Opinion: We were prudent in opposition – time for Labour to follow our lead

Labour have refused to provide any detailed alternative to the Coalition’s tax and spending plans. They have also implied that during their recent period in government that nobody challenged their irresponsible tax and spending plans. This is simply a lie. Not only did the IFS explain their irresponsibility as far back as 2003 [PDF], but so did the Liberal Democrats.

There’s an easy way to test how responsible we were while we were in opposition. Every year since 1992 the Liberal Democrats have produced an Alternative Budget setting out our alternative to the government’s tax and spending plans, as well as fully costed manifestos in each election.

These Alternative Budgets show that in every year from 2001 onwards, our tax and spending plans led to a smaller deficit than Labour planned. In the most recent General Election [PDF] our plans were for a cut in the deficit of over £8bn a year above Labour plans. In the 2005 General Election we were planning to cut the deficit by £5bn a year. Even back as far as 2001 we were planning to cut the deficit by hundreds of millions of pounds a year. All of this was in a political climate dominated by Labour’s claims that Gordon Brown was fiscally responsible, when there was no political pressure for the Liberal Democrats to be as responsible as we were.

It’s easy to say that you are going to cut the deficit in principle. What’s difficult is to have the courage to make the difficult decisions to cut spending, avoid populist promises and, where necessary, increase taxes. If Labour are against all the cuts, then they should explain how they will pay for their spending spree. If they are in favour of some of the cuts, then it’s time they told us which ones.

Rob Blackie was the party’s Director of Research from 2003-2005 and was heavily involved in writing every Alternative Budget from 2000 – 2005, and in costing the 2001 and 2005 General Election manifestos. He has been active in London politics for 11 years, including running the only campaign to win a council seat from third place in London in 2010. Rob writes a blog on e-campaigning at www.rob-blackie.blogspot.com.

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  • Unlike the Lib Dems, Labour does not believe in making promises in Opposition that you don’t intend to keep once in government.

  • @Dan – but Labour ARE making promises – cutting half the deficit in the parliament. How?

  • Dan kind of missed the point there…

  • Nick Clegg: “Liberal Democrats have costed, in full, our proposals for tax cuts. We can tell you, penny for penny, pound for pound, who pays for them. We will not have to raise VAT to deliver our promises. The Conservatives will. Let me repeat that: Our plans do not require a rise in VAT. The Tory plans do.”
    “Their tax promises on marriage and jobs may sound appealing. But they come with a secret VAT bombshell close behind.

    “So if you’re on an ordinary income, you have a choice. If you want your taxes to rise: vote Labour or Conservative. If you want your taxes to fall: choose the Liberal Democrats.” ”


    You don’t even realise, do you?

  • First thing to say, post HE fees, I don’t think the Lib Dems are in any position to talk about reckless, ‘populist promises.’

    Second, Lib Dems were in opposition, they were not The Opposition. Does it make a difference? Perhaps not but there is a difference in the sense that it is easier to come up with plans that are unlikely ever to have to be implemented in full. Indeed, in the election campaign, it certainly appeared that Clegg and Cable were for a slower pace of deficit reduction, audited or not.

    But third, I think that this is slightly missing the point. Labour can say what it wants to. We are now almost a year into the Coalition and the economic figures, including on the deficit do not look too rosy. Saying, ‘look at the other parties,’ is what oppositions, not governments do. Ed Milliband’s shout of hurting, but not working are hollow at the moment. 12 months down the line, that is an attack that could do some real damage.

    There are arguments – very good arguments – to be had about the nature of opposition and indeed manifestos more widely. But this is skating a bit close to, ‘how dare the opposition oppose.’

  • LondonLiberal 4th Apr '11 - 4:53pm

    @ g

    You have missed the point, old chap. OUR plans didn’t require a rise in VAT, as they sought to pay off the deficit less quickly than the Tories. However, as we have a Tory Chancellor and, oh, what’s this, a Tory Prime Minister and a largely Tory Government, we don’t get to write all the tax and spend policy, just a bit of it (like less tax for low earners and more tax on capital gains income).

