by Stephen Tall on September 21, 2009
For once, the media reporting of what party activists at conference are discussing is accurate – Nick Clegg’s decision to question the affordability of the Lib Dems’ long-held policy of abolishiong university tuition fees, and his talk of the need for the party to be “quite bold, or even savage, on current spending” is the talk of the town.
The Financial Times today quotes some high-level criticism of Nick’s approach:
One MP said Mr Clegg sounded “nastier than the Tories” and that he was “salivating” over the chance to cut the state. Others complained that Mr Clegg and Vince Cable, Treasury spokesman, had “bounced” the party into a hair-shirt strategy.
Charles Kennedy, a former leader, criticised the decision to shelve the party’s cherished plan to scrap university tuition fees and Evan Harris, MP for Oxford West, gave warning that the leadership did “not always get its way”.
“People don’t get out of bed and campaign for gloom,” said one MP, pointing out that the cuts strategy had not been agreed by the party’s frontbench team. “We aren’t setting out what the sunny uplands look like on the other side.”
However, Nick has this morning largely defended his stance, telling listeners to BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme:
People, of course, can use softer language if they want but that’s not going to make the problem go away. We need to make significant, big cuts in public spending if we are not only to fix the great black hole in the public finances but also to carry on doing things we want to do as a society.”
“I’ve used the word savage and I think it’s right to be clear about the enormity of the problem, but it’s cuts for purpose. The purpose is fairness, the purpose is making sure the no-one in this country pays a penny of income tax on your first £10,000.”
I can see where Nick is coming from – part of the Lib Dems’ brand is that we are the party which is prepared to be honest, while the other two main parties happily conceal from voters their real intentions. It’s also the case that Nick has the responsibility that comes with leadership of trying to reach out to non-Lib Dems, rather than simply to please the hard core of party members who troop to seaside conferences.
Yet I cannot see how the talk of “savage” cuts is helpful – quite simply, it’s not the language of Lib Dems. Just as importantly, it’s not backed up by policy proposals. Even Vince Cable has so far come up with some £14 billion of potential savings, while estimating that a total of £112 billion will be needed over the course of the next Parliament.
In reality, it will almost certainly require a combination of spending cuts and tax rises even to prevent the UK’s ballooning deficit from getting more gargantuan still. We don’t need “savage” spending cuts any more than we need ‘steep’ tax rises (except perhaps on the very wealthiest who currently evade many of the taxes which hit the poorest hardest).
The Lib Dem message is clear enough: Labour can’t be trusted to spend wisely; the Tories can’t be trusted to cut wisely – only the Lib Dems’ approach can ensure the right balance is struck between tax and spend, and in Vince Cable we have just the man for the job. I’d much rather Nick was sticking to that clear, disciplined message than getting carried away with his own rhetoric.
Anyway, that’s my view – what’s yours? Here’s the new LDV poll question: Do you think Nick Clegg was right to say that the Lib Dems need to be “quite bold, or even savage, on current spending”? And here are your options:
Yes – Nick was delivering a much-needed wake-up call given the state of the national finances
No – this kind of language is unhelpful, and doesn’t reflect the Lib Dems’ fiscal policies
Over to you, LDV’s readers…