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A crack in the mould of British politics

February 18, 2019

Roy Jenkins was a man of many metaphors. My favourite was to liken a delicate and perilous political task to “carrying a valuable Ming vase across a highly polished floor.” But his most famous was the description of the mission of the party of which he was the founder leader as to “break the mould of British politics.” Jenkins was one of the Gang of Four who broke from Labour in 1981 to found the Social Democratic Party.  The SDP won a string of by elections, hundreds of council seats and brought tens of thousands of people into political activism, including me.

Political commentators can’t agree whether the SDP did break the mould, with those that support Labour usually claiming that the break from Michael Foot’s Labour Party was a boost to Thatcher in the 1983 election.  Historians haven’t formed a definitive conclusion but I think it’s fair to say the SDP-Liberal Alliance actually held back the Conservatives in many seats.  The Alliance lives on as the Liberal Democrats and it is undoubtedly true that a strong liberal force in politics is bad for the Tories, while a weakened one helps them, as the 2015 election showed.  But at the moment the political successor to the SDP (led by former SDP member Vince Cable) is slowly getting back on its feet after being knocked over and left for dead by the voters in 2015.

Will the new ‘Independent Group’ launched today be a greater success than the SDP?  An obvious observation is that the 2019 Gang of Seven are political pygmies compared the 1981 Gang of Four.  Roy Jenkins is one of the few 20th century figures to be remembered as one of the “best Prime Ministers we never had” and his place at the head of the SDP gave it massive credibility with the journalists and opinion formers of the time.  Shirley Williams was possibly the third most famous political woman in Britain, after the Queen and Margaret Thatcher.  Chuka Umanna, the Independent Group’s likely leader, is no Roy Jenkins and none of his three women colleagues come close to the public appeal of Shirley Williams.  For the new group to gain traction it will need more prominent Labour figures to climb aboard.  Failing that they will need to be joined by dozens of fellow MPs and members of the Lords and devolved parliaments – quantity over quality.

But in other ways 2019 is much more fertile ground for a break-away group to thrive.  The voters are much more volatile. In the early 1980s the tribal grip of the Conservative-Labour duopoly was still very strong.  When I started canvassing in the mid 80s I would find that voters at home in the Cynon Valley voted Labour because they and their family always had and in my student home of Bristol West the tie to the Tories was just as strong.  Now, certainly in Bristol, it is more common to find people who have voted in the last decade for three different parties.  In Scotland the Labour party was the political giant until it was felled by the SNP in 2015.  It is now the third party north of the border. Labour cannot claim the ownership of a block vote of millions of English or Welsh party loyalists anymore.

Political campaigning tactics have also moved on enormously in the last 38 years.  After the blast of media publicity of the launch of the SDP it had to move on to the hard slog of building up a party. It was a trail blazer in terms of having a computerised database of members but apart from that building up support depended on door knocking and leaflet delivery by new activists on the ground, a process that was still developing years after the launch.  Any group can now pick up a band of followers who can be organised quickly and efficiently via social media. Within hours of its launch the Independent Group had over 50,000 Twitter followers and it’s not yet a fully formed political party.  Crowd funding campaigns is now a lot easier than waiting for cheques to arrive in the post. If a wave of new defectors gives the group some momentum (no pun) then thousands of volunteers could be marshalled to support a new party.

This leaves two questions – what does the new party actually stand for and what will be its relationship with the existing progressive parties outside Labour, most obviously the Liberal Democrats? The group have published a very brief statement of principles (https://theindependent.group/statement ) all of which could be said with conviction by Liberal Democrat candidates.  But there’s a glaring omission. While there’s a positive commitment to more devolution and strong local government there is no mention of a reformed voting system.  If there is one glaringly obvious historical lesson about the fate of the SDP and the struggles of the Liberal Democrats (and the Green Party and UKIP) it’s that first past the post can crush the growth of parties even if they get millions of votes.  A commitment to PR must surely be made if the new party is to have a chance of working with others on the centre-left.

Working with others is likely to be the key to success. In the short term I believe that should mean an electoral pact with the Liberal Democrats and possibly the Green Party. It would be madness for the parties to fight each other, particularly in seats where the Conservatives are vulnerable or seats that are currently Labour but have a Lib Dem heritage (cough!) or voted heavily Remain in 2016. The Liberal Democrats are also in much better shape than the 1981 Liberal Party. They have a hundred thousand members and almost 2,000 councillors, providing a significant grass roots base.

Back in 2016 I wrote another blog in anticipation of this day, which has been longer coming than I thought at the time.  I advocated a joint platform, the Common Ground between progressive parties to which their candidates could jointly subscribe. But the top joint commitment must be a reformed voting system. Read more here https://stephenwilliamsmp.wordpress.com/2016/07/16/the-common-ground-how-a-progressive-alliance-could-transform-our-politics/  

I’ve said and written many times that Brexit is a meteorite that will shatter British politics.  The Liberal Democrats have climbed back into double figures in the opinion polls and are doing even better in weekly council by elections.  The Conservative Party is creaking at the seams and there may well be a breakaway of moderate pro EU MPs.  But today was the first major crater on the surface of our politics and the cracks that spread out from it may well break the mould after all.

