UK democracy is a rotten borough – Liberal Democrats must act like it

Results from the largest opinion poll since that slightly odd one in 2016 are in, and what a surprise: Brexit negotiations have not convinced people that the sunny uplands are just over the brow of this particular Everest.

Instead, there is a definite shift in public views: an eight-point majority for Remain in Survation’s 20,000-person poll (54-46). More interesting was the map showing the extent of the change; Leave-loving Wales is now Remain, while ‘Labour Leave’ constituencies in the north of England have also seen the light – or the lights going out.

As is so often the case, there were immediate redoubled calls for a People’s Vote from Remainer politicians.

I am technically in favour of a new vote. I marched for one in London two weeks ago. The last time I marched, it was against the Iraq war; a simple choice. However, this time, I marched not because I thought another referendum was the right policy, but because nothing better is on offer.

The problem is that our democracy is more broken than that campaign recognises. Also, a new plebiscite may only demonstrate that brokenness in greater detail.

I believe there is sufficient evidence of proven illegality and electoral offences to demand a halt to Brexit. There is also the ICO report which proves data crimes by Arron Banks’ companies and embarrasses the Lib Dems. Moreover, investigations are focusing on the dark money that enabled the UK’s largest ever political donation.

It is not enough in that context to demand a new referendum under the same conditions. So what should we do?

We should revoke Article 50 and allow the Banks investigations to be completed. We should demand a full inquiry into the 2016 referendum, with powers to make recommendations on systemic reform. We should commit to a full parliamentary response to those recommendations, including action on the most pressing. We should give real consideration to reports and recommendations from the DCMS Committee inquiry, led by Damian Collins, that has helped to reveal so much of this broken system. We should fund the kind of public interest journalism that has tenaciously and bravely exposed corruption and dark money.

Finally, we should commit to offering a new referendum when all of this is complete.

I prefer to offer a choice between an agreed government position, no deal, and the option to Remain. Further options could be added, of course, if AV were used. Why restrict the choice?

This set of measures is unlikely ever to happen. However, it is a comprehensive response to the current crisis. It is internally consistent and in line with our party’s values, avoiding the illogic of calling for another vote under the same inadequate conditions as the 2016 vote.

I am told we should demand better. It is time to outflank the People’s Vote campaign and inject some urgency. It is time to restore our democracy.

* Tom King is a Liberal Democrat member and activist. He has worked for Liberal Democrat MPs and served on three policy working groups. He is the author of The Generous Society.

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This entry was posted in News and Op-eds.


  • William Fowler 7th Nov '18 - 11:09am

    On the other hand, lowered taxes may have got the management all revved up and building more houses than they otherwise would have, not to mention making a killing before Labour get in and make such activity hardly worth the effort.

    Certainly agree that someone earning 75 million should be audited to make sure they are handing over the 30-odd million that the tax system should be getting out of them.

  • Innocent Bystander 7th Nov '18 - 1:46pm

    54% is nothing like enough. Not even close. The political class (in both major parties) is astute and this figure says “keep fudging along without apparently favouring one side or the other”.
    It would need to be 65%+ to get one of them suddenly to say “I agree with Nick”.
    All that “dark money” stuff clearly burns you up but for the great mass of the public it is just technicalities, irregularities and the stuff that politicians do. Not a single one would concede that they were duped into a mistaken vote and to suggest they were is an insult to their intelligence.
    700,000 marched for a second referendum. That just leaves 65,200,000 who didn’t. I agree with David. The party has become consumed and obsessed by one issue with no voice on any other.
    It looks more and more like some ‘deal’ (of course, worse than what we had) will get cobbled together and no chance of a second referendum at all (with only 54% after two years campaigning). What will the stance of the party be next March? Just a big sulk? Or some ideas to make the best of whatever it is? Which will the public prefer?

  • Bless and Nigel got 1200 to march with him. As to the party being consumed and obsessed well let us see what government has been doing.

    Exclusive: Meetings of Theresa May’s National Security Council were repeatedly put on hold because the government became “consumed” by Brexit, the prime minister’s former national security adviser tells Business Insider.
    Sir Mark Lyall Grant tells BI that May’s attempts to forge a new “global Britain” are stalling because of the all-consuming nature of Britain’s exit from the EU.
    “Meetings were cancelled at the last minute because there had to be another meeting on Brexit,” he said.

    If the government can’t even make time for “National Security Council ” meetings it is a bit rich to cry the party is obsessed. Brexit consumes all. It has paralysed government since the vote. The fact that Brexiteers don’t understand what they voted for, which was for Brexit to consume all reflects badly on them not the people who warned them “Don’t open the box, no good will come out of it”. I know why you have to pretend Brexit isn’t much, because if you actually owned up to the decision and the consequences that flow from it you have made your whole self-worth flies out of the window.

