Clegg & Cable spell out Lib Dem public spending cuts to fund education priorities

by Stephen Tall on February 9, 2009

In his 2008 conference speech, Nick Clegg promised the Liberal Democrats would soon spell out exactly how the party would fund its policy priorities – new spending on Lib Dem policies, including tax cuts for the vast majority of citizens:

I want this to be the most progressive – most redistributive – tax plan ever put forward by a British political party. Using just a little of the money the government wastes every day. To help people in their everyday lives. That doesn’t mean cutting help for the poorest, of course. It doesn’t mean stopping vital investment in hospitals and schools. It just means taking a cold, hard look at all government spending and asking a basic question: Is it working? We believe that tax is a means to an end and government should not take a penny more than it needs. We believe returning money to people who need it is fair, liberal, and right.”

Today, Nick has started the process of proving that its target of saving £20 billion of current public spending is achievable, and not just the kind of thing the Lib Dems can say because we won’t win a majority at the next election. You can find full details at the party website here. The first tranche of identified savings focus on education:

Over the last 6 months, the Liberal Democrats have been carrying out a thorough and painstaking review of all central government spending. We have identified items of current expenditure that we believe are wasteful, wrong, unnecessary, or of low priority that in total would provide £20 billion to be reallocated to Liberal Democrat priorities. Those priorities will be spelled out in our manifesto.

We will release the full details of our spending review in the run up to the general election; the partial list in this paper, however, comprises the first part of that review. We are publishing this list in order to underline the importance that we attach to investing in the future of Britain’s children.

It will also serve to demonstrate that our purpose in identifying these savings is to reallocate funds to other priorities. Gordon Brown’s continued allegations that we would cut net spending overall by £20 billion are totally untrue.

Taken together, the cost of these proposals would amount to £6.6bn by year three of a Liberal Democrat Government (the point at which we would hope to bring in 20 hours free childcare for all children 18 months and over). The savings identified to meet potential costs on this scale would direct an additional £4.6bn into education spending from savings in other departments, with just over £2bn of current education departmental spending also redirected to Liberal Democrat education priorities. Full details of the proposed policies in these areas will be released in the coming weeks and debated at our Spring Conference in Harrogate in March.

The announcement has gained decent coverage, notably in the Telegraph and on the BBC website.

The benefits of this approach are evident. First, it focuses media attention on the Lib Dems proving that the party’s policy commitments are funded. Secondly, it provides for more than one bite at the publicity cherry, intead of announcing all £20bn of savings at one go. Thirdly, it entrenches the Lib Dem commitment to properly funding education.

There is a clear downside, of course. By specifying exactly which programmes will face the Lib Dem axe, the party opens itself up to targeted attacks, with Labour and the Tories focusing their direct mail attacks on the Lib Dems at those who will lose out from the party’s plans (just as the Tories did, to some effect, with local income tax at the next election, using the ‘teacher-and-policeman married couple will lose out’ example). They won’t of course publicise the other ways in which they will gain under the party’s plans; that’s politics. This was just the problem that Labour encountered in 1992 with John Smith’s shadow budget, widely credited with helping John Major’s Tories to victory. Notwithstanding the campaigning risks, it is in my view still the right thing to do: to show that the party is prepared to make real tough choices, and not just talk about them in the abstract.