EU referendum: Beyond liberal economics

The official campaigns from both sides of the EU referendum debate are both so exasperating I frequently find myself wishing I could vote against both of them.

Neither campaign deserves my vote, and yet, it is an historic question, which is bigger than both official campaigns. It is bigger than David Cameron or Jeremy Corbyn; certainly bigger than Nigel Farage or George Galloway.

While the official campaign representatives haggle over how best to reduce immigration and cut benefits, the rest of the serious, complex issues that are affected by EU membership never seem to get a look in. It isn’t surprising; this EU referendum debate, and the reason we are having it in the first place, is all down to the fight in the UK between different types of conservative; between economic liberals and social conservatives. No wonder the spectrum of debate is narrow. 

Take Lord Stuart Rose’s comments to the parliamentary select committee last week. Lord Rose asserted that Brexit (specifically, an end to the ‘free movement of people’ between EU member states) would lead to fewer people on the Labour market, and, consequentially, higher wages. Will Straw, the Labour Executive Director of Britain Stronger In Europe campaign, was asked about this on the Daily Politics and replied that the evidence shows free movement of people is ‘good for the economy overall,’ while Conservative Danny Finkelstein said that higher wages aren’t always a good thing as they could increase unemployment. It’s not just the In campaign. Look at the way Boris Johnson, on the Andrew Marr Show, dismissed concerns about job losses as a result of Brexit, by saying that leaving will be good for the economy overall.

What if you simply want to know more about the impact of staying or leaving on your wages or on your job? You’d be forgiven for getting the distinct impression that this debate isn’t about you; that both sides consider you to be at best an annoying irrelevance.

These things are gold dust for the likes of Ukip, a party which loves to play the ‘anti-establishment’ card whenever it can. Without so much as having to lift a finger over workers rights or wages, Suzanne Evans, Louise Bours and Douglas Carswell get opportunity after opportunity to frame themselves as the only people in the room with any concern for low waged workers. (Or, I should say, for some low waged workers. They do not even pretend to care about all workers.)

With the arguments we keep hearing both for and against EU membership so rooted in classical liberal economics, it is unsurprising to see that Jeremy Corbyn flat out refuses to say he is “on the same side” of the debate as David Cameron. He is right, of course. He is on neither side in the fight between the two kinds of Tory. He is neither a classical liberal conservative nor a social conservative. His cautious, carefully-weighed answer to the question of which ‘side he is on’ may be intellectually honest, and to many it will be admirable, but unfortunately it leaves a gaping hole in the referendum debate which Alan Johnson cannot fill by himself. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party needs to be asking – and, ideally, answering – the question: what are the modern left-wing arguments for and against the EU project, and how do we weigh them up? 

The Labour party should not be scared of debating this openly. No-one can accuse them of ‘splits’ or ‘division’ when the Tories are practically plotting a leadership coup over the issue. And it’s not like the Labour party is taking the opportunity to criticise the Tories for being divided on Europe – they’ve had a bat and ball handed to them and they’re choosing not to even attempt to swing a hit; the least they could do is take the opportunity to work up a modern, social democratic vision of the EU while the government is busy fighting among themselves.

Besides, for all the critical talk of ‘splits’ in the Tory party over Europe, I find it rather refreshing to see politicians drop the ridiculous pretence for once that everyone in one party agrees on every single thing all the time; that they must all stick to the lines they are given, even if it doesn’t fly, even if it makes no earthly sense, even if everyone in the room knows full well that they do not believe it because they have said so in the past, on camera. 

And here lies one of the big risks for the In campaign: that the freedom to speak authentically puts the Brexit campaign at an advantage. Brexit is mostly made up of people who have spent years, decades, perhaps their whole political lives pondering the issue of the EU. While sometimes coming off as slightly weird and monomaniacal, it is evident from listening to these people that they care deeply about the subject, and know the arguments inside out. Michael Gove, Owen Patterson, Douglas Carswell, David Davis, John Redwood (although not, quite noticeably, Boris Johnson): these men give the distinct impression that there are very, very few questions about the EU that a journalist could throw at them which they haven’t spent hours considering for many hours over the course of their lives, while boiling an egg, waiting for petrol, sitting on the toilet, and basically any time their minds wander.

In contrast, many of those who are part of the In campaign are striving to stay on message, and repeat the approved lines. Many of them – not all, but many – appear as if they have not given the subject much profound or careful thought at all; in some cases because they never imagined Brexit to be on the cards in any serious way, and in some cases because they simply don’t see it as that important.

