Opinion: The high social price of A Fresh Start‘s ‘prudent’ decisions

The party’s pre-election manifesto – A Fresh Start for Britain – is based around strong themes and ones that have the potential to give Liberal Democrats the distinctive profile we need in 2010. The outline democracy, green economy and fair taxation agenda is something that will be welcomed across the party.

However the impression is being given that many of the spending commitments debated, and scrutinized within the party over a period of years are being indefinitely effectively set aside as ‘aspirational’. The language that has been reported in the media about key commitments, like widening access to university by abolishing tuition fees and expanding social housing, is also derogatory. If we appear to be dismissive of our own policies, how much easier will it be for our opponents to attack them as irresponsible?

There are two points at issue here for the party. If we present the pre-manifesto as a minimalist platform we will be misrepresenting what are actually a redistributive and radical set of proposals. The size of the green tax switch is greater than ever before.

Equally, the green economy investments contained in the document are also more ambitious than we have previously indicating. So why should we use ‘sound bites’ about the document that downplay policies that would help give us a real cutting edge at the election. At best we risk giving out mixed messages in key constituencies.

The wider question is whether relegating policies on fees and housing in the name of ‘austerity’ will actually help economic and social recovery in the medium term. So whilst we highlight the need to overcome inherited disadvantage through the pupil premium, are we going to put on ice our commitment to shut out people from working class communities from university by keeping tuition fees in place.

As a country we also face wider social challenges of such a magnitude that a failure to address them could generate profound social strains and tensions. One example is the chronic shortage of housing that exists in many parts of Britain.

The huge loss of tax revenue and the banking bailouts have undoubtedly constrained whoever will form the next administration. However the question for the next government cannot simply be ‘what can we afford’ in a narrow book-keeping sense. Instead we should ask ourselves what are the social investments we must continue to make if we are to prevent declining national competitiveness and greater social disharmony.

A recession that generates deteriorating levels of mental health and well-being, entrenched youth unemployment and a reinforced North-South divide, is not going to be a springboard for long term economic recovery. The development crisis in large parts of the global South does not only cause human misery but in places like the horn of Africa and Pakistan it threatens regional and international security.

We should recognize that many of those, particularly in the Conservative Party, who stress the imperative of deficit reduction, are using the UK’s budgetary situation as a cloak for their ideological agenda of shrinking the state and dismantling social safety nets.

Liberal Democrats should uphold the wider package of targeted spending pledges we have developed over several years. We should show the country that we and only we are prepared to take the action necessary to prevent the accumulation of debilitating social debt that will limit individual life chances and erode our competitiveness.

‘Prudent’ decisions taken by any future government to curtail spending in areas like housing could exact a very high social price.

* Matthew Sowemimo is Director of the Social Liberal Forum.

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  • Andrew Suffield 29th Jul '09 - 4:46pm

    I do find it concerning how everybody talks about ‘cutting spending’, when it’s well-established that government investment can be a powerful force for getting a stagnating economy going again. We really want to cut bureaucracy and waste, and increase investments in revenue-generating industries (like, for example, housing and education).

  • Herbert Brown 29th Jul '09 - 4:46pm

    “The size of the green tax switch is greater than ever before. “

    What’s that based on? Certainly quite recently the green tax switch was considerably smaller than when first proposed, apparently because the government had already enacted a lot of the proposals.

  • Andrew- we shouldn’t want to cut spending in the short-term but, as soon as we are out of recession, we’ll need to pay down a huge amount of debt in order to bring down interest rates.

    In terms of Matthew’s piece, he is right to ask about the price of lower spending, but he also has to ask about the price of lower growth with the debt burden. Considering how entrenched inequality sets in in the very earliest years, it is right that we should prioritise the pupil premium above things which we probably can’t afford like abolishing tuition fees.

    If we have less money to try and deal with worsening social problems. We should probably aim it at where it would help most: tuition fees ain’t and the 15% spending reductions that we’d have to make means that any spare cash is going to pay off the bill we’ve wracked up. Don’t blame the leadership, blame the Labour Party.

