Friday, March 16, 2012

50th Anniversary Dinner

Wednesday, the National Liberal Club gave a splendid dinner attended by a capacity 120 people, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Orpington by-election. Many of the 1962 warriors were there and we had a great time exchanging reminiscences. Here is an extract from my after-dinner speech, proposing the toast to LibDem candidates:

The arguments that are going on within the coalition reflect the tensions caused by the need, accepted on all sides, to eliminate the deficit. There’s no fundamental principle which decides who’s to pay the bill, but I imagine the Prime Minister must have regretted echoing the slogan ‘We’re all in this together’ coined by George Osborne in the early days of the coalition. It has turned out to be manifestly untrue, and Liberal Democrats have objected to policies that load extra burdens onto the poor and vulnerable, while allowing the fat cats to become even more obese. That’s why some of us have voted against our Government in the Lords on amendments to the Welfare Reform and Legal aid Bills.

But my very welcome task this evening is to propose a toast to our candidates, who aren’t facing an easy time and are doing remarkably well in a climate where its only just starting to be recognised what an impressive job we’re doing to radically improve unpopular measures, and particularly the Health Bill, on which the LibDem team has given the coalition plenty of time to think gain, and secured major concessions. We have ensured that the future of the NHS is guaranteed, with the Secretary of State ultimately responsible, and accountable for a comprehensive health service funded by the taxpayer and free to all at the point of delivery. So the LibDem candidate has a good story to tell the electors on how we have shifted that Bill light years away from being the end of the NHS, as it was labelled by some critics when it was first published.

But the candidate needs something more for her election address - and I hope we shall make a really determined effort to get equal numbers of men and women candidates next time.

We are struggling to make a reality of the claim that we’re all in it together. We need to intensify the LibDem demand for a mansion tax on houses worth over £2 million, and the ending of higher rate tax relief on pension contributions, which Danny Alexander estimates would save £7 billion. Ending winter fuel payments to Britons resident abroad, and making them taxable, would save a great deal more, and if coupled with raising the income tax threshold to £10k as we propose, wouldn’t hurt people on modest incomes. The child benefit conundrum could be solved by withdrawing it on the basis of a joint family income threshold rather than when one of the partners gets into the higher tax bracket. And we should scrap Trident, saving £25 billion according to the LibDem think-tank Centre Forum.

To these I would personally add substantial increases in the duties on alcohol, sufficient to produce an all-round increase of 10% on all alcoholic drinks, cutting hospital admissions by 50,000 a year, making a dent in the £2.7 billion cost to the NHS of alcohol abuse, with commensurate benefits to the criminal justice system.
At the same time we should stop handing out money to greedy millionaires to place the unemployed as free shelf-stackers in Tescos and pay themselves huge dividends. The privatisation of getting people back to work is a disaster.

Instead, how about providing low-interest loans to local authorities and social housing agencies to build low-rent housing, reducing housing benefit, reducing unemployment benefit and getting the economy moving again. To prevent this policy slowing down the reduction of the deficit, it could be funded by retaining the 50p tax rate on higher incomes, and even reintroducting supertax at 66 2/3 % on incomes over say £250,000 until we’re out of the wood.

Some of our leaders tell me they have read The Spirit Level on the correlation between inequality and a variety of social harms such as violent crime, physical and mental ill-health, educational under-achievement, obesity and lack of social mobility; but its argued that the authors’ evidence had been rebutted by some respectable academics. Actually, the authors have responded to their critics , and comprehensively demolished their arguments.

I’m also told that LibDems believe in equality of opportunity rather than equality per se, and that they are separate and distinct objectives. Well actually, they aren’t. Research shows that in more unequal societies, there is also less social mobility. The UK is at or near the wrong end of the scale of industrialised countries on both inequality and social mobility, while the four Scandinavian countries are near the top with both variables. If we could reduce our level of inequality to Scandinavian levels it would achieve a major improvement in equality of opportunity. It has been shown that the benefits would be felt at the top as well as at the bottom end of the scale.

The way to differentiate ourselves from the Tories as we approach the next general election would be to adopt the slogan ‘We can Conquer Inequality’, and in the meanwhile to stand up to them in Parliament against measures that breach that principle. Tim Farron says we have to demonstrate a commitment to fairness that the Tories won’t match, and that’s bound to mean some heavy weather inside the Coalition, which I dare say would be reflected in the election addresses of our candidates.

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