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Paul Haris

Why we should be proud of what Lib Dems did in Government

By Paul Harris | Wed 10th April 2019 - 10:44 am

When I was elected a Lib Dem Councillor in Oxford last year a regular feature of Council meetings (where there have not been any Conservatives for 20 years) was the Labour diatribe against the Coalition Government. Even the most talentless Labour hack knew that a safe answer to any Lib Dem criticism of the Labour Council was to attack the Coalition and the Lib Dems' part in it.

As this got increasingly annoying, I decided it was time to do some detailed research on the subject. I found that we have a great deal to be proud of in our record in government, and I am now sure that we should be publicising this good record as much as possible. I have already made a start in Oxford and have noticed the anti-Coalition rants from Labour diminishing.

Our biggest achievement was raising the minimum income tax threshold from £8000 first to £9000 and then to £10,000. It is not uncommon these days to hear Conservatives claiming the credit for this very progressive reform which took millions of poorer workers out of paying tax, disproportionately women and part time workers. In fact, as described in David Laws's fascinating book "Coalition ", it only happened because of continuous Lib Dem pressure inside the Cabinet, spearheaded by Nick Clegg, and bitterly opposed by George Osborne.

Second biggest was the pupil premium, which reduced poverty and improved educational opportunity by providing massive extra funds to the schools with most pupils in receipt of free school meals.

Third was unprecedented investment in renewable energy (Liberal Democrats held the energy portfolio throughout the Coalition). This encompassed both encouragement of wind-farms, and the Green Investment Bank pioneered by Vince Cable and sold off and effectively abandoned by the majority Conservative Government after 2015.

Then there was gay marriage. This was supported by David Cameron, but would never have happened but for Lib Dem pressure, particularly from the Lib Dem Home Office Minister of State, Lynn Featherstone.

Then there was mental health. Before the Coalition this was the Cinderella of the NHS, reflecting a national lack of commitment to tackling the issue. Norman Lamb as Coalition Minister of Health was the first Minister ever to raise the profile of mental health within government and with the public, drawing on his own family experiences. His actions changed the climate of opinion in a way that is unlikely to be reversed.

What the LibDems have achieved in governmentWe stopped Gordon Brown's oppressive and authoritarian identity card scheme which would have required every person to pay to have their identity recognized by the state.

We played a key role in enacting the Localism Act, which now allows Councils to get round the restrictions on building new Council houses by forming Council owned companies private in form but wholly under Council control.

We were responsible for the statutory Pubs Code, which requires larger pub chains (over 1% of the market) to offer pub tenants the right to buy and become free houses at specified points in their tenancy. This has led to a growth in the number of free houses and improvement in the quality of beer served.

And we were even responsible for the plastic bag levy, although it came into force after the end of the Coalition.

So why were we punished so severely at the polls? Smaller parties always lose ground after coalitions with larger parties, but that does not explain our drop from 57 seats to 8. Undoubtedly it was the broken promise over tuition fees. Moreover it was a fatal moral blind spot of Nick Clegg's that he could not see this even after the event. The fault was not the policy of raising fees, for which there were many respectable arguments, but the broken promise not to raise them. This was even worse because in 2010 we had explicitly campaigned on a manifesto criticising the broken promises of the other parties.

The school fees debacle destroyed the reputation for integrity which we had rightly enjoyed under David Steel, Paddy Ashdown, Charles Kennedy and Ming Campbell, and without which we are nothing.

It will take years more to recover fully, but a good place to start the recovery is pointing out to Labour supporters that our record of progressive measures in government is infinitely superior to that of the preceding Labour Government under Gordon Brown.

* Paul Harris is a Councillor on Oxford City Council, representing St Margaret's Ward. He was the founder of the Bar Human Rights Committee, and is currently counsel representing the Chagos Islanders in litigation against the British Government.