  • What Matthew’s excellent article doesn’t discuss in any detail is the politics of this debate – and I’m not talking about internal Lib Dem politics.

    The question Nick (and Vince no doubt) have clearly asked themselves is whether the raft of spending policies we have will be considered ‘credible’ (note considered – we are not talking here whether they are or not – only if they will be perceived to be given that we don’t wholly control the debate via the media – and the other parties).

    They have concluded that in the current climate – with both Tories and Labour (Tories as a virtue, Labour as necessity) planning to reduce public spending in the face necessesary debt reduction – to present a shopping list (even if we clearly show how it will be paid for) will just be considered incredible and just same old Lib Dems wanting the earth but not living in the real world.

    I agree – much better to go into the election with two or three headline policies – one spending (or two if we are geberous) – one cutting – one change.

    The question is which spending do you choose? I would go for the Kramer childcare package rather than tuition fees – but then I’ve just had a kid.

    If you want more than one or two spending committments then you will need to argue how that will be positively perceived and will not lead to us being ridiculed as bit part want the earth head in the clouds not ready for government.

  • Herbert Brown 30th Jul '09 - 9:20am


    This is probably going to sound hopelessly idealistic, but is it totally out of the question for the party to arrive at a set of policies in a principled way, and then make the argument for them, rather than continually twisting and turning according to its perception of the public mood?

    Surely getting Lib Dem MPs re-elected should be viewed as a means to an end, rather than as an end in itself.

  • I don’t see anything wrong in deficit reduction. Indeed, I think it is important to live within our means. It shouldn’t come at the cost of things like tuition fee abolition.

  • Herbert,

    I agree with you – but our two approaches are not mutually exclusive. The party has arrived at a set of policies in a democratic and principled way. Now we have to decide which ones can be pursued as a matter of priority considering the economic climate AND the political climate. Because if we argue for things that people agree with but don’t think are possible to deliver they won’t vote for us.

    Credibility in the political climate need not come at the expense of principle. But it does mean we need to to take tough choices in our panoply of policies in order to put forward a programme that is both principled and credible.

    Hence my view that we prioritise childcare as fair, redistributive, radical, affordable, political attractive providing a narrative about who the party is.

    I’d rather we priorities children over students myself as a message.
    Those all hooked up on tuition fees as a political message about what we stand for have just got this wrong – I totoally agree with the policy but I don’t think it a priority.

  • Further,

    You could argue we do both childcare and tuition fees (and all our other spending policies) by either:

    a) dumping the won’t raise taxes stance
    b) not doing a whole host of other things.

    problems with both those stances are manifold.

    On A) people could easily argue that we should spend any extra money on debt reduction (short-term pain for long-term gain) I am sure Vince would be in that camp. Plus, not matter how reasonable (and how other parties will have to raise taxes to pay for debt-reduction AND to maintain investment in services) the other parties will cleverly avoid the trap of being seeing as punishing people for the faults of the bankers (simplistic I know) – I hope we don’t fall into that trap.

    On B) the party has struggled for years to come up with enough things not to do that would allow us to switch spending. The truth is its painful, very difficult and mostly illusory. The sums never add up without really stretching the case (ie not bringing in till end of parliament or offsetting tax revenues etc) and a lot of the things we would cut are politically attractive or political traps.

    I think Nick’s minimalist approach – clear message, clear priorities – is probably wise in the circumstances.

    Wings of the Party may not get what they want in the manifesto policywise, but we will have a narrative.

    The worst of all worlds is to have a massive bust up at conference and end up with a higgledy piggledy set of policies we don’t know how to pay for because any one internal pressure group decides its hammer time.

  • GJS- nice comments. Completely agree.

