Thursday, August 04, 2005
Policy-lite? No thanks
A debate has been raging about taxation policy at, of all places, 'LDO Talk' (a mailing list of Liberal Democrats Online, where the 'talk' is more usually about nerdy computer issues).
I have no problem with this; political debate is a healthy sign. What I have found revealing, though, is the assumption implicit in some participants' comments that controversial policy is not an option. Presumably they think the party should seek some kind of 'policy-lite' whose chief attribute is that it causes no offence. Anyone who has been around in the party for any length of time will know that this belief is not a new problem.
Taxation is always an important political issue but it is particularly sensitive for Liberal Democrats at the moment because of the controversy over the party's flagship policy of local income tax (LIT). This policy caused some embarrassment for the party leader during the general election campaign. Then, immediately following the election, there was an internal row over whether LIT had been an electoral liability.
The party has now appointed a tax commission to make comprehensive policy recommendations. However, the waters have been muddied by some premature spinning to the effect that the party will ditch its policy of a higher rate tax band for people earning more than £100,000.
I'll repeat here more or less what I said earlier today on 'LDO Talk'.
The political problem for the Liberal Democrats is broader than local income tax, broader even than taxation, and it is this. Whatever one's views on local taxation, most party members agree that the present system is unfair and presumably believe it must be reformed. If the party proposes to reform any taxation system in whatever way, it will create winners and losers. LIT or not, the party would therefore face a similar political challenge, which is how to sell its proposed reform to the electorate.
Until this year's general election, the Liberal Democrats used to complain that no-one knew what any of their policies were. For the first time at this general election, people did know what some of the party's policies were. And guess what? Some people didn't like them and the party's opponents criticised them. This is simply evidence that the party is playing in the big league now and it had better get used to it. The post-election panic within the party over LIT suggests that some of its members have not yet made the necessary adjustment.
There's an old saying, "If you try to please everybody, you'll end up pleasing nobody." If the party is to express any policies that are bold and meaningful, rather than bland and anodyne, it will attract some people and repel others. The party needs not just good policies but also the courage of its convictions.