The Pendulum Swings

Maybe it’s time to give the Liberal Democrats another hearing

Liberal Democrat councillor John Leech must find the opposition benches of Manchester City Council lonely, given he’s the only opposition. The councillor is the first opposition the 95 strong Labour council has seen in two years, and the first gain for any party other than Labour in the city for six. It’s easy to joke about the #LibDemFightback, but as Labour and the Tories bicker amongst themselves, John Leech symbolises the quiet march upwards for what was once Britain’s third party. While they hover around 7% in national opinion polls, having been shrunk to a mere 8 MPs in the 2015 general election from 57 in 2010, they gained 45 councillors in the 2016 elections, and brought the previously non controlled Watford council into the fold.

Small victories like these have gone unsung by the wider media, likely due to the abandonment of the Liberal Democrats by voters following their entering into coalition with the Conservatives. Analysis of voter migration by Electoral Calculus found most Lib Dem voters defected to Labour, with smaller chunks hemorrhaging to every party from the Greens to UKIP. This voter fragmenting allowed the Tories, with only modest gains from the Lib Dems, to take a large number of their former partners seats; ones the Tories had no qualms targeting. Much of the 2015 Tory campaign focused on the rolling plains of Somerset, the closest the Lib Dems had to a heartlands. Torbay, which had been a Liberal Democrat seat for 18 years, suddenly found itself swept under a blue tide. The party failed to declare its achievements in government loudly enough. Lib Dem fingerprints are all over policies such as delaying Trident’s renewal, free school meals for all under 7’s, expansions of gay rights, and (albeit watered down) banking regulations which ring-fenced high street and investment. Yet most people who supported the coalition placed its successes at the feet of the Tories, not the Lib Dems. Things like commitments to international aid spending could hardly be trumpeted as Lib Dem triumphs; seeing as the pledge found itself in both Tory and Lib Dem manifestos.

Others are harder to cheer for. Tuition fee changes turned much of their student voter base against them. Research shows that despite not discouraging poorer groups or ethnic minorities from going to university as much as was feared, total applicant numbers were hit as a result. The pupil premium, which tried to inject £2.5 billion into schools to help poorer children, was eroded by austerity policies. Overall spending on pupils rose by a hair’s breadth (a little under 1%) between 2011 and 2015, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS). Pupil premiums also failed to close attainment gaps between poor and rich children, according to watchdog Ofsted. Attempts to reform the House of Lords to make it democratic were derailed by Tory and Labour MPs alike. A review of the Coalition energy policy found it lacking when it came to making the nation more eco-friendly. According to Channel 4 Factcheck, most of the apprenticeships growth touted by the Lib Dems fell into the over 25s group, and was mainly intermediate levels (the equivalent of 5 GCSE passes) rather than advanced or higher (equivalent to at least 2 A-level passes). Some measures were seen by many liberals as an outright betrayal by the party, and one which has tainted their future voting for them. Policies like the Freedom Bill were overshadows by secret courts and gagging laws. From the bedroom tax to folding over energy decarbonisation by 2030; many saw a party which had abandoned its liberal roots.  

But with a Conservative majority this parliament, the moderating influence of the Liberal Democrats is becoming more apparent. Take, for instance, 2015 calculations from the IFS. When looking at household income data, the IFS saw average incomes rise above 2010 levels, but some benefited more than others. Pensioners were coddled by the coalition being 7% better off compared to pre recession. Non pensioners were 2.4% worse off. Most income growth was driven by falling unemployment, but one study argues that this fall in unemployment depressed wages. When tax and benefit changes are accounted for, over the Coalition, bottom households saw their incomes fall by about 4%. The richest saw drops closer to 2%, with middle income groups broadly being spared austere measures. The top 10% between 2010 and 2015 saw the largest drops of around £2000 a year over the lifetime of the Coalition, but a hallmark of being rich is having money to spare. Treasury data over the same period also found that, when cuts to public services are considered, the top and bottom 20% carried the largest burden (top households 3.1%; bottom 2.1%)

Now with the Tories at the helm, the scales have shifted dramatically against the poor. With £12 billion from the welfare budget to chop off; the IFS have found, following tax and welfare reforms over this Parliament, the poorest 50% will see sharper falls in household income. The steepest drops will be on the poorest families – between 9 and 12% – far steeper than anything in the Coalition. Households lucky enough to be in the top 8th and 9th deciles will likely see their incomes rise, thanks to moves to cut capital-gains tax (CGT). Of the £30 billion of capital gains subject to CGT in 2013-14, half went to 35,000 individuals with incomes of £100,000 a year or more, according to the Resolution Foundation. Income growth driven by falling unemployment isn’t likely to happen again, given that it won’t go much lower than 5.1%. Claims that a new national living wage will fix tax and benefit changes are a mirage. At around 60% of median income, it’s below what the International Labour Organisation deems a “low wage”. Calculations by the Resolution Foundation found when all tax, benefit and wage changes are said and done, the average household is predicted to be £650 worse off by 2020. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation said just as much. Chris Grover, in his book Social Security and Wage Poverty, points out that wage supplements are important in relieving the poverty of poorly paid workers, and higher minimum wages won’t fix long standing, in-work poverty.  

Not only were austerity measures in the Coalition more equitable, the £12 billion welfare cuts were declared a clear red line for any future coalition agreement with the Tories. Freed from their coalition partners, talks of being all in this together ring ever more hollow. Even modest green initiatives like the Green deal are being scrapped. Ditto universal free school meals the Lib Dems brought in. A 2010 Conservative manifesto pledge to scrap the Human Rights Act never got off the ground because of their Lib Dem partners. No longer. No 10’s attempts to veto more Freedom of Information requests are another plan that can get airborne without the ball and chain of their coalition partners. The Tories are now free to implement what many civil liberties groups call a “snoopers charter”. If the Lib Dems were still in coalition? Unthinkable.

Further, it seems some ‘lost’ liberal roots are growing back. The Lib Dems find themselves tacting leftwards once again under new leader Tim Farron. Corbyn’s election has prompted him to appeal as a centrist voice of reason by standing by their actions in government; but Farron has little love for the Coalition. Unsurprising, given his notoriously rebellious nature during it. Farron defied Clegg on everything from tuition fees, secret courts, the bedroom tax, energy decarbonisation and cuts to local services. In many cases, Lib Dems have found allies in their Labour colleagues on issues from UK-Saudi relations to the Housing Bill, the unfolding crises which plague the NHS, or the 3000 child refugees crossing Europe. In others, the Lib Dems have acted as a more convincing opposition. Who could forget the mass abstention by Labour on the Welfare Bill? It was a red line the Lib Dems stuck by, voting against the measures. It gifted Tim Farron some much needed distance from Coalition, while letting the Lib Dems frame themselves as a credible opposition to the Tories. In the Lords, the Lib Dems are picking a fight, and in part are responsible for inflicting some 60 defeats on the government from the Lords (undemocratic though it may be), much to the frustration of Labour peers. After all, it was the Lib Dems who tabled Lord amendments to kill tax credits cuts (vs the transitional period proposed by Labour), and derail cuts to Universal Credit.

As this parliament wears on, the true moderating force the Liberal Democrats had may reveal more of its face. Those feeling betrayed by the Coalition can look to a more combative, lefter leaning phoenix rising from the ashes. Whether this proves a winning combination is another matter entirely, but perhaps it’s time for those on the centre left to help the party back to it’s feet.

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