Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Not once did I hear about in the debate talk about social justice

My former colleague, Stephen Tall, thinks that this has been a good week for Nick Clegg and a good week for the Lib Dems. If this is a good week, I hate to think what a bad week will be like (though I suspect we'll find out when teh comrades gather in Manchester for Labour conference).

It is a tricky dilemma for the Lib Dems in the current political situation, but I think Labour supporters can be relieved by the decisions that they've taken. On tax, they've got one set of policies about taxing the rich, and another about eye-watering cuts to public spending. The detail of these seems actively embarrassing, like Vince Cable's idea of requiring senior public sector workers to re-apply for their jobs and, if successful, cut their pay and pension entitlement.

I think I remember Stephen in his days as finance supremo on Oxford City Council mocking a variant on this idea when it was suggested as a way of balancing the council's budget by the Independent Working Class Association. Apparently this kind of posturing is going to fund massive tax cuts. And everyone can also have a pony too, if they want.

As a set of workable policies, this fails any kind of credibility test, but it does reveal that the Lib Dems no longer want to be the party for people who think public services are important and that we should pay a bit more tax to make them better. That's important because there are quite a lot of people like that, many of whom are feeling a bit unloved and unsure about who to vote for at the moment.

In contrast, people who think the government wastes loads of money and that taxes should be cut, while greater in number, are also likely to be intensely sceptical about promises by politicians, particularly those who up until last year supported higher taxes, and also find that there are a whole range of parties already competing for their affections.

And while it is easy to dismiss these policies because they won't get enacted at a national level, there are abundant examples of what 'Cleggonomics', in which tax cuts supposedly are the route to delivering "social justice", means at a local level. In Oxford, it meant closing play areas and reducing housing advice for the most vulnerable, to save £2 per year in council tax. In Liverpool it meant closing care homes for elderly people, and in Camden it means cutting funding for youth clubs in deprived areas.

But it's not just their tax policy, or the fact that their leader didn't know how much the state pension was worth (he's lucky the follow up question wasn't about how many houses he owned). It's that this seems to have been part of a wider shift in policy and outlook.

Don't take my word for it. Patrick Murray, who is a Lib Dem councillor and parliamentary candidate, put it far better than I ever could. In a passionate and eloquent critique of their new housing policy, he wrote that,

"The Eco-Towns policy passed at the Liberal Democrat conference was flawed: in seeking to oppose centrally imposed Eco-Towns the policy centrally imposed a rigid policy across the country, with no regard for local circumstances...

...I know, from my personal experience, that a life on the streets is a life devoid of liberty, devoid of equality of opportunity and devoid of social justice. We have adopted a one-size-fits-all policy that does not fit Oxford. It may be right for many areas of the country, but it is simply not justifiable in the homeless shelters of my city or to the thousands of families trapped by Oxford’s housing crisis. The supporters of this motion claimed they were not NIMBYs or BANANAs. But not once did I hear anyone in the debate talk about housing need and social justice.

So I ask them simply this. Where do we put the houses when the brownfield sites have run out?"

There are many decent Lib Dems, like Stephen and Patrick, and others who have consistently championed admirable causes, such as Evan Harris. But they aren't the ones who are 'making it happen' for the Lib Dems at the moment, and it would be a shame if the lack of attention that their conference has got masked the fact that the Lib Dems are becoming a very different kind of party from the one which many progressive voters supported in 2005.


At 10:11 pm , Anonymous Mark said...

and in any case only around 13% of land is built on in the UK (though most people incorrectly think the percentage is much higher).

So we build on brownfields which does include factory sites (I once owned a house on reclaimed industrial land - made safe by spreading an 18 inch layer of soil) but it was cheap. Not many millionaire mansions that way though.

But brownfield also includes allotments, gardens, playing fields whilst green belt includes sewerage farms.

We need a clear headed assessment of how many houses we need, and we must challenge developers to create imaginative architecturally stimulating places for everyone.

Whilst I'm in mid rant - we need to avoid the current approach - tiny naff faux georgian (with four bathrooms and UPVC conservatories) for the middle class and cheap built starter/social housing.

UK housing is a disgrace and a policy failure on nearly all levels.

At 11:04 pm , Blogger Tom Freeman said...

It's a curious coincidence that when a government of the right was hugely unpopular, Paddy Ashdown moved the Lib Dems to the left, and when a government of the left is hugely unpopular, Nick Clegg moves them to the right.

At 11:51 am , Blogger Giles said...

Hi Don

I'm a big fan of your blog, but I disagree with your take that you can only be progressive if you vote for inexorably increased public spending. Tax cuts for the poor are what the poor would choose in a situation where their food and fuel bills are 10% higher on a year ago. Investment in public services is what they might choose if it's 1997 or 2001 and the schools and hospitals have rainwater dripping down the wall. It is simplistic to assume that considering a tax cut is necessarily right wing.

We are always "a bit more" public spending away from having services that are good enough. That has seen the bill go from £400bn to £600bn in a few years, and a lot of the public are now sceptical.

Moreover, it is not "massive" tax cuts being looked for, and nor are all the spending cuts unreasonable or attempts to double-spend illusory wastage. Getting rid of 40% tax rebates for higher rate pension relief is a good example, as is less wastage on regional development strategies to build white elephant arts centres.

Still, you're certainly right about that idea of Vince's! Why senior civil servants deserve to be treated like criminals when they earn a fraction of the salary of an investment banker is mysterious.

At 9:41 pm , Blogger donpaskini said...

mark, tom - agree with all of that.

Giles - there are many different ways to be progressive, and you're certainly right that not all involve increasing public spending. In particular, shifting taxation so that people on lower incomes pay less and people on higher incomes and with more wealth pay more is quite right and long overdue. This is definitely not a right-wing policy, even though it means tax cuts for most people.

But bundling this together with spending cuts makes me nervous. It's not as if Lib Dem councils (or any councils) have blazed a trail and shown how it is possible to cut spending and pass the savings on to the taxpayer without it affecting frontline services, quite the opposite.

The other thing that you're right about is that ultimately whether tax cuts or additional public services are more important priorities for social justice are decisions which can only really be reached if poor people are able to participate in the decision-making.

Points which I've heard people make are that benefits need to be higher, the costs of, for example, childcare, housing and transport are unaffordable and the minimum wage is too low. Tax cuts are one way of helping with these problems, but many of them need extra public spending.


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