Open, Tolerant & United: Why I joined the #LibDemFightback

Open, Tolerant & United: Why I joined the #LibDemFightback

Last week, after much umm-ing and ahh-ing, I joined the Liberal Democrats. Hopefully this will explain why (and might even spur someone else to do the same).

Throughout the majority of my political life, I have held the view the we would be better served if political parties did not exist. It is too easy for voters to get entrenched in voting patterns, without actually assessing policies or candidates. If we were all swing voters, It would ensure candidates actively engaged with their communities, making politics more of a conversation.

The reality, however, is that parties are here to stay, because, consciously or not, we all put ourselves in groups – whether by philosophy, nationality, religious outlook, or some other identity.

So if you want to play an active role in shaping the future, as I do, you must start by working with people who share a given identity. I look around and I am scared for the future; I am scared by our apathetic response to war and famine, by our baseless distrust of difference, by our disregard for the needs of the most vulnerable in our society, by the reckless abandon with which we abuse our planet. These are choices – choices driven by our political discourse which I must condemn. But simply to condemn the status quo is to abdicate responsibility. To live with integrity, I must act positively. I must seize every opportunity to turn things around. That’s why I decided the time had come to join put my money where my mouth is.

But why the #LibDemFightback?

I wrote about identity earlier in this post (and in previous posts on this blog). Indeed, it’s something I care about deeply, and there are few parties with whom I identify. Our two main parties of government seem committed to re-fighting Marxist battles between the workers and owners. True, you get working class Conservative voters, perhaps drawn to the party’s strong stance on law and order, just as you get middle class Labour voters, but those two parties are fundamentally concerned with ideas of wealth and class. Its in the very name of the Labour party – the party of manual labourers.

This division makes little sense to me. I don’t identify as working class, yet neither am I part of the wealthy elite (despite having grown up in the Cotswolds). What matters to me, far less than what rates of tax the Government sets, is what they do, and why they do it. And while there are Labour policies of which I approve (and conceivably even one or two Tory policies – I won’t rule out that possibility, though it seems doubtful), I cannot share their underlying philosophies. Labour requires ‘solidarity’, thus opposing dissent and plurality, while the Conservatives are inherently opposed to change and, consequently, raising the common good.

One other party has, at times appealed to me. The trouble with the Green Party is that it emphasises ecology above all else. That means my partner would be out of a job (no testing on live, non-human subjects, even if they are nematode worms), and more generally, that they have little time for exploring more radical options like geo-engineering.

So, in some ways I am left with the Lib Dems almost by default. But my membership is a positive choice, driven by positive values. One of the more striking things about the Lib Dems is that they put values first and foremost – even in their constitution. Where the conservative party exists “to sustain and promote within the nation the objects and values of the Conservative party”, the Liberal Democrats exist:

“to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals, we acknowledge and respect their right to freedom of conscience and their right to develop their talents to the full. We aim to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity. We believe that the role of the state is to enable all citizens to attain these ideals, to contribute fully to their communities and to take part in the decisions which affect their lives.”

Indeed the preamble to the Constitution goes on to further outline Liberal values, taking about a page of A4, far more than any other major party.

In other words, rather than a specific set of policies, Liberal Democrats start with a set of values are free to build policy on those values, as the needs of the moment dictate. For a policy wonk who wants to change the world, that’s quite a draw. But, when all is said and done, it was those core values which convinced me to join the Party, values nicely summed up by the party slogan. We are Open, Tolerant are United.


The Crown Estates

This is a public service announcement.

Time and again, people criticising Conservative economic policy cite a few choice examples of Government expenditure to prove that austerity is a political choice. They argue that cuts to social care, to housing, to green subsidies, to local government or to the arts (to give a few examples) are not necessary, but are ideologically driven. They point out that the Government could find the money if they wanted to, but instead choose to use simplistic economic arguments to mask the fact that their ideal is a free market economy with minimal state interference. After all, the argument runs, the state bailed out the banks, it is spending vast sums on a new generation of nuclear power stations, on high speed rail, on the Trident successor.

Such arguments are not without value. Certainly austerity is a political choice (contrast current economic policy with that pursued in the post-war period, where, despite huge debts, we built the NHS). However, all too often, these arguments are marred. Alongside Trident, the banks and HS2, the other self-evident waste of money which is routinely cited is the Monarchy. And that is a problem.

In the financial year 2015-16, the Crown received £40m of taxpayer income. in 2016-17, it will receive £42.8m. This is not small change, and could be put to better use than funding one rich family’s decadent lifestyle.

Except that isn’t true. in 2015-16, the Sovereign Grant was £40m, and that did rise to £42.8m in 2016-17, but this is not taxpayer money. It is granted from the Treasury, but funded from the income of the Crown Estates. These are lands which belong to the Crown (rather than to the monarch as an individual) – which have traditionally been used for the administration of the state. Under the current Sovereign Grant scheme, the crown receives 15% of the crown estates’ income, with the other 85% going into Treasury coffers.

This 15% grant is used to fund the royal household. Now remember, the royal household remains a branch of government. This is not (as it is often presented) money going into the Queen’s pockets. It covers staffing, property maintenance and so on. Spending 15% of income on operational costs would give any business very good profit margins. Or, to look at it another way, the crown pays tax at a rate of 85%! It is of course right that those with the broadest shoulders bear the greatest burdens, but even the most redistributive of us would surely agree that 85% is a pretty high rate of tax.

Controversially, it has been agreed that, from 2017 to 2027, the Sovereign Grant will be increased to 25% of Crown Estates income, in order to fund repairs to Buckingham Palace and other Crown properties. In other words, the crown will only be taxed at 75%, so that it can afford to pay for repairs to its most famous properties, which have been put off due to lack of funds. These properties are used for state functions and are huge tourist attractions. Recent repairs have included replacing roofing (so that priceless historical artefacts are not damaged) and removing asbestos (because “Queen Dies of Asbestos Inhalation” is a headline nobody wants). Such repairs are not decadent, and should not be seen as controversial.

I should add that the Sovereign Grant is only one part of the royal income. Royal ceremonies and security are paid for from the public purse, separately to the Sovereign Grant. The Queens’ personal expenses, meanwhile, are funded by the Duchy of Lancaster and from her personal assets. These income streams are primarily inherited, and will be taxed as capital gains. There is an altogether separate discussion to be had about how inherited wealth and capital gains are taxed in this country, but the over-arching point is this:

The Crown voluntarily surrenders the income from the Crown Estates to the state. The state recognises that the Crown is part of it, and so returns a relatively small part of this money to the Crown. This is not unreasonable. Nor is it unreasonable that the amount of money should be increased to ensure that the Estates’ property is maintained in an appropriate fashion. To cite the increased in the Sovereign Grant as an example of frivolous spending of taxpayer money is misleading, as the money came only from a single tax payer – the same tax payer who is being given some more of it back. It is disingenuous to present this money as further lining the pockets of an individual born into great wealth. It fails to recognise that the increase in the Sovereign Grant is, in effect, a long term investment in buildings of national importance. And it fails to recognise that, even after the increase, the state will still do pretty well out of the Crown.

In other words, there are far better arguments against austerity to be articulated.