Three more myths about the UK economy

A few days ago, Stephen Tall posted his Five Myths About the UK Economy. But in fact understanding what is really going on in the economy is much harder than it first looks. One thing he was definitely right about was that the economy is the big issue and trying to get behind the political rhetoric to discover the economic reality is surprisingly tricky. I decided to post my own three myths about the UK economy.

Myth 1: Cuts aren’t really taking place

The latest fashion for conservative commentators is to deny that real cuts are even taking place. This government, they argue, is a phony, not really committed to cutting the deficit. Examples include the Spectator’s Fraser Nelson and the ever mild-mannered Peter Hitchens, who assures us, in no uncertain terms, that Britain will soon turn into a rainier, more miserable version of Greece.

They are, of course, wrong.

As this IPPR report shows net spending in real terms on public services fell by 0.5% this year- this is the first fall since the financial year 1955/56. Increases in expenditure are entirely accounted for by debt interest and net social benefits. And these figures don’t take into account capital spending. Public net investment fell by 24.9 per cent between 2010/11 and 2011/12 (a cut of £9.5 billion). And all of this is before the majority of the cuts have even started.

Myth 2: America is cutting even faster than the UK

Baroness Warsi recently claimed: that the US “has cut its debt further and faster than the UK… it’s a myth to say they haven’t”. Assuming that she has made the usual mistake of equating debt with deficit (neither country is cutting its debt!), then she is right. But not for the reasons she thinks. Here’s why.

America has been cutting its government spending more slowly than the UK. A recent speech by Adam Posen for the Bank of England entitled “Why is their recovery better than ours? (Even though neither is good enough)” concluded, taking both local and central government into account, cumulatively the UK government tightened fiscal policy by 3% more than the US government did since 2007.

In the US, the economy has now grown back above its pre-crisis peak, whereas the UK economy is still lagging behind. Unemployment in the US is now falling, whereas it’s been more or less static in the UK (today’s figures notwithstanding). Private investment and consumption are recovering in the US but not the UK:

He concluded that the weak consumer spending and high inflation in the UK were due to the faster pace of cuts in the UK, and the rise in VAT. But Warsi is right on one thing: despite cutting more slowly, the American deficit is falling faster than the UK’s: it has fallen by 5% of GDP, over twice the rate of 2.4% it has fallen in the UK. The reason? Economic growth. Incredibly, by cutting government spending more slowly, the US is cutting its deficit faster than the UK, by encouraging economic growth.

Myth 3: Austerity can be expansionary

Last year an IMF study of 173 programs in 17 advanced economies since the 1970s concluded that all had led to recession and not economic growth. The study concluded

“fiscal consolidations typically have the short-run effect of reducing incomes and raising unemployment. A fiscal consolidation of 1 percent of GDP reduces inflation-adjusted incomes by about 0.6 percent and raises the unemployment rate by almost 0.5 percentage point… fiscal consolidations are contractionary, not expansionary.”

Clearly, it’s too simplistic to say that the government’s cuts have caused the double dip recession (there are plenty of other factors, not least the Eurozone crisis), but with our economy still reeling from the crash and unemployment still so high…


One thing Stephen was absolutely right to say is that the debate is misleading the public and diverting us from finding proper answers. There’s a huge amount of confusion about the current austerity programs here and abroad, about who is cutting by how much, and who is cutting faster than whom. The debate has been dominated by ideology and insults on both sides, instead of a careful analysis of the evidence. If we’re to understand the problems in our economy, we first need to understand what is actually happening.

* David Freeborn is a Liberal Democrat supporting physicist from Oxford.

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  • Richard Dean 22nd Jun '12 - 3:29pm

    The seems to be a whole sea of myths (a “fog” of myths?)! One may be that there is a unique number that measures of economic well-being or economic pain. It seems that recent unemployment rates in the US and UK are rather similar (about 8% according to, so maybe Myth 2a is the idea that the US is doing better than the UK?

  • David – Your 3 myths are an interesting discussion. But there is another myth that persists amongst economists. The myth is this ;
    “Unfettered growth can continue without limits”. Or interpreted more scientifically, ” Infinite exponential growth is possible in a finite world”
    I believe that this myth infringes the laws of thermodynamics, but I would like to know your view ( as a physicist ), of this myth.?

