How good it is to be able to welcome (much of) a speech from Nick Clegg.
Liberal Democrats are different from the Tories.
Yes, indeed. That is the message that Liberal Democrat Party members have been trying to get across since our conference in September 2010. It’s good to hear Nick saying it out loud.
“The Tory right dreams of a fantasy world…
“where we can walk away from the EU, but magically keep our economy strong..” he said.
He might have added that it is a fantasy to think that the EU would be prepared to re-negotiate on all those things where we wish to change things, without also re-negotiating things that they may wish to change.
He might have added that it is a fantasy to think that we can lecture other countries on human rights while we ourselves walk away from the The European Convention on Human Rights.
Incidentally we should remember that the The European Convention on Human Rights was signed by Britain in 1950. We were one of its main architects. It is an instrument of the Council of Europe which we joined in 1949. It is not a product of the EU which we didn’t join until 1973.
So, yes, Nick is quite right we are different from the Conservatives.
And yes, we are also different from Labour.
But – and you knew this was coming didn’t you – but what is this talk about looking again at universal benefits for pensioners?
Do you really want to stop bus passes and Winter Fuel Payments?
Will that save the economy?
Let me offer some general thoughts first.
Universal benefits are generally cheaper to apply than means-tested ones.
Introducing new forms of means testing will undo all the good work we have done in trying to consolidate benefits.
Multiple means testing introduces anomalies and unfairness. Just look at the mess that Osborne has got into by trying to tax the child benefit paid for children when one of the adults in that household is earning more than £50,000. Today Radio 4’s Moneybox live dedicated the whole programme to it.
And on the specifics:
The free bus pass is as much about encouraging the use of buses and subsidising bus companies as subsidising the pensioner. If we withdraw free bus passes from the wealthy they will simply drive. Not clever.
The Winter Fuel Payment is an anomaly. It carries a ridiculous amount of its own bureaucracy. It should be incorporated into the old age pension. This would make it much cheaper to administer, it would remain universal, but it should be subject to income tax. As we are a party that believes in a progressive tax regime the rich would lose proportionately more of the allowance, but we would only have one form of means testing and that would be through income tax.
So it is good to hear the Leader of the Liberal Democrats setting out at least some of the differences between Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, just as it is good to see in recent months that he is prepared to disagree on policy. That is how it should be in a grown up coalition. On those matters where agreement is recorded in the coalition agreement then the two parties must stand together, even if compromises were needed in forming that agreement. But in matters that are not covered by the coalition agreement there is no reason why the two parties should not agree to differ.