Tim Farron MP writes… This week could have been very different

Last weekend was the fifth anniversary of the day that Gordon Brown changed his mind at the last minute and didn’t call the widely anticipated 2007 autumn General Election. Given the remainder of his tenure it is easy for many of us to forget that following his succession to No. 10 Downing St, Gordon Brown did received a popularity bounce. Brown was 10% ahead in the polls, David Cameron was floundering following a difficult period as opposition leader, and of course the banking collapse of 2008 had not yet happened.

Given the situation at the time, Gordon Brown would most likely have won that election, not by much I’ll give you – but with a majority of 20-40 MPs, enough for him to retain power for the next five years.

In that parallel universe where Gordon Brown called and won the 2007 election, we would now – five years on – be in the midst of a general election campaign, pounding the pavements, delivering leaflets, putting up stakeboards, knocking on doors doing everything we can to win.

But what would the other parallel universe have looked like in terms of Government policies?

Well, for starters over the last 2 and a half years there would have been no Coalition Government and no Liberal Democrat ministers. The Labour Government would have forced through ID cards, costing the taxpayer £15billion and even more concerning, resulting in a real attack on our basic civil liberties. There would have been no significant pension rises, let alone the biggest pension rise in history delivered by the Liberal Democrats in Government. A like for like replacement for Trident would have been swiftly passed through parliament at the cost of over £100billion, which would have forced an additional £100billion in cuts to public services to pay for it. 28 day detention without trial would still be in place; child detention would never have been ended; and probably most relevant this week – Gary McKinnon would now be held on remand in a US prison having been extradited to face trial in the United States.

Gary McKinnon’s case is a clear example of how the Liberal Democrats are different and far more progressive than the Labour Party. While the Labour party may harp on about creating a ‘One Nation’ state, the attitude of the last Labour Government to the relationship with the United States suggests that they would prefer to be the 51st state of a completely different nation instead.

The negotiation of the one-sided 2004 extradition treaty with the US fits into the Labour pattern of slavish toadying to American neo-conservatives, with little concerns for the rights of their own citizens.

Do not get me wrong, I value our relationship with the United States and believe it is both significant and important to the UK; however I want to be a good friend to America, not a spineless lackey.

This week, Gary McKinnon and his mother Janis Sharp’s long fought battle ended in a well deserved victory and the Coalition Government demonstrated once and for all they we are prepared to stand up for our citizens and put their human rights above anything else.

So when we peer into the other parallel universe where 15 and a half years of authoritarian Labour government is about to end, its important that we celebrate the fact that in this universe, we have restored our civil liberties and made the tough decision to risk the wrath of our US allies in order to stand firm for the rights of our citizens.

* Tim Farron is Liberal Democrat Spokesperson on Agriculture and MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale.

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  • david thorpe 18th Oct '12 - 11:29am

    while this post is generally qquite good, and an excellent piece of rabble rousing-most of the things described by time would not have happened if-as he says-the labour majority was 30 or 40-as there are a siugnificant number of llabour backbenchers who would have coted against t he government and blocked some of the measures described

  • Richard Dean 18th Oct '12 - 11:42am

    With friendly respect, this article could also have been different . “Would have if” – but who can tell? Might Labour backbenchers have revolted over ID cards? Might penisons actually now be higher?

    A widespread feeling in the electorate seems to be that it doesn’t matter much who’s in government, you all have to face the same problems, your solutions are all more or less the same, most of you don’t admit it and apologize when yo’re wrong, and you’re all as bad as each other. Reality! Turnout! How?

    Maybe you’re doing the best you can, but many voters might agree: You need to do better.

  • Bill le Breton 18th Oct '12 - 12:15pm

    In this counter-factual we would not have had accelerated deficit reduction. We would have had a continuation of the 2010 Darling Budget (which is the economic policy we actually fought the 2010 election under) not the June 2010 Coalition budget that wrecked the recovery and is now totally discredited. The deficit would actually be lower now AND the national debt.

    Q3 of 2010 had nominal GDP back at nearly 5% – its long term trend. Factor in a small reduction for a fall off in demand from Europe and we may have had the kind of recovery predicted at that time; gradual but consistent – and consistent with the recoveries obtained by other currency issuers .

    That means real GDP would today be about 3 or 4% higher than it is – that’s a lot of tax revenue for the Exchequer, a lot of income per capita – probably higher interest rates by now for savers/pensioners.

  • @Bill le Breton
    In this counter-factual we would not have had accelerated deficit reduction. We would have had a continuation of the 2010 Darling Budget (which is the economic policy we actually fought the 2010 election under) not the June 2010 Coalition budget that wrecked the recovery and is now totally discredited. The deficit would actually be lower now AND the national debt. Q3 of 2010 had nominal GDP back at nearly 5% – its long term trend.

