I know that lots of people have been giving you advice about what should happen after the European and local elections so I am going to do so as well!!
I have been described many times recently as a Cleggista. I know that is not what you have always thought when you have rung me up to give me a dressing down for things I have said about what the Government has done. However the Cleggista charge whilst facile is accurate. I have no doubt that you should be our Leader to and through the next General Election. You are the only Party Leader in the 47 years I have been in our Party who has been able to turn round and say, “Do You know … I have actually delivered 80% of the manifesto on which we fought we the last General Election”. We should be proud our achievements, more of that later, but we should also be clear where we and the Government have made mistakes.
I understand fully three things:
• That we have not had a Liberal Democrat Government
• That you have spent a lot of your time stopping things happening that the Tories would have done if in sole government.
• That this Government took power in the worst financial circumstances since WWII with the public, private and commercial sectors awash with debt.
That has inevitably constrained what you were able to do. When I look at the problem areas it seems to me that there are three of them:
In the field of education we all screwed up on tuition fees. There is no need to go on about this – you have already confessed to error of your ways and apologised. However, I don’t think we have made clear enough that a Labour Government increasing the fee to £6,000 on the old scheme would have cost most graduates more than the £9,000 under the new rules.
The two remaining areas where we have screwed up big time are Benefits and Local Government. It is no coincidence that these departments have Secretaries of State who are weak, intellectually limited and ideologically based bigots.
In DWP we have an excellent Minister, Steve Webb, but it is therefore no surprise that the only bit of DWP that is working is the area of pensions where he is in the lead.
Duncan Smith has presided over chaos in two areas where what the Government has done has been right in principle but botched in implementation. Indeed the two areas of the so-called bedroom tax and Universal Credit have the support of all major Parties.
The bedroom tax is something that just makes common sense. The tax payer is right to say, “Why should we subsidise people living in bigger houses than they need when money is tight”. Of course it is the people who live in those bigger houses who would be the first to agree. They do not want to spend more on utility bills etc and many of them would love to move to a more compact accommodation. The trouble is that for most of them there is nowhere for them to move to. If they could move does it really make sense to take people, many of whom have problems, away from the family and other community support mechanisms that stop or reduce their dependency on public and voluntary agencies?
The last Lib Dem Conference set a lead. We unanimously asked for a review of the subsidy removal. You could set a lead today by saying that the subsidy would only be withdrawn where a tenant is clearly refusing to move to a nearby property that is suitable and would, of course, apply to new tenancies.
Universal Credit must be introduced. As someone who has spent most of my political career representing some of the most deprived communities in the UK I am fully aware of the corrosive influences of our benefits system. Extremely complex and multi-faceted they fail to respond to the changing needs of a society when many people work in a number of jobs over a number of different timescales on a number of different rates. There was a massive disincentive to take up employment when that hard work could lead to you being made homeless! Unsurprisingly many did make that effort but equally unsurprisingly many did not. We campaigned for years for UC but called it negative income tax!
But what a botched implementation. I suspect that the implementation has been so bad that UC will never be fully introduced. We took little account of the needs of people who for whatever reason, work is just not possible; we took no account of the complexities of the change, especially in the field of IT; we failed to appreciate the need to involve people in introducing the changes and fine tuning those changes so that they would actually work. Finally we forgot that when taxes or benefits change there are always winners and losers and it is the voices of the losers that are raised! You could deal with this today by saying that we halt further implementation pending a full review of that implementation programme and slow down the theoretical rate of implementation until it becomes achievable.
The Department of Communities and Local Government has been a walking disaster area. The ‘Owl of the Remove’ who heads it is not only a bigot but a hypocrite. I was present when he made his speech as DCLG Minister. I have three priorities he said, “Localism, localism, and localism”. What Tosh. Despite one good Act, the Localism Act 2011 which is very difficult to introduce, the past four years have seen central government increasing its stranglehold on local government.
In fact just three weeks after making that speech he started issuing edicts about street furniture. That has led to a lot of jokes from me about Eric Pickles talking bollards! But since then there has been a relentless stream of trivia. The latest one has been about the use of CCTV for monitoring parking. He has achieved a face saving climb down by effectively saying we cannot use them where there are no problems. Nick we just would not have used them where there are no problems anyway! You could deal with this today by sating you would restrict the powers of any Secretary of State to get involved in any level of micro-management within communities.
Local Government, already by any measure, the most effective part of the government system has seen far bigger reductions in spending than any other part of government. In Liverpool we have seen a reduction in grants of more than 50% whilst not being given the powers which would enable us to ensure better government spend generally. Of course there were many efficiencies that should and indeed have been made by local government. Independent audits by the Audit Commission showed that pre-2010 local government was become more efficient at the rate of 2.5% a year. That should have been stretched and mechanisms put in place to deal with weaker councils.
The financial support systems for local government have been broken for decades. Labour knew this when it asked former Labour councillor Mick Lyons (sorry Sir Michael) to review funding mechanisms in 2007. However Labour simply put it back in a box marked “too complicated” – and so have we.