  • I know Brexiteers like to avoid responsibility but it is worth looking at the comments in this article.

    Barden Corporation to close Plymouth factory with loss of 400 jobs – because of Brexit

    Such comments as

    Here we go again with the sensationalism and subsequent bleating from the puny brains. This has f*** all to do with Brexit and all you doom mongers need to provide a concise argument against leaving the EU instead of dishing out ill-informed blither.

    So a Brexiteer is told Brexit has had an effect but no this cannot be it is to do with all us “doom mongers”. I suspect many a Brexiteer will take a similar approach to a fact free response. The sad thing is 400 people have lost their jobs because Brexiteers know better and don’t need such luxuries as facts.

    The cost will wrack up, The Brexiteers will deflect and lie because the truth they made a bad decision is not something they can ever accept.

  • Tahir Maher Tahir Maher 7th Nov '18 - 5:00pm

    Please tone down your language if you want this Comment to be published.

  • Joe,
    The optimal tax rate is that, that gives us a functioning society. If our government chooses to force the poor into destitution to save a few pennies on the tax rate of the rich, well they will reap a bitter harvest and so will we all. You get what you pay for Joe, don’t pay for the services that make a society function and it won’t. It appears to me that economists know the theory of money but don’t have a clue about the feels of humanity.

  • David Raw,

    the Liberal Democrats prides itself on evidenced based policy. The most authoritative source of evidence we have for how the UK tax system may best be reformed is the Mirrlees review. Like all economists that have spent their careers studying these matters they have come to an empirically based understanding of what is effective in delivering social justice and what is not. Mirrlees himself began his studies assuming that higher rates of income tax would be the key to alleviating poverty ,but when the evidence showed otherwise, he put his initial bias aside. Progressive income tax has its place but only up to a point where it becomes self-defeating.

    The whole raison d’etre of land value tax is to tackle poverty and inequality at its source. It is tackling the underlying causes of inequality not putting yet another sticking plaster on a gaping wound, Punitive taxes on higher earners may salve the consciences of some folk but it is the politics of class division not Liberalism.

    Taxation based on economic rents does mean higher taxes on the wealthiest in society and higher taxes on companies making super-profits. It is simply a matter of being smarter about how that is achieved, neither damaging economic growth or investment in the process and not trying to go back to the failed policies of the 1970s when income tax rates reached 98% on investment income. It is those policies that belong in the dustbin of history.

    Leave the misplaced Idealism to the champagne socialists riding the coat tails of the politics of envy. I want to see a party that understands what it is doing and can deliver real change across society.

  • “Instead of diddling about with a theoretical land taxation, Lib Dems ought to demand massive income tax increases on such as Mr Fairburn’s £ 75 million” – he can only make that because we don’t tax land. It is, to all intents and purposes, *all* rent (in his case, of land) just as most high incomes are nearly all rent of some kind – if not land, then financial privileges, intellectual property privileges and so on.

    There is nothing “diddling” about land taxation. It is the single most important change we could make to finally consign the legacy of feudalism to the dustbin in this country and start returning the full product of labour to labour and a just interest on capital to investors (as opposed to financiers). That one policy would solve at a stroke (preferably with a dividend of some kind to everyone) many of the problems that we are told made some people vote leave: housing costs and supply, a feeling that some areas so not receive a just proportion of the rewards of national economic success, even the distrust of immigrants and their supposed effects on jobs and services, the imbalance in the economy toward both the FRE sectors and the South East of England, and the endless meddling by politicians in the name of the “greater good” but perennially screwing things up even by their own measures.

    And even Tory advisors, well Paul Collier at least, are now saying it is urgent!

  • Lorenzo Cherin 8th Nov '18 - 1:48pm

    David Raw

    As ever you speak for your passion for the poor. But a ever you are complacent and unkind to this party. Sir Vince opposed the tax threshold advantage in the budget which the well off but not super rich would get, and did so because it was unfair to the poor. Labour did not oppose it and yet favour a small increase on richer people , with two new tax bands. Both are thus able to say they favour the richer not poorer bearing the responsibility. Why talk of deserving the dustbin of history? You were never in the Labour party, unlike me, yet if I criticise that party, which I do more than you, it is because I was in it, not because I hate it. I prefer to have either a European pr multi party system, or the US , type, two broad groups, in which we would be with the Labour party in the main under a Social Democrat or Liberal banner, you would never have been able to have ideological purity, the left would never dominate, I would be in parliament because the party I was in would have been one I was sure I believed in, and this debate would be , not about a rotten borough based on lack of democracy or tax policy, but big money in the elections, and the ludicrous electoral college. Had the Labour party elected Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper, we , in my view, would now have a workable alliance, one I favoured when in the Labour party and we had a coalition in Scotland. You mean well, but demoralise me, I feel like starting a new movement, to replace both this and the Labour parties with a broad , not far left but centre left party , social and Liberal democrats, then we can agree on free and fair economic policies.

