It is hard to know what the Liberal Democrats are playing at. Their traditional positioning was centrist, appealing to people who were repelled both by Labour’s statism, high taxes and authoritarianism (as well as its foreign policy) and by the Tories’ low-tax, smaller government, Eurosceptic policies, as well as their traditional social conservatism.
The Lib Dems had distinct policies on civil liberties, proportional representation and environmentalism; they were also pro-EU. Millions of voters came to believe they represented a genuine third way, a nice, more reasonable, less sectarian alternative to the two tired old parties. The reality was less laudable: Lib Dems would promise radically different things to different people in different parts of the UK. But the strategy worked.
All of this is now over. Joining the coalition destroyed the party’s non-alignment and alienated a vast chunk of its left-wing voters, leaving it with a rump of centrists. The party is now desperate to rectify this. The policies outlined at the Lib Dem conference yesterday were all of the left, in an attempt to differentiate the party from its supposed Tory partners.
Yet this will end in tears in London and the home counties. Clegg’s bizarre pledge to hike even further the tax burden on the top 10 per cent of earners – people on £50,000 or more – is suicidal, as it targets a vast group of middle class Lib Dem voters.
Further up the income ladder, many of the Lib Dems’ affluent voters in South West London (and elsewhere) are unlikely to ever vote for them again after Clegg said that anybody who lives in a house worth £1m would be targeted by HMRC. The message it sends to the much larger number of people who dream of one day living in such houses is equally clear: don’t vote for us, we hate anybody who earns a good wage, is ambitious and aspires to live in a nice home.
The nonsense was relentless. Simon Hughes said that second homes in inner London should be banned. Support for tough love welfare policies are at a record high -- yet the Lib Dems will only agree to change the status quo if even more taxes are slapped on the wealthy. Of course, many people will agree with some of these ideas. Some will even have majority support. But they cannot be described as centrist or cuddly. The Lib Dems may regain a few of their left-wing supporters – but they will alienate the group that has stuck with them during the past two years. And forget about the party’s centrist credentials, which is what it used to emphasise in those parts of the country where its main rivals were Tories.
The decision by Lib Dem delegates to oppose any expansion of airport capacity in Southern England – Heathrow, Stansted and Gatwick, as well as the construction of a Boris Island airport – confirms that the party has no interest in economic growth or competitiveness.
What of the idea that relatives will be able to pledge the quarter of their pension pot they can withdraw as a lump sum when they turn 55 to a deposit to help youngsters buy a home?
It is either meaningless – if parents or grandparents are already past 55, they can already do this – or if they are aged less than 55 it would be extremely risky as nobody would actually know the pension fund’s end value. The whole affairs smacks of endowment mortgages, where payments were invested in equities rather than to pay off the mortgage debt, often disastrously falling in value. And why only allow pension cash to be used for mortgages? There are plenty of other worthy causes. The Lib Dems have truly lost their way.
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