We need to do four things:
1. Announce a change over a period of time to a system of Local Income Tax
2. Allow councils to levy local taxes for up to 5% of their budgets for things that cause local spending. A hotel bedroom tax in tourist areas for example.
3. Allow councils to keep all the proceeds from the None-domestic Rate.
4. Institute a fair funding mechanisms which would really take from those areas that have surpluses and give it to those areas who have deficits.
But there is one thing that you can do personally. Stop repeating the Tory factlet that Liverpool gets more per household than most other areas. It is of course true but it gets more for a reason. Liverpool like most of the core cities is a tremendous wealth generator. BUT much of that wealth dissipates out to the wealthy areas in Sefton and the Wirral. Our core urban regions have considerably more people in need than the wealthy ones. You as a Government, were right to squeeze Liverpool’s budget but frankly you are now squeezing so hard as to asphyxiate many of the services which are so badly needed by people who through no fault of their own are dependent on the state for a reasonable life- style.
So if these are the major faults that I see (and there are other smaller ones) why did I not support those who want a new Leader? Well between you and me even if you had become the Prime Minister in a Lib Dem Government I would probably have objected to some of the things that you would have done. Whenever you join a Party you don’t do so because you believe everything it says but because you believe most things it says and feel that is the best vehicle for taking forward your own beliefs.
So having asked you as a good person of no religious faith to say a series of “Mea Culpas” I want to close on an area where I suspect we agree. Why isn’t our Party doing more to promote the considerable successes of the Government and especially those which have been clearly down to the influence of you and our Minsters?
Pensions. I am very proud of the triple lock which means that pensions will never again fall behind wages as they did for 25 miserable years under Tory and Labour Governments; I am delighted that the basic pension will soon go up to a level which will take approximately half of pensioners who currently claim additional support, out of the need to apply for means trusted benefits and credits; I am delighted that the pensions market has been opened up and people will have much greater flexibility to decide what to do with their savings.
Taxes. I am delighted that we have already raised the bar for income tax to a point whereby the first £10,000 of income is tax free and from next year will be £11,000. A massive boost for low earners and a major incentive to get into work. We have now reduced by a whopping 90% the amount people on the minimum wage pay in tax. What was the point in having a minimum wage when we took large chunks of it back from people in tax and then gave them a variety of bureaucratic credits and benefits?
I am very pleased that for every single day of this Government the most wealthy have been charged more tax than under all but 31 days of the 13 years of the last Labour Government.
Education. Liverpool, is a major beneficiary from the Pupil Premium which has targeted the most deprived schools in the most deprived areas for extra cash. Our Party has always campaigned for more pre-school help and in the last budget, combined with other earlier measures has delivered cash where it is needed most. I am pleased that all infant school children will get a free meal. Good nutrition helps every child and will deal with social and health issues as well as educational ones.
Health. The dire forecasts that by now the American health companies would have invaded us and taken over our services have been proved to be false. The biggest explosion in private care actually happened in the last Labour Government. Slowly but surely through the Health and Wellbeing boards spending is being changed to meet real local priorities and not artificial ones created by bored and ill-informed bureaucrats in Whitehall.
Housing. One of the key reasons that housing benefit costs went up as exponentially as house prices is because we have failed to build enough housing for more than 40 years. In the 13 years of the last Labour Government the number units of social housing actually fell by 420,000 and the private sector build programmes were incoherent and unresponsive to need.
Employment. Who would not be pleased that the Government has created the conditions in which the private sector could create 2,000,000 new jobs so that despite having more people in the labour market than ever before the unemployment rate is now less than that when the Government took over? I am particularly pleased that manufacturing is looking distinctly healthier than it did in 2010. Under our Labour predecessors manufacturing’s share of GDP fell from 26% to just 16%. We can never have a balanced economy if we believe, as they did, that we will all benefit from trickle down from the City and other service provider.
So why are we not getting these and other messages across? Well, you will be pleased to know that I do not blame you for this! In fact I blame me and every other member of our party. Too many Party members, some of them leading ones, have fled to the bunkers. They have believed some of the tosh they have been told by the Labour Party and parts of the media. They have responded to the negative but not accentuated the positive.
We have less than 11 months to change that. We need to:
• Make clear and take credit for what we did.
• Make clear and take credit for what we stopped the Tories doing.
• Spell out clearly and concisely what we would do IF we had a Lib Dem Government and what, therefore, our key objectives would be in a coalition if that is what the electorate decides there should be.
Your job Nick is to lead us into a new way of campaigning in which we are positive and active and redefine and proclaim our liberalism and its influences in the modern world. The job of the rest of us is to follow that lead and do exactly the same.
To pinch someone else’s battle song just this once, “Whilst cowards flinch and traitors sneer, We’ll keep the orange flag flying here”.
You’ve got my number give me a call sometime
Regards as ever,