Opinion: It’s time to concentrate on the “Fairer Society”

Liberal democratsThe main criticism of the party leadership after the terrible European election results has come from those who see themselves on the ‘Fairer Society’ wing of the party. Over the last 4 years the Conservatives in the Coalition have swung more and more to the right on the NHS, welfare and immigration, making the decision to enter the coalition more and more untenable. Liberal Democrats in Government have continued to feel themselves constrained by ‘cabinet collective responsibility’ (CCR) even as the rightward shift has undermined the Liberal Democrat position on a ‘Fairer Society’

There is a very simple solution, namely to refuse to accept CCR in areas which continue to undermine the Liberal Democrat position.

In supporting the Coalition’s austerity policy, the Liberal Democrats had to accept the Tory plan that the majority of the reduction in the deficit should come from cuts in spending rather than increases in taxation. However, the reductions in welfare in particular gave rise to gross inequalities through callous implementation of measures such as the “Bedroom Tax”. The downward pressure on local authority budgets also had a disproportionate impact on social care, making welfare cuts even more unacceptable. The reductions in capital spending, especially in housing have also had a distorting impact on the recovery of the economy. The Liberal Democrats in Government have been tarred with these policies, which in the public mind have overshadowed the party’s major successes, such as taking lower paid people out of income tax and the triple lock for pensioners.

For the next year the Liberal Democrats have to make a case for continuing deficit reduction whilst at the same time removing the unfairnesses which have become part of the system. The unsung heroes of this Parliament, the Commons Select Committees have produced pages of research highlighting the worst excesses of Coalition policy, and this is backed up by numerous research papers by Non-Governmental Organisations and academics. These could all be used to propose policies to increase fairness and if not then increased taxation will have to be introduced to pay for increased spending. Removing tax loopholes and introducing a ‘Robin Hood tax’ would be popular with the majority.

This approach requires that the Liberal Democrats in Government admit their mistakes, not necessarily in supporting these policies but in not addressing the problems which they have created. I can see no reason why Liberal Democrats could not publicly develop a follow-on set of policies, whilst at the same time remaining committed members of the Coalition, supporting only those policies which contribute to a ‘Stronger Economy AND a Fairer Society’

* David Pollard is a member of the Liberal Democrats from Oban who stood in the Oban South council by-election in 2014

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23 Comments

  • Eddie Sammon 4th Jun '14 - 3:47pm

    This is ridiculous. The party is being run like a co-op with no clear leader or direction. We can’t have one half of the party running one campaign and the other running another.

  • Matthew Huntbach 4th Jun '14 - 3:54pm

    Eddie Sammon

    This is ridiculous. The party is being run like a co-op with no clear leader or direction. We can’t have one half of the party running one campaign and the other running another.

    Er, running things like a co-op USED to be what the Liberals were about. We used to believe in things like industrial democracy.

    You have in any case made an excellent argument for removing the current leader. If what he would do is not in accord with what the majority in the party would do, then he should go. The clear direction of the party should be the direction the majority of its members want to go in. The leader (assuming you believe in democracy otherwise why be in a party which has the word “Democrats” in its name?) should be the servant of the people who put him there. He or she should lead it in the direction they want it to go.

  • Simon McGrath 4th Jun '14 - 3:57pm

    “The unsung heroes of this Parliament, the Commons Select Committees have produced pages of research highlighting the worst excesses of Coalition policy, and this is backed up by numerous research papers by Non-Governmental Organisations and academics. ”
    Lol. Next you will be telling us what a good job the Guardian are doing

  • Eddie Sammon 4th Jun '14 - 4:14pm

    Hi Matthew, I fully support the leader, I just believe in balance and in my view discipline has gone out the window so I am urging more action.

    It’s a complete waste of time to be spending time debating whether we should junk the stronger economy line. I probably should ignore this, but it annoys me the way it gets published.

    Believing in democracy isn’t a belief that every person in an organisation should have equal power.

  • Simon McGrath 4th Jun '14 - 4:15pm

    “The reductions in capital spending, especially in housing have also had a distorting impact on the recovery of the economy.”
    er, no
    http://www.building.co.uk/housing-a-maths-lesson-for-labour/5068105.article

  • Eddie Sammon 4th Jun '14 - 4:20pm

    I’m not going to let myself get distracted by this indiscipline anymore. For the final time: I believe in balance, not Stalinism, but the party is running around like a headless chicken and needs more order.

    If the indiscipline continues then so be it, but people who want to get on shouldn’t allow ourselves to be distracted by it too much.

  • Mark Blackburn 4th Jun '14 - 4:22pm

    Fundamentally I agree with your analysis David. And so does the electorate, which is why we got such a panning. Contrary to the protestations of the leadership, the electorate doesn’t see us as being a brake on the Tories, but as actually quite enjoying the direction of travel. And with our acquiescence on the NHS, ‘bedroom tax’ and our lack of resolve in trying to achieve a more balanced economic recovery, who can blame them?

  • ” These could all be used to propose policies to increase fairness and if not then increased taxation will have to be introduced to pay for increased spending.”

    Increased taxation on whom? We are already raising much more from top rate taxpayers than we were before.

    Even if there is all this extra “free money” out there to be brought in through higher taxes (I don’t think there is) what do you think we should be spending more money on? Should we really be spending more money on subsidising people for extra rooms they don’t need while keeping people who do need larger accommodation out of it? Agreed that we should ensure that people are actually offered alternative accommodation before imposing the “Bedroom Tax” (a major error in implementation of which we should be ashamed) but otherwise I don’t see in principle what is so bad about it.

    “Removing tax loopholes and introducing a ‘Robin Hood tax’ would be popular with the majority.”

    We are already removing more tax loopholes and raising much more tax as result. As for the Robin Hood Tax, it only works if everyone does it, otherwise it just hits our own financial sector. Witness Sweden’s experience.

    In short, I’d love more fairness and equality, but simply taxing more and doling it out in ever higher benefits really isn’t the way to do it. We have to apply the scarce funds we have more intelligently, and if well and fairly administered (a huge ‘if’) the government’s universal credit is, in the long term, the best way of ensuring a safety net and a ladder out of it (via earnings from employment) that actually goes upwards, not sideways.

    Much of the problem seems to be that we haven’t tied down the important details of implementation of these policies so that they are “fair” as would commonly be understood by most people. But the basic principles behind many changes are basically sound.

  • “But the fundamental principles behind many changes are basically sound”

  • Eddie Sammon 4th Jun '14 - 8:24pm

    David, what I am on about, if that is what you meant, is the title says “it’s time to concentrate on the fairer society”. Why not the economy too? Shall we just sack off concentrating on the economy? It’s just unnecessarily diverting away from the party’s message.

  • Eddie Sammon 4th Jun '14 - 8:31pm

    Labour can’t be trusted to run the economy and the Conservatives can’t be trusted to create a fair society. It’s a good message. People shouldn’t be reluctant to attack Labour on their biggest electoral weakness.

  • Eddie Sammon 4th Jun '14 - 8:37pm

    The idea that we’ve only been concentrating on the economy and not a fair society up to now is a Labour myth and we need to stop repeating them. In my opinion the government has gone too far with tax avoidance by bordering on the “guilty unless proven innocent” approach with the General Anti Abuse Law, so the last thing we can criticise this government for is not clamping down on tax loopholes.

  • Little Jackie Paper 4th Jun '14 - 8:53pm

    RC – ‘We are already raising much more from top rate taxpayers than we were before.’ Well, yes…but isn’t that in many ways a reflection of runaway top pay? I’m not necessarily making a value judgment on that, I simply observe that to some extent what you are talking about is just the income tax system reflecting incomes.

    More generally, the issue that no one wants to seem to want to talk about is the private rental sector. Perhaps it is an oversimplification, but there are basically three choices – social housing, owner occupation and private rents. The latter is overwhelmingly rejected by anyone given the chance. Not to mention the billions of housing benefits that are basically paying off landlord mortgages.

    A private rental system that is a bit more than the freedom to pay someone else’s mortgage and be made homeless at short notice might help.

    And to save anyone saying it – no, landlords are not socially minded misunderstood heroes.

  • daft ha'p'orth 4th Jun '14 - 8:53pm

    @Eddie Sammon
    From the marketing point of view it is probably not a great idea to tell the citizens of this fair country that we think we’ve been building a fairer society all this time…

  • A breath of fesh air from David Pollard. Well written and to the point.

    So much better than all the sub-Thatcherite essays we so often read in LDV from people who I sometimes think have wandered into the wrong party by mistake.

    More from David Pollard please.

  • Eddie Sammon 4th Jun '14 - 9:12pm

    Here we go people, just what I’ve been saying about the tax avoidance law:

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/queens-speech/10876015/Queens-Speech-Tax-avoiders-told-to-pay-up-front-in-new-guilty-before-trial-law.html

    As a former tax adviser I spotted this law in the pipeline a few years ago and thought it was going to be the expensive way to do things. However, don’t let anyone say we’re not tackling tax avoiders…

    It’s also a bit nonsensical, because the rule is about “using laws in the spirit in which they are designed”, but we often aren’t told the spirit in which they are designed, so this is just a recipe for a load of court costs.

  • “Lol. Next you will be telling us what a good job the Guardian are doing.”