    Trying to suggest that the libdems broke a priomise about what they would do if they formed a government on their own because they’re a junior partner in an essentially Tory government is comparing apples and oranges. They’re not the same!

    You’ll have to do better than that. Come back when you have an argument.

  • LondonLiberal, your MPs voted for the budget despite your leader telling voters that a vote for the Lib Dems was a vote against a ‘VAT Bombshell’. Whether or not the Tories dominate the coalition is irrelevant to your MPs being elected on manifesto promises they have not upheld, and have in fact done the complete opposite.

    I think you’re really missing the point here that parties are judged by what they do, not by what they say they will do.

  • @g – coalition means we simply cannot oppose everything even if we wanted to. Also, confidence and supply wouldn’t have allowed us to object to this. So still the best option.

  • I actually think this is a good start. However, it not just the alternative budgets tha need to be addressed but also other promises / oppositions made during the period. A truly independant body assessing these facts for all three main parties would give a true picture of where we could have been.

    The problem is that it would need to be honest. In truth the Lib Dems and Tories were not screaming for more regulation of the banking system and the truth is all three would have been in a similar position regarding the banking crisis.

    I believe the country would be in a better position were the Lib Dem proposals to have been followed during the Labour years. However, I do not believe that the current position is entirely down to Labour (or at least would not have been entirely avoided) and doing an honest assessment would mean accepting this.

  • Chris Riley 4th Apr '11 - 5:29pm

    Rob, is that IFS report supposed to be some kind of bombshell? Is that the worst criticism you can find of Brown’s Chancellorship?

    At a time when, almost uniquely amongst Western economies we had dodged a small but sharp recession (something the IFS mentioned), the IFS and the PBR had a difference of opinion about how a world recovery might impinge on the national finances and the medium-term implications that might have for future tax policy? Or are you suggesting that the major mistake that Brown made post-2005 was to reduce income tax (I’d agree with you there, but it has interesting implications for future Coalition policy).

    Compared to the ongoing IFS criticism of current Government policy, that IFS report is almost valedictory. Is this the right document? I really think you’re making a desperately weak case.

  • “Even back as far as 2001 we were planning to cut the deficit by hundreds of millions of pounds a year.”

    There wasn’t a deficit in 2001, so how were you planning to cut something that didn’t exist? Brown ran surpluses for the first four years (in 2001 the surplus was just under 20 billion) reducing the national debt from 41.7% of GDP at the end of 1997 to 30.9% of GDP at the end of 2001 (and if you want to get the current level of debt in proportion then look at http://www.ukpublicspending.co.uk/uk_national_debt_chart.html)

  • @steve – he is obv referring to 2001/2 financial year, not 2000/1. There was a deficit in this year, and onwards.

  • Labour gooooood, Nick Clegg baaaaad.

  • an angry voter 5th Apr '11 - 10:52am

    @Ivan – Labour can simply oppose. I just don’t think it’s responsible – not least because an irresponsible opposition doesn’t encourage responsible good government.

    And its responsible to make promises, intended to be broken

  • LondonLiberal 5th Apr '11 - 2:02pm

    “LondonLiberal, your MPs voted for the budget despite your leader telling voters that a vote for the Lib Dems was a vote against a ‘VAT Bombshell’. Whether or not the Tories dominate the coalition is irrelevant to your MPs being elected on manifesto promises they have not upheld, and have in fact done the complete opposite. ”

    Actually, whether the Tories dominiate the coalition is entirely relevant to what we do. let me explain it like this. The Tory part of the coalition is doing plenty we campaigned against. but you know what? those terrible policies got 4m more votes than we did. and that lead gave the tories the right to try to form a government. where possible, we have tried to limit their worst excesses, but the bottom line, however much it may displease you, the tories got more votes and seats than anyone else last May. if you don’t like what they’re doing, campaign against them, as i and others will be doing in 2015. if the libdems in parliament opposed everything we had campaigned against in opposition, nothing would happen. Why? Because the Tories would then vote against everything they campaigned against of ours, and there’d be stalemate. that’s the nature of coalitions. compromise. horrible compromise. but with libdem policies implemented for the first time in 60 years, so there are upsides.

