Margaret Thatcher’s only good joke – maybe her *only* joke – was likening the Liberal Democrats to Monty Python’s dead parrot.
Today, the joke rings truer than ever. The Lib Dems have only 11 MPs left. Remainerism, the party’s great cause of the last five years, has joined the choir invisible. Sir Ed Davey was elected leader and nobody has noticed.
It is possible he is “just resting”. But Britain needs the Ed and his party to step up, now more than ever.
Covid has changed everything, not least our expectations of the State. The Brexit revolution, whatever you think of it, opens up new possibilities for how we manage the economy. Rising nationalist sentiment in Scotland forces us to confront questions around our governance. The future is up for grabs.
The Tories offer nothing but Boris the Boondoggle. Keir Starmer’s Labour, meanwhile, is lead by Sublieutenant Stuck-in-the-Mud, paralysed in every direction at once.
Neither big party is “liberal” in the classic sense. Only fringe voices fret about overbearing COVID restrictions, even though these go beyond anything tried even in wartime. Everyone is frustrated with the iniquities of the economic status quo, yet few offer new solutions.
Step forward, then, the Liberal Democrats. As a third-party, they have wiggle-room the big parties lack. And, although they are small, they can “punch above their weight” in the battle of ideas about the future. With talk of a new “progressive alliance”, the Liberal Democrats can fill the ideological vacuum in the centre-left.
This is Sir Ed’s opportunity. But he needs some liberal policies. I have a few ideas for him. I have focused on policies which are either eye-catching, distinctly liberal, or in areas the big parties are ignoring.
1. Scrap fees for tertiary education
This should be your Clause 4 moment. Renounce the botched policy you helped implement with the Tories.
The current system condemns working and lower-middle class students to massive debts,increasing at 5.6% per annum even in an era with interest rates on the floor. Most will never pay if off, be stuck on lower net incomes than non-grads, and find it harder to get on the housing ladder.
This will be popular with students of course, but also with their mums and dads in your target seats in Southern England.
2. Legalise cannabis
Midnight toking is legal in Canada, and in half of the USA. The liberal case to legalise cannabis is overwhelming; current laws simply invite ridicule and contempt. Even the Prime Minster has confessed to being a user in the past, along with a third of all British adults.
This policy is unlikely to win over new voters, and may even alienate one or two, but it acts as a powerful symbol of intent: the Liberal Democrats are indeed a *liberal* party who are here to help us enjoy our own lives in the way *we* see fit.
3. Support Free Trade and join EFTA
The liberals are supposed to be the flag-bearers for free trade, or at least were 100 years ago. Even today, Ed Davey describes himself as a “strong free-trader”. But he is leaving the terrain open to Liz Truss and the Tories, whose commitment to freer trade seems to stop at Calais. The Lib Dems should enthusiastically welcome every new trade deal, indeed call for more – especially the CPTPP – and most importantly, advance the case to (re)join EFTA.
It is insane to leave major barriers up in our trade with the rest of Europe – which still accounts for over 50% of our total import and export value. Rejoining EFTA means effectively re-entering the Single Market (though not the Customs Union), which was in large part a British creation in the first place. Yes, it means accepting Freedom of Movement with the rest of Europe, but the Lib Dems are not trying to attract the “blue wall”. They do not need to be afraid of pressing the principled argument for easier immigration.
EFTA would be good for business, good for the tax take, and good for our future. And only the Lib Dems have the political flexibility to make the case for this right now.
4. Scrap Council Tax and replace it with a Land Value Tax
Nobody likes Council Tax. It is grotesquely regressive – hitting the poorest households the hardest. It doesn’t even support local authority finances adequately – in the UK councils are mere supplicants of central government. Not a few are now going bankrupt after years of Tory cuts. Council tax is difficult to collect and difficult to administer. Nothing about it makes sense.
A Land Value Tax, on the other hand, has been the dream of liberal reformers since the 19th century. Even Churchill was in favour at one point. Importantly, Devon Pensioners should not worry. It would be set locally; you should be able to defer payment until the sale of your property; and perhaps introduction could be tapered.
It can be sold as a tax on land-bankers and landlords, neither of whom have many defenders even in the leafy shires.
5. Protect free speech and personal privacy
Great liberal causes, which need defending in an era of “hate speech”, no platforming, and what academic Shoshanna Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism”. Reform the libel laws – long a disgrace to Britain; legislate a general responsibility to protect free speech; protect us from inappropriate use of facial recognition and from misuse of our personal data.
6. Stand up to Google, Facebook, and Amazon
Google has around 90% of UK web search; Facebook and Google combined take two thirds of web advertising revenues. Amazon was picking up at least 30% of all e-commerce sales in the UK – even before the pandemic. They are all practical monopolies, and that great sucking sound you hear is revenue being siphoned to the West Coast of the USA, with very little tax paid in return.
Regulating them as classic monopolies doesn’t quite work. Google et al provide massive consumer utility and breaking them up would be weird – we don’t need several search engines. But these digital monopolists owe the country a proper rent for the benefit of running a license to print money.
7. Experiment with Universal Basic Income
Personally, I’m a UBI skeptic. The cost of providing even a modest £100 each week to every person in the UK over 16 would cost 50% more than our current social security and pension system. But the idea won’t go away, largely I think because of a sense that so many jobs – especially at the lower end of the market – fail to provide real security or meaning.
The Lib Dems should be promoting trials in a few smaller towns – Derry, Conwy, Corby – to see if we can generate positive change for the “precariat”.
8. Scrap the TV license fee
This is another relic (and perennial PB bugbear). End it, and fund the BBC via a hypothecated tax on broadband and mobile subscriptions. Pensioners will love it.
9. PR for Local Government
Newham, in East London, has 60 councillors – all of them Labour. Castle Point, only a few miles away in Essex, has 26 councillors – all of them Conservative. These are extreme, but not unique, cases. It is likely that this problem is getting worse as the country becomes more politically polarised by geography.
PR will restore democratic vigour into the system, and is a first step towards PR at Westminster, long a Lib Dem goal.
10. Free us from Covid restrictions
As a liberal, it is frustrating to see Steve Baker and the loony Right make all the running against Covid restrictions. This should be natural Lib Dem territory.
I am not advocating Toby Young style denialism. Lockdowns work! But the Lib Dems should be at the front of the queue demanding more transparency over numbers, more transparency over decision-making, auto-expire clauses in lockdown legislation, and a greater role for Parliament in consenting to Covid rules. We also need to see the Lib Dems visibly call out the Police when they are over-zealous.
Now is not the time for caution. The mood in the country will soon turn to questions about the path ahead, and more quickly than you think! We need liberal ideas for the future.
So, no more pining for the fjords. Arise, Sir Ed! Break open your cage and VOOM.
This is Gardenwalker’s debut piece