My column for ConHome: 7 ideas to unite liberal Conservatives and market Liberals – a personal wish-list

by Stephen Tall on September 11, 2013

con home cartoonMy sixth column for ConservativeHome — The Other Side — ran yesterday. You can read it here — along with the hundred or so comments, including several replies from me. Apparently a pro-immigration stance doesn’t appeal to that many Tories: who knew? My thanks to the site’s editors, Paul Goodman and Mark Wallace, for giving a Lib Dem space to provoke (constructively, I hope).
The first time I wrote for ConservativeHome, in March 2012, I asked the simple question, “Why don’t people like me vote Conservative?”

I dislike big government, and support a low-tax, free enterprise economy. I believe competition is a key driver of public service reform, and am relaxed about private sector involvement in the delivery of health and education so long as the principle of “free to all at the point of use” prevails. And I think the state has no business intruding into our private lives, whether to keep tabs on citizens or to legislate against our lifestyle choices. I should be the sort of voter a modern Conservative Party would want to appeal to. And yet to me, and to many who share the same principles, the idea of voting for the Tories is completely off-limits. Why?

I want to return to that question. I’m an economic and social liberal. For me the (in)famous Rose Garden press conference in May 2010 was a genuinely exciting political event. Written off today as a moment of madness, for me it showed the radical possibilities of coalition government, bringing together two different parties with enough of a shared agenda. Read the original Programme for Government and the scope of its ambition still impresses.

But we all know what happened next. Buffeted by events, not least the worst economic downturn in a century, the Coalition’s founding purpose has drifted. Activists in both parties will shed few tears if it dies a death in 2015.

The voters may, of course, have different ideas and deliver a second we-don’t-trust-any-of-you verdict that forces a second Coalition. Even if that happens, though, a second coalition will likely be a duller, more cautious contract, dictated more by transactional ‘red lines’ cancelling out each other’s pet projects/hates than by the original, wide-eyed potential of what could be achieved in partnership.

So what follows is a wish-list, written by a market liberal who’d welcome working in coalition with liberal Conservatives (and indeed any liberal Labourites who still exist). Some may happen. Most won’t. But if they did you might find more people like me willing to lend the Conservatives their vote next time round…

1. Focus on tax-cuts for the low-paid (and forget the marriage tax allowance)

The next election will be dominated by living standards. One of the most potent arguments the Coalition can make is that it has put its money where its mouth is by focusing tax-cuts on the low-paid. In that first ConHome article, 18 months ago, I said I was “baffled” the Conservatives hadn’t tried harder to identify themselves more with the Lib Dem policy of increasing the income tax threshold to £10k. Clearly they took my words to heart [/irony].  And yet, as I noted in my column here a couple of months ago, the Conservatives seem set once again to cede the advantage back to the Lib Dems by turning their attention instead to the tax-break for married couples slammed by the Institute of Fiscal Studies as ‘complicated, confusing and untransparent’. We should continue instead to lift personal taxes until they reach at least the minimum wage and end the ‘boondoggle’ of the state taking taxes off the lowest-paid with one hand and giving it back in benefits with the other.

2. We should be unashamedly pro-immigration

Of all my wish-list, this is the most cat-in-hell’s-chance of happening. Though Conservatives (and Ukippers) feign support for a free market economy, that gets forgotten the moment free movement of labour is mentioned. Heck, even my party, the supposed home of liberalism, has decided there are more votes in pandering to the Daily Mail. As Jonathan Portes has pointed out before: we know ‘that immigration is good for the public finances in both the short and long run. We know that there is little evidence that immigration impacts negatively on jobs or wages; we know that immigrants are much less likely to claim benefits, and that they overall make less than proportionate use of public services like health.’ But regard for facts has long since been sacrificed: easier for politicians to chase the “I’m not racist but…” vote.

3. Build new houses but compensate local people for development

Though everyone claims they’re not NIMBYs, not-in-my-back-yardism ism is perfectly rational. For most of us, our home is the most expensive purchase we’ll ever make: why be surprised if local people oppose developments which may reduce its value? Yet we also know there is a housing shortage in some parts of the country. We need to find a market solution to this – one that recognises Labour-style top-down diktats don’t work, but which doesn’t object to any and every attempt to build on land that happens to be green. A range of liberal measures have been proposed, from community land auctions to land value taxes. Will they prove popular enough? Honestly, I don’t know. But we have to break the impasse which is pricing so many people out of decent, affordable housing.

4. End pensioners’ perks

Ah, that pledge! No, not Nick Clegg’s, the other one: David Cameron’s pledge to protect universal pensioner benefits. “We will keep the free television licence, we will keep the pension credit, the winter fuel allowance and the free bus pass. Those letters you’ve been getting from Labour are pure and simple lies … They make me really very, very, angry.” David Cameron’s defensive outburst in the 2010 televised general election debates has boxed the Prime Minister into a corner. While preaching ‘we’re all in it together’ austerity, he finds himself in the awkward position of defending the fact that 988,000 millionaire pensioners receive a tax-free winter fuel allowance. No more. Taxes should be re-distributed on the basis of need.

5. Promote civil liberties in Government not just in Opposition

Civil liberties was the issue that brought the Conservatives and Lib Dems together during the 2005-10 parliament. Then David Davis resigned as shadow home secretary and was replaced with ever more authoritarian figures culminating in Theresa May. That regression has combined with the natural tendency of governments to make a grab for ever more state power: ‘secret courts’ have been extended while William Hague has resorted to that tired cliché, “If you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear.” (To which my standard response is, “Fine can I see your internet browsing history then, please?”) My party has ridden to the rescue a few times – for instance, torpedoing the ‘snooper’s charter’ – but we’ve not always succeeded (and, to be honest, the leadership hasn’t always tried very hard). Civil liberties – protecting the individual against an over-mighty state – isn’t just for Opposition.

6. In Europe to reform Europe

I am pro-European. I am, broadly speaking, pro-EU. But the Lib Dems have always championed a reformed EU. An EU which is more responsive to democratic opinion. An EU which liberalises the free movement of people and trade while tackling the problems we share, such as environmental pollution and crime. That is the positive version of the EU I want market liberals to advocate. As it happens, I think that liberal Conservative David Cameron wants pretty much the same – which leaves me with a bit of a dilemma. Do I want the UK to remain a member of the EU? Yes. Do I want the Conservatives to lose their Europhobe nut-job contingent? Yes. Logically, as I’ve argued before, there is only one possible way for me to vote in 2015: Conservative.

7. Support liberal interventionism abroad

On Syria, I was far from convinced by the Government’s case that a military intervention could hope to make things better, not worse. I believed more time was needed to exhaust efforts within the UN, to mobilise support among the Arab League, to plan a plausible exit strategy. But I am an internationalist and a supporter of liberal interventionism and I found the somnambulant decision by our MPs to rule out any future involvement was shaming. The alliance of hard-left “America’s the real evil” conspiracy theorists and right-wing “there’s no British national interest here” isolationists laid down the gauntlet to those of us who believe that sticking up for the oppressed doesn’t stop at national borders.