UPDATE 20 February

The Independent Group now has 11 members, following the defection of Labour MP Joan Ryan and the Conservatives Heidi Allen, Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston. If they were a formal party they would now have equal Commons strength to the Liberal Democrats and would be bigger than the DUP.

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Time to stop the Brexit clock

January 31, 2019

In two months time, or 57 days to be precise, we are due to leave the European Union. Nobody, neither Theresa May, British businesses nor voters has any certainty as to the terms of our departure. The person primarily responsible for this fiasco is Mrs May.

She set out in her Lancaster House speech in January 2017 her vision of an ultra hard Brexit, with Britain outside both the Customs Union and the Single Market. She behaved then and in the two years since as if the 2016 referendum had been a landslide victory for Leave. She’s made no attempt to bring together the country around a compromise vision of a Brexit that would command majority support among MPs or voters. She’s essentially wasted the 952 days since the referendum on a futile attempt to hold together the fractious Conservative Party, the main reason for Cameron’s disastrous decision to call the referendum in the first place.

Brexit has paralysed the normal business of government. Parliament is treading water, waiting for Mrs May to return from Brussels with the news that the Irish border protection measures are there to stay, no matter what the fantasy “alternative arrangements” of her Brextremist colleagues. The highlight of the week for MPs next week is a general debate on sport!

Earlier this week MPs gave a weak signal (via the Spelman-Dromey amendment) that they didn’t much like the idea of crashing out of the EU on 29th March with no approved Withdrawal Agreement or definitive statement of our future trade deal. But they failed to support the efforts of Yvette Cooper and others to secure the time necessary to avert this disaster. The blame for this failure lies with the 14 Labour MPs who voted with the Tories and the DUP to scupper an extension of Article 50. They could do so safe in the knowledge that Jeremy Corbyn appears to want the Tories to “own” a Brexit mess and he has no intention of making the case for Brexit to be overturned via a “People’s Vote.”

Corbyn is as guilty as May of conducting his Brexit manoeuvres to maximise party advantage. Like her, he wants to run down the clock to 29th March.  In two weeks time MPs must wrest control of events from both their hapless leaders. It’s hard to think of a time in our nation’s modern history when the country has had such a weak Prime Minister or inept principal opposition leader, both not up to the challenge of extraordinary events. It’s clear that Mrs May is not about to alter the habits of a political lifetime in order to strike a bargain with Remainers or moderate Leavers. Corbyn doesn’t really want to snatch the ticking time bomb from her stubborn clench.

The only way forward now is for MPs to instruct the government to apply to the EU for a meaningful extension of Article 50. They will grant it if it is clear that the extension is to allow time for another referendum, between Mrs May’s vision of a hard Brexit and the status quo of remaining a full member state.

The vast majority of MPs know that a hard Brexit will damage the livelihoods and life chances of their constituents. Most of them think any sort of Brexit will cause avoidable harm. But they can’t vote down  Brexit with an outright revocation of Article 50. Even an ardent Remainer like me recognises that it would undermine democracy. I’ve had plenty of comments to me on the lines of “people like you will get bricks through your window if you steal our Brexit.”

The only way to avoid this breach of faith is refer the matter back to the people. After all, the people can’t “steal” something from themselves. We now know more or less as much as to what Brexit means as to what Remain means. A second vote will enable informed consent for our national way forward.

A century of women MPs – the Liberal roll of honour

December 15, 2018

December 2018 marks the centenary of women being able to stand for election to Parliament.  The Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act was passed just a few weeks before the general election held on 14th December 1918 so only sixteen women candidates stood. Three years later the first Liberal woman MP was elected.  Margaret Wintringham was elected in a by election in September 1921, succeeding her deceased husband in the Louth constituency of Lincolnshire. She followed the Tory Nancy Astor as the second woman to take her seat in the House of Commons. Wintringham had served as a magistrate and school board member. Her local government and community activity later became a familiar path for many Liberal and Liberal Democrat MPs.

Wintringham held her seat in the 1923 general election at which Vera Woodhouse, Lady Terrington, was also elected.  Terrington defeated the sitting Tory MP for Wycombe in Buckinghamshire.  Both Wintringham and Terrington were swept away in the Liberal meltdown at the 1924 general election.