  • @Rob Blackie

    This is hilarious, we LibDems sit around discussing the coalition and it’s workings, and how Labour ought to be in opposition. However, former voters don’t care about these things they’re just very unhappy because they believe they’ve been lied to by Clegg and Cable.

    I think rather than try to get Labour into a shape we like, we should actually spend some time looking at ourselves and where we’ve gone wrong. We’re the ones that are totally out of touch – offering an isolated tax cuts at the same time that people are getting hit for hundreds of pounds or losing their jobs altogether.

    What about this ‘social mobility strategy’? We’re in the process of being hammered over Higher Education (fees, etc), the withdrawal of EMAs, stupid free schools for people like Toby Young (because he’s angry with his parents), benefits cuts left right and centre, etc, etc.

    Clegg really is on a different planet is he a masochist or something?

  • LondonLiberal 5th Apr '11 - 4:22pm

    @Ivan White

    Sigh. All those policies you list were our policies going into the election. but WE DIDN’T WIN, so compromises have to be made. I would have loved to have seen Labour win, simply to watch it contrort itself into implementing AV – a manifesto commitment that self evidently most Labour MPs didn’t believe in and therefore lied to the elctorate about when running for election. I’m not going to list all the things the libs have done fromt heir manifesto, look at the guardian’s ‘pledge tracker’ for that.

    let’s unpick your other assertion, because it is commonly made.
    “the Lib Dems could, with Labour, have prevented them from implementing measures of which Thatcher could only have dreamed”
    True. we would have made a high price for a coalition, like, say, full PR. The Tories woudln’t have been able to agree to that and we could have sat on the sidelines and carped. A minority Tory govt would probably have staggered on for six months, doing nothing controversial and not being able to tackle the deficit as there would have been no parliamentary support for the measures needed. They would then have called an election, probably in october, where they would have won a handsome majority as people flocked away from the libs to vote for a party of ‘strong’ government, having read six months’ worth of the Tory press viciously attacking the libdems for their cowardice and hypocrisy (damned if you do…). You would have had a decimated libdem party, a worse economic situation as the markets punished us for indecisions and a majority tory govt doing much worse things than the current one. Which of those two options would you have preferred?

    “those who don’t have no realistic alternative other than to vote Labour” – except in seats where labour don’t exist, like most of southwest england, and almost every libdem/tory marginal. one out of three voters had the chance to vote labour or tory in may last year and chose not to. who are you to deny those people the opportunity to express their preferences. The more i think about your comment, actually, the more i realise how terrifying it is. I’ve never heard anything so outrageous – you are deciding that people can only vote for one of two parties. Who are you to tell people that? Who are you to decide how the rest of us express ourselves at the ballot box? AV allows you to vote labour or tory if you want and if they’re standing in your seat – but it also allows you to express support for the green, libdem, socialist or whoever if you want them to win. Your arrogance is shocking.

  • @LondonLiberal

    I think the point Ivan was trying to make, and @Ivan correct me if I’m wrong, is that the lib-dems are indestinguishable from the Conservatives at this time.

    You have the Nick Clegg \ David Cameron twin act, both using the same catchphrases and soundbites and supporting and propounding the same policies with reference to coalition policy.

    Where does one Start and the other end? To me they are both cut from the same “blue” cloth. I certainly can’t distinguish politically between them anymore.

    I think we will only have a clue whats happening in a months time regards to how the masses think, but I fear it will be a day of reckoning for the lib-dems as a political force in local government.

    I may not support the party anymore, but i’d rather take a lib-dem council than a conservative \ UKIP one.

  • “Labour have refused to provide any detailed alternative to the Coalition’s tax and spending plans”

    Rob Blackie. Labour has not provided any alternative, but the TUC has:-

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