    No, no, no, and NO again. I can’t express how erroneous this comment is and how angry the assertions behind it make me. Your fictional account of what would have happened under a Darling budget is simply wrong. To say that the Coalition budget “wrecked the recovery” is quite frankly nonsensical when you look at the actual figures.

    As the recent OBR report made out very, very clearly (I suggest you read it so you understand what has actually happened since 2010), the reason for economic underperformance has very little to do with government spending and cuts and everything to do with high oil and commodity prices, which cut real consumer spending power, as well as the Eurozone crisis, which has hit both exports and investment.

    If Gordon Brown were in power now, the economy would still be flat because the main motors of growth or lack of them would still be fundamentally the same. Government spending would be a few billion higher, but in the context of an economy worth trilions, that would make virtually no difference. There would be the same lack of consumer spending growth as spending power was eroded by high oil and food prices and people chose to save to make up for the £1.5 trillion of debt accumulated before 2008. Exports would still be tanking as would investment, both because of the Eurozone crisis.

    The difference would be that Labour, having secured a percentage of the vote in the high 30s in 2007, would now be around 20% as they were forced to implement virtually all the same cuts as the Coalition and were in total disarray about the lack of economic growth and the impact austerity was having on their client voting base. Meanwhile, the Lib Dems would be soaring at over 30% as we made hay while the sun shone, on the back of Labour’s unpopularity. Unfortunately, the Conservatives would be making even greater capital and because of FPTP would probably win an outright majority on the back of it.

  • @Bill le Breton, “a lot of tax revenue” maybe, but spent on ID cards.

  • @ Bill le Breton

    Please kindly read the OBR report (link below) which explains very clearly why growth has disappointed expectations in 2010. It amounts to subtle and entirely factual broadside to the Ed Balls “nasty Coalition stole our recovery” theory.


    While it mentions the possibility of a higher than expected multiplier for budget cuts as being one factor for growth being disappointing, it provides very clear explanation as to why other factors are much more likely to have been more important.

  • Bill le Breton 18th Oct '12 - 3:40pm

    RC, no one is denying that price rises on commodities and fuel in particular, and more profound difficulties in Europe had its effect, but so did the erroneous view of the effects of more rapid deficit consolidation held by, yes the OBR, but also those politicians and political economists attracted not, so much by the economic rationale of the policy, but its political appeal.

    And people in this party warned that it would – and were mocked and ridiculed (at the time and even as recently as our Conference).

    If ministers had probed the advice of the OBR, they would have seen it was based on work by the IMF and if they had probed that work they would have seen that the IMF was basing its predictions on multipliers on one sketchy piece of work that has now been shown to be negligent.

    That is not how you run a country wisely. Reading your contributions here I don’t get the impression that you, had you been in the negotiations in May 2010 or in the pre- budget meetings of the Quad thereafter, would have taken so much on trust without testing the advice to destruction. When advice comes that, deep down, you want to hear, that’s when it’s most dangerous.

    In sport you learn to worry about what you can control not what you can’t. Here’s what was ultimately in the Quad’s hands but which it failed to do over the last two and a half years: It didn’t worry enough about the speed of consolidation and it has cost this country dear; expansionary fiscal contract was obviously fool’s gold. It didn’t insist on temporary and compensatory loosening of monetary policy as those commodity price rises hit us with the resulting hit on output. It didn’t consider that those carrying out Plan A would front load capital cuts (although anyone who had had a couple of years in local government would have known that would happen). And finally it didn’t alter both monetary and fiscal policy as the situation in Europe deteriorated.

    Why? Because the Quad and its acolytes were politically trapped on the fiscal consolidation/testosterone hook.

    It is perfectly possible to come to these conclusion without the aid of Ed Balls. A stopped clock is right twice a day. I don’t think his remedy is anywhere near radical enough as it too is restrained by the political rather than the economic situation.

    What does matters is that our team recognizes the mistakes in economic policy and changes that policy in the light of new facts and recent experience.

  • Alex Sabine 18th Oct '12 - 5:19pm

    Without getting drawn into the debate about the pace of deficit reduction just now, I think it’s worth rebutting one claim that is ritualistically made by opponents of the coalition’s fiscal stance: that spending on benefits is rising because of austerity-driven economic contraction and rising unemployment.

    Firstly, unemployment is falling not rising; and secondly, the main reason for the higher benefits bill was the decision to uprate a wide range of benefits by a full 5.2% (the atypically high September 2011 inflation rate) even though wages were rising much more slowly.

    Whether this was wise or unwise, it was a policy decision and not the consequence of higher unemployment resulting from austerity. It’s a bit rich to claim this policy as a Lib Dem ‘victory’ and then cite the higher benefit spending that was its direct consequence as straightforward proof of the failure of Plan A.