    Wel tonight the Guardian are doing a pretty good job of pointing out that this government is about to prosecute a major terrorism trial in secret. A move about as ‘unfair’ and as illiberal as it can get. There’s nothing on this site about secret courts. Is this another of those occassions when the party should trumpet its policies even louder or is it another example of how the electorate have actually noticed what the coalition is up to and don’t like it.? A threat to freedom and justice – is that what the party exists for now? Is this the hallmark of a fair society?

    http://www.theguardian.com/law/2014/jun/04/uk-secret-terrorism-trial-legal-justice-human-rights

  • I broadly agree but … The Lib Dems always seem to come back to “fairness” as what they are trying to achieve and then dive into the details of this or that social policy that will, supposedly, move us in the right direction.

    The first problem with this is that “fairness” is an almost meaningless term. I know what you mean as no doubt do other readers of this post – but that is merely preaching to the choir. Conservatives understand “fairness” to be almost the opposite of this. An only slightly stereotypical view of Tory thinking is that that having lots of money is sign of moral virtue and good character while lack of money is the opposite so those without should be pilloried, blamed for all of society’s ills and condemned to sub-standard housing until they pull themselves together; in the meantime, they should be beaten back to work. In this view “fairness” consists of not supporting the overhead of “undeserving idle slackers” but rather keeping all that “hard earned” money and paying little or no tax. This is, of course, utter nonsense, self-serving and economically illiterate so it’s unchallenged persistence is a mystery.

    Hence “fairness” has no useful traction in the context of political economy and it’s ever-green appeal to Lib Dems is symptomatic of an enduring inability to formulate a coherent narrative.

    The second problem is that “fairness” (in the Lib Dem sense) is an outgrowth of deeper economic forces which rarely get a proper look in from Lib Dems who focus far too much on the social dimension of policy. Not that those don’t matter – of course they do and are wholly necessary in may ways but if we continue to allow the Tories to get away with increasing the slope of the playing field in their direction (which is what their deep strategy amounts to ) then we really are missing the point.

  • Stephen Howse 5th Jun '14 - 5:55pm

    “…those who see themselves on the ‘Fairer Society’ wing of the party….”

    Why do we have to pick a side?

  • Julian Tisi 6th Jun '14 - 1:46pm

    I agree with Stephen Howse – why do we have to pick a side? My main attraction to the Lib Dems is that it’s the only party that combines fairness (unlike the Tories) with economic responsibility (unlike Labour).

    But I’d go further – I don’t believe that allowing the economy to fail is in any way fair or progressive. We’re still in a very difficult economic position – there’s still a deficit – and if we don’t over the long term pay our way, it will be the poor who will suffer, in fewer jobs and even less money for services. Piling up debt now and leaving it to our children to pay isn’t fair either. So I resent the suggestion from a handful on the left of our party that those of us who care about having a strong economy and recognise the need for cuts are somehow against fairness.

  • @ RC – “Increased taxation on whom? We are already raising much more from top rate taxpayers than we were before. … the government’s universal credit is, in the long term, the best way of ensuring a safety net and a ladder out of it”

    Are you really saying that it is right for the poor to have a marginal removal rate of over 65% (Universal Credit 65% plus Council Tax Benefit withdrawal rate), while the rich only have a marginal removal rate of 45% (Income Tax alone)?

    @ Edddie Sammon – “Labour can’t be trusted to run the economy”
    This ignores their success in running the economy and assumes that the crash of 2008 was Labour’s fault and not the result of world conditions. Also they were more successful in running the economy from 2008 to 2010 than the coalition was between 2010 and 2013.

    @ Little Jackie Paper – “the billions of housing benefits that are basically paying off landlord mortgages”
    Most private landlords no longer accept people on housing benefit since this governments reforms to the Local Housing Allowance because it is now set at such a low level compared with the market rates.

    @ Julian Tisi – “We’re still in a very difficult economic position – there’s still a deficit – and if we don’t over the long term pay our way, it will be the poor who will suffer, in fewer jobs and even less money for services. Piling up debt now and leaving it to our children to pay isn’t fair either.”

    I am always surprised that people believe this. This country has had a National Debt since 1692 (I think from when the Bank of England was created) and since then it has never been reduced to zero. In fact I could not see many years where its monetary value had decreased (1999, 2000, 2001). (http://www.ukpublicspending.co.uk/spending_chart_1692_2015UKm_13c1li011tcn_G0t)

    For over 100 years its value was greater than GDP between 1748 and 1859 and again between 1918 and 1961. (http://www.ukpublicspending.co.uk/spending_chart_1692_2015UKp_XXc1li111tcn_G0t)
    Now we need to remember that the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions were taking place during the first hundred years and so that level of debt (which is much higher than our current level and even that forecast for 2018) didn’t stop the economy growing. Then between 1945 and 1961 there was full employment again not a time that lacked economic growth.

  • I agree with a lot of what David Pollard says, but it’s 4 years to late. In next years GE the LibDems are going to be judged on their record in government and so far the voters don’t seem impressed. If they go into next year saying vote for us and you will get a fairer society, the voters will rightly ask why don’t we have one now. Whatever they do – without a immediate and complete change of leadership – I think it will be to little to late.

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