The third woman to be elected as a Liberal MP was Hilda Runciman. She gained St Ives from the Tories in a by-election in March 1928. Her tenure was from the start intended to be short lived as her husband, the former cabinet minister Walter Runciman, MP for Swansea West, had already been lined up to switch to St Ives at the next general election. Walter held St Ives in the 1929 election but Hilda was narrowly defeated at Tavistock.  It was at the 1929 election that arguably the most famous female Liberal MP was elected.  Megan Lloyd George was the youngest child of David Lloyd George. She won the usually safe Liberal constituency of Anglesey, across the Menai Straits from her father’s seat. She held the constituency for the next four general elections before losing to Labour in 1951. She returned to the House in 1957, this time as a Labour MP, sitting until her death in 1966.

It was to be another thirty years before another woman was elected in the liberal tradition. Shirley Williams vies with Megan Lloyd George for the title of most famous liberal woman.  Her career was the mirror of Megan’s, starting as a Labour MP in 1964 (and thus a Commons colleague of Megan) before becoming one of the founders of the Social Democratic Party in 1981.  She was the first person to be elected as an SDP MP, winning the Crosby by election in November 1981.  The constituency was greatly altered by boundary changes and she lost in 1983. She became a Liberal Democrat Peer in 1993 and led the party in the House of Lords from 2001 to 2004.

The SDP-Liberal Alliance won a further two seats at by elections with women candidates. Elizabeth Shields won Ryedale for the Liberals and Rosie Barnes won Greenwich for the SDP, a by election in which I helped for a day. Shields lost her seat at the 1987 general election. Barnes held Greenwich but stayed with David Owen in the rump of the SDP when the parties merged in 1988.  She lost as an independent SDP candidate in 1992, when the Lib Dems gave her a free run.

The Liberal Democrats from 1988 have elected 21 women MPs but representation has always been a small proportion of the parliamentary party.  The highest number was 10 out of the 62 elected in the 2005 general election.  Representation shrunk from that high point, more as a result of the party losing seats than unrepresentative selections as women candidates were selected in many target seats (several where a male MP was retiring) in both the 2010 and 2015 general elections. The 2015 election saw an all-male parliamentary party of just eight but it was joined by Sarah Olney, victor of the November 2016 Richmond Park by election.  In the snap election of June 2017 Olney lost by just 45 votes but three seats were gained by new women candidates and Jo Swinson regained the seat she had lost in 2015, becoming the party’s Deputy Leader.  The current parliamentary party of 12 is thus one third female, the highest ever proportion.

The British legislature with the best record for electing women of all parties, including the Liberal Democrats, is the National Assembly for Wales.  The first election in 1999 saw three Liberal Democrat women elected, half of the party’s group. The Scottish Parliament has been less fertile ground for Lib Dem women, with just three elected since 1999, none in the most recent elections.  Lloyd George’s partition of Ireland had created the Northern Ireland House of Commons, housed in the grand new buildings at Stormont. The NI Liberal Party only managed one victory in the 50 years of devolved rule, when Sheelagh Murnaghan won a by election in 1961 to represent Queens University, Belfast. The graduate franchise was abolished in 1969. The Alliance Party is now the liberal sister party in Northern Ireland.  Six women have been elected since devolved rule was restored in 1998.  One of them is Naomi Long, who was also elected as the Westminster MP for Belfast East in 2010. Long chose to sit on the opposition benches rather than support the Lib Dems in the coalition government but remained on good terms with the party.

Finally, the Liberal Democrats have been able to elect 8 women to the European Parliament. The party list system of PR meant that the party was able to “zip” its candidate lists for the first elections under PR in 1999.  This led to the successful election of five women, half of the seats won.  At the 2014 election the party was left with just one MEP, Catherine Bearder in the south east region of England. At the time of writing she will be the last Lib Dem MEP…

Below I list all the women elected in the liberal tradition since 1918:

 

House of Commons

1 Margaret Wintringham              Louth                  1921 – 1924         Liberal

2 Lady Vera Terrington                  Wycombe           1923 – 1924         Liberal

3 Hilda Runciman                          St Ives                 1928 – 1929         Liberal

4 Lady Megan Lloyd George        Anglesey             1929 – 1951         Liberal

5 Shirley Williams             #          Crosby                 1981 – 1983         SDP

6 Elizabeth Shields                        Ryedale               1986 – 1987         Liberal

7 Rosie Barnes                              Greenwich             1987 – 1992         SDP, from 1988 Ind SDP

8 Ray Michie                                 Argyll & Bute        1987 – 2001         Liberal then LD

9 Elizabeth Lynne                          Rochdale              1992 – 1997         LD

10 Diana Maddock           #          Christchurch          1993 – 1997         LD

11 Jackie Ballard                            Taunton                1997 – 2001         LD

12 Jenny Tonge                 #          Richmond Park      1997 – 2005         LD

13 Sandra Gidley                           Romsey                  2000 – 2010         LD

14 Annette Brooke                        Mid Dorset             2001 – 2015         LD                                                                                                                            and North Poole

