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Friday, 26 November 2010

A long six weeks...

I've not been blogging for a while and that is due entirely to the fact that unfortunately I've been ill and have spent longer than I would like experiencing first hand the services our NHS has to offer.

If a week in politics is a long time, then six weeks is an eternity. During the last few weeks, the Comprehensive Spending Review has been announced, Lord Browne announced his recommendations for the future of Higher Education, Ireland has been bailed out and a number of student protests have caused something of a stir. Here in Scotland, the SNP government is finding itself in all sorts of trouble, with John Swinney's spending review provoking criticism and the party finding itself at the centre of a row over the "Tartan Tax". There's also the matter of the election for the Liberal Democrat presidency: may I take the opportunity to congratulate Tim Farron and recommend he visits Inverclyde during his tour of constituencies.

Obviously there is a great deal about which I could write. But I have no intention of exploring in any detail these recent events; after all, these have been well documented elsewhere. However, like other Liberal Democrats I have been concerned in recent weeks at how events have unfolded and our own party leadership's response. It is more than worrying that entering the festive season, the polls continue to show Nick Clegg as only slightly more popular than King Herod.

It's all a far cry from the euphoria of April, when "Cleggmania" supposedly swept the nation. Admittedly, by its very nature, political exhilaration is always short-lived. But to have given way so spectacularly to fierce antipathy is perturbing; I imagine that none of the usually Lib Dem-friendly students attending recent protests were wearing "I agree with Nick" T-shirts.

This requires a considered tactical strategy on the part of our party. Instead, we find our leadership becoming more defensive. Not only is this a tactical mistake, it's also very uncomfortable witnessing Clegg and Cable defending government policy which, only a short while ago, they were fiercely opposed to. Perhaps this is an inevitable consequence of coalition government and collective responsibility but I imagine most Liberal Democrats would prefer Nick Clegg to be not quite so enthusiastic in his selling backward-looking policy packages as "progressive".

The Comprehensive Spending Review was neither comprehensive, nor a review. Anything that protected and ringfenced specific budgets can hardly be called comprehensive. And it wasn't so much a spending review as an opportunity to formulate and implement controversial policies which otherwise would probably never be considered by any sober-minded government. I'm not naturally cynical, but it is hard to see the CSR in terms of anything other than a smokescreen for introducing policies that had far more to do with the Cameron-Osborne worldview than any serious attempt at tackling the deficit.

I'm also not one of the unrealistic "no cuts to jobs and services" brigade. That's not to say that I welcome cuts - far from it. But there has to be realism, and there also has to be policy and a considered strategy to deal with the deficit. However, in attempting to tackle this terrible legacy of New Labour the government has to recognise the potential human and social ramifications of its policy; unfortunately it would seem that not only does the coalition government have limited imagination in regards policy ideas, but at best it seems blind to problems it will either create or exacerbate. Less kind people would say it simply doesn't care.

There were some constructive elements to the CSR. Some of it was painfully necessary, and I won't take lectures from those who refuse to grasp the economic reality. If you want to see what happens when an economy continues to borrow to fund its domestic spending programme, take a look at mainland Europe. It simply isn't viable for the UK to be living beyond its means.

However, the CSR was about so much more than redesigning the government's spending commitments. What have emerged are rather worrying social policies, which reflect the thinking of the more regressive elements of the Conservative Party rather than the socially liberal values our party has consistently promoted.

Let's take the review of welfare. Well, such a review was overdue. It's right that the benefits system should be re-examined and simplified. It's right that work should be made to pay - I know many people who are trapped not only by the benefits system but by low aspiration and a poverty of hope. But it is patently wrong that instead of declaring war on unemployment the government has declared war on the unemployed. Making distinctions between the deserving and undeserving poor or describing those on benefits as "scroungers", "lacking a work ethic" or having opted for a particular "lifestyle choice" is unhelpful and socially divisive (not to mention judgemental) but such worrying language has originated from senior Tories and the tabloids in recent weeks. Only yesterday former MP Howard Flight expressed his disgust that people of a particular social class might actually breed. It is from this limited appreciation of British society and its problems that the Tories propose their remedies, including such ill-conceived plans as capping housing benefit (surely capping rents in certain areas would be more progressive, but that might mean house prices in London coming down to a sensible level and that wouldn't please Cameron's friends in the City), reducing access to social housing, making claimants work for their benefit and axing benefit to those who have been unemployed for over a year. The right-wingers might think they're "punishing the workshy" but the most likely effect of these draconian measures will be to destroy communities and people's lives. Placing a cap on how far the government will support you to live where you are well connected, around friends and family, suggests that community is irrelevant. This doesn't really sound like "the Big Society", although I'm not sure Cameron will be too concerned about the inconsistency between rhetoric and policy.

This should be anathema to liberals. We value communities. We believe in fairness, and these Tory ideas are obviously unfair. We also believe the best way to tackle joblessness isn't to "punish", but to create new jobs. Admittedly that's a tough challenge when the country's coming out of recession, but that's the only reasonable, long-term strategy to actually make inroads into unemployment figures. Job creation should be the government's top priority but, regrettably and criminally, it seems more interested in finding out how "happy" we all are now we're out of work. Even more alarming is how keen our Conservative partners in coalition have been so keen to ignore or marginalise the perspectives of Lib Dem ministers on this issue.

The scale and depth of the cuts will themselves have significant human consequences, not least here in Inverclyde where so many people are employed in the public sector, and will hardly aid job creation. I'm not convinced that, however necessary some cuts might be, cutting so deeply so quickly is the responsible solution. I found it very easy to agree with Nick Clegg when, earlier in the year he said this: "My eight year old ought to be able to work this out - you shouldn't start slamming on the brakes when the economy is barely growing. If you do that you create more joblessness, you create heavier costs on the state, the deficit goes up even further and the pain with dealing with it is even greater. So it's completely irrational." I found it less easy to agree with Nick Clegg when, in Monday's Guardian, he wrote: "I reject the idea that it is more progressive to pay off the deficit more slowly than to act decisively". (Inequality becomes injustice when it is passed on, generation to generation, 22/11/10) Which begs a number of questions: a) when did Mr Clegg change his mind?, b) does he completely reject Vince Cable's pre-election remedies which won respect from economists and voters and c) is Mr Clegg aware that many - or probably most - members of his party have trouble with such "decisive" action?

My main criticism of the CSR is its unusually long term nature. The government has used the need to reduce deficit as a smokescreen to introduce a series of long-term policies. A review should be essentially focused on the short-term, addressing immediate priorities with the hope to be able to increase spending in key areas once these priorities were dealt with. To his credit, this has been John Swinney's approach in Scotland, but Cameron and Osborne are made of different stuff. They have cynically used the economic situation to implement polcies which will have a devastating social effect on communities like ours in Inverclyde and, worst of all, have no intention of reviewing or revisiting these policies in the near future.

As for the Browne Review...it didn't contain many surprises. In the ensuing controversy, however, it seems to be forgotten that it was Labour who instigated the Browne Commission and presumably would hardly have been able to reject the thrust of either its findings or recommendations. It should also be noted that, while Vince Cable expressed a preference for a graduate tax, he has actually done a great deal to ensure that the government's new policy is infinitely preferable to the more simplistic interpretations of Browne's remedy.

Students have taken to the streets en masse (mostly peacefully, I must add) and I respect their position. I also understand why there are many who are critical of Lib Dem MPs who pledged to vote against increasing fees only to be doing an about-turn once the party is in government. My instincts lead me to side with these critics, at least on this issue. When our party made such capital from a historic opposition to increasing fees, compromise on policy can be accepted from our colleagues in cabinet but compromise on principle can never be acceptable for the party at large.

I, however, also appreciate the pragmatic politics of coalition; furthermore, I understand that in the current economic climate it would be impossible to realise our long-standing objective to abolish fees. Those who remember the 200 Conference will remember the debate on this very issue, with the leadership asserting that, while this should remain party policy, the party must accept that it could not be achieved in the short-term. Clegg and Cable got a lot of stick at the time from party activists, but that is an inherently sensible position.

Personally, while I commend Vince Cable for imbuing the new policy with something of a Liberal Democrat perspective, I don't accept that this is actually a "progressive" policy. It's a reactive policy, not a principled one, understandably cobbled together and compromised. It's purpose isn't to deliver a fair system (however much Nick Clegg protests otherwise; it's sole aim is to find a pragmatic means of funding Higher Education during a period of austerity.

My chief regret is that, again, the coalition has forged a long-term policy on the basis of short-term priorities. For this reason it is vital that, whatever the coalition position and outcome of the vote, the Liberal Democrats retain their unique and distinct position as opponents of fees and remain committed - in the long term - to their eradication.

The problems the SNP is currently experiencing I will deal with elsewhere, but it is worth making one observation. Whatever the technical reasons behind the "tartan tax" powers being allowed to lapse, why has it taken John Swinney three years to become aware of it?

Finally, it would not be right of me not to mention the story of the week: a young couple called William and Kate are engaged to be married on 29th April next year. I don't really understand the media hype - this may be because I'm not a great believer in the monarchy - which I think drastically overestimates public interest in the Royal engagement. With this in mind, I thought the most honest, refreshing and observant journalism came from the Guardian's Tanya Gold: Royal wedding: The agony of the ecstasy. It made me laugh anyway.

1 comment:

Stuart said...

Wondered where you'd got to. Glad you're back. Hope you're OK now.