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Where are the Lib Dems going?
THE LIBERAL Democrat identity crisis was exposed at their conference. Leader Charles Kennedy tried to deflect criticism that the party was preparing a lurch to the right by saying: "What people don't want is yet another conservative party in British politics".
Yet he clearly hinted that he would back moves to adopt more 'neo-liberal' policies on privatisation and tax. In other words, the Liberals will more openly support cuts in government spending and the sell-off of state assets advocated by both New Labour and the Tories.
Whilst the conference voted down proposals for the privatisation of the post office, with one delegate correctly saying that the leadership want to go "where even Margaret Thatcher dared not go", the party's policy review will put it back on the agenda.
In the last general election they won some votes with a populist approach, such as posing as the anti-war party. And in some cities where they are not in power, they claimed to oppose cuts. But they failed to make the gains from Tory voters that they had hoped for.
Of course their 'left' credentials are false. They actually supported the war when it began. They would have been Blair's cheerleader had the UN approved it, and supported previous imperialist wars such as the first Gulf War. Where they gain power in cities, such as Leicester, they cut services in exactly the same way as the other main parties.
However, the powerful 'modernisers' in the party, such as the authors of the infamous Orange Book advocate a Thatcherite turn in party policy. Policy reviews are considering scrapping plans to get rid of council tax and dropping their (extremely modest) plan to have a 50% tax rate on those who earn over £100,000. They are even discussing the possibility of scrapping progressive income tax in favour of a "flat tax" which would massively benefit the rich.
Vince Cable, the treasury spokesperson complains: "Many voters still associate us with high taxes and big spending" and that the party's "credibility hinges on us changing that perception" (BBC news). In other words he wants to cut public services.
In The Observer he said: "whatever money has gone in (to public services) was welcome but we are now in a different era."
They also want to privatise more public services, not just the post office. For example, the demand to privatise and break up the NHS was raised at a fringe meeting by David Laws, Work and Pensions spokesperson. He wants the party to end the "state monopoly system" and bring in "a social insurance model where you can go to different providers".
The investigation into whether a £2.4 million donation to the party from financier Michael Brown was legal because it was not from a UK company, only serves to highlight that the Liberals are another big business party.
Press speculation during the conference centred on criticisms of Kennedy's leadership. But whatever happens on that, the key issue is the shift to the right in economic policy. As always, he claims that the party is neither left nor right.
In his conference speech he said: "There is absolutely no contradiction between economic liberalism and financial discipline on the one hand, and fairness and social justice on the other".
In other words, he will attempt to appear 'left' on issues such as the war and civil rights, whilst adopting the same big-business economic policies as the other parties.
In The Socialist 29 September 2005: