What Clegg should have said

The cuddly yellow Liberal Democrats, darlings in the eyes of the public a mere year ago, held their first Spring Conference since being in government. Clearly they are stung by accusations that they have betrayed the electorate by saying that they would oppose early and fast cuts in spending and that they would oppose increases to tuition fees, only to support early and fast spending cuts and to have Vince Cable propose tuition fees at double to treble the current rate. I mean, it’s not like they meant any of their promises, they weren’t expecting to have to come through with anything. So Clegg, attempting to sell the virtues of a ‘mollifying’ Lib Dem presence said the following in his keynote:

“Would a Government without Liberal Democrats have ended child detention? Got an extra ten billion out of the banks? Would it have held a referendum on the voting system? Or put up capital gains tax? Ordered an inquiry into torture? Brought in a pupil premium? Or replaced Control Orders? Would a Government without Liberal Democrats have cut taxes for the poorest?
I don’t think so.”

I bet that raised a hearty cheer. But before cheering it, let us go through this passage bit by bit (it’s been a while since I did a proper Fisk) and see how true it really rings:

“Would a Government without Liberal Democrats have ended child detention?” Who knows? We do know that a government with Liberal Democrats has not ended it. Sure, Yarls Wood will no longer hold children awaiting deportation, but there are other places that will. New facilities being proposed to house families with children. They may be detained in a nicer building than Yarl’s Wood provided, but they are still being detained. Unless the government is saying that they will be letting people awaiting deportation wander off…

“Got an extra ten billion out of the banks?” In this he refers to the ‘banking levy’, and the ten billion works out to four years’ worth of it. He forgets, of course, that cuts to Corporation Tax made in the last Budget will mean that banks will often see a net benefit, especially as they return to ‘normal’ profitability. Meanwhile, the new levy has not stopped the banks from paying out nearly three times its annual value in bonuses this year.

“Would it have held a referendum on the voting system” Probably not. But the referendum is a choice between an unfair system that encourages tactical voting, can produce large distortions from proportionality, can result in MPs with a perceived lack of mandate and tends to help the larger parties and regional ones at the expense of small national parties; and First Past the Post (which also has pretty much the same flaws). Still, this is one thing that Clegg and the Lib Dems can take credit for – presenting us with a choice that excludes the options of actual proportionality, is tied to constitutional changes that are not subject to a referendum, and which will probably see the AV option rejected anyway.

“Or put up capital gains tax?” Maybe not. I’m sure that people across the land are thanking the Liberal Democrats for that one. It’s not a complete increase. There was previously one flat rate of 18%. The new system sees three rates: 18% remains as the basic rate, there’s a higher rate of 28% (how much of someone’s gains is taxed at this rate depends on how much Income Tax they pay) and a lower ‘Entrepreneurs’ Relief’ rate of 10%.

“Ordered an inquiry into torture” Any government can order an inquiry, and probably would have. We had three (or perhaps four?) into Iraq. What will this inquiry actually achieve? I can predict it now – it will conclude that we don’t torture, that some of the countries we are friends with do, that we were naïve enough to hand people to those countries, that we used some information obtained by torture but that it’s hard to avoid doing that completely, and that we really should try harder to be a nicer country in the future.

“Brought in a pupil premium” Actually, yes. All three main parties put a pupil premium into their manifestos. To claim that it is only a product of the Lib Dems is total hogwash. Besides, we have yet to see how the thing will work, and we already know that it is not (as the Lib Dems insisted last Autumn) additional to existing schools budgets, so it is not really a ‘premium’.

“Or replaced Control Orders” replaced them with what? Something that’s pretty similar to control orders, but has a different name (“T-Pims”). Again, the Tories promised to do this as well, so it’s not a Lib Dem-only policy

“Would a government without Liberal Democrats have cut taxes for the poorest?” Again, who knows? This government has increased taxes for the poorest. The ‘poorest’ do not earn enough to pay Income Tax, or pay very little, or get Tax Credits, so increasing the threshold for Income Tax has little effect on them. However, they all have to buy things, and VAT went up to 20%. So many of the poorest will be paying more tax overall. Of course, the poorest are often in receipt of benefits, and the very same government have announced that they will be restricting and cutting these as part of welfare reform. More people are likely to lose out from Iain Duncan Smith’s ‘Universal Benefit’ idea than to gain, and the marginal rates of tax are also going up for most (despite trumpeting the very opposite as an outcome). So many of the poorest will be clobbered from both ends, thanks to a Government with Liberal Democrats, and that’s before we even start to consider the effect of spending cuts on the most vulnerable in society.

“I don’t think so.” Which sums it up, really. All these wonderful things that the Lib Dems claim only happened because of them, some of which haven’t happened (and won’t), and others were not down to them at all. Only two are left – increasing Capital Gains Tax for some, and the doomed AV referendum.

Now, let’s see if this version of Clegg’s speech reads any better:

“Would a Government with Liberal Democrats have continued child detention? Allowed the banks to continue as if they hadn’t ruined the economy? Would it have held a referendum on a ‘miserable little compromise’ that could set back the cause of proper electoral reform by decades? Or cut corporation tax? Agreed to sell weapons to Libya last autumn? Increased tuition fees and got rid of the EMA? Or cut police numbers and closed Fire Stations? Scrapped our only aircraft carrier and fleet of Harriers before pushing for a no fly zone that would need to be enforced using a carrier and compatible fighter planes? Launched a wholesale restructuring of the NHS that could mean private companies controlling the majority of local budgets? Cut billions from public spending having argued strongly before the election that to do so this quickly would damage growth? Watched as the recovery stalled and tried to blame snow? Increased VAT, hitting the poorest in society? Decimated funding for voluntary groups while promoting the idea that they could step in to replace cut government services?

You would not have thought so in April 2010, but you’d be right to today”

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