Monday 12 July 2010

Where Richard Grayson is right - and where he's not

Lib Dem policy committee chair Richard Grayson has written a long article in today’s New Statesman, which has allowed them to put a picture of Nick Clegg on the cover apparently cracking like an egg:

It isn’t exactly good publicity for the party, but I completely agreed with Richard about the future direction of the social liberal wing of the party – “arguing for a new political economy that puts issues of power in the workplace and the ownership of assets back onto the political agenda as the old Liberal Party once did.”

That is absolutely bang on. So why didn’t I quite buy the narrative he presented: a slightly sinister drift to the right going back to the Orange Book and accelerating with the Clegg leadership? That isn’t what happened.

I am not saying that there is no threat to Liberal values in the coalition with the Conservatives. Of course there is, but we knew that when we agreed to it. But Richard seems to me to misread the symbolic issues, especially when he claims that “the Orange Book tendency has whittled away at broadly centre-left policies on, for example, public spending, income-tax rates and the role of local government in education”.

I don’t regard myself as being on the right of the party, but – on all three of these – it seems to me that the left of the party is not being radical enough.

Public spending: yes, but a decade of centralised control, and a fierce regime of targets, auditing, standards and sclerotic ‘best practice’ has made public services much more expensive, and less effective than they need to be.

Income tax rates: yes, but we need to face the fact that income tax is also part of the problem. It is increasingly a voluntary tax for those wealthy enough to avoid it, and if we rely on it to tackle inequality, it is hardly surprising we are disappointed.

The role of local government in education: yes, but if this is a coded critique of free schools, I don’t share it. Of course new schools should be part of the local authority umbrella, but don’t let’s pretend there isn’t a problem which free schools are designed to tackle. Especially in London, there are far too few schools, and the rhetoric of choice obscures the fact that it is the schools that do the choosing – and this is increasingly stressful and worrying for parents.

But Richard is right that there are signs of serious contradictions within the coalition about localism, and these need to be hammered out. I’m not pretending the problems don’t exist – but the sooner the social liberals in the party move away from the old exhausted and symbolic shibboleths and towards Richard’s new issues, the better it will be for all of us.

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