  • Robert Carruthers 22nd Jun '12 - 5:57pm

    The biggest myth of all is that the performance of the UK economy is entirely due to, and perfectly correlated with, the government’s fiscal policy. David Freeborn may be a physicist, but he is certainly no economist. Sadly he neglects the many other factors that have a much bigger impact on economic growth than even government cuts.

    One of the main reasons why consumer spending isn’t growing in the UK compared with the US is the difference between the performances of the savings ratio, which has risen in the UK, holding back growth, but in the US has fallen back down to rock bottom levels. In the first quarter of 2012, US consumers only saved 3.6% of income, down from a peak of 6.2% in the second quarter of 2009. While we don’t have figures for Q1 yet, in the UK it is now 7.7%, having risen from 1.7% in 2008 – so that is 6.0% of UK consumer spending taken out of circulation in three years. With consumer spending accounting for nearly two thirds of GDP, it is hardly surprising that this has had a major impact on economic growth.

    When you combine that with the direct exposure of the UK to the Eurozone crisis and its role in holding back investment and exports to the Eurozone, it goes a long way to explain why the US is outperforming the UK. The fact that the UK also finished the recession with even bigger deficit problems than the US did meant we did not have the luxury of standing by while the deficit went unchecked. I don’t dispute the fact that there are cuts going on, but the problem is that reducing the deficit is probably the number one job the Coalition has on its “to do” list. Without those cuts, what hope do we have of reducing it at all?

    To try to explain the performance of the UK economy solely and directly in relation to fiscal policy while making inaccurate comparisons with other economies is, in my opinion, not helpful and indeed obfuscates the debate about how to achieve this goal.

  • David Freeborn 22nd Jun '12 - 6:56pm

    John Dunn- yes, in the long run that’s a more important issue. I was just looking at the short term economic situation: the debate over the deficit.

    It does indeed defy the laws of thermodynamics- take a look here:

    Government should be looking into completely changing our economic system in the long term. I was disappointed to here Nick Clegg saying he wasn’t committed to green energy subsidies earlier in the week.

  • David Freeborn 22nd Jun '12 - 6:59pm

    Richard- I agree, but the US really is recovering more quickly. US unemployment is on the decline, the UK’s is stagnant or rising- see here:

  • David Freeborn 22nd Jun '12 - 7:19pm

    Robert- I wasn’t trying to explain the difference solely in terms of fiscal policy, but there’s only so much I can go through in one short post! Adam Posen is quite careful to address other possible factors: differences in savings ratios is one thing he considers. He comes to the conclusion that the UK’s fiscal retrenchment is one of the key factors.

    That being said, I agree governments have much less influence on economies than they pretend, but a 3% difference in fiscal tightening is quite significant.

    The Eurozone is certainly an important factor, but UK trade with the Eurozone hasn’t fallen by that much: I think about 1.2% in the three months to April 2012. Meanwhile the good performance of non-Eurozone countries means our trade has been rising with them, which almost cancels this out.

    We have a Catch-22 situation: cut the deficit too fast, and it chokes of growth, making the deficit impossible to pay off. But the deficit must be cut. I think the evidence from looking at a range of countries suggests our government has the balance too far down the cutting-too-fast side.

  • David you say “John Dunn- yes, in the long run that’s a more important issue.”
    What I maintain David, is that ‘the long run; is here and now. That the financial deficits we are witnessing now, is the breakdown of an attempt to buy into the future of [cheap], energy supply. After all, debt is work, [energy], derived from some future date.
    I maintain that “what is actually happening”, is that economic growth around the world is coming to a close (now), because cheap energy is coming to a close. I also maintain that this shutdown of growth is NOT a temporary phase. If I’m wrong, where is the growth coming from?
    I’m aware that this is a bitter pill to swallow. But it is important to understand this (natural, unavoidable), shift away from economic growth. Why?
    Because policy based on a false assumptions of continuous growth, will result in wasted money, wasted resources and ‘white elephant’ failed projects from here to the horizon.

  • Richard Dean 22nd Jun '12 - 7:59pm

    The rate of change of unemployment is of course highly rekevant, thanks. Looks like we are passing them and going down, while the US is passing us and going up.