  • @ Bill le Breton

    Have you read the OBR report yet? This quantifies why growth has been disappointing relative to expectations, and it is not because of policy “mistakes” as you label them. It is because of factors affecting consumption, investment and net exports that are beyond the government’s control and could not have been predicted.

    The OBR report is a factual account of what has happened since 2010 relative to its forecasts. While you can argue about how the facts are interpreted, the facts themselves are there for all to see. And they do NOT support your counterfactual argument that had we cut a tiny amount less as planned by Darling that the economy would be on a rosy, sunny growth path.

  • @ Bill le Breton

    “No one is denying that price rises on commodities and fuel in particular, and more profound difficulties in Europe had its effect, but so did the erroneous view of the effects of more rapid deficit consolidation”

    The whole point of the OBR report is that it quantifies how much more important the first two factors were in causing disappointing GDP figures than was deficit consolidation i.e. a lot more. You may want to keep on asserting the opposite because of some deep down, gut instinct about not liking government spending cuts (few of us do), but the facts simply do not back up your argument.

  • Bill le Breton 18th Oct '12 - 7:06pm

    Even the OBR with its trousers round its ankles admits in the report you refer to: “Cannot exclude possibility that fiscal consolidation hit growth harder than thought”. You can see that cannot exclude being uttered through clenched teeth.

    You raise the issues of rising commodity/fuel prices and the Europe.

    Both of these required further loosening of monetary policy and a reconsideration of the pace of fiscal consolidation – it didn’t happen.

    Why? Because our leaders are hopelessly hooked on the need to paint Labour’s fiscal policy when in office as wrong and to cling on to Plan A for fear of having to admit they were wrong.

    Finally, there is mounting evidence that the size of the output gap may be much much larger than previously thought, necessitating much, much lower cuts.

    Was it not you who wrote recently, ‘Accepting the premise that there is a “crisis” that requires a general panic and new rounds of cuts and tax rises to meet an arbitrary target is to allow the Tories to railroad us into a political agenda that is all their own.’?

  • Stuart Mitchell 18th Oct '12 - 7:17pm

    This article is make-believe. Just one example: nobody can possibly say whether a Labour home secretary, presented with the same evidence Theresa May was, would have come to a different decision on McKinnon. If saving him from extradition was so inevitable under the coalition, why has it taken two and a half years to achieve? If 28-day detention is so beyond the pale, why does it linger on in an emergecy bill May keeps in her handbag, ready to be reactivated at a moment’s notice? If the coalition has ended child detention, why do many Lib Dem contributors to these pages keep telling us that child detention has not ended?

  • david thorpe 18th Oct '12 - 9:54pm

    @ stuart mitchell the labour home secretary would likely have been alan johnson who made clear he would have extradited mckinnon

  • david thorpe 18th Oct '12 - 9:58pm

    the idea the the lib dems fought the election pon the same budget as alisatir daRLING IS JUST SO STAGGERINGLY WRONG i CAN ONLY IMAGINE THE person who wrote it knows its wropng and was trying to be provocagive-darlings budget contained slightly mroe spending-but it wasnt stimulus psneding-it was spending on pet projects like ID cards which have no economic utility-darlings budget also made no mention of taking lower earners out of tax which is a demonstrable stimulus to the economy-and all the evidnece from across the globe is that the recovery was wrecked by the eurozone crisi, iin my day job I hear government officials in asia, australi, the united states saying the eurozone is hamepring their growth prospects the idea that it hasnt impacted on britian is therefore ludicrous

  • Bill le Breton 19th Oct '12 - 9:13am

    David, my writing may have been sloppy but I think it is generally accepted that in our 2010 manifesto our overall policies for deficit reduction were in line with the March 2010, Darling, Budget.

    Indeed here is what the Party told the Institute for Fiscal Studies in April 2010: “But the Liberal Democrats tell us that this promise to ‘at a minimum, halve the deficit’ should be taken as shorthand for matching the deficit reduction path set out in the Budget. So, overall, they are no more or less ambitious than the Government.”

    Of course our policy for taking more low earners out of tax was a considerable achievement, but this was overshadowed by our decision to accelerate the pace of deficit reduction.

    Many of these low earners are now earning less in both real and nominal terms than they were in 2010, because of the second dip which has completely nullified the gain from the tax change.

    RC above would argue that in May 2010 we could not foresee the extent of the rebound in commodity prices or, as you too infer, the impact of the extent of Europe’s downturn.

    But with no sign of domestic inflation, the commodity price rises should have been accommodated by further monetary loosening. This would also have slowed the appreciation of our currency and helped our exporters. Cable in his interview with Will Hutton warned that such an appreciation might damage the recovery and was a powerful reason for adopting NGDP targeting, level targeting, which would have resulted in increased monetary stimulus in these conditions.