15 Sue Doughty                            Guildford                 2001 – 2005         LD

16 Patsy Calton                              Cheadle                   2001 – 2005         LD           Died after re-election in 2005

17 Sarah Teather                            Brent East                 2003 – 2015         LD           Brent Central from 2010

18 Lorely Burt                    #           Solihull                     2005 – 2015         LD

19 Julia Goldsworthy                      Falmouth                  2005 – 2010         LD                                                                                                                          and Camborne

20 Lynne Featherstone #              Hornsey and             2005 – 2015         LD                                                                                                                          Wood Green

21 Jenny Willott                             Cardiff Central   2005 – 2015             LD

22 Jo Swinson                                East Dumbarton  2005 – 2015           LD                                                                                                                                                         2017 –

23 Susan Kramer              #             Richmond Park  2005 – 2010          LD

24 Tessa Munt                                  Wells                  2010 – 2015      LD

24a Naomi Long                              Belfast East         2010 – 2015      Alliance Party of Northern Ireland

25 Sarah Olney                                Richmond Park    2016 – 2017       LD

26 Wera Hobhouse                         Bath                      2017 –               LD

27 Layla Moran                                 Oxford West        2017 –                LD                                                                                                                                  and Abingdon

28 Christine Jardine                         Edinburgh West    2017 –                LD

 

Senedd (National Assembly for Wales)

 

1 Jenny Randerson          #             Cardiff Central      1999 – 2011         LD

2 Kirsty Williams                             Brecon & Radnor  1999 –                   LD

3 Christine Humphreys  #             North Wales            1999 – 2001         LD           resigned list seat

4 Eleanor Burnham                        North Wales            2001 – 2011         LD           succeeded Humphreys

5 Veronica German                        SE Wales                  2010 – 2011         LD

6 Eluned Parrott                             S Wales Central        2011 – 2016         LD

 

Scottish Parliament

 

1 Nora Radcliffe                               Gordon               1999 – 2007         LD

2 Margaret Smith                             Edinburgh W      1999 – 2011         LD

3 Alison McInnes                              NE Scotland        2007 – 2016`       LD

 

Northern Ireland House of Commons (1921-1971) and Assembly

 

1 Sheelagh Murnaghan                 QUB                   1961 – 1969

2 Eileen Bell                                    North Down       1998 – 2007         Alliance

3 Naomi Long                                Belfast East         1998 – 2010         Alliance                                                                                                                                                                  2016 –

4 Anna Lo                                       Belfast South     2007 – 2016         Alliance

5 Judith Cochrane                            Belfast East         2011 – 2016         Alliance

6 Kellie Armstrong                           Strangford          2016 –                   Alliance

7 Paula Bradshaw                          Belfast South     2016 –                   Alliance

European Parliament

1 Elspeth Attwool                            Scotland              1999 – 2009         LD

2 Sarah Ludford                #             London                1999 – 2014         LD

3 Elizabeth Lynne                             West Midlands     1999 – 2012        LD           resigned

4 Emma Nicholson**      #               SE England          1999 – 2009         LD

5 Diana Wallis                                  Yorkshire             1999 – 2012         LD           resigned

6 Sharon Bowles               #             SE England          2005 – 2014         LD

7 Catherine Bearder                       SE England          2009 –                    LD

8 Rebecca Taylor                              Yorkshire             2012 – 2014         LD           succeeded Wallis

 

# – became a member of the House of Lords

**Note

Emma Nicolson was elected as the Conservative MP for Torridge and West Devon in 1987. She defected to the Liberal Democrats during the Christmas recess in 1995 but did not defend her seat at the 1997 election, which was won by the Lib Dem John Burnett.  She was made a Lib Dem Peer in November 1997. She was elected as MEP for the South East of England in 1999, standing down in 2009 and returning to the Lords.  In 2016 she somewhat bizarrely defected back to the Conservatives, despite the party’s slide into ever more strident Euro-scepticism.

Corbyn’s disastrous PMQs

December 5, 2018

Since my defenestration in 2015 I’ve watched Prime Minister’s Questions just a handful of times. I hated the weekly pantomime when I was an MP too. But I thought today would be an occasion worth watching.

Have a think about three Labour leaders – John Smith, Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn. They’ve all faced Tory governments that were divided on Europe and led by a Prime Minister in severe difficulties. Yesterday Theresa May lost 3 critical votes. In one day she suffered more set backs than any Prime Minister of the last 4 decades received in the whole of their terms. Today one of those reversals meant the publication of the Attorney General’s legal advice, confirming that we could be tied to EU rules for much longer than May wanted to admit, with Northern Ireland treated differently to Great Britain. Next Tuesday MPs will vote on May’s Withdrawal Aggreement.