    It’s perfectly possible to have exponential growth up to a (thermodynamic is stretching it) limit, so if the limit isn’t yet reached we can have exponential growth!

    Robert Carruthers’ myth looks interesting. A country’s government has influence but little actual control – look at how the banks use QE to support themselves rather than lend to SME’s.

    lBut the explanation about savings ratio doesn’t look like an explanation at all. It says people aren’t spending more because people aren’t spending more. Apologies if this seems rude, but this looks like an example of an economist saying nothing at all!

    Also, my impression is that the Eurozone has a major effect on the UIS economy – at least they say Obama is worried about Europe for exactly that reason – so the Eurozone explanation doesn’t seem to hold water either. Apologies again if I’ve misunderstood.

    On this basis the answer looks like the US is doing something right and we’re doing that thng wrong.

  • Richard Dean 22nd Jun '12 - 8:00pm

    down/up –> up/down ! (My name is TYPO!)

  • Robert Carruthers 22nd Jun '12 - 8:17pm

    @ Richard Dean
    “lBut the explanation about savings ratio doesn’t look like an explanation at all. It says people aren’t spending more because people aren’t spending more. Apologies if this seems rude, but this looks like an example of an economist saying nothing at all!”

    The savings ratio is a major explanation of why the UK economy is failing to grow. If you look at the charts contrasting the US private consumption trend versus that of the UK it is one of the main reasons why the two diverge. Clearly if money is put aside and not spent, that is going to hurt output in the economy, as it has a major negative impact on aggregate demand.

  • Robert Carruthers 22nd Jun '12 - 8:30pm

    @David Freeborn

    There are basically four sources of demand in the economy: consumer spending (C), private investment (I) , government spending (G) and net exports i.e. exports minus imports (X-M). In Keynesian economics the simplified equation is C + I + G +X-M = Y (Aggregate Demand)

    The Coalition’s hope was that while keeping G flat and with C in very slow growth (because consumers’ balance sheets are hopelessly overburdened with accumulated debt), that I and X-M would provide some growth. The sad truth is that the economy is even more bombed out than was understood in 2010. In fact, because of the higher than expected savings ratio, C is going sideways or declining, while I has fallen off a cliff and isn’t picking up and X-M, which was the only contributor to GDP growth in 2011, has now spluttered to a halt.

    You simply CANNOT assert that because the economy isn’t growing, that is all due to G. It does not make any sense and ignores the mechanisms at work in the rest of the economy.

  • David Freeborn 22nd Jun '12 - 8:39pm

    @Robert- I am aware that there are many possible factors: the economy is a complex system, so any linear model is going to be wholly inadequate. The fact remains that the rate of fiscal retrenchment must be a major factor. Looking at the economies across Europe, there’s a very close correlation between those countries that are cutting fastest and those that are growing slowly. The IMF study looked at 173 cases of large austerity programs, and came to the same conclusion.

    That’s not to say that they are necessarily wrong to be cutting that fast- some countries in the Eurozone have no choice if they want to stay in the single currency (and by and large, they do). But I don’t think you can deny that large scale fiscal retrenchment is going to hold back short term growth.

  • Richard Dean 22nd Jun '12 - 8:53pm

    @Robert Caruthers., It’s not a EXPLANATION, it’s a description of the same thing. Demand is low because demand is low. What you need for an explanation is a cause, a link, and an effect. Why are people saving? Are they breally saving, or are they paying back debt? Why aren’t the banks lendng?

    Y= C + I + G +X-M

    @David Freeborn. This seems to be the Keynesian IS model. It is in the first detailed chapter in my book on macroeconomics, and is part of the IS-LM model which applies in the short run and with some limitatons which seem to be associated with stabilty – so maybe it’s not really applicable in the present circumstances.. The book has 25 chapters. I am convinced that economic theory is wrong, and I am hoping to stay awake for all 25 so that I might then be able to defend my conviction!

  • Richard Dean 22nd Jun '12 - 8:55pm

    It’s also not just the numbers. Government can alter the rules, which can alter C, I, and indeed X-M!

  • “Incredibly, by cutting government spending more slowly, the US is cutting its deficit faster than the UK, by encouraging economic growth.”

    It’s not incredible though is it? Loads of economists like Krugman and Portes have been saying this stuff for years. They aren’t left wing radicals, just repeating what it says in the textbooks.

    But they get written off as radicals and irresponsible by Very Serious People like David Cameron, who uses incredibly deceitful, but simplistic, effective phrases like ‘you can’t borrow your way out of a debt crisis’.

    80 years of economic theory dismissed in one sentence! What a joke.

  • I love seeing equations on economics – it adds to the pretense that they know what is going on!

    Economics is in most part a social science and I do not think that anyone has managed to predict human behaviour since Asimov looked at amending the kinetic theory of gases in his Foundation novels!

    The C missing is confidence as that is what everything seems to be based on, and one persons confidence is another persons risk.

  • Robert Carruthers 23rd Jun '12 - 9:06am

    @ Richard Dean

    It IS an explanation. I’m not sure why you don’t see it . Demand is low because consumers, for their own reasons (balance sheet repair) are making a decision to take spending power out of circulation by saving more of their income rather than spending it. If there were to be a lower savings ratio, as there is in the US for example), then consumer spending and therefore GDP (= Demand) would be higher. Demand is low, but it could be higher. THAT is what I am saying. If I were saying demand is low because incomes are low, you might have a point, but I’m not saying that.

    As for saying that government has control over C and I and X-M, that is manifestly false. Don’t you think that if the government could make these elements grow painlessly it would go ahead and do just that. What exactly can the government do about consumer balance sheets being laden with £1.5 trillion of debt and exports failing to grow? It can’t tell consumers not to save and it can’t tell people in foreign countries to buy our exports.

    The sad thing is that Labour is making hay by telling people what they want to hear: that we can repair the public finances without making any real cuts to anything that matters. “Just spend lots of money and make the bad thing go away” is the cry. And the even sadder thing is that people posting here are actually buying into this electorally convenient mistruth because the reality is so unpalatable.


    I’ll agree that economics is a hazy science, simply because it is as if you were trying to do physics while the laws of nature are changing all the time. The rules of how economic agents like companies and consumers act are not fixed, so making predictions is very difficult indeed. But equations are necessary in order to have at least some conceptual grasp of what is going on and at least an approximate handle on the different elements acting on any one situation. They help us describe in outline at least and quantify what is going on. Therefore they do have a very clear function and purpose.

  • @Robert Carruthers Forgive me if I’m missing something on this savings issue, but isn’t it the case that the poorest are forced to spend a higher proportion of their income, unlike the richest who often hoard their wealth? You say the government can’t tell people to save, but if there was more distribution so that the lower deciles have more money in their pocket, wouldn’t they be far more likely to have to spend it in the real economy? Cutting the top rate 50p tax looks even stranger as a priority in this context.

  • Robert Carruthers 23rd Jun '12 - 10:32am

    @ Aaron

    I completely agree with you that, other things remaining equal, taxing the rich less is likely to increase the overall savings ratio, since the rich save more of their income. Cutting the 50p rate was never a priority for the Lib Dems and was forced on us by the Tories. I don’t think we should have conceded it. But there you are. The 50p rate was something bequeathed to us by Gordon Brown which he knew was a poisoned chalice. In return for that concession, we got a quicker increase in the personal allowance.

    However, in the larger scheme of things, a change of a couple of billion in taxation here or there is nothing when compared with changes in the savings ratio determined by other factors like changes in consumer optimism or pessimism (and hence in the savings ratio), which can suck tens of billions of pounds a year of spending power out of circulation in the economy in a very short period, as can other factors like oil price rises and financial crises on our doorstep, plus of course our broken banking system. Another problem we face is that, surprisingly, while unemployment has fallen, wage rises have been very, very weak, leading to declines in households’ real disposable income. This too is weighing on consumption. Meanwhile, companies, which are more profitable as the result of falling real wages, are hoarding the cash derived from this situation.

    My point is, there are very many factors apart from government fiscal policy which have equal if not greater impact on the performance of our economy, many of them not under the control of government policy. To focus solely on fiscal policy and ignore or downplay all the other factors is simply flying in the face of the facts.

  • Richard Dean 23rd Jun '12 - 11:08am

    A problem with economics seems to be that it’s not really about math at all, but about games! It’s truly a social science, not a hard algebraic one.

