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Liberal Democrats: the contradictions of populism

Much of the rhetoric emanating from the International Convention Centre in Birmingham over the last couple of days is marked by a degree of ostensible radicalism well beyond anything heard in ministerial speeches under New Labour:

Where business secretary John Hutton proclaimed that huge salaries were something to celebrate, his successor Vince Cable attackspay outs for failure’ and calls for workers and shareholders to have an input into deciding executive pay.

Where Gordon Brown shamefully scrapped the 10p tax band – a move that left up to five million of the poorest people in Britain worse off – Nick Clegg entirely correctly advocates taking the low paid out of the income tax system altogether.

Treasury secretary Danny Alexander is hiring 2,500 additional inspectors to snoop into the tax returns of the super-rich and warning them that ‘we will find your money’. There is even talk of a mansions’ tax in the offing.

As is the way with all major parties these days, all of this will have been choreographed long in advance. The Liberal Democrats have deliberately decided to present themselves as progressive redistributionists, moving on to turf that Labour even under Ed Miliband is too timid to occupy.

Yet they are doing so as part of a government whose programme is centred rather on regressive redistribution; a government that wants to take money away from disability and housing benefit claimants and public sector pension funds in order to propitiate financial markets; a government that exists essentially to ensure that the wealthiest in society stay that way, even if they do have to hand over fractionally more of their vast incomes to the Inland Revenue.

The hope appears to be that flagging up proposals unlikely ever to be enacted will deflect the flak the Lib Dems inevitably have to take for participation in this project. But if the example of their sister party across the North Sea is anything to go by, the gambit will not necessarily work.

Germany’s Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP) is a junior partner in coalition with the Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands, roughly equivalent to the Tories. The administration is taking a buffeting because, in the interests of the banking classes, it is footing much of the bill for the eurozone bailout.

FDP leader Philipp Rösler – like Clegg, officially speaking the deputy head of government – is aware that this is going down badly with the electorate, and has sought to milk mild euroscepticism in the same way that Clegg has suddenly rediscovered softcore social democracy.

The results have not been impressive. Two state elections this month have seen it crash out of state assemblies in both Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Berlin, its vote collapsing to the 2-3% range in both cases. If that performance were replicated at the next general election, it would disappear altogether from the Bundestag after failing to make the 5% threshold.

The parallel is not exact, of course. In this country, the government’s deficit reduction plan still commands public significant support, a factor the left should not forget. But this, I suspect, will be reversed as soon as the huge cuts in public spending that it entails has yet to be introduced.

Once we get there, we will find out just how serious the Lib Dems are about wanting to take on the rich, and whether their electoral base will be any more forgiving than the FDP’s.

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