  • David Allen 30th Jul '09 - 6:17pm

    “This is probably going to sound hopelessly idealistic, but is it totally out of the question for the party to arrive at a set of policies in a principled way, and then make the argument for them, rather than continually twisting and turning…”

    No, it’s actually the only way we will succeed. Because if we go on twisting and turning, while the Tories and Labour each offer the voters the comfort of a simple, clear policy line, then nobody will grasp what it is we are there for, and we shall get screwed. (Of course, these clear policy lines, “vote Labour to avoid all economic pain” versus “vote Tory to save the economy by decimating it” are not only simple, they’re also nuts. Sadly, not a lot of people know that!)

    “The party has arrived at a set of policies in a democratic and principled way. Now we have to decide which ones can be pursued as a matter of priority”

    Translation – “Everything is still up in the air!” Sorry GJS, I sympathise with a great deal of what you have said, but, priorities are 110% of what it’s about now, and if those are in a muddle, we’re in a muddle.

  • David Allen 30th Jul '09 - 6:50pm

    On this question of why people don’t have a clear enough picture of what we stand for, may I suggest that style of leadership is important? To illustrate, here is what I think of as good and bad leadership when developing policy.

    The good leader:
    1. Makes a speech “I really think that when it’s a medical necessity, we ought not to go on banning people from dwile flonking”.
    2. Sits back and listens. If half his own party produce discontented murmurs, goes away and talks about something else. If not,
    3. Makes a speech “In today’s modern world, I think we should give serious consideration to allowing dwile flonking between consenting adults”.
    4. Repeats step 2. If approval seems to outweigh disapproval,
    5. Makes a speech “This great party needs to provide national leadership on dwile flonking. If Conference votes in favour, I shall enthusiastically promote our legalisation policy, and stick to it.”

    The bad leader:
    1. Starts witha big speech to say “It is ludicrous that we still ban dwile flonking in this day and age. We demand legalisation tomorrow, and compulsory sessions for toddlers the day after that!”
    2. Suffers a tirade of derision from all quarters.
    3. Says “Yeah right, dwile flonking is actually a bit evil isn’t it? Now, just wait on while I come up with my next vote-winning policy, guys….”

  • I reckon you’re missing a massive political trick by dropping the commitment to scrap tuition fees. The other parties have both promised to raise them to £7,000, with some ex-polys offering free degrees:


    You could lose some Labour/Lib Dem marginals. You need a coherent message. In 2005 you had Iraq and tuition fees.

    What do you have now?

  • Herbert Brown 6th Aug '09 - 3:22pm

    “Recognising that there will be some need for austerity in the years to come is not twisting and turning, it is a principled stance, the principle being intellectual honesty. Sorry if that sounds pompous.”

    “Twisting and turning” referred specifically to the post I was replying to, which was about adjusting policies according to public perception, not about taking a principled stance. Indeed, a principled stance is precisely what I was advocating:

  • bill haymes 11th Aug '09 - 3:24pm

    We should recognize that many of those, particularly in the Conservative Party, who stress the imperative of deficit reduction, are using the UK’s budgetary situation as a cloak for their ideological agenda of shrinking the state and dismantling social safety nets.

    Arent some purist Lib Dems also doing this?If they succeed in binding the party in the public mind into the Tories fiscal conservaivism,which is a key reason the party has done so badly against them in particular since Henley( as Tory voters prefer the devil they know and Lib Dems should be chasing alternative constituencies/voter groups) then get ready for a huge squeeze ,as purism meets the brickwall of the Tory core vote cul-de-sac, and dissatisfied Labour voters dont vote or vote green…. Matthew does not go far enough in my opinion and is buying into Tory media misinformation on the real state of our budgetary problems which are nothing like as serious as Japan or the USA for example,about halfway in the OECD scale. A major goal of progressive liberalism has to be to overcome the negativity of the fiscal conservatives and show that such dogmatism is likely to lead to an even bigger recession,if the Tories convince that the big State is responsible for the current crisis,which was the delusion of Thatcherism, and finished off a generation…. winning this battle against all the fear,lies and misinformation offered up daily by the Tory press is clearly vital or the party will be swallowed whole in the coming general election campaigns

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