    The savings ratio looks to me like a DESCRIPTION of the choices people make about what to do with their money, It doesn’t lool like an explanation of WHY THEY CHOOSE do those things. Balance sheet repair could be one possible EXPLANATION.

    Government can INFLUENCE consumption, investinent, and imports/exports through, for example, taxation, grants, regulations, or financial market operations. A simple example is devaluation, which probably influences everything..

  • On myth #1 – nobody is suggesting that welfare payments and debt interest aren’t what’s causing a rise in spending – Stephen certainly doesn’t. Capital spending is not and hasn’t been included in the same figures. The deficit has grown – what we’re spending it on is another matter, but the IPPR report doesn’t challenge the idea that government spending has risen. If anyone says no social spending etc is falling, then that’s his or her foolishness. But Stephen’s point, that public spending has risen, is true.

    On myth #3 – read ‘Lessons from the 1930s’ by Centre Forum –

    or Metroboom by the CPS – both discuss the serious reductions in public spending made by the national government in the first half of the 1930s and the rewards reaped from doing so by 1934.

    In terms of the quote you used, I’m a little disappointed in its obvious selectivity. It’s from a portion of the research talking about the short term consequences of fiscal contraction. The much more balanced beginning of their conclusion reads:

    “The research described here shows that it is important to have realistic expectations about the short-term consequences of fiscal consolidation: it is likely to lower incomes—hitting wage-earners more than others—and raise unemployment, particularly long-term unemployment. These costs must be balanced against the potential longer-term benefits that consolidation can confer—such as reducing interest rates and lightening the burden of interest payments, permitting cuts to distortionary taxes (those that discourage desirable behavior).”

    In any case, with unemployment seemingly falling slowly, if we had such short-terms effects, surely we’re moving towards the medium term now?

  • Robert Carruthers 23rd Jun '12 - 12:28pm

    @ Richard

    Yes, on its own the savings ratio is just a number, but if you study economics, you will find there ARE plenty of very well established theories about why people save which seek to explain exactly the question you are posing. People save for a number of reasons, not just one and the weighting of the different reasons varies across societies and time periods, depending on economic circumstances. One thing we do know is that if people are worried about their economic future, they put more money by for a “rainy day” than they would otherwise as a precautionary measure.

    Yes, the government CAN influence the economy, but so can other much bigger factors, which often outweigh what the government is trying to do. You mention devaluation. That is a good example. The government (actually the Bank of England) can influence the exchange rate through things like QE, but other factors like US government policy or what is happening in the Eurozone can undo its actions. You might be rowing very fast, but if the river is in flood, you are going to get swept along in it, no matter how good an oarsman you are.

  • Richard Dean 23rd Jun '12 - 12:50pm


    I AM studying economics, though it has to take second foddle to actually working to improve my perosnal economics. I am reading “Macroeconomics – a European Perspective” which is endorsed by Charles Bean, who is described as Deputy Governor of the Bank of England. I am finding that the subject is full of rubbish. One rubbishy bit is the equation which relates consumption C to output Y and taxes T by:

    C = c0 + c1.(Y – T)

    This rubbishy equation leads to a definition of a thing called autonomous spending, and a multiplier1/(1-c1) which is the inverse of the marginal propsensity to save. But if people save for the reasons you describe, this multoplier doesn’t exist! And autonomous spending is described as something that is independent of output, but it includes government spending which is only independent of output of the government chooses that as a policy.

    My conclusion so far is that the theory of macreconomics is completely up the spout. My observations of the mess in the real world seems to confirm that too!

  • ‘Clearly, it’s too simplistic to say that the government’s cuts have caused the double dip recession (there are plenty of other factors, not least the Eurozone crisis)’

    Actually, David, I think you are saying that. You are just too polite to say so. Some of us have been saying it since the Government was formed, and adopted these policies. My hope is that Vince and others were never convinced, but felt they had to support Tory economic policies out of collective responsibilty, as they were outweighed by the Tories in Cabinet. My fear is that Tory economic policies appealed just nicely to Nick, who has always been on the right of the party, and that his personal ideology is helping to hold up a necessary move to reduce austerity and get the economy moving again.
    It is not the Eurozone crisis which is preventing most people from spending. It is real terms cuts in their wages and the threat of unemployment, which are much more immediate for the vast majority of folk. And it is having a knock-on effect in the private sector, which inevitably gets a very significant proportion of its business from the public sector or from individuals who happen to be employed in the public sector. A vicious circle of the Government’s own making. We are in a hole, and our Ministers really do need to tell the Tories to stop digging – publicly if they won’t listen.

