Saturday, 1 January 2011

Leave the Lib Dems alone!

Did you ever see Chris Crocker's 'Leave Britney Alone' video? (Contains profanity) That's what I do every time someone's mean about the Lib Dems. It's getting boring reading a constant tirade of abuse against the Lib Dems from lefties who are entirely detached from reality. I can understand the anger over the party going against its pledge on tuition fees. (Indeed, I originally jumped on the "betrayal", "u-turn", "your party's over" bandwagon, and I spend each day of my life repenting for that sin). So, to counter some of these attacks on the Lib Dems, I want to counter some of the opinions of and claims made by those who spend their time discussing amongst themselves on the Guardian website how terribly evil Nick Clegg is.

Technorati claim code: ignore this!: F5Z7TG7WN9S5

(I started this article before the Christmas holidays, and have just had time to finish it off and publish it. Whilst I'm here, I hope you had a nice Christmas and I wish you luck for 2011. See, I can be nice sometimes.)

Firstly, some people still think the Lib Dems shouldn't have gone into a coalition with the Conservatives, insisting instead that they should have allied themselves with Labour. First and foremost, that wouldn't have worked. The Conservatives and the Lib Dems combining to form a coalition gave them a majority of 78. If Labour and the Lib Dems had got into bed together, they would have been 20 seats short of a majority. If they, by some stroke of luck, managed to get all the other parties and the lone independent to agree on a coalition policy plan (Sinn Fein excluded since they don't take their seats), they'd still only have a majority of 12. Considering a recent vote saw almost 30 rebellions on tuition fees, it's quite clear that a Government with a majority of 12 would be ineffectual and weak. Furthermore, it would be many, many times more prone to fractures and rebels voting different ways, leaving the Government unable to get legislation passed. Compromise in politics at the moment is a necessity, and in many ways rightly so, but I do not for one minute believe that a coalition of 8 parties and an independent would have been able to have come to an agreement on policies, and have a coherent plan of action for its time in Government that they could all agree on. Anyone who maintains that a Government made up of 8 parties and an independent could function at all, and function with a majority of only 12, must be living on a different planet to me.

So Nick Clegg and his top brass in the party had a choice: form a coalition with the Conservatives and have a very comfortable (but not absurdly high like Labour in 1997) majority, or form one with Labour and every other party under the sun, and still only have a majority of 12. Which one seems a more sensible choice?

For those of us who don't like numbers, here's a pretty-looking graph of the seats in the Commons. (The bottom axis doesn't go up to the total 650 seats simply because it would mean loads of wasted space.)

Click for full-size
Click image a for larger version

Secondly, it also irks me that those who claim the Lib Dems should have formed 'a rainbow coalition of progressives' (which, as I've discussed, is as absurd and soppy as it sounds) would be willing to walk all over democracy. They'd be happy to leave the Conservatives being in opposition despite the fact they had a far greater number of votes than the other parties and a far greater number of seats, simply because they disagree with their policies. It would have been very undemocratic and plutocratic if Clegg had ignored the outcome of the election, in which the public gave a clear preference to the Tories, but not quite enough for a majority, and sided with Labour and a rainbow of other parties.

Next, something more controversial: tuition fees. I think people are justifiably angry about this. I think it is fully acceptable and absolutely necessary for a party to have compromised on its manifesto policies - it is a coalition, not a Lib Dem majority Government, but the pledge was different from the policies in the manifesto. It was one which specifically hinted that the Lib Dems did not expect to win the election, and if they didn't they would "put pressure on the Government to introduce a fairer alternative." It is disappointing and damaging for trust in politics that the party then reneged on this pledge. If a politician makes a pledge with the electorate, publicly signing it and making it a key plank of their campaigning, they cannot then go against that pledge. If the Lib Dems did not expect to keep to the pledge in a coalition Government, the pledge should have made it clear that it only applied if there was a Lib Dem majority Government. It did not, and said instead each Lib Dem candidate signed a public declaration that "I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next Parliament and to pressure the Government to introduce a fairer alternative." I therefore cannot defend those MPs who signed that pledge and then did the opposite, simply because a pledge is a "Promise [made] solemnly and formally", and breaking that pledge simply devalues democracy.

