I was a secret Lib Dem voter…
...but I'm not any more. Here's why.
As election night approaches, thoughts invariably turn to how one is to make merriment on the evening in question.
Like all good students, last time round my mates and I thought it would be a generally good thing to see the Tories ejected from power. During the house party we held in our south Manchester digs, true blue Conservative voters were thin on the ground. Most of us were less interested in the actual outcome than in getting stoned and laughing at Angus Deayton’s whimsical preview of the whole affair. But suffice to say, where there was consensus, it was that wiping the smirk off Michael Portillo’s face would be great fun. And so it proved.
I must have been the only person to have voted Liberal Democrat earlier that May morning. The majority of people I knew had pledged themselves to Labour. What dupes, I thought. That slippery New Labour Party – Thatcherites with a caring grin – had no real commitment to raising taxes to pay for public services, I opined to people who gradually grew weary of my pontificating. It was Paddy’s party, which promised ‘a penny on income tax’ to pay for our education, that was the truly socialist party.
The gathering was a pretty unlively event – large periods of silence and staring at the TV screen interspersed by moments of inexplicable giggling – until my mate Sarah turned up with her burly Socialist Labour mates, replete with dreadlocks, cans of Special Brew, and loud, unfunny threats of, ‘Anybody seen any Tory bastards?’. Very annoying people, I thought. The squalid, old-fashioned, class-warfare rhetoric of the Scargillites represented the kind of political discourse that we pragmatic, empathetic Lib Dems were trying to escape from.
I have no intention of voting Lib Dem this time, because I know what goes through the minds of their supporters – as I was one. The Liberal Democrats remain essentially the party of Gladstone and Lloyd George: nineteenth-century paternalists who, unlike their Old Labour successors, omit to mention ‘class’ and seek to look after the poor from above.
Being a Liberal Democrat is about telling the great unwashed how much you dearly care for them, in the knowledge that you will never have to put your money where your mouth is. It is about rising above the tired politics of left-right confrontation. It is a party for unreconstructed, ostentatiously caring Christians for whom gestures are more important than consequences; for the kind of man who is fond of reminding people that ‘it is my earnestly held opinion…’, as the dribble slides down the stem of his pipe and on to his beard.
The Liberal Democrats are a party for the therapeutic age. ‘Make no mistake’, says party leader Charles Kennedy in his patronising, non-aggressive tone. ‘I’m disappointed with Labour.’ The party is for a generation for whom, behind the facade of compassion, lies the desire to raise one’s own self-esteem and sense of worthiness. Their message is essentially, ‘we care’. Rising above the nasty ‘tribal’ politics of left v right, the Lib Dems present themselves as an organisation that will deliver a more just society through higher taxation.
I know, I know, tax is meant to be a coma-inducing topic. But, unlike my friends at spiked, I find it an endlessly fascinating subject. Not so much in terms of how much of it I have to pay, but how taxation itself has become a metaphor for philanthropy and a generally perceived panacea for all society’s ills. High tax is good, low tax is evil. Question the orthodoxy of high tax and Kennedy and Blair will repeat ad infinitum ‘schools’n’hospitals’ until your ears begin to melt.
But have schools’n’hospitals really benefited? According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, since 1997 taxes have gone up by £24billion, with the tax burden rising from 37.6 to 40.5 percent of GDP (1). But wait a minute, reports the same non-aligned thinktank, investment in the same period in schools, hospitals and transport has sunk to its lowest level since the Second World War. Real investment spending has declined by an average of 4.4 percent a year, a larger decline than that which occurred during the Thatcher years (2).
I think it is fair to say that most people either believe in high taxation and high expenditure or low taxation and low expenditure. But tax’n’don’t spend? It sounds as bizarre as the Conservatives’ don’t tax’n’spend programme.
Taxation is a good idea so long as we know that what’s taken from us will be spent on something productive, and not hidden in an elusive ‘war chest’ (standing at between £10billion to £15billion); spent on bombing Serbia (cost £400million); erecting the Millennium Dome (£1billion); subsidising the private company Railtrack (£4billion); paying for non-elected government advisers (£4million); or funding NHS compensation payouts (£300million). Indeed, one might say that the compensation culture is very much the consequence of adopting a hyper-sensitive, touchy-feely approach to society.
What had originally attracted me to the Liberal Democrats was the notion of hypothecation: the idea that you are told exactly how every bit of your tax is spent. But the Lib Dems promise nothing of the sort, only asserting that an ‘extra penny on income tax’ will be spent on education – a mantra just as mindless and evasive as ‘schools’n’hospitals’.
But never mind that the Lib Dems are not going to be honest with us about expenditure – they will never even be in a position where they will have to fulfil their spending promises. They may have some influence if their supporters cooperate with Labour voters in ousting as many Tory MPs as possible and entering into some kind of coalition with New Labour. So much for eschewing mindless tribal politics: here’s to fulfilling millennial fantasies about ushering in a new ‘progressive century’.
As for me? Again, unlike my friends at spiked, I will be voting on 7 June. You probably expect that I will put my cross next to the UK Independence Party or the Conservatives or some low taxation party. You may be correct, but in the true manner of a Liberal Democrat supporter I feel I must feign a lofty approach that betrays my own lack of conviction, in that ‘how I vote is between me and the ballot box’.
The only thing that endears me still to the Liberal Democrats is that their leader, as he revealed on Radio 5 and Newsnight recently, secretly smokes a packet of cigarettes a day and likes to relax with a drink or two before he goes to bed. So not so holier-than thou, then.
How naughty, how apposite.
Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).
Not-so-Liberal Democrats, by Brendan O’Neill
(1) Daily Telegraph, 10 May 2001
(2) Observer, 27 May 2001
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