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An open letter to the Liberal Democrats

May 8, 2010

To all members of the Liberal Democrats, elected MPs and otherwise, who will in the next few days talk, negotiate and vote on the role of your party in this parliament –

I am twenty years old. I voted in my first-ever general election on Thursday morning, on my way into class at university. I cast that vote for the Liberal Democrats, despite living in an unassailably safe