  • “LL.G. couldn’t even properly convince his own party both before and after WW1” – I’m told that 400 MPs petitioned Campbell Bannerman after the 1906 election. Maybe not all of the Liberals but it must have been a good 3/4 of them assuming every Labour and Irish MP made up the rest.

    If you try and define the Fairburns of this world they will just find ways of avoiding it, and, failing that, the unjust accumulation, in their case, of land rents through the planning-development process will still be there, just given the shareholders as a whole rather than to one extra shareholder by dint of his remunerative shareholding.

    I find his bonus repugnant, not because of how much it is, but because of where I know it came from – directly out of the pockets of housebuyers and anyone else who relies on land to provide shelter rather than profit. And taxing Fairburn will not stop that, which is the real injustice.

    To return to LLG – in his supportive speeches Churchill made the point that with the land taxes for the first time the taxman would be asking not just how much have you got, but how did you get it. And that’s the point of taxing land rather than income, or even (non-financial) capital – that only by attacking where accumulation is as a result of processes that harm others will we stop the harm. And as the intervening century has proven, sub-optimal measures to try and redress problems already arisen will produce sub-optimal outcomes. There is no point in dickering around like everyone else proposing piecemeal change around the edges of an unjust system.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 8th Nov '18 - 4:27pm

    David Raw

    Good point, the negativity getting to me!!!

  • Peter Hirst 8th Nov '18 - 4:48pm

    Though I would love there to be a referendum on our options, for us to remain relevant we must show the electorate that we are prepared to move on if TM pushes through her Brexit negotiations to an unglamourous finale. There are a huge number of other issues that we can and must campaign on both nationally and locally. The country is crying out for that compassionate voice, tempered by economic and logistical reality that is our trademark.

  • David Evans 8th Nov '18 - 4:59pm

    I must admit Lorenzo, I never think of David Raw as complacent. I do however see so many who think what is needed is their big idea, without addressing the simple test “How can the Lib Dems get it enacted in any reasonable timeframe?”

    I think it was Jesus who said “The poor are always with us” – and more of them will be with us longer if we continuously look for our personal perfect solution rather than some action that moves things in the right direction now.

  • Mark Goodrich 8th Nov '18 - 6:56pm

    Ah – only a Lib Dem discussion board could move swiftly from a post about Brexit and the failures of the referendum to Land Value Taxation….

    Returning to Tom’s point, in an ideal world, it would definitely be better to revoke Art 50, have a thorough public enquiry, clean up the rules and then a referendum on the deal. I wouldn’t agree to any hypothetical alternatives – that was one of the problems with the 2016 referendum. However, I feel that people can’t wait that long and so we will need to resolve quickly with a People’s Vote and then have enquiries afterwards. It is not ideal but I feel confident that the next vote would be fairer given the subsequent scrutiny.

  • I’m afraid to say David the nasty crash has started already. One large Brexit bonus has juts happened.

    The City of London was just dealt its biggest Brexit-related blow following an announcement by American financial markets operator CME Group that it is shifting its European market for short-term financing, the largest in the EU, out of London to Amsterdam. Worried about the dense fog of regulatory uncertainty hanging over London’s future, the firm wants to ensure that its continental clients can continue using its services even in the event of a no-deal Brexit in March.

    The decision was apparently taken before CME’s acquisition of BrokerTec — as the company is known — from NEX Group PLC was given the green light by UK market regulators last week. It is the first case of a major financial market leaving the UK over Brexit fears. Although all large London-based trading venues have set up a regulated entity in the EU in preparation for Brexit, BrokerTec is the first to move an existing market lock, stock, and barrel to a continental European city.

    “All of our euro-denominated bonds and repo will move to Amsterdam,” John Edwards, managing director of BrokerTec Europe, said in an interview. “We saw no benefit in splitting liquidity pools. Our U.K. business will not be able to provide services to the European clients.”

    On average, €210 billion of European short-term financing instruments were traded per day on BrokerTec in October, Edwards said. But that market will now be moved to CME’s Dutch subsidiary, NEX Amsterdam BV, so that BrokerTec can eradicate the risk of its EU-based clients being cut off from Europe’s repo market if Britain severs its ties with Brussels in four and a half months’ time.

    There are a few faint rays of sunshine in th report for our brave Brexiteers, but even they will struggle to paint losing a “, €210 billion of European short-term financing instruments were traded per day on BrokerTec ” market as a plus.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 8th Nov '18 - 11:07pm

    Davids Evans Raw

    Complacency as in we must not get too negatively inclined towards our own party, it does have a lousy way of making some, me, yes, down.