So today’s PMQs was an opportunity for Jeremy Corbyn to mangle Theresa May and push her closer to the trap door moment of her Premiership. He flunked it, spectacularly so. Imagine May’s relief when he used all 6 of his questions to ask about welfare reform. Imagine the consternation among Labour MPs outside the loyal cultists, watching their leader shoot over the bar of an open goal, six times. John Smith and Tony Blair regularly demolished John Major between 1992 and 1997. Neither of them thought Corbyn was worthy of being trusted with the most junior of posts. How right they were.

The parliamentary arithmetic means that May’s deal should be defeated and Brexit could be avoided with a second referendum. Only the leader of the largest opposition party can marshall all the opponents of Brexit across all parties. Surely after today’s lamentable performance it must now be clear to everyone outside the Corbyn cult that not only is he not up to the job, he doesn’t actually want to stop Brexit.

Time to franchise Bristol and Bath bus services

November 28, 2018

Transport is once again the big issue in the Bristol and Bath city region. Bus disruptions and traffic jams have become the norm in Bristol.  The hundreds of millions spent on Metro Bus has not brought about a transformation. The bus companies have staff shortages, which will be worsened by Brexit. It appears that nothing is being done to fix the system. Air pollution is chronically bad in several parts of Bath and Bristol. Drastic action is needed to reduce traffic and emissions.

Last year saw the election of the first regional mayor of the new West of England Combined Authority (WECA) and this was an opportunity for a step change. We were supposed to finally have the strategic body we needed to sort out our transport woes. However, Mayor Tim Bowles has shown himself ineffectual, being barely noticed across the region. He has the powers to make a big difference but seems strangely reluctant to use them. This leaves the bus companies free to carry on making their own rules.

A recent example would be yet another new fare structure, this time the introduction of flat fares. While a good idea in principle, the changes have been nothing but a thinly veiled guise for a fare increase. Bristol’s Mayor Rees can talk to First Bus as much as he likes, but in the end, they do not answer to him. He’s appointed himself Bristol Council’s transport lead but he has very few actual powers to make a difference. Real change can only be achieved by the Regional Mayor shaking up the system.

To jolt Tim Bowles into action, a campaign has launched that is pressing for him to use his powers. Take Control of Bristol’s Buses is petitioning* Mayor Bowles, WECA and Bristol City Council to work towards bus franchising for the region. The Bristol Lib Dems and I have long supported this approach, it was included in my Regional Mayor manifesto last year.*

A franchising system allows the Regional Mayor to set the routes, timetables and fares that they want, which private companies can then submit bids for routes. This would make our buses accountable to the communities they serve, rather than shareholders around the world.

This provides many benefits over our current privatised, unregulated system. Similar to London, bus companies will be committed to the services they provide, having signed a contract with the authority and so no longer able to cancel services at the drop of a hat.

Unprofitable, but no less vital bus routes could be paired with profitable routes. This would force companies to run the services that communities rely on, alongside their profitmaking routes.

If poor services are provided then a bus company can be dropped at the next tendering of the contract, holding companies to account for the service they provide.

Some of the main roads in our city suffer from terrible pollution.  The London Road, east of Bath city centre and the Gloucester Road and Bedminster Parade in Bristol are among the worst affected. Buses and coaches in Bristol produce over a fifth of the nitrogen oxide emissions but account for just 1% of vehicles. Buses and other commercial vehicles contribute most of the diesel fine particulates that can cause respiratory problems. Whilst some progress is being made to reduce the pollution from buses, franchising would supercharge this trend. We would be able to set emissions standards for buses, pushing our system on to biofuel and electric propulsion faster than bus companies are currently willing to go.

We can finally plan our transport in a coherent way across Bristol and Bath, integrating with rail links across the region. With better integration, our entire public transport system becomes more attractive, getting people out of their cars and on to buses and trains. To tackle urban pollution we need people to make that switch and franchising could be the first step.

In a recent interview with BBC Points West, Tim Bowles was asked if he’d support taking control of our buses. He dodged the question. We must demand better than this inaction.

The role of Regional Mayor has the potential to be transformative for our region, bringing in investment and producing plans to tackle transport and housing problems that hamstring our region. The Bristol and Bath city region is the nation’s most economically successful outside London. With ambitious transport planning and using our new powers creatively we could win more investment from around the world and take our rightful place as one of Europe’s most attractive regions to live, work and invest.

 

*Notes

The bus franchise petition can be signed here – https://www.change.org/p/bristol-city-council-take-control-of-bristol-s-buses

My regional mayor manifesto from 2017 contained a detailed plan to transform public transport in the West of England – http://www.stephenwilliams.org.uk/mayor_manifesto_transport

 

The End of Austerity?

October 31, 2018

The Budget was supposed to mark the end of the age of “austerity.” Theresa May had promised its end in her conference speech.  She also promised that there would be a large increase in NHS spending, delivering her mythical Brexit dividend.  Two tall orders for the Chancellor to deliver.

