Monday, December 17, 2012

Nick Clegg finally calls out Tories on welfare reform

It's five years tomorrow since Nick Clegg was elected leader of the Liberal Democrats. I worked very hard on his leadership campaign, phoning like mad to persuade people I knew to vote for him. Some might even forgive me one day. Seriously, though, while I don't agree with everything Nick has done as leader,and I do think he has made some mistakes, I think the party made the right choice. I don't think anyone could have done a better job of getting to grips with Government. I do, however, think that he could have done a good bit better in taking the party with him. A leader's job is to challenge and, well, lead, but they have to do it mostly by inspiration and connection with those who are being led. That, I think, is a work in progress and the key challenge for the next year. On the other hand, members and activists need to try a bit more to walk a mile in the shoes of our ministers. A bit more give and take on both sides would really make this party a better place. See, idealism doesn't have to be dogmatic...

Nick needs members and activists out there on the streets delivering bums on seats way before 2015. They need a concrete message that they believe in to deliver, and that message needs to resonate with the public. His speech today at the Royal Commonwealth Society seeks to set out the Liberal Democrat stall as a party that promotes a stronger economy and a fairer society. The speech is published here on

So, first thoughts.

This centre ground thing. He seems to have given up trying to explain what liberalism and liberal values are and is looking at it in the terms that are more widely used  to describe the way politics works. That both irks and seems sensible. Whether all in the party will accept that the Liberal Democrats' natural home is the centre is a moot point. And of course, the term centre can be pretty meaningless. Clegg seems to be using it to mean that we're the reasonable, sensible party,  not venal, egregious, xenophobic and heartless like the Tories, not living in an amnesiac cloud cuckoo land like Labour.

We’re not centre ground tourists. The centre ground is our home. While the tribalists in other parties desert the centre ground under pressure, the Liberal Democrats have done the reverse. Under pressure, we’ve moved towards the centre.
Governing from the centre ground means applying pragmatic liberalism to the policy challenges of our time. But pragmatic liberalism is not the same as dogmatic liberalism. And that is what distinguishes Liberal Democrats in opposition from Liberal Democrats in Government. The greatest strength of our party is our idealism. But in our strength lies our weakness – because sometimes idealism can turn into dogma, or at least an unwillingness to engage fully with the day-to-day experiences and perspectives of the British people we seek to serve. 

There does seem to be a bit of a contradiction between saying the centre ground is our home and that we've moved there. The last point, though, about seeing, understanding and reacting to where people are coming from is important. That's not to say that you pander to what the Daily Mail thinks, but you have to meet people where they are with an issue, not where you want them to be or think they should be. The Fail has been telling people that benefit claimants are all lazy scroungers for so long that people believe it. Unravelling that will take time and sensitivity and laying the evidence to the contrary before them in a way that they can accept and understand.

On the Liberal Democrats' future he has this to say:
If we are to become a more permanent fixture of government, then it will be, at least at first, as a partner in coalitions. That means embracing the realities of coalition government, and becoming better and better at negotiating successfully on behalf of those in Britain who expect us to stand up for them. It means accepting compromise. It means putting up with people who object that we haven’t got everything they wanted, and who can’t see the value in getting much, much more than we ever could in opposition. Because that is the alternative – a retreat to the comfort and relative irrelevance of opposition. But – and let me make this very clear – choosing opposition over government is not a values-free choice. It is a dereliction of duty. Because if our values and principles matter to us, we should want to see them deployed for the good of the British people. It’s not about us, after all. It’s about the people we serve.
He talks here about how delivering some of our programme is better than delivering none at all. I do get a bit annoyed with this tack, sometimes. It feels like Liberal Democrat members are being told that unless you agree with everything ministers do, you're some sort of irresponsible hippy, only happy playing with daisy chains instead of putting your nose to the grindstone in the real world. Everyone who has ever been in a relationship, a family, or had a job or had to do anything at all, from organise the church cleaning rota to running the village playgroup to being head of a multi-national corporation will understand that you don't get everything your own way all the time. Everyone understands compromise because we all do it every day. When we argue with the leadership, it's because we think there is a better balance, or better compromise that they could, maybe should have brought. Did I just mention secret courts there? A bit of listening and making the best use of the expertise in the party would not go amiss.

I don't remember opposition being particularly comfortable, to be honest. It was bloody frustrating and I have no great wish to go back there. I want is to be in government, able to make a real difference. As far as I am concerned, this government is still a net gain. I know Blair and Thatcher didn't exactly raise the bar terribly high, but it's still, despite everything, the best government I have known. Sometimes I have to say that through gritted teeth, but it's still true.I still believe that, by now, we would now be looking at a Tory Government with a big enough majority to do massive damage if we hadn't gone into Government.

Clegg talked about how in opposition it would have been easy to decry the "less pleasant consequences" of austerity. That's why he and Vince were going on about the need for savage cuts, in 2009, from, er, opposition, then. Our party has always been obsessed with costing every last budget line in our manifestos.

Being a liberal in a world with so many illiberal forces at work is never comfortable. Nor should it be. We have to be ever vigilant and tackle abuse of power wherever it comes from.

Talking about responsibility

It's fair to say that you don't often hear Liberal Democrats talking much about responsibility.I think that's partly because it's a word that's been abused by both Tories and Labour to imply some sort of personal failing in being unemployed for a long period of time when, actually, it was the design and structure of the benefit system that was a powerful disincentive not to work. Why take a low paid job if it meant that your kids would no longer get free school meals or you'd have to pay for prescriptions or would have to find your own Council Tax. The poorest people are not those on benefits, but those who struggle on low wage jobs, just above the threshold for tax credits and related benefits. Those are the people who gain most from the raising of the tax threshold.