However, I can understand why Nick Clegg asked his party to vote for the higher fees and altered funding system, and I do believe that the new system is fairer for everyone concerned. I've begun to argue in favour of the new graduate fees system at school whenever the subject arises, which, as you can imagine, makes me very popular, and I only have one ally in this battle. Before Christmas, I took a few moments out of staring at a computer screen in the study room to frown at the badge firmly pinned to someone's lapel: 'Coalition of Resistance', it declared, and depicted some multicoloured people holding hands.

I will also briefly defend the new tuition fees legislation, but briefly it will be, because there are lots of other areas of the coalition's legislative agenda I want to cover. Firstly, it's takes income into account than the old system. Previously, those who earn more would pay back faster, but they wouldn't pay back a greater amount of money. Something which should appeal to Labour and Lib Dem voters is that those who go into higher paying jobs will pay back a larger sum of money than those who go into a lower-paying job. So someone who goes on to become a teacher can expect to pay back a smaller amount than a high-earning accountant or manager. Secondly, the new system raises the point at which graduates begin to pay back their debt: it stood at £15,000, and will now rise to £21,000. The changes should not put off anyone from going to university, because everyone can pay back debt whilst they're working, and since it's not an up-front payment, it doesn't put the poor at a disadvantage or the wealthy at an advantage. The new system also, for the first time, allows part-time students to get support through the fees system if they want it, whereas previously they were ineligible. I also think it's fairer because it shifts the burden away from taxpayers in general and towards the student themselves; since I think Government can make people's lives better by taking less of their income and following the sage advice of Sir Robert Peel to "make Britain a cheap place to live" I favour measures which help to reduce the demand on taxpayers. I can and likely will speak more about why I support the legislation in a future article.

Right, the second point of this article is to point out the positive effect the Lib Dems have had on the legislative agenda of the Government. When people say Nick Clegg has sold out, they're overlooking a lot of areas in which he's been successful in having an impact upon the policies the Government pursues, despite being the minority partner in the coalition by a wide margin. So here's a summary of the main areas the Lib Dems have clearly had an impact, one which many people would see as positive.

The personal allowance has been seen an increase, rising from £6,475 to £7,475 from 2011. This is something which should make just about everyone happy; it means that everyone who earns below 100K a year pays less tax by being allowed a greater amount of money which is not taxed. It's especially helpful for the lowest earners. This is a rise well above inflation, but it's not a large enough rise to make me happy. It is good, therefore, that the coalition programme also commits the Government to rise the personal allowance to £10,000 by the end of the Government's term, with these rises coming at the expense of the Conservative policy of increasing the inheritance tax threshold: "We will prioritise this over other tax cuts, including cuts to Inheritance Tax." That's almost a little advert that the Lib Dems' tax policies are winning against the Conservatives'. It's quite clearly something Labour should have introduced during their time in Government, rather than faffing about so much with a convoluted tax credits system. The policy of raising the income tax threshold is a Lib Dem one, and it comes at the expense of the Tory policy to increase the inheritance tax threshold to £1 million, something which has been dropped entirely and makes no appearance in the Agreement. This is quite a big success for the Lib Dems, and one which will help the lowest-earners. Whilst I support raising the inheritance tax threshold, raising the income tax threshold is a much fairer and more beneficial thing to do in this time of financial difficulty.

The Coalition Agreement also commits the Government to scrapping ID Cards. I know some people get very angry and het up about ID Cards, I'm not immensely bothered about their existence, but the prospect of them being compulsory did concern me. I don't think this policy can be put down to the Lib Dems alone, since it also featured in the Conservatives' election manifesto. However, this decision should be something many people are pleased about, and it can safely be put into a category of things which the majority of people will agree with. Whilst money was a factor in the scrapping the plans, it's also an important civil liberties issue, with compulsory ID Cards raising further concerns about the growing size and power of Government.