    The phrase , the people, is as much of a stereotype in a usage not meant, as is , the poor, we all understand what is meant, shame that some cannot see admiration when it is in there colleague saying something.

    Too right on theoretical rather than practical, solutions, but I, as an ex Labour, man, years ago, despair at not getting involved in a way in which a party can win, to do the very needed things for our country and its disunity.

  • Keith Selmes 8th Nov '18 - 11:34pm

    @Innocent Bystander
    “Not a single one would concede that they were duped into a mistaken vote and to suggest they were is an insult to their intelligence”
    There are plenty. Some in particular believed that money saved through Brexit would be spent on the NHS. Now they’re angry and they want another vote. Then there are people who were confused by claims and counter claims, so did not vote. They’ve made their minds up now, and want a vote. I met some of each, and this is what they tell us. I’ve heard of many more.
    Here are two who voted leave, with their personal reasons why they would now vote remain.
    (“They cocked it up” and Lithuanian carers)

  • I have engaged with Tom’s ‘rotten borough’ description in the comments above linking to an article referencing Persimmon Homes windfall from the help to buy policy.

    It is a misreprensation to say that land value capture policies are theoretical. We already have them in the UK in the form of Section 106 agreements and community infrastructure levies and have had them in some form since the 1947 Town and County planning Act. The problem is neither S106 or CIL delivers sufficient affordable housing or the necessary public infrastructure to support private housing developments. This is the primary focus of the work of the cross-party All Party Parliamentary Group that Vince Cable chairs.

    As well as infrastructure improvements and planning consents, wider societal changes such as improvements in the local, or national, economy also generate increases in land values, These are captured in part on commercial property by business rates and to a lesser degree by council tax/stamp duty land tax/capital gains and inheritance tax on residential and investment property . Again, nothing theoretical – it is happening now as is the sale of large number of homes to meet residential nursing and care home costs. Rationalisation of this system of property tax is the focus of current Land Value Tax research and proposals to increase the progressiveness of the system, not any theoretical aspects of wider tax reform based around LVT.

    There is serious work undertaken on Land Value Capture issues and property tax reform by respected bodies like the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Shelter and the Resolution Foundation as well as the Housing, Communities and Local Government select committee among others.
    There is of course recognition of the political hurdles associated with property tax reforms, but then as John Stuart Mill advised long ago,economic researchers need to focus on presenting an objective analysis of the issues under consideration; the political aspects are for politicians to address.

  • When the Brexit Secretary doesn’t seem to know the importance of Dover and doesn’t even seem to know we live on a island “not so innocent bystander” I don’t think anyone needs to insult Brexiteers intelligence the lack of it is self evident.

  • Neil Sandison 9th Nov '18 - 12:03pm

    Tom King The boroughs may not be rotten but the way they are financed most certainly is .Jeff Fairburn can demand such a gross salary because the planning system and contributions from developers has become so stacked against local authorities getting affordable or social housing funding can easily be avoided since the introduction of the new NPPF and treasury interference led by the former chancellor George Osborne made the large developers almost untouchable by local government representatives .We now live in a country where large corporate largess gets you the policy you want from the law makers to the detriment of social cohesion.

  • Peter Martin 9th Nov '18 - 12:38pm

    @ David Raw,

    “If Liberal Democrats have no remedy other than the Laffer Curve……”

    You’ve mentioned Laffer a few time recently. Not all arguments, and certainly not the good ones, against raising taxes are inspired by Arthur Laffer.

    His argument is sort of Ok as far as it goes. If, for example, we want to maximise tax revenue from cigarette sales then we’d set the rate of tax neither too low (which won’t collect much revenue) nor too high (which might cause smokers to give up). That’s straightfoward enough, but what he doesn’t consider is the effect of maximising the tax take from one particular tax on all other taxes.

    So, regardless of any health effect considerations, if we maximise the revenue from cigarette taxation we will find that the revenue from something else will fall. Maybe alcohol revenue. Maybe VAT receipts generally as people have less money to spend.

    So we have to look at the bigger picture. This may not even be about maximising revenue overall anyway. If Govt tries to take too much money out of the economy, relative to what it spends in, then economic activity will probably fall to a suboptimal level. This is not what we want. Conversely, if Govt takes out too little in tax, relative to what it spends in, we could have an inflation problem if the available resources aren’t present in the economy to meet the available demand.

  • Peter Martin 9th Nov '18 - 3:04pm

    @ David Raw,

    I’m a Physicist. I can measure anything you like. 🙂

    It looks like we all agree on the “Social Care Crisis and the Universal Credit crisis” etc. But how to get you away from “put a penny on income tax ” thinking?

    Or in Joe’s case, thinking that single LVT is a magic cure all.

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