So rather than try and stir up resentment and scapegoat people, as Osborne did in the Autumn Statement, Clegg looks at the barriers to work, like not being able to find childcare, or decent help to recover from illness, and talks about overcoming them. This will be why he's put so much into providing talking therapies for half a million more people to give them their lives back.

I think the way he talks about responsibility needs a little more work. It's like a stew that's not been cooked for long enough - a bit tough and indigestible. You know that, given another few hours in the slow cooker, it'll come out tender and delicious, but it's not there yet. Why is it only those who are on benefits who have to show this concept of "responsibility"? Surely we all have some sort of duty towards society, to improving our community. And to equate responsibility with "working hard" is diminishing what a person's relationship with the state and the world around them should be. Surely there's more to it than paying taxes? Surely we want to encourage a much more active, participatory relationship with government and community?

I felt uncomfortable with his justifications for the sub inflation rise in benefits. He said that there was "absolute moral equivalence" between working in a job and looking for a job and used this to justify earnings rising at the same rate as benefits. That would be fine if benefit gave you enough to feed and clothe you and heat your house and pay your bills. Actually it isn't. Cutting from people who have nothing is proportionately much worse than cutting the pay for those who may not be rich but can afford the essentials of life and a bit more.A sub inflation pay rise is a matter for concern, and justifiable reason to be annoyed, but it isn't a disaster.

I didn't like the way he justified the benefits cap, either. Nor his justification of the assessment process for sickness and disability benefits. It's simply not credible and does not have the confidence of the people claiming benefit or the health professionals treating them. The Work Capability Assessment is far from fit for purpose.

Where Nick was right was to say that you can't just write off someone because they are ill.  

Never mind that the state can’t afford it. We should not delude ourselves that it is an act of compassion to tell someone that because of ill health they should spend the rest of their lives dependent on benefits. It belittles their potential and ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is time for politicians and the benefits system to recognise that people with health conditions have just as much potential as everyone else if only they are given the help they need to get on.

Te problem is that the support has become too much of an arbitrary tick box exercise and it actually needs to be a holistic and realistic assessment of the person's needs and abilities - and the availability of jobs in the area that suit  their needs.And if they can't work, then they shouldn't be made to feel like a burden on society. This should be a process which liberates those who haven't had the support they need. It should never be about making sick people feel guilty, or a burden. My worry is that the Work Programme which Nick so clearly championed, is focusing on the quick wins - those who would probably find work on their own. Private Eye had a story on that in its most recent edition.

However, he did do what I've been wanting him to do for a very long time - call out the Tories for their attitude to benefits and welfare:

Of course, there are some on the right who believe that no-one could possibly be out of work unless they’re a scrounger. If you can’t find a job you must be lazy. If you say you’re too sick to work you’re probably pretending. The siren voices of the Tory right who peddle this myth could have pulled a majority Conservative government in the direction of draconian welfare cuts.
Just look at what happened this autumn. The Conservatives suggested we cut an extra £10bn from welfare. And ideas were put forward to penalise families with more than two children by taking away child benefit and to penalise young people who want to move away from home in search of a job by denying them housing benefit. But when the political hothouse of the conference season was over and our two parties sat down to agree a plan, the Coalition stuck to the centre ground.

When he first mentioned future welfare reform, I gasped a bit. We've had quite enough of that, surely. However, where the Tories just want to cut and Labour are trying to take the moral high ground when one of their first acts in office in 1997 was to cut benefits for lone parents, Nick's principles were worth listening to:

·         Continue to hold down costs in a way that is fair to welfare claimants and to the other taxpayers who support them.
·         Incentivise work by supporting childcare more effectively, extending conditionality for claimants and increasing access to education and training.
·         Encourage those with health conditions to undergo treatment that will help them to get better.
·         Support fairness by making clear that money should not be paid to those who do not need it – looking again at universal benefits paid to the wealthiest pensioners.
Could this be the end of free bus travel and Winter Fuel Allowance for wealthy pensioners? I have been banging on about this one for ages. I find it ludicrous that we, because my husband is over 60, qualify for Winter Fuel Allowance at the same time as I've just stopped claiming Child Benefit because he's a higher rate taxpayer. We seriously don't need it. 
It is a risk for Nick to say this because those pensioners have been known to vote for us in the past but it's absolutely right that he should. Those lines in bold could well be a key battleground in 2015. Let's just hope that enough of them think the same way that we do.
Nick focused on welfare reform in this speech, but there are so many policies we have which would fit his vision of governing from the centre ground, being pragmatic and realistic. Sometimes I feel that the Special Adviser team could save themselves a lot of bother by just going and looking in the filing cabinet of Lib Dem policy. They don't need to spend so much time making new stuff up when there's real quality ideas on things like housing and health care and crime that could be used - and then you have the added advantage that the party owns the idea too and will be suitably motivated to campaign for it.
Similarly, when things come up that aren't covered by policy or the Coalition Agreement, there are plenty people in the party to ask for advice first, not just tell them what's happening via webinar, useful though those are. 
To sum up, although there were a couple of moments that made me want to cry, Nick's speech was generally a good attempt to reach out to people, to try to explain where we come from in a way that they can relate to. It takes people's  concerns about welfare and gently invites them to think differently, without demonising anyone. By talking in this way, he's opening channels to those people whose radar we really need to get back on to. He is trying to move them towards us without pandering to misinformed prejudices. What he says is grounded in practicality and relevance. It's getting there. 

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