Austerity wasn’t much used as a word relevant to public expenditure prior to 2010.  An austere person would be morally strict and someone in a state of austerity would have a simplistic and limited view of life.  I guess living within your means is an austere viewpoint.  But by 2011 “austerity” was being used to describe the Coalition Government’s plans to stabilise the public finances.  When used by (mainly Tory) government ministers it meant tough medicine. It was more commonly used by Labour’s two Eds to characterise cuts in expenditure beyond what was necessary. Miliband and Balls paid lip service to the need to reduce the deficit but never supported any government measure to achieve it. Austerity has morphed into Labour supporters’ language to describe deep cuts across the state.  But the Budgets and spending reviews between 2010 and 2015 were much more nuanced, partly reflecting tensions between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.  There were also stark differences in the treatment of different departments and areas of spending.

The two parties in government agreed that the NHS would be protected and would have real terms growth in its budget. It was also agreed that retired people would not be adversely affected.  My colleague Steve Webb introduced the pension “triple lock” – meaning that the state pension would always rise by at least 2.5%. The Coalition also planned to grow both the green energy budget and the international development budget, meeting the 0.7% of GDP target for the first time.  Ring-fencing and growing these large areas of expenditure meant that unprotected areas of government faced swingeing cuts.

Britain’s austerity has been mild by the standard of other European countries’ belt tightening after the crash.  In 2011 I was on a parliamentary delegation to Ireland. We met Brendan Howlin, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.  He was a minister from the Labour Party, the smaller coalition partner of Fine Gael.  The British Labour MPs on my delegation were told in no uncertain terms that Ireland had experienced real austerity.  Public sector salaries had been cut.  Surcharges had been added to income tax and pension contributions had gone up. Welfare benefits had been cut for everyone of working age.  By contrast, the British coalition government had simply frozen salaries for most people, apart from those on the lowest (<£21,000) salaries who continued to receive increases.  Benefits were initially frozen.  In the later years of the Coalition they were increased. The Lib Dem policy of raising the income tax personal allowance took a lot of part time workers out of the tax bracket and gave a tax cut to millions.  British “austerity” was nothing like the Irish experience, let alone the Greek version.  Howlin went on to become Leader of the Irish Labour Party.  I wonder what he thinks of Corbyn and MacDonnell?!

Since 2015 the Conservatives have governed on their own, without the restraining influence of the Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems had made sure that the nation’s books were set on course for balance by a mix of expenditure cuts and freezes plus some tax rises.  Since 2015 there have just been cuts – full on austerity.  While the Lib Dems thought the state should live within its means the Tories clearly believe in a shrunken role for the state.

So has Philip Hammond ended austerity?  The answer depends on what you measure.  He’s delivered an income tax cut.  But again, there is a big difference from the Coalition years.  He’s raised the personal allowance to £12,500 – delivering the Lib Dem target set (by me in a conference motion in 2012) while in government. But he’s also raised the starting point for higher rate tax by rather more, to £50,000.  Basic rate tax payers will get a £130 tax cut but the threshold change is worth £860 to higher rate tax payers. The Liberal Democrats oppose the change but Labour back it. Labour now support the Tories on tax cuts as well as collaborating with them on Brexit.

In terms of overall government expenditure, yes he has ended austerity. Total government expenditure will increase in real terms and also per capita. The deficit this year is back at pre-crash levels of about £40billion and could be sustained at this level for a few years more.   But this is good news only for the NHS, which is to get substantial increases (without the Brexit “dividend”) from 2020 and for defence and overseas aid, which are protected. For all other departments, they continue on a downward trajectory, though no new cuts were announced. So if you are ill or work in the NHS, are serving in the armed forces or make their equipment, or if you take an altruistic interest in developing countries, then austerity is over.  But if your needs and interests are in education, welfare, law and order, justice and all the services provided by local government, austerity is certainly not over.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Austerity could be brought to a close, sooner than the Tory government plans and across other services that affect our lives.  Here’s some ideas of what could be done:

