Newspapers have been reporting for months that the Liberal Democrats were not prepared to sign up to Tory plans for £10 billion of welfare cuts in a spending review that would draw up plans for spending into the next Parliament. Today’s Independent says that Nick Clegg himself will ensure that this Government only produces spending plans for 2015-16. The electorate will then decide in the 2015 election whether they want to pursue further cuts in welfare or a heavier burden of tax on the wealthy.
The Liberal Democrats’ opposition means the review will have to be watered down. Before the election, the Coalition will need to agree detailed plans for the 2015-16 financial year – for example, so that local authorities can fix council tax levels for that year. But a detailed agreement on across-the-board cuts well into the next parliament now looks politically impossible. “It is proving too difficult; we are not going to reach agreement,” one Liberal Democrat minister told The Independent.
It’s an encouraging sign that Nick Clegg is seen to be blocking further cuts to a welfare budget that has already taken a huge hit in this Parliament. We already know that David Cameron’s ideas on further cuts include denying Housing Benefit to the under 25s, a step that is hideously unfair.
If the Independent report is accurate, Nick Clegg’s actions will ensure that such measures will not be implemented ahead of the 2015 General Election. That in itself is a good sign and something that Liberal Democrat members can take heart from. I do, however, think that it’s important that he and other senior Liberal Democrats spell out exactly why that draconian approach to welfare is wrong. Nobody else is going to tackle the Tories’ ill informed prejudice about benefit claimants. Somebody needs to speak up for a compassionate welfare system that supports those who, through no fault of their own, are unable to find a job or are too ill to work, but also liberates people from being trapped on benefits by making work pay.
Actions may speak louder than words, but it’s the words that can be replayed time and time again on You Tube and repeated on leaflets. It’s important that we start getting our distinctive, Liberal Democrat approach across now. It’s too late if we leave it until the 2015 election campaign. I’ve written before that Nick needs to be openly critical of Tory plans post 2015. We know how effective he was before 2010 over the Tories’ planned marriage tax break, which the Liberal Democrats have prevented, and in making the case for the raising of the tax threshold, which we’ve implemented.
There will no doubt be discussion and debate around this at the Liberal Democrat Federal Conference in Brighton in September, if not as the Independent article suggests, on the floor of Conference itself, certainly around the fringe.Our party gives its members a role like no other in making policy and developing ideas. As we are putting together ideas for 2015, maybe now is the ideal time to join, or re-join and be part of that process.