…something I think needs saying before the party troops down to Bournemouth.
I’m definitely on the warm side on the subject of Make it Happen. It’s nicely written, it covers the basic liberal points without too much bland mainstreamy window-dressing, and hell, it did the dog-whistle job with the press and you can’t argue with that.
My guiding tenet here is that our taxation policy, though it isn’t without its shortcomings (up the tax free allowance to the National Minimum Wage, Vince? Please?) is the party’s greatest contribution to current political debate. We ought to be fricking indignant that it isn’t given wider credence. I’m bloody furious. We are (if we need reminding) the only party actually offering a fairer distribution of the existing tax burden so that people on lower incomes pay less tax. And we were all that before Make it Happen came along, whatever the newspapers think. That tax package deserves to be promoted by anything up to and including unicorns in sparkly costumes performing a medley of the repertoire of Chesney Hawkes, so I’m not going to quibble about mild over-production values in a document which successfully brought the tax package to something approaching national notice.
I must also declare an interest of being, frankly, unfussed by the vexed question of whether or not we commit to reducing the overall tax take. Clegg mentioned this as a Good Thing If Possible In The Long Term in his Liverpool speech, and in spite of an awful lot of harrumphing from the more statily inclined in the party, I can’t find anything in the recent announcements that go much further than that. The immediate goal is still the implementation of the redistributive tax policy, and if a few well-intentioned words about longer term absolute cuts are what the iddle-widdle journalists need to hear in order to grasp the concept of the tax package, then so be it. It is the ultimate aim of a truly liberal government after all – why not refer to the ultimate aim?
So Make It Happen has done the business where a more cerebral approach didn’t, which is splendid. There’s just one glaring turd (if you will) in that document that I really can’t forgive. I’ve got an awful feeling I’m going to be spending a lot of conference in super-wince mode.
This is what I’m talking about:
…to take the pressure off ordinary families… (p 5)
…so ordinary families have more of their money to help themselves (p 5)
We’ll help ordinary families struggling… (p 5)
We’ll cut taxes for ordinary families (p 5)
…[homes] need to be made available for families to rent. (p 14)
James Schneider has ranted about this as well. His main complaint is that it’s a cynical vote-grubbing exercise. Partly it is, but the sheer idiotic vapidity gets to me just as much. Ah, so we won’t be helping ordinary individuals struggling then? And no-one will be allowed to rent unless they are part of a state-approved family? Every time that document, or Nick Clegg, mentions the word “family”, the test of opposites is crashingly failed – would the reverse implication of this statement make the remotest bit of sense? Of course it bloody wouldn’t. That’s why we used to leave the family talk to the Conservatives.
Don’t get me wrong – “families”, in the 2.4 children sense, are very obviously relevant to any education discussion, and to discussion of some specific aspects of healthcare. There’s also a worthwhile mention on p14 of Make it Happen of families getting broken up by rising house prices. Fair enough, they are. And as liberals, we would hope that the drafters of this document didn’t hold that narrow a conception of family in any case, a point which Clegg confirmed as readily as you would expect at our December interview.
So we’re hardly plumbing the depths of antediluvian Toryism. I think my objection is more fundamental than that. Talking about families rather than individuals just sits very, very badly with the whole concept of liberalism, a concept innately concerned with the individual. Time and again, vapid family-speak has been crowbarred awkwardly into outlines of sound liberal principles in a way that frankly looks and sounds odd. Consider the following:
Individual people and families don’t seem to have a voice to influence what happens. (p 12)
there are millions of British people and families living abroad (p 14)
That faux-distinction is meaningless PR-happy toss worthy of David Cameron himself. People who have a place in a family are still individuals – one might argue, first and foremost individuals from a liberal perspective. Of course, it’s also true to say that every individual is part of a family in some sense. But we all know what a politician really means when they use the word “family”. They mean “people who need to use schools”, “people who need to use healthcare frequently”, “people who need to use a large car” and above all they mean “people who will typically discuss their vote with one other person and then go and use it“.
So we’re starting to buy into it, aren’t we. That facile ballot-box commonplace that people who have achieved the incredible feat of either fertilising an egg or carrying it to term are some sort of natural centre of gravity for political morality. That – somehow – once they are part of a “family” they matter more than an individual does, which is, to quote that great liberal authority Kryten, a common mistake made by all truly stupid people.
And it’s not just cravenly vote-grubbing and implicitly Tory – it’s also daft. Consider, for example, my “family”. At the moment, it consists of my retired parents whom I’m about to move three hundred miles away from, my brother, ditto, my friends from college, my friends from previous workplaces, my friends from school, my friends from blogging, the people behind the bar at my local, the people who run the shops I shop at, the work colleagues I know mostly by email in my various freelance incarnations, the postie who is overwhelmed by my ebay habit on a daily basis. And once my projected move to Devon does actually come about I will acquire a whole network of “family” down there which again will have absolutely sod all to do with being part of what politicians call a family. I am who I am because of everyone. No, no. Sorry. I am in no way subject to advertising messages, honest.
But just consider the power of that network – the conversations and the idle grunting at the newspapers, the daily drip-drip of opinions formed, advice sought, achievements shared and help given. The way I interact, economically and culturally, with the world, is shaped by my “family” as much as any conventional domestic situation shapes a parent’s interaction with the world. All that potential. Resolutely untapped into by the messaging in Make it Happen.
The creeping introduction of family-speak into Lib Demmery isn’t just a disturbing sign of vote-grubbing cynicism. It’s an implied acceptance that the turnout will only ever get lower and democracy will only ever be relevant for people who use government services, when we ought to be the one party fighting for the expansion of democracy outside the boundaries of the cosy two-party consensus. It’s horribly, horribly antithetical to the principles of liberalism and it’s also horribly, horribly offputting to the swathes of the population who for whatever reason have their eggs unfertilised or their fertiliser unegged (as it were), and who happen not to have a sick invalid parent tucked away anywhere either (you get special dispensation in politico-moral speak to be a “family” if you have one of those).
On the Saturday morning at conference, all being well, I might be able to go to an interview with Nick Clegg. When it’s my turn asking the questions, I will congratulate him on Make It Happen, rejoice with him that the tax package is getting some of the attention it deserves, and I’ll ask him, much more politely than this, what the hell gives with all the family bullshit.