    Accepting the Conservative spending plans in the negotiations has seriously weakened the UK. By seeking to criticise Labour’s economic management we have cut ourselves (and the people of the UK) off from the fiscal and monetary policies that are necessary.

    The recent paper by Capital Economics which you will no doubt have read and which is gaining considerable attention concludes that if the output gap is indeed much larger than forecast by the OBR then both fiscal and monetary policy is too tight.

    Cuts are now more to do with ideology and political reputation than they are to economics.

  • Absolutely agree with Bill’s political analysis here. We have probably lost more electoral support from joining with the Tories to criticise Labour’s economic policy than we have from the cuts themselves (so far, anyway). We may want to criticise the things Labour wanted to spend on, but we should have acknowledged that Labour’s economic policy might be closer to ours (and I am not thinking about splitting the difference in a “centrist” approach here!)

  • Jack Bovill 19th Oct '12 - 9:40am

    I wish Mr Farron would not, along with another host of leading LibDemers, keep repeat the false claim that the LibDem faction of the Coalition delivered the largest ever increase in Pensions – quite the contrary – the increase of 5.2% was geared to the inflation rate in September 2011. There was no largesse. This was the increase to meet the inflation in the system. It may be less this year, but the minimum is 2.5%. No generosity can be detected. Just fear of the older voter.

  • Tim says ‘The Labour Government would have forced through ID cards, costing the taxpayer £15billion ‘ To be fair to Labour I thought that the cost of those useless bits of plastic would have been a mere £ 5 billion. No doubt they would have spent the difference on a new war – Iran being the likely candidate. They certainly wouldn’t have spent it on narrowing the gap between rich and poor as that got wider under 13 years of Labour majority Government!

  • We wouldn’t have had the Tory VAT bombshell (which Lib Dems campaigned against and then brought in), a tax which disproportionately hits the poorest in society.

  • Stuart Mitchell 19th Oct '12 - 6:45pm

    “The Labour Government would have forced through ID cards, costing the taxpayer £15billion”

    Rilly? So how come the new coalition government told us back in May 2010 that scrapping the scheme would only save taxpayers £86m over four years?


    There was talk of a further £800m saved over ten years in “running costs”, but these were the fees that people would have (voluntarily) forked out for the cards, so this does not represent a saving for the government,

    I know the Lib Dems like to over-inflate their achievements in government, but claiming a saving of £15bn when they told us it would only be £86m is taking things way too far.

  • Daniel Henry 20th Oct '12 - 10:40am

    Slight correction to the article – before the coalition, we didn’t have the triple lock but pensions still rose with inflation. Infact, it was liked to the higher RPI index rather than the lower CPI index that the coalition changed it to.

    So pension rises may well have been higher under Labour.

    The triple lock won’t show any real benefits until inflation falls below average earnings or 2.5%

  • back to the counterfactual history…

    Had Brown called a GE in 07 and gained a relatively small but workable majority of 20-40 MPs things would certainly look very different now.

    Firstly, the financial crisis of 08 would still have happened, and the subsequent collapse in GDP would not have been averted – but crucially the Darling Plan for deficit reduction would not have seen the light of day as Labour continued with their long-term strategy of inflating away debt.

    In 2010 increases in private sector unemployment erode Brown’s majority and precipitate a challenge to his leadership. A vitriolic campaign creates a split in Labour, with both sides eventually calling a ceasefire based on a formal coalition agreement between the Blairites and Brownites. Only Ed Miliband is capable of unifying the two camps represented by his brother David and his close ally Ed Balls – he replaces Brown to become PM.

    Amidst accusations of dithering and weak leadership both sides feel they’re being undermined at every turn by the other, but are satisfied with their prospects of hanging onto power given the failure of the Cameron project and the tory inability to paper over their internal splits while on the opposition benches. Labour triumphally claim they are now the only ‘one nation’ party.

    Continuing turmoil in Europe leads to growing anti-EU sentiment, but backbiting on the left leads to continual speculation about a referendum which never come to fruition and the crisis drags on while Britain sits on the sidelines.

    Unemployment and street protests spread across the continent as millions of homeless immgrants make their way to the safe havens in north-western Europe, while newly politicised radical movements spring up blaming each other for increasing levels of terrorist and state violence. ID cards are celebrated as an essential tool for rounding up anti-state groups, while relief grows that an early decision was made on TridentII as the last deterrent against invasion.

    Southern European nations fall into chaos and technocratic leaders are imposed either without elections or via a succession of coups d’etats. International peace-keeping forces from USA, China and Russia are deployed in separate command structures, creating international friction when units begin acting independently and taking sides during the Arab Spring… world war ensues after the assassination of a leading proponent for peace…

    Piecing together the fragmentary reports a century later, nobody is certain which side initiated the countdown to devastation in 20, 19…

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