either a Grand coalition or a Labour Tory conflation. This would have made more sense in policy terms, and Labour would have been larger to argue for slower (and undoubtedly less) cuts. Had we argued this, especially as it could easily be contended that Lib Dems were the real losers of 2010 (we reached dizzying heights of 30% in the polls, followed by a rapid descent to where we ended) and that Labour were the real winners, having made a pretty rapid comeback. Had we reached 30%, I would be arguing here for an attempt at minority Government by us – although I reckon Tories and Labour would then magically have come together to ensure we were excluded.

    Anyway, that is not where we are, and we should not be allowing the Tories to use their minority position to implement a “small state” Thatcherite vision, on the basis that “people voted for change”. They have not voted for that change, as we will soon if drastic cuts and massive structural change which had not been mentioned in manifestos even take place as fast as they are being planned. Stop this while you can. The world is facing an urgent potential disaster with global climate change and other environmental issues anyway, without trying to do it against a backdrop where people are already facing massive change and disruption to their lives.

  • Hold on a minute – these posts about “dismantling the state” are utter crap from economically illiterate people. The budget plan is to reduce the public spending share of the state back down to 39%. This is what it was in the first years of the Labour govt. So, come on then Tony and other, tell us honestly: do you think there was no state in the late 90s? Or are you getting hysterical?

  • Matthew Huntbach 14th Jul '10 - 10:45am

    Mboy, it is you who are economically illiterate. The share of GDP spent by the state does not necessarily correlate with its power. What we seem to be finding is that attempts to scale back the state don’t save money, they just make it less effective. Every attempt to save money seems in the end to involve additional management structure which costs at least as much as it saves. The providers of front-line services end up feeling resentful and being de-skilled because they are under constant pressure from above rather than trusted to use their own judgment. The constant re-organisation involves a huge waste of hours with meeting after meetings which are achieving nothing. The fairy-dust “private sector know-how” which was supposed to have made things more efficient by being scattered around has achieved the reverse – more spending on consultants, on complex management schemes like PFI with all its lawyers and accountants etc.

    The new crew in government are nearly all people who are clueless about how the public sector works, but instead of looking carefully at it before pulling things apart, they’ve gone wading in with mad pet schemes based on that cluelessness.

  • MBoy,

    Mathematical enquiry first. You’re telling us that the master plan is to cut state spending to 39% of GDP. We also know that it is to cut state spending by about 25%. By my reckoning, that must mean that state spending is currently about 52% of GDP. Is that really correct?

  • MBoy,

    Irrespective of the maths – What you’re talking about is going back to the level of state spending we had at the end of the John Major era. When the nation was screaming out for change. When waiting lists had soared to 18 months, schools were falling apart, and our party was rightly calling for the famous “penny in the pound” tax increase. Are you now advocating we should happily return to the Thatcher / Major level of state spending?

  • Wrong and wrong I’m afraid David. Spending table here:
    http://spreadsheets.google.com/pub?key=phNtm3LmDZENC3I0s7AvHBQ

    The cuts proposed are 20% (the 25% figure you quote is for “non-protected” departments). That’s the reduction from 47.5% now to the 39.8% proposed. The last time 39.8% was crossed was in those dreadful lean years of… 2004-2005.

    It was actually Gordon Brown, sticking to the Tories’ spending plans in the first Labour Parliament that took GDP spend to its lowest recent value of 36.4% in 1999. When Labour took over it was 38.2%.

  • MBoy,

    So spending as a percentage of GDP was virtually the same in 1997 (38%) and 2004-5 (40%). In 1997 public spending was desperately low, in 2004-5 appallingly high. What changed was the “GDP”, which in 2004-5 included a lot of bogus “income” due to the property price bubble.

    Just shows that this spending ratio you bandy about, in order to justify massive cuts, is a lousy measure of anything. Now don’t get me wrong, we do have a problem, we do need to cut back very seriously on a mixture of public and private spending. We can’t possibly do it right if we just use crude measures, like spending as a percentage of GDP, as our benchmark.

    My view is that Galbraith still has it right. We still live with “private affluence and public squalor”. The retrenchment should target luxuries like HD TV, a new phone every year, a new car every two years for the wealthy middle class, despoliation of the planet. It should be targeted by tax rises. It should not be by cuts in basic necessities like schools and hospitals. Lib Dems should not be trading bogus statistical measures in order to obscure these points. Leave that to the Tories!

  • Anthony Aloysius St 14th Jul '10 - 11:47pm

    “The retrenchment should target luxuries like HD TV, a new phone every year, a new car every two years for the wealthy middle class, despoliation of the planet.”

    But surely these are amongst the most basic freedoms of all?

  • Um, if you think taxing luxuries can raise £60bn a year please show how it can be done.

    I posted the numbers as people some are getting hysterical and talking about Coalition plans for “dismantling the state”. I’m just injection a few FACTS that show that to be utter garbage. Sorry if that’s awkward for your story.

  • You don’t tax luxuries as such. You increase taxes generally and progressively. Then people have less to spend on luxuries.

    Yes, carry on injecting FACTS!!! and garbage and sarcasm. Try green ink as well.

  • Perhaps we need more categories for VAT to fall into, rather likethe old Purchase Tax. In the days when we were just about emerging from wartime and postwar austerity, luxuries were differentially taxed. Surely if “we are all in this together”, we need to demonstrate that all our people are getting things they genuinely need at low rates (or zero) VAT, and things which are relatively discretionary at higher rates.

    And this becomes more of a priority when you realise that this financial thing is only the start – the much bigger and long term issue – the set of problems / crises around the end of oil, global climate change, species extinction resource wars etc etc, will put in train a huge need for this kind of thinking. As “the greenest ever government”, I hope ours is getting thinking on these issues. It is all very well thinking of “decarbonisation” as an opportunity not a problem. But there will not be easily adopted and safe technologies for everything we currently have. If our democracy is to mean anything at all, we have to have the opportunity of some informed discussions and decision making on these subjects – what we may have to do without etc, remembering that unlike the war, there will be few lights at the end of the tunnel! We will need to make positives out of less.

  • Matthew Huntbach 15th Jul '10 - 10:43am

    The other issue is that the sort of routine things which involve state expenditure have massively grown over the years. There is much more we can do medically (at a cost) to keep people living longer. More people living longer means more paid out in pension and other support for the elderly. When the NHS was founded it was supposed it would be cost effective because of the savings caused by better health. What that forgot was that people still have to die at some time. A fit person dropping dead of a heart attack at around retirement age is the most cost effective thing. Someone struggling on into their 90s with increasing ailments is not at all cost effective.

    We also drive more, throw out more rubbish, stay on at school more etc etc, all of which results in increasing state costs for little obvious show. We also live in a more fluid society, families break up, generations separate. This also has quite big state costs. I don’t know the figures for housing benefit, but my guess is that going from private renting being used by just a few to it being a major form of housing for those who in the past would have got a council house, is having a huge impact, what with private rents being at least twice council rents for the same sort of property.

    So, does caring for many more elderly people, or shelling out much more to private landlords really count, as MBoy is suggesting, as a massive expansion of state power? More money as proportion of GDP spent, real power, no.

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