Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

For Middle-Class Welfare, Vote Lib Dem

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

For Middle-Class Welfare, Vote Lib Dem

Article excerpt

The horrible truth is that many thousands, perhaps millions, of people who have voted Labour all their lives will find it hard to support the party on 5 May. They may prefer a Labour government to a Tory one; but they may think it more important to cast their vote for a candidate who shares their views about the horror of launching an unprovoked war that led to tens of thousands of deaths. And the obvious beneficiaries of such votes are the Liberal Democrats--the only major UK party to oppose the war.

For many, that will be enough. A decision to go to war is the most important that any government can take--and Tony Blair's government got it wrong. All those responsible are still in office, and their responsibility includes a wilful misreading of intelligence material, if not downright lying, about Saddam Hussein's weapons. Moreover, the same ministers' Prevention of Terrorism Bill (also opposed by the Lib Dems) suggests their mindset is unchanged. Just as they insisted that the Iraqi threat justified the sacrifice of foreign children's lives, so they now insist that wider threats justify the sacrifice of British civil liberties. These ministers ask for a fresh mandate. They should not get it, many will say. End of story.

But some will want to look at the picture more broadly. What exactly are people voting for if they vote Lib Dem? A Lib Dem vote, after all, is no longer just a protest vote. True, the party is hardly likely to form a government. But, if the result is as close as some commentators predict, it has every chance of playing a crucial role in the next parliament, either as part of a coalition or as the backer of a government that has a small majority or none at all. This is a very different party from its Liberal predecessor that sustained Labour in the late 1970s. Then there were only 14 Liberal MPs; now there are 54. How would they use genuine influence and power?

The answer is not at all comforting. What the Lib Dems propose is the restoration of the middle-class welfare state. First, they pledge to abolish university tuition fees--not just the top-up fees introduced in the 2001-2005 parliament, but also the basic fees introduced in the previous one. As university students are still overwhelmingly middle class--and those from very low-income homes are largely exempt from the fees--the effect is to use working-class taxes to subsidise the children of the better-off. Even more outrageously, the Lib Dems would abolish Labour's Child Trust Fund, which builds up from birth a capital sum that becomes available to every 18-year-old. As free tuition amounts to a handout to exactly the same age group, the Lib Dems propose, in effect, to offer a bounty to children from mostly affluent homes, but not to those from poorer families. They say a 50 per cent tax on incomes above [pounds sterling]100,000 a year would pay for it. But why should such a tax be spent on a privileged minority, and not on pre-school education for all children in the years when many from poor homes fall so far behind that they can never recover? …

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