Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Of Savage Cuts and Tuition Fees

Sometimes we Liberal Democrats can be too honest for our own good. It would have made our lives a lot easier if we had concentrated on passing the fabulous policies on our agenda without looking at the financial context in which the next Government is going to have to operate.

We're not like that, though - at the heart of the way we operate is openness and honesty and if we know that the Government cupboard is going to be bare, then it would be stupid of us not to take that into account. Rather than whisper in the dark, we'll consult, debate and work out how to deal with these changed circumstances in a rational manner.

It would be far more wrong to make all sorts of commitments and then find out when we got into office that we just simply couldn't make good the promises we had made. It makes sense, then, to work out what we absolutely can't do without and what might have to wait until we're in a better financial position.

The last few weeks of the Parliamentary session were marked by less than illuminating bouts of ill tempered bile between Gordon Brown and David Cameron every week at PMQs. As I wrote at the time,Nick Clegg tried to kickstart a proper and grown up debate about what needed to be done to reduce the deficit while protecting public services. Looking back on it now, it almost seemed like Brown and Cameron were using each other as a fig leaf of an excuse not to discuss the issue. We had Brown going on about zero percent increases in spending and Cameron's front bench team seemingly at odds with each other about the possibility of ten percent cuts across the board.

Nick Clegg has acknowledged that in the wake of Labour's recession, we will have to find some way of paying the enormous debt that Labour have built up. If we don't, then there will be economic catastrophe in the future. The thing about the Lib Dems is that you can be sure that our first instinct will be to protect those on the lowest incomes, who need the Government help the most.

That's why, whatever happens, we'll make sure that people on the minimum wage don't pay tax, that the children who need it most get the help they need in school so that they do not leave at 16 disillusioned and barely able to read, write or count, that the health service meets the demands placed on it.

As an aside, during the manifesto debate at Bournemouth today, Lizzie Jewkes from Chester told how the taking the people who pay the minimum wage out of tax idea had come about. A group of ordinary conference delegates came up with the idea while chatting in the conference bar last year. Lizzie took it to a national policy workshop and it has now become party policy that anyone who earns less than £10,000 will not pay tax. That's going to make a huge difference to ordinary households, the sort of people who found that they were £30 a month worse off when Labour abolished the 10p tax rate. That just shows how a good idea can be listened to and taken on board by the party leaders.

David Cameron knows fine well that the only thing the Liberal Democrats have in common with the Conservatives is the word party. The Tories' gut instinct is to protect the rich - that's why they go on about giving tax breaks to people on six figure salaries. The Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives are polar opposites.

I think that the Fresh Start for Britain pre manifesto document and the motion passed today clearly sets out where our heart is as a Party. There has been a whole load of nonsense about it in the press so we are going to have to be very careful about how we get our message across to people.

Nick Clegg has been open enough to say that there is unlikely to be enough money in the pot to put every single Liberal Democrat policy into practice. That's why he's said that it might be that tuition fees south of the border (the Liberal Democrats made sure of their abolition in Scotland) may not be got rid of in the next Parliament. Nick Clegg, and every other Liberal Democrat for that matter, opposes tuition fees.

The other parties have bent over backwards to try to make us look bad with students as a result of what Nick has said. Let's have a closer look at them, though. You would never think from the attacks from Labour MPs and bloggers that it was in fact the Labour Party who introduced fees in the first place.

As for the Tories, what have they ever done to help students? When the CBI yesterday called for student loans to attract commercial rates of interest and for tuition fees to rise, Tory spokesman David Willetts could barely disguise his glee, saying that the CBI's report was "a good opportunity to bring this issue back to life."

There's no doubt in my mind that it's the Liberal Democrats who will have most to offer students at the coming election and beyond.

It is a bit annoying that it's talk of cuts and tuition fees that have most widely reported in a Conference which has passed some amazing policy - giving families freedom on childcare, enabling parents to choose the leave arrangements that work best for them, to try and tackle the problems caused by the unrealistic portrayal of women in the media, on child protection to avoid future tragedies, on civil liberties calling for the abolition of the abhorrent mosquito devices to name but a few issues.

In all of this, I've been really heartened by the contribution of Liberal Youth. They have been amazing, providing really constructive, excellent contributions to the debates. Alex Royden, one of their Exec members impressed me twice on Sunday, once in her passionate and clearly argued demolition of the case for the mosquito device and again on Radio 5 Live talking about tuition fees, stating that while it was still party policy, she knew that it wasn't just about students, that there were other people who needed a share of the shrinking pot of money available. I don't think I would have had such a wide view as a student many years ago.

I've been really impressed with what I've seen from Conference and I think there's lots to be hopeful about in the coming months leading up to the election.

1 comment:

Roland Hulme said...

Here in America, 40% of Americans don't pay income tax - and it's one of the reasons why our economy is generally good. Britain, like the US, is becoming a consumer-driven economy and it's actually the poorer people who SPEND their money and drive that economy forward. It's why the Bush tax cuts - cutting the tax rates of the rich - were so ridiculous.

If you give one rich person a $10,000 tax break, most of it will be invested or saved. If you give 10 poorer people $1,000 each, most of it will be reinjected into the economy - because it represents such a significantly larger percentage of their income.

It's Economics 101 and I agree that the Tories in the UK and the Republicans in America are clueless. The irony in the states is that it's the poor, blue-collar Republican voters who support tax cuts for the rich, even though they get screwed by it. That's because all Americans are aspirationally wealthy - a pleasant alternative to Britain, where people are expected to 'know their place' and there's a general mentality that's scornful of people who are 'socially mobile' (a politically correct term for 'nouveau riche.)


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