While sticking to a clear, agreed message might give the In campaign a more professional image, especially to the usual analysts, who tend to work in communications, media, or both, and therefore view everything through the lens of whether it looks like ‘good communications’ or not, we only have to look to the successes of people like Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump to see that this isn’t always a winning strategy these days. To many undecided voters, David Cameron and his colleagues risk sounding stilted, unenthused, arrogant, and – perhaps the biggest risk to the In campaign – elitist. The narrative that the ‘establishment’ wants us to stay in the EU and ‘the ordinary people’ want us to leave is helped further by stories about vital documents being withheld from pro-Brexit ministers or John Longworth being suspended from the British Chamber of Commerce over pro-Brexit comments. (Both these things may of course be entirely reasonable, but they feed into a perception about the fairness of the debate.)

And this is where Jeremy Corbyn’s voice is so sorely missed for many in the EU referendum debate – and where it is conspicuous by its absence. His ‘USP’ as we all know is his authenticity and his tendency to formulate policy positions on the basis of evidence, and by listening to the people affected, rather than choosing them as part of a communications strategy or ideological narrative. It is a strength, but it is also a great challenge to pursue intellectual honesty – and not just in politics. When you follow evidence and logic on complex issues you often end up with a conclusion that displeases those with much more power than yourself, or, a conclusion that does not fit under any labels, and it is therefore not saleable.

This is the problem with the EU debate. The right-wing case for the EU (that it facilitates globalisation in the modern world and is good for business in general) is saleable. The right-wing case against the EU (that it brings red tape and regulation, and allows too much immigration or the ‘wrong sort’ of immigration) is saleable. The left-wing case for leaving (that it is a “capitalist club,” which dilutes and overrides parliamentary sovereignty) is saleable. And yet, even though the EU is a social democratic project in so many ways – indeed, this is why so many right-wingers want out – it seems to be beyond the wit of the Labour party to articulate a saleable, authentic, progressive case for staying in the EU. Jeremy Corbyn, Labour leader, with a large mandate, a philosophical thinker with an authentic voice who has credibility among left-wingers, seems the ideal person for the task. We may ask ourselves why he seems so cautious about stepping up to it? 

Advertisements

Richard Dawkins and the limits of liberalism

Richard Dawkins and the limits of liberalism

Richard Dawkins, scientist-cum-professional-controversialist, has confirmed what I have for a while suspected: that, in spite of being a very talented scientist, he is also a – how shall I put this – a less than lovely human being.

Today he is lamenting the great injustice that perpetrators of anti-Muslim hate crime are given too harsh sentences. “Who was hurt, except the pig?” he rhetorically asks his thousands of Twitter followers, as the pair who (in their own words) “invaded” an Edinburgh mosque by attacking it with bacon were sentenced to jail

This is the same Dawkins, let us remember, who, when Rebecca Watson wrote about how uncomfortable it was to be chatted up in an enclosed space like a lift right after giving a talk on sexual harassment, took the time to sneer at how trivial her complaint was, compared with the serious things happening to other women, in other countries. (Sam Ambreen has written a brilliant blog here about why this line of reasoning is nonsense.) This matter of anti-Islamic criminals being sentenced to jail is presumably the kind of high priority issue he would prefer people spent their energies on.

The attack on the mosque wasn’t just any attack. One of the perpetrators is a member of the Scottish Defence League – the Scottish version of the EDL. The self-appointed ‘rationalists’ seem to think the fact that you should always be free to criticise people’s religion (obviously true) applies here. But it doesn’t. The EDL and the SDL are not critiquing religious oppression. Many are hardline ‘Christian’ extremists, full of homophobic, misogynistic, anti-choice rubbish of their own. Nobody was critiquing passages or verses from the Quran. Nobody was asserting their own right to disbelief in Allah. This was bacon attached to and thrown at the door of a mosque, in a climate of rising hatred and violence towards Muslim communities. It is more akin to attacks on synagogues in a climate of rising anti-semitism than to an atheist or humanist critique of religion.