  • Robert Carruthers 23rd Jun '12 - 4:47pm

    @ Terry

    “It is not the Eurozone crisis which is preventing most people from spending. It is real terms cuts in their wages ”

    And why have there been real terms cuts in wages? Mostly because of factors like high oil and international commodity prices e.g. wheat and other food items, which have nothing to do with government fiscal policy. Inflation has been much higher than expected, which is what has dented real output relative to money measures of GDP. And please don’t say it’s all due to the VAT rise, because it demonstrably isn’t – VAT fell out of the year on year inflation calculation back in February this year.

    Again, I’m not saying government cuts aren’t a factor alongside others, but you need to look at what else is going on to explain the current situation and not just blame everything on “Tory economic policies”.

  • Economics is principally a social science, but we need to be able to compare the costs and benefits of alternative policy options in quantative terms. To do so we need to be able to assign values to the components of a mathematical model representing the constituent parts of the economy and approximate the effect of changes in what is stochastic dynamic system.

    As Robert Carruthers notes above – there are basically four sources of demand in the economy: consumer spending (C), private investment (I) , government spending (G) and net exports i.e. exports minus imports (X-M). Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is expressed C + I + G +X-M.

    These sources of demand are sometimes referred to as income or stock flows. When we consider the balance sheet position of individuals, firms and governments we are considering the increase or decrease in stock flows.

    If, as has been occurring since 2008, individuals and firms are net saving (i.e. in real terms, saving or repaying existing debt faster than new debt is being created) than consumption and private investment will decline. Similarly if UK investment overseas declines relative to inward investment than over-time there will be decline in the balance of payments position.

    When individuals and firms are reducing their level of debt, the supply of credit money in the economy is reduced as demand is reduced. The only way to maintain the level of demand, while the private sector is deleveraging, is for the government to spend sufficient money into the economy to make up the shortfall. This cannot be done with QE to the banking system that is not lent on to individuals and firms. The government needs to be able to accommodate the desire of individuals and firms to save/repay debt by borrowing and spending itself until such time as the private sector is once again expending demand.

    The question we need to confront is should the government endeavour, in the short term, to maintain the level of demand in the economy that was created by a massive and unsustainable expansion of credit in the economy or should it allow an internal devaluation to occur that will reduce living standards and embed large-scale long-term unemployment in our economy. This is an intensely political question.

    My view accords with that of Jonathan Portes at NIESR The Chancellor accepts the logic of more government-financed investment :

    a) more investment, particularly in house-building and infrastructure, would be good for “private sector growth” – demand, output and employment in the private sector;
    b) given current policies, the private sector will not deliver this desired extra investment on its own;
    c) nor will monetary policy, conventional or unconventional;
    d) moreover, if the government intervenes to facilitate such extra investment the impact will not be offset by monetary policy (that is, the Bank of England will not tighten monetary policy in response because of concerns about inflation)
    e) if the government, via government guarantees, assumes some or all the risks associated with such investments (in particular that the direct cash returns on the investment will not be sufficient to repay the borrowing) these additional fiscal liabilities will have no adverse impact – either on gilt yields in the short-run or perceived fiscal sustainability in the long run.

  • Samuel Rushworth 7th Jul '12 - 9:20pm

    This article concludes that “we need to understand what is actually happening”. What this statement ignores is that two parties in the house do actually understand what is happening. Before the election, Nick Clegg said that savage cuts too early in the parliament would, quote: “pull the rug out from the under the economy”. Vince Cable likewise made it clear going into the electorate that deficit cutting had to be paced and set a timetable similar to Labour’s. Meanwhile, Labour – who were very upfront before the 2010 election about the need to make deep cuts – have been warning ever since that coalition cuts go, what’s the phrase they keep using? “To far and too fast”. They have never denied the need to cut, they have criticised the timetable.

    What this article appears to do is vindicate Labour’s economic policy – a policy which the Liberal Democratics once shared before the smelt a whif of power and sold their souls all for a botched referendum on AV and a bit of Lords Reform.

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