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Austerity’s Little Helpers

The Lib Dems want to reduce this election to Brexit because their record in government - including Jo Swinson's time as minister - helped to deepen many of Britain's worst injustices.

Supporters of the Liberal Democrats come out with several contradictory lines to justify their party’s record in government from 2010 to 2015: “We didn’t do it—we had to do it—it would have been worse if we hadn’t done it—we were right to do it—Labour would have done it anyway.”

It’s not surprising that the party struggles to explain away its record of complicity with the Tories as they laid waste to Britain’s social services and drove millions into poverty. Much better for the Lib Dems if that awkward history can be brushed under the carpet — and that’s what their single-minded focus on Brexit is meant to achieve. 

But we shouldn’t indulge their pretence that the political slate was wiped clean in June 2016. The record of the Cameron–Clegg government is a much better guide to what we can expect from Jo Swinson’s party than her insincere rhetoric about Brexit.

The Lib Dems’ Real Record

One favourite Lib Dem claim, often parroted by their leader Jo Swinson, is that they had to go into government to exercise a restraining influence on the Conservative Party. This is the feeblest excuse of all. Despite running against an unpopular Labour government, in power for over a decade and grappling with the worst economic crash since the 1930s, David Cameron was unable to win a majority in parliament, falling 14 seats short.

The experience of the last two years has shown how difficult it is for a party without an effective majority to get its agenda past Westminster. By adding their 57 seats to the coalition, Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems gave Cameron a massive boost, making it a simple matter to push through his radical austerity programme. 

In truth, there was nothing reluctant or half-hearted — let alone noble — about the support Clegg and his colleagues gave to Conservative economic policy. Ever since the Orange Book manifesto of 2004, the Lib Dems had been moving away from what they called “soggy socialism” and towards the same political ground as Cameron and his Chancellor George Osborne. They were very comfortable with the idea of “shrinking the state” under the guise of reducing the deficit. 

The fruits of that project can be seen everywhere in Britain today, after a decade in which the social fabric was mercilessly shredded. As Ann Pettifor has written, the economic case for austerity was profoundly deceptive:

There is growing consensus among economists that Osborne’s post-crisis austerity programme deepened and 9lengthened Britain’s post-crisis recession, causing public and private investment to fall further and real wages to decline. Making large reductions to government spending is itself a major reason why the economy has been so slow in recovering. 

With Lib Dem support, Osborne cut total expenditure by £14 billion. Public investment dropped from £60 billion in 2010 to £35 billion in 2016. Such bald figures can’t properly convey the human cost of austerity, especially the cuts to local services, from libraries to childcare centres. It left Britain a poorer, meaner, nastier place.

One Lib Dem advisor, Polly Mackenzie, boasted that her party had agreed to support punitive measures against welfare claimants in return for a 5p charge on plastic bags. She went on to recall that the courts subsequently found those benefit sanctions to be illegal, apparently believing that this reflected well on the Lib Dems. Now the director of Demos, an influential think tank, Mackenzie recently published an article describing the Tories she had worked with as “talented, compassionate, wise and thoughtful people”.

Jo Swinson in Government

Jo Swinson and her main challenger Ed Davey still defended austerity during this year’s Lib Dem leadership contest. But Swinson has tried to distance herself from the consequences of that economic programme, suggesting that her party “didn’t get everything right . . . the bedroom tax would be an example of that.”

The infamous tax punished tenants in social housing for having spare rooms. A UN special investigator on housing condemned it, and an academic study found that the bedroom tax “increased poverty and had broad-ranging adverse effects on health, well-being and social relationships”. Three-quarters of those affected had to cut back on food, and nearly half had to cut back on heating.

You can’t pray for rain then cluck your tongue disapprovingly at the appearance of puddles. It’s a typical Lib Dem move to wash their hands of especially unpopular policies like the bedroom tax, while supporting the framework that made such policies inevitable. 

Swinson has already pulled a similar trick over a policy she helped shepherd through as employment minister in the Coalition: the imposition of fees for employment tribunals in 2013. The business lobby pressed hard for fees to be introduced, knowing they would make it much harder for workers to bring cases in defence of their rights. 

Jo Swinson dismissed the idea that fees might stop women from challenging sexist discrimination in the workplace, claiming that “most women” would be unaffected, since “the vast majority of cases can be dealt with well outside the tribunal system”. According to Swinson, fees would simply weed out tribunal cases that were “vexatious and abusive”.

In the first year, cases brought before employment tribunals dropped by 70 percent; sex-discrimination cases plummeted by 85 percent. In a bid to distance herself from this predictable outcome, Swinson called for a review of the fees. Labour’s shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna derided Swinson’s letter as “a cynical and utterly shameless attempt to distance her party from tribunal fees just five months before the general election.”

Since then, of course, Umunna has given us his own lesson in cynicism by defecting to the Lib Dems. But Umunna’s previous judgement on his new party has lost none of its relevance:

The Liberal Democrats are trying to bury their recent past as the enablers of Tory austerity, but working people in this country will not forget or forgive the damage they did in government and what it is still doing to our communities today.