Change in the air

The butter wouldn’t spread this morning. The last of my bright yellow quinces have fallen, and I could detect the atavistic smell of coal in the air when I walked through Rye. The seasons are changing.

And change was what was being promised across the political spectrum in the weeks since I’ve written. We’ve seen three party conferences, the stage managed political rallies which aimed to renew and reinforce the crusted articles of Conservative faith, or consecrate the new creeds of Sir Kier Starmer’s emphatically post-Corbyn, post-antisemitism Labour Party. Each party was focussed on the coming election, rallying its base, batting its eyelids at the persuadable, and hoping to make headlines.

For the Lib Dems, the intent was the same, and though I suspect you, like me, glaze over at the thought of a political conference, it was actually a rather engaging and thought-provoking affair. The Lib Dems are an easy-going, affable bunch, but they lack neither passion, vision nor commitment. It’s often forgotten that a Liberal, William Beveridge, wrote the blue-print for the NHS and that a generation before, the 1906 Liberal government laid the foundations for the welfare state by introducing old age pensions, health and unemployment insurance, and measures to regulate wages and the length of the working day.

Tough decisions – but for whom?

More recently, it was the Lib Dems in coalition that ensured David Cameron’s government implemented universal free school meals for infants in reception and years 1 and 2. Building on this heritage, the Lib Dems now pledge free school meals for all primary-aged children and secondary pupils on universal credit. Surprisingly, perhaps, Labour won’t commit to free school meals, the reversal of George Osborne’s two child cap on benefits, or the pensions triple lock. Sir Keir says that’s about “making tough decisions”, which almost exactly echoes Rishi Sunak’s language. To be fair to Starmer however, it also reflects the parlous state of the nation’s finances. But “tough choices” are always political choices, and with respect to free school meals and benefits for the poorest in our society, the question ultimately is, “tough for whom?”

But postures and promises, regardless of which party makes them, butter no parsnips – especially given the price of butter. Every initiative will have to be paid for, and when Labour process triumphantly into government (as we’re assured they inevitably will), I will be very surprised if a copy of the infamous letter written by Gordon Brown’s chief secretary to the Treasury isn’t found sitting on Rachel Reeve’s desk – “I’m afraid there is no money”. People desperately want change – big change. Alas, after 13 years under the “party of sound finances”, all that’s rattling in the Treasury coffers, is small change… Since the Conservatives have burdened us all with record taxation, Labour and the Liberal Democrats face the same insistent question in respect to all their plans – where’s the money going to come from? Even more taxes?

For the Lib Dems, it’s about expanding the windfall taxes levied on oil and gas companies, and removing the billions in Conservative tax breaks on banks. And because punishing inflation is still dragging people into higher tax brackets, and in recognition of the cost of living crisis, the Lib Dems have said they won’t raise income tax further. Right now, how could they? Ed Davey’s also on the record as saying the Lib Dems will retain the triple lock on pensions.

The blue wall

But let’s be frank, both the Labour and Liberal Democrat conferences made it clear that both parties will be fighting for the votes of dismayed and disgruntled Conservatives. Personally, I see no great contradiction in this, as Liberal Democrats exist to build centrist consensus politics. I hope we’ll attract traditional Labour voters too, to be honest – perhaps those who support electoral reform? Conservative “leave” voters might consider that cause too. Fair votes means real sovereignty for British people – remember that word? How have Britons repatriated sovereignty if millions of our votes are utterly meaningless? Doesn’t first past the post represent an even bigger, more proximate “democratic deficit” than that alleged to have been posed by the EU?

There was a lot in the Lib Dem conference that caught my eye. As someone whose family, like yours, uses local GPs and hospitals, I was glad to see plans to address the problems in the NHS, primary care and social care. There’s an urgent need to transform the NHS from being the over-burdened “National Sickness Service”, into a service that can actually function without reliance on exhausted staff who are ultimately becoming sick themselves [Nuffield Trust report, “All Is Not Well – Sickness Absence in the NHS”]

It requires crowd control at the front door and the back door of the hospital: support for public health and primary care to slow the pace of the queue at the front door, and real help for carers to ensure patients can leave by the back door. In the latter regard, Sir Ed, who’s incidentally a carer himself, unveiled a pretty radical pledge – free social care. The policy’s intended to enable people to live with dignity in their own homes, whilst alleviating pressure on hospitals and staff. There’s a proposal for carers’ leave and a carers’ minimum wage, which would be set at £2 per hour above the present minimum wage. I hope the proposals becomes reality, and I’m sure we all know many people who’d benefit.

The Natural Health Service

With the scrapping of business rates, mental health professionals in schools, a terrific debate on the military covenant and service housing, there was way too much to list here, but seeing my neighbour, Frank, tirelessly tending his flocks also prompted me to tune into to what was promised for Britain’s other national treasure, farming – what we might call, the Natural Health Service. The headlines are another £1bn in funding to fix the botched ELMs (Environmental Land Management Services) system of payments, more funding for ADAS (Agricultural Development and Advisory Service), an effective visa system for seasonal workers, veterinary and phytosanitary agreements, and proper democratic scrutiny of trade deals so they don’t undercut British farmers and fishermen.

So, there’s plenty of potential for change, and we’ll all have to make our choices in the coming months. But something else changed last week too. While the Conservative conference was derailed by HS2, the Labour conference was overshadowed by dark events in the Middle East. Though far away, the human anguish in that seemingly un-holy land was felt in Rye, Hastings and across the UK. It changed the mood, it changed the debate, it changed lives for ever. What it didn’t do is change the underlying dynamics of this seemingly endless calamity, which will never be solved by violence, nor political platitudes. I doesn’t take an expert to know, there’s no military solution to this heart-rending collision of national self-determination. The mightiest militaries cannot bomb ideas out of existence. We don’t need bigger sticks, at home and abroad, we need bigger politicians.

Image Credits: Guy Harris .

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  1. Thank you Guy. I don’t align myself with any one political party but I would observe that your letter is probably the most cogent commentary I have read recently.

    • Thank you, Bob. Still time to align!
      Seriously though, party politics is a necessary evil, and more so under FPTP, which requires antagonism to function, and is becoming more polarised as campaigns are more data driven. I have to say, as far as I’m concerned, party politics should always come second to people. A long way second.

  2. You mention the “post-antisemitism Labour Party”, but as all the independently collected data and the findings of the Forde Report makes clear, what negligible antisemitism existed in the Labour party had not only *fallen* under Corbyn’s tenure, but was exaggerated and weaponised by his opponents for cynical political purposes; presumably this is why the new centre-right Labour party has quietly swept the Forde Report under the proverbial carpet as it inconveniently contradicts the ‘official’ narrative. As a Jew, I’m utterly sickened by all of this as it diminishes genuine instances of antisemitism. I should add that I’m no fan of Corbyn, but I am a fan of truth and accuracy: we’ve had thirteen years of increasing dishonesty and the normalisation of barefaced ‘night is day’ lying in politics – no party that lies (or blithely repeats the appalling lies of others) can claim to occupy the moral high ground.


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