Reference to devolving power to councils is made, such as: "We will rapidly abolish Regional Spatial Strategies and return decision-making powers on housing and planning to local councils, including giving councils new powers to stop ‘garden grabbing’." The previous Government, as it had a bit of a habit of doing, took a very top-down approach to housing, and set regional targets for housing. This essentially meant building houses in already very populous areas, and ignoring the fact that there are already regular water shortages in the Summer and ever-increasing pressure on services like hospitals, doctor's surgeries, dentists, and transport. Any move which allows local councils and people to take a more reasoned, sensible approach the need for more housing, without central Government setting unworkable targets is an improvement in my book. Both parties have found common ground on the issue of localism and devolving power to Councils, and I hope they continue to do so.

One of the areas which I do not agree with the Government is something which Liberal Democrats should be jumping for joy over. Ken Clarke - who most real Conservatives universally dislike - is instigating a very liberal policy on prisons and crime. If the Government did not contain Lib Dems, and if they weren't throwing their weight around behind-the-scenes, I would expect that Clarke would have been over-ruled by the Cabinet and backbench rebellion from Conservatives who believe that prison works. To be fair to Clarke, having a prisoner re-offending rate of over 40% is absurd; it suggests that our justice system is doing something wrong. Clarke's moves to have fewer people in prison on short-term sentences and instead doing community punishments is effectively a Lib Dem policy, and one which I expect most Lib Dems would approve. If it were not for the influence of Clegg and his cohort, I expect this style of prison policy would have long ago been bulldozed in favour of a more traditional one.

"We will require police forces to hold regular ‘beat meetings’ so that residents can hold them to account." This is essentially putting into practice the Lib Dem manifesto policy of "Give far more power to elected police authorities, including the right to sack and appoint the Chief Constable, set local policing priorities,and agree and determine budgets." Again it represents a commitment to localism and local democracy and shows Lib Dem influence on Government policy.

One of the more minor aspects of the Coalition Agreement is the commitment to continuing free entry to museums and art galleries. The way it is worded in the Agreement is almost exactly the same as in the Lib Dem manifesto, suggesting it was effectively inserted by the Lib Dems. This isn't an area that people are likely to get exciting about, and it wouldn't should particularly impressive if Nick Clegg were to publicly declare "Museums are still free - we did that!", but it does suggest that it's one of the many areas the party has had influence in. It's possible that if the Lib Dems had been less forceful, it would have been one of the areas with funding cut in the pursuit of deficit elimination, as no mention of it is made in the Conservative manifesto.

Something a little more important and seems to have been overlooked by many is the Coalition's policy towards Trident. The Conservatives would not - and still will not - accept the scrapping of or allowing Trident to depreciate. There was absolutely no chance that the Lib Dems were going to be able to fundamentally change defence policy to get a commitment to not renewing Trident, but they have been very successful in ensuring that the policy is essentially altered to putting off making a decision. This triumph should not be overlooked or sniffed at - it leaves open the door for the next Government, which may well be another coalition with Lib Dems - especially if the AV referendum is successful - to make moves to reducing our nuclear stockpile or even a commitment to not renewing it.

Whilst the scrapping of the Child Trust Fund and reduction in tax credits may be seen as a total failure for the Lib Dems, it's actually something which was in their manifesto: "To put in place cuts which could be realised within the financial year, such as scrapping the Child Trust Fund or restricting tax credits" . It is therefore not a failure, but another area that the two parties managed to find agreement.

Is everything the Government is doing good? No. I could have picked out things and explained why I disagree with them, but the idea that the Lib Dems have contributed nothing and that this Government is Conservative in everything but name is just incorrect. This does not mean, however, that I now support the party, but that I take neither a very pro or very anti view towards them. I just wanted to point out that they are having an impact upon the Government.

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