  • Set local government free – the funding of councils has been slashed since 2010. The grant from central government has reduced while at the same time local authorities have been effectively prevented from raising council tax beyond 2% (more flexibility has since been announced for extra council tax for social services expenditure) by the requirement for a referendum. I argued against this constraint while I was a minister at DCLG. Councils should be given the freedom to not only raise the rates of council tax but also to introduce higher bands for the most expensive properties. Over time local income tax should replace council tax as the main source of council revenue, though a small domestic property tax should be retained. To begin with a proportion of the nationally collected current income tax could be devolved as a grant to councils. Once the calculation and attribution of local shares of income tax is firmly established the rate setting should also be devolved.  Councils should also be free to establish local charges and taxes, for instance on hotel rooms, a common local tax in most other countries. Alongside the devolution of more revenues and powers, the structure of local government in England should be reorganised into all-purpose unitary authorities.
  • Replace business rates with a land tax – the uniform business rate is determined nationally, collected by councils, handed to the Treasury and a proportion is then handed back to councils by MHCLG. This is nuts. The Coalition increased the proportion of business rates that can be retained by all local councils, with up to 100% of the rates on new developments in some enterprise zones. It would be better for most councils to retain all of their local property taxes, currently amounting to £31billion. There should also be local powers of flexibility over the rate charged, for instance to encourage development in particular places or of particular types.  As more trading activity moves on line, the value of physical property taxes will decrease. A more sustainable source of local revenue would be a land tax, advocated by Liberals since the time of Lloyd George. Land tax would also encourage the bringing forward of dormant land for development, for instance for new homes.
  • Build houses – while growth in incomes has been patchy it is true that the costs of buying or renting your first home has soared. For young people high rents and huge deposits for purchase are the main sources of economic hardship.  Housing costs are also a major example of inter-generational inequality.  Building more homes is the only way to stabilise the market.  It will not be done by the private sector alone.  We will only build at the rate needed if there is a massive intervention by the state.  More homes for social rent should be built by local councils.  In government I argued for a relaxation of the borrowing constraints on councils for house building and £300million of flexibility was put in place between 2014 and 2016. I’m glad that the government has now confirmed that the cap will be removed, though details are yet to emerge.  Building more homes will not only ease the feeling of austerity for young people.  It will also be an economic stimulus.  I’ve written more about how we can increase the rate of house building – https://stephenwilliamsmp.wordpress.com/2018/03/09/how-we-can-build-the-new-homes-that-are-needed/
  • Raise and reform taxes on wealth – taxes on inherited wealth and wealth accumulation in Britain are very light. For the wealthiest and best advised people they border on being voluntary contributions.  This is not progressive.  Inheritance tax should be replaced with a simple accessions tax, with individuals being able to set inheritances against a life time limit before they start paying tax at 40%. With the exception of heritage assets, most reliefs should be abolished.  The Coalition raised capital gains tax from 18 to 28%. I would go further and set it at the individual’s marginal income tax rate, with a small annual allowance sufficient to avoid reporting of minor gains.
  • Guarantee stable funding for the NHS and social care with a dedicated tax – the NHS is set within a few years to absorb about 40% of all discretionary state spending, as other areas are relentlessly squeezed. While the growth of the NHS pushes other national budgets to the margins the impact at a local level is even starker. Social care is currently the responsibility of local government and now crowds out the funding for other local council services. The dependence of local government finances on a capped council tax and a rapidly diminishing central government grant will lead to the failure of more principal councils, following the collapse of Northamptonshire. The answer is to take the funding of social care away from local government and join it to NHS funding. I’ve written more on how to reform the NHS and give it secure funding – https://stephenwilliamsmp.wordpress.com/2018/01/13/how-to-reform-the-nhs-to-cope-with-winter-pressures/
  • Scrap fuel duty freezes – while serving as the Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman between 2010 and 2013 I had to hold my nose each year while supporting the suspension of automatic rises in fuel duty. The freeze in fuel duty was intended to be a populist gesture, showing that the government understood the pressure on household budgets. It was supported most keenly at the top of government.  Number Ten probably feared a repeat of the fuel duty protests that briefly crippled Tony Blair’s government in the year 2000.  Rural MPs pointed to the high cost of petrol and diesel in remote communities. They were backed by the Lib Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury, an MP from the Highlands. I thought the policy was nuts.  Fuel prices at the pump were erratic enough for people not to notice the impact of a few pence extra tax. A groundswell of gratitude to a benevolent government was highly unlikely. The duty escalator was intended to encourage people to switch to more fuel efficient cars or reduce their car use. Abandoning this intention under-mined the Coalition’s otherwise good green credentials. But my main objection was the sheer waste of tax revenue. Foregoing extra fuel duty cost the government more with each extra year.  Money that would have been better spent bringing forward the Lib Dem flagship policy of raising the starting point for income tax. Or avoiding some of the most damaging cuts in unprotected departments, for instance legal aid. Philip Hammond has continued this crazy policy.  It now costs the Treasury £6.5billion – about 2% on the rate of income tax. It should be abandoned and the duty proceeds used for investment in public transport. A radical government would replace it with road user pricing. I advocated this approach many times in Parliament and in my chapter on green taxes in The Green Book – http://green-book.org.uk/
  • Stop Brexit – uncertainty over Britain’s future relationship with the EU has already held back economic growth (Britain has dropped from a leader to a laggard among EU states) and stunted tax receipts. There’s a consensus among the vast majority of economists that all forms of Brexit, whether the softest possible (staying in the customs union or single market) or a no deal, lead to years of relative stagnation, putting more pressure on the public finances. The mirage of a ‘Brexit Dividend’ of £350m a week for the NHS will be dwarfed by the reduced tax take available for public services.  Balancing the nation’s books, let alone turning in the consistent surplus needed to pay down the accumulated debt, will be made harder and longer by any form of Brexit.  The only way to halt Brexit in its tracks is with a People’s Vote, on whether to approve the terms of exit or to Remain after all. Let’s hope MPs come to their senses and give the public the chance to stop Brexit and bring the end of fiscal austerity closer to reality.

