A Timely Reform by Ian Ridley

Blog & web site of Ian Ridley

Lose the sound bites, lose the coalition “line”

I first began to get worried about some Lib Dem sound bites during the closing stages of General Election campaign. Nick Clegg was on Radio 5 I think. He was asked a question about the economy and kept repeating the phrase “Greedy Bankers” in the answer. It took the radio presenter to point out that not all bankers are necessarily greedy.

Lib Dem Cabinet Ministers have continued this trend towards ill-chosen sound bites when defending coalition policy. We have had Clegg’s “Gold plated pensions” in reference to the public sector, when most public employees earn modest wages. I agree that public sector final salary schemes need to be looked but I wouldn’t generalise them as “Gold-plated”. This sound bite didn’t exactly reach out to public sector employees and make friends.

Danny Alexander calls the VAT rise “unavoidable”. However there are alternatives in the Lib Dems’ own manifesto:

  • Mansion Tax;
  • Ending tax avoidance;
  • Not renewing Trident;
  • Restricting pension tax relief to the basic rate.

Taken on their own they would, at the very least, have reduced the amount of VAT increase. Other alternatives not in the manifesto include income tax rises (gasp) or other revenue-raising changes to income tax thresholds.

And this is what frustrates me the most. It is not just the poor presentation of policy via sound-bite,  it is the unwillingness of Lib Dem Ministers to talk about Lib Dem manifesto commitments that have been traded away in the policy discussions with the Tories.

VAT is a key example of this. Nick Clegg defends this and other “painful” budget measures because,

“Things have changed in the last few weeks. The international situation has deteriorated very badly indeed – that’s why we had to move very quickly on it.”

Danny Alexander, as I wrote earlier, called it, “unavoidable”.

Another defence used by some Lib Dem Ministers is, to précis, “it’s all Labour’s fault and they would have put up VAT anyway.”

All these of the could and have been said by Tory Ministers. There is “a coalition line” that no-one in the Cabinet seems to deviate very far from. All normal for a single party government but strange behaviour for a coalition of two parties.

What no Lib Dem Minister has really spelled out is,

“VAT rises are our first preference but it is a compromise between Liberal Democrat and Conservative priorities. We would have preferred to raise money by a Mansion Tax,  cancelling the Trident replacement, reducing tax loopholes and ending higher rate pension relief but the Tories did not agree to these.”

We need to be hearing and reading more of the nuts and bolts of how the coalition has reached policy agreements and what the Lib Dems initially brought to the table. Ministers are keen to talk about the “good news” of which Lib Dem policies are in the coalition programme but we need to hear more about those that aren’t. These are the policies that really distinguish us from the Tories, simply because the Tories won’t agree to them.

If Lib Dem Minsters continue along the present path,  it will look like the Tories are cherry-picking Lib Dem policies to soften coalition cuts and tax rises. Voters will increasingly be unable to identify a distinctive Liberal Democrat position.

And then the question, “Why vote Liberal Democrat?” will be difficult to answer.

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