Attacks like these have nothing to do with ‘rationalism’ or atheism and everything to do with the nasty shadow of the far right that is creeping across Europe. When we talk about fascism and far right politics, we are too quick to talk about the role working class people play in driving it forwards, and too slow to talk about the responsibility of journalists, academics, politicians, scientists, and all sorts of other middle class professionals who have historically been central to the rise of fascism whenever it has occurred. Scientists, doctors and psychiatrists in particular played a huge role in legitimising racism in the early part of the last century, with their cold, ‘objective’ evidence based on measuring foreheads and gaslighting women into mental illness.

Rationalist liberalism likes to position itself as objective. The privileged arrogance of assuming yourself to be impartial and everyone else to be subjective speaks for itself. Too often, white rich men are able to see themselves as objective because they are the default human being, after all: what possible biases or prejudices could they have?

Nobody is removed from the context of the society they live in. If you describe yourself as a rationalist, far from being a super-rational person, you probably just have blind spots to your own privileges and prejudices.

Richard Dawkins talks of Muslims being “offended” by the bacon attack but we are talking about oppression, fear and real violence. Context, as I have written before, matters. Last week a woman was killed possibly, the police say, for wearing Muslim dress. Britain First are making threats to journalists for writing about them. Marine Le Pen’s Front National has topped the EU elections in France. The party is being widely reported, even by the BBC, as a ‘Eurosceptic’ party. This is the reality of the context this hate crime – for that is surely what it is – happened in. To say that nobody was “hurt” by one individual incident, as Dawkins did, highlights the limits of liberalism. Liberalism, by itself, ignores the structural. ‘Pure’ liberals, ironically, seem to have ended up as devout believers in the shiny religion of individualism, even when increasingly the evidence tells us that both socially and economically, liberalism is no longer, by itself, enough to make society better.

Liberals need to have an honest chat about free speech

I don’t want misogynists to be quiet. I want feminists to be louder. 

When liberals debate free speech and George Orwell’s 1984 comes up, it’s usually in the context of spying or censorship. But the cleverest oppressions in Orwell’s world come from not censoring speech, but from controlling the language people can use in the first place.

If you don’t know the language for ‘rape culture’ or ‘patriarchy’ it doesn’t matter that you theoretically have the freedom to talk about them. You can’t even think them.

This is central to the free speech debate. Who controls language? Why is the expression ‘violence against women’ okay but ‘male violence’ too uncomfortable? Why is abusing a child on camera ‘child pornography?’ Why is naming micro-oppressions being ‘offended’?  Why is the oxymoron ‘rape fantasy’ the best term we have for erotic power play? What is the point of the ‘date’ in ‘date rape’, or the ‘domestic’ in ‘domestic violence’

And why do we believe it’s too damn difficult to grasp the distinction between ‘porn’ that depicts a woman or girl being raped, and hating it, with a title like ‘bitch slut got raped’, and actors showing consensual kink or power fantasy, often told from the perspective of the fictional ‘victim’? Why do we believe it’s too damn difficult to understand the difference between reducing a woman to an object, and a woman expressing her own sexuality?  Why do we pretend it’s too damn difficult to differentiate between expressing your opinion about Caroline Criado-Perez’s banknotes campaign, and threatening to rape her, or sending hate mail directly to a family member’s home address?

A lot of that linguistic framing comes from liberals. Liberals so protective of their own free speech that they never noticed some people don’t even have language for what they need to say, let alone a space to say it in.

Free speech is necessary and must be defended but free speech is not enough. If your voice is louder than mine, free speech won’t solve that. Free speech is a starting principle, not a solution to injustice.

I support free speech. That’s why I critique what people say so much. But when you pretend all words are of equal power, thrown from an equal height, it sounds naive. Women have free speech to say no – but men decide that sometimes no means yes. When you pretend free speech is about the right of the powerful to dictate language, when you pretend that calling someone a sexist is the same as calling them a rapeable bitch, don’t be surprised if people use you and your sneering dismissal of power structures as an excuse to shut that freedom down for the rest of us.

Because the irony is that when free speech is restricted, yours usually survives anyway. The ‘rape porn ban’, if it works at all, will probably end up penalising marginalised groups – gay people, BDSM enthusiasts, trans people, sex workers, rape survivors – while arrogant Libertarian Dudes will find their conscience-free wank fodder elsewhere. Similarly, a Twitter troll button would probably silence not the ‘bullies,’ but those who shout back. You can already see how woman-haters run riot on Twitter exercising their free speech while accounts like @Misogyny_Online, set up to record the abuse, get suspended.