Election coverage must be about more than Leaders Debates

September 17, 2018

Today Sky News launched a campaign to make Leaders Debates an integral part of every general election.  They want an independent commission to be set up in order to set the rules on formats and participants. I was interviewed by Sky’s Jayne Secker on their lunchtime news.  It was broadcast from Bristol’s Harbourside, opposite the Arnolfini Gallery, the scene of the first Leaders Debate back in the 2010 general election. I support televised debates between the main party leaders but worry that they overshadow every other aspect of the campaign and distort TV coverage.

I remember the Bristol Sky News 2010 debate very well. The three main party leaders and their entourages all descended on what was then my Bristol West constituency.  A media circus arrived in Bristol and the faces of Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg were projected onto the outside of the Arnolfini.  It was certainly good TV exposure for Bristol but was it good for the election? Did that debate and the subsequent ones on the BBC and ITV help voters to decide who to back?

In the short run I think the debates did swing some votes.  Nick Clegg put in a great performance.  Gordon Brown said “I agree with Nick”, inadvertently providing us with a new campaign slogan. The Liberal Democrats soared towards 30% in the polls and Nick became Britain’s most popular leader.  Millions of people cast their postal votes shortly afterwards. Enthusiasm tailed off during the remainder of the campaign as the newspapers laid in to Nick and his party.  But when the Liberal Democrat shadow cabinet team met on the Saturday morning after the election I and my colleagues were in no doubt that Nick’s performance had buoyed up the party’s fortunes and won us several marginal constituencies.  First Past the Post, as usual, had suppressed the party’s seat tally.  Despite putting on a million votes compared to the 2005 election and moving up to 23% of the national vote share, the party had gone down from 63 to 57 MPs.  But 14 of those seats had been won with majorities of less than 5%.  Several of my colleagues owed their place in Parliament to Nick’s strong performance in the debates.

During the interview with Sky today I reflected that it was possible that the 2010 Sky debate had changed the course of history.  If it hadn’t happened it’s possible that the Tories would have won enough seats for David Cameron to govern alone.  There would have been no coalition.  I would probably still be an MP!  But counter-factuals are debatable and it’s just as possible that Nick would have done well in conventional coverage of an election, in the same way that Charles Kennedy (on a good day) and David Steel were regarded as campaign assets in previous elections.

While it’s debatable what effect the 2010 debates had on the outcome of the election, it’s undoubtedly true that they changed fundamentally the nature of the coverage of the election. There has always been attention on the national party leaders.  Gladstone and Lloyd George were household names.  But I recall in 2010 that the TV debates drowned out essential coverage of the issues that were at stake.  Another former Bristol MP, Tony Benn, used to say that elections should be about the issues, not the personalities.  I worry that politics is no longer “show business for ugly people” but an activity where performance counts for more than content and where it certainly helps to be “charismatic” or just look good on TV.  If debates are to return for the next election then I believe that the broadcasters have a duty to explain the issues at stake and analyse the policies on offer.

Broadcasters also need to constantly remind people that our elections for the House of Commons are 650 (or maybe 600 next time) local contests for an MP, not a national election.  The only people who can vote for a party leader are the electors in their constituencies.  Each constituency has a different political profile.

So I think Sky are right to call for debates to be embedded into our national elections.  They are right that the format should be set by an independent debates commission. Vince Cable has said that it is preferable to sort this out soon, rather than have “argy bargy” just before the next election. This is what happened in both 2015 and 2017, when David Cameron and then Theresa May declined to debate their fellow leaders. The result was a series of very cumbersome debates with far too many participants from small parties.

My preferred format would be one debate featuring the three leaders of the main political parties that fight every seat in Great Britain.  That’s currently the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties but if Brexit causes a break up of our existing parties then the commission would need to respond to allow new challenger parties a voice. There should be separate debates in Northern Ireland and a further debate in Wales and Scotland involving the nationalist leaders. The debates should be complemented by hour long in depth interviews with all of the party leaders, with additional slots for smaller parties such as UKIP and the Green Party.

Politics is in a strange place at the moment.  It would be foolish to predict with certainty who will be the main players at the next election, or even when that election will be held. But one thing is certain – the public think that their political leaders don’t get enough tough scrutiny.  Lively debates and testing interviews will be essential to restore some confidence in our politicians and generate interest in our elections.

 

More about Sky’s campaign here – https://news.sky.com/story/sky-news-launches-campaign-to-make-leaders-tv-debate-a-permanent-election-fixture-11499817