And yet, the blame for censorship still, somehow, falls on marginalised groups. I don’t agree with the content of the rape porn ‘ban’ but if you honestly think you’re being oppressed by feminists because you have to change your internet settings before wanking over a rape video, you need to take your head out of your rectum.

It’s not just liberal men.  Some liberal feminists are ‘protesting’ online abuse by leaving Twitter for a day. Choosing to leave the platform you are privileged to have in the first place seems, to put it gently, an odd way to protest the silencing of the marginalised.

This hypocrisy is why so many throw up their hands and give up on free speech altogether. That’s dangerous. I don’t want misogynists to be quiet. I want feminists to be louder.

But if you care about free speech, you have to care about how it works in practice, not just as an abstract principle. You have to care about the structural. You have to care about the voices you don’t hear and why you don’t hear them. It isn’t because they’re not talking. You have to care when speech is used to silence others, even when their silence makes you louder. Free speech is needed in order to resist oppressive power structures. And the best way to protect free speech is to make sure that more people have it.

FEEDING THE TROLLS: The put-upon privileged who resist progress need to take responsibility for their actions

Rod Liddle, bless him, has somehow become a big-government, pro-statist left-winger. No, really. Here he is, in the Spectator, calling for regulations on businesses to protect employment rights for workers, even when the employee in question screws up so monumentally that your entire business’s credibility hangs by the skin of your gums.

You see, Rod Liddle thinks it was unfair of Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, to make a commercial decision about John Derbyshire’s future employment with him following his ‘controverisal’ (read: racist) article in a different, online publication. Derbyshire’s article The Talk includes titbits of wisdom like explaining to white kids that black people are usually less intelligent than white people, and that they should avoid, mistrust, and fear black people whenever they see them. You don’t need to spend much time joining the rather obvious dots to see how tragedies like the killing of Trayvon Martin, or, here in England, of Mark Duggan and Charles de Menezes, are the inevitable end result of having people walk around believing such racist nonsense. If it was published in England the article would quite likely be deemed an incitement to racial hatred.

America should be proud of the respect they give to their constitutional right to free speech. But the land of freedom is also famed for being the land of personal responsibility. If you’re seriously going to expect a black man wearing a hood to ‘take responsibility’ for the fact that some people see a hood as a threatening thing (rather than being, say, a good way to keep your ears warm), or a woman to ‘take responsibility’ for how she dresses or what she drinks in case she’s assaulted, you really have to also agree that racists should be expected to take responsibility for the consequences of their racism – or even to just use their common sense in understanding, as a grown up, that when they say racist things, some people will probably call them racist.

The National Review is a serious magazine, and, apart from anything else, it’s a well-run business. Lowry is perfectly entitled to decide whom he wants to employ and whom he wants to sack. Welcome to the free market.

Justice has been served by the free market itself (and it seemingly has because John Derbyshire has been sacked), so you might ask why I’m feeding the trolls with a blog post about the whining naysayers? Does it matter if people write silly things on the internet?

Well, for a start, the hateful Coffee House blog Rod Liddle wrote about the Stephen Lawrence case almost prejudiced the whole trial. It’s a horrible thing to make victims beg for justice in the first place; to risk dragging the quest for it out even further for the sake of your right to say silly things about a murder case with no consequences definitely does matter.

But this smug veneer of being lazily controversial at the expense of less privileged people than yourself is damaging to us all as a society in a much less immediately tangible way. It helps cultivate a culture of cynicism so pervasive that it serves to do exactly the opposite of what those who practice it pretend they want.

The Liddles, O’Neills, and Delingpoles are not the defenders of free speech. They are the very thing they say they detest: an oversensitive mob, shouting down dissent, and trying to ridicule people into silence.

They contribute to and facilitate a culture which is extremely saddening. It allows people to sit in their bedrooms nursing a convenient, uncharitable assumption that anyone who cares about any moral issue, ever, is only doing it because they’re following some trend, or else for some other selfish, hypocritical reason. It’s easy to miss how prevalent this world view is.

Real, serious work, such as that done by charities like Refuge, gets denigrated by Carol Sarler in the Daily Mail with no basis for the assumptions made whatsoever. Protesters get denounced because they drink coffee. In fact, activists, writers, and ordinary people taking any moral interest in anything are continually met with the most tenuous accusations of “hypocrisy” because, for example, they care about X, but not Y. And the criticisms usually come from people who feel no particular need to give a toss about X or Y. Or a A, B, C or D, for that matter.

Just look at the comments on the Guardian article by Ava Vidal about the Trayvon Martin case. Why don’t you do more about gang violence, demand page upon page of furious commentators? Why don’t you criticise black killers? Almost as if a black person’s opinion is only valid if they criticise some unrelated other black people first, which, come to think of it, is probably the inevitable logical conclusion you come to if you hold everyone of the same race responsible for each other’s actions (i.e. if you’re a racist).

And this fake concern for every other issue under the sun bar the one the person in question happens to be addressing at that particular point in time is more than just a mild irritation. It actually gives validation to whatever is being spoken out against. When Brendan O’Neill decided that the most pressing issue worthy of space on his blog was to criticise all the people who protested the execution of Troy Davis – protested it on the rather important grounds that he might have actually been innocent – he accused them of inverse racism. He may not have a racist bone in his own body, but the article spewed comments from a stream of people who had several, and who saw his sneering at anti-racism campaigners as a validation of their hate. When he criticised the language in the government’s gay marriage consultation by pretending to be offended that “us, the little people” are not welcome in the consultation process, he attracted pages of comments from people who “agree” with him that gender reassignment is nonsense, that people can’t ever truly change gender, and, weirdly, that the feminist movement should be honest and rename itself the militant lesbian movement.

It’s not just that these kinds of columns dismiss very real concerns from people who are often vulnerable and voiceless. By peacocking his own ignorance about gender reassignment and framing it as ordinary, O’Neill actually shifts the centre ground in terms of social progress. And, needless to say, he isn’t shifting it forwards. Keeping an issue like trans rights on the sidelines is the perfect way to provide yourself with endless column-fodder for years to come. While an issue is only defined a minority issue, it can be derided as irrelevant to ordinary people, and then, when awareness is successfully raised and people start to actually care about the issue in question, everyone taking an interest can just be mocked – then completely ignored – for being nothing more than fashion-following sheep.

To say nothing of the fact that declaring minority issues to be all bang on trend can be repulsively insulting to the people who know, with painful clarity, just who the most powerful “mob” really is.

Homophobes who sometimes have to – shock, horror – have their views challenged may think that being gay is “fashionable,” but a child bullied for being gay – whether they actually are gay or not – who is terrified to walk home after school, or go into the school toilets, for fear of being beaten up or worse, would probably disagree. Rod Liddle may be able to make money from writing in the Sun that disability is fashionable (before mocking and denigrating disabled people in the same article) but Fiona Pilkington and her daughter? They knew only too well that it wasn’t.

Yes, welcome to the smelly nub of the hypocrisy of these faux-libertarians. These people who side with the dominant groups in society, usually make money from doing so, and then pretend to be bravely rebelling against a fashionable trend. These people who say they agree that people are better at solving problems than governments are, but when people try to solve problems, they throw their toys out of the pram and call them names, because, as it turns out, they don’t like that very much either.

After all, when News of the World was closed down by the free market, because consumers and advertisers alike voiced their disgust in a great example of real free speech, against an organisation that actually was powerful, and had actually been engaged in illegal, harmful activities, Liddle, O’Neill and Dellingpole didn’t applaud that, or hold it up as an example of why government doesn’t need to regulate the press. No, they demonised the people speaking out about phone-hacking as biased, vindictive, and stupid.

There are some people who genuinely do value personal freedom, but we also value personal responsibility. There are others who use the very precious concept of liberty as an excuse to defend the indefensible. Make no mistake: that’s not about freedom of speech, or about freedom of anything else. It’s about resisting progress. Are these people to blame for every racist murder and every assaulted trans person? No. But every piggish snort they give out, every minute they spend finding reasons to mock the voices trying, however imperfectly, to drive social progress forwards for all of us, sets the whole fight back just a little bit further. And for that, they really should take some personal responsibility.

Keep your Whig on: should Lib Dem voters just give up on true liberalism?

One of my favourite political jokes is the one about the MP who gets caught up in a terribly embarrassing sexual scandal. “Apparently he was secretly into humiliation and stuff, too,” says one commentator. “Secretly?” says another. “He was a Lib Dem!” And never has it seemed more appropriate, or more fun, to make Lib Dem jokes like this. But, with Andrew Lansley’s NHS reforms coming dangerously close to being taken seriously, with welfare being cut by £7bn and counting, with the AV vote decidedly lost, and with the kind of local election results that would make even Norman Tebbit cry, has the time come for Lib Dem voters to give up on the dream of a genuinely liberal Britain? Should yellow voters follow Ed Miliband’s invitation to save themselves from permanent blushes and, er, just go red instead?

Well, in some ways, the Labour party really do have a lot of nerve to even ask the question quite frankly. Let’s take the two biggest ‘betrayals,’ if it’s not too melodramatic to use that word, of Liberal Democrat voters by the party. Raising tuition fees is probably the most controversial, and most publicised u-turn. Well, after introducing tuition fees themselves, in 1998 (when they had a 179-seat majority), commissioning Lord Browne in 2009 to review the future of higher education funding without any particularly strict guidelines at all about, say, capping costs, and leaving it until after the 2010 General Election to implement the report, an election they knew they were unlikely to win, thereby in effect deliberately leaving the reform of higher education funding in the hands of the Tories, it is ridiculous and insulting for the Labour party to suddenly pretend they have some great moral desire to look out for the interests of students. People aren’t goldfish: we remember that Labour promised us that they “would not introduce top-up fees” and even that they had “legislated against them” before bringing them in. We also know who commissioned the Browne Review in the first place.

Despite the infamous (and rather idiotic, given that there were no electoral mathematics amongst even the most optimistic Lib Dem pollsters that suggested the Liberal Democrats would get a chance to form a government without being in coalition with at least one pro-tuition fees party) ‘pledge’ signed by Nick Clegg on tuition fees, their policy of abolishing them altogether wasn’t actually considered, by a lot of senior Lib Dems – David Laws, for example – to be a particularly central aspect of their manifesto. More important, argues Laws, is the targeting of educational funds at a much earlier age, and making sure that there are good, well-funded schools, with competent teachers, and proper levels of discipline, in the country’s poorest areas. In short, policies like the Pupil Premium, and Free Schools (50% of which, so far, are being planned with the specific aim of providing education for children from low income backgrounds), are more important to a lot of high-ranking Lib Dems than whether graduates earning over £21,000 per annum have to contribute something towards their own higher education. And these views weren’t secret: even though the Orange Book was officially rejected as party policy under Charles Kennedy’s leadership, it has never been a secret that the main contributors are also now some of the most heavyweight political figures in the Lib Dem party.

None of this gets them off the hook: they never should have promised something they almost certainly knew would be impossible to deliver, given the electoral mathematics of the situation, if nothing else. But sometimes, when a u-turn happens, it’s worth actually considering if there was a genuine reason for the change in policy. The tuition fees plan isn’t perfect of course, but, given that no major party is proposing anything much better, is it really, in the cold light of day, much of a reason not to vote Lib Dem?

The other enormous turnaround in policy from the Lib Dems is their approach to the economic crisis itself. There is simply no denying that they campaigned furiously on a platform of being anti-cuts. Even Orange Book libertarian Lib Dems tend to be against a big state in principle, but not necessarily in favour of cutting corners with social justice, just to save pennies. The only explanation they’ve offered for this complete reversal of belief is that they didn’t fully comprehend quite how bad the UK’s debt was until they got into power.

Do we believe them? I find it hard to. As many Lib Dems pointed out (before they went into coalition of course), even though the Tories are aiming extremely harsh cuts at the public sector, Public Sector Net Borrowing (PSNB) for 2010/11 was only 11.7% of GDP*. And the national debt was at 60.1% of GDP until government intervention in the collapsing financial section pushed it up to 148% GDP*. All of these figures have been in the public domain and none of them are particularly changed since May 2011; certainly not for the worse. In fact, some commentators say that the economic situation is a lot better than was thought during the 2010 election campaign. For example, government projections allowed for a further £500bn of potential financial sector liability costs, for things like mortgage securities, but this money seems more and more unlikely to be needed. Surely a tiny slice of that £500bn could be put into rescuing things like disability benefits?

So the excuse about the economic situation being worse than was once thought doesn’t seem to cut much ice. Even if it were true, it seems illogical to say that if the national debt is £910.10bn then spending will help to compensate for the recessive effect of increased private sector wealth-hoarding, as we often see in a recession, but if the national debt is £2252.90bn, then fast spending cuts, much deeper than the actual size of the debt, suddenly become a good idea (necessary, in fact), and that there is suddenly no need to worry about the impact of fast, deep cuts on, say lowering tax receipts and slowing the actual circulation of cash.

So there’s no hiding from the fact that on the economy, the issue that concerns the most British people according to the vast majority of polls, the Liberal Democrats really do deserve a bit of a kicking for their help in legitimising what many consider to be nasty, ideological cuts – Iain Duncan-Smith’s Welfare Reform Bill, for example – and also for insulting our intelligence by imagining that we can’t look at a graph of public spending for the past twenty years and see that public debt has been more or less the same throughout the Labour government as it was during Thatcher’s government – with a couple of spikes for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, of course.

But is even this enough of a reason to not vote Liberal Democrat again in four years time? Perhaps it would be, if the next question were not: if not the Lib Dems, then who?

Surely it cannot be Labour? Looking at welfare, the most disappointing of the cuts, only ten Labour MPs voted against the Welfare Reform Bill, and that was in defiance of the party whip: the official Labour line was not to oppose the bill. I have heard many Labour campaigners and bloggers saying this was for tactical reasons but I don’t believe them. If it was for tactical reasons, they would be constantly campaigning about welfare reform , trying to win the argument. They are not. Ed Miliband has accepted Disability Living Allowance reform, for example, which is possibly one of the cruellest and most unnecessary cuts happening within welfare, with only 0.5% of claimants ever being considered false, by the DWP’s own figures. The Labour party have done a lot of shouting about their ‘amendments’ to the bill, but in actual fact, their amendments aren’t much better than the content of the original paper. An example of a Labour amendment is that they want to limit Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) eligibility to two years, instead of only one. If Iain Duncan-Smith had proposed limiting it at two years, they’d probably be making a fuss out of capping it at three. The concerns of the many charities and experts who object to this policy don’t relate to how many years you give claimants, they relate to the fact that the entire principle of time limiting a benefit like ESA is ridiculous, because overwhelmingly people do not choose to be on it in the first place. You’d think that the Labour party would know that. And don’t even get us libertarians started on the Labour party’s record on civil liberties. This is one of the big issues that won Labour voters over to the Lib Dems, and I’m still waiting to hear them apologise for all the people they locked up or placed under house arrest without ever convicting them of a crime.

So Labour shouldn’t be winning Lib Dem votes over spending cuts and welfare reform any more than they should be winning them over tuition fees. I suppose you can always vote Green, if you’re a left-wing Liberal Democrat; a refuge from the Labour party, perhaps, who was unhappy with the Iraq war and the bank bailout, but still intrinsically socialist rather than liberal. You could vote Socialist Worker Party (SWP) if you’re more interested in abstract ideology and Russian history than you are in actually helping anybody. And you could vote for the Communist Party of Great Britain if you’d like to have an MP who enjoys long philosophical discussions whilst handing out free sandwiches. (Incidentally I have nothing against free sandwiches. More politicians should hand out free food to people. Some days I actually think the Communist Party of Great Britain’s habit of handing out free, healthy sandwiches all the time is the most useful thing I’ve ever seen a politician do.)

But meanwhile, in the real world, where does that leave honest-to-goodness liberals, who actually believe in low taxation and decent standards of living; who believe in personal responsibility, but want to see it encouraged in landlords and employers as well as poor people deciding how many kids to have; who believe community and family are better at taking of people than the state, and therefore don’t want to see people being shovelled out of the areas they’ve lived in their entire lives because private landlords are too greedy to show any personal responsibility to their community, because local authorities house people in silly, inappropriate ways, and – most importantly – because successive governments have been all too happy to pass heaps of taxpayers’ money right into the hands of private landlords without questioning the price for fear of deflating the pumped-up housing market. Who do we all vote for?

Well, I’m afraid that as much as I shall continue to give them a kick whenever I see fit (which is often), I still can’t really see much better an option – for now – than to stick with the Lib Dems. And although it might feel like it sometimes, I know I’m not the only one: despite the appalling local results overall in May, ConservativeHome blogger and Tory strategist Rob Haywood points out that the Liberal Democrat local vote actually held up reasonably well in areas where the party currently has a sitting MP. Where Labour and Tory candidates for parliament often focus their campaigns around national issues, the Liberal Democrats are extremely good at engaging with their own constituents about important local issues, and their genuine local concerns. With more and more minority governments likely in future, perhaps that’s something worthy of a few Lib Dem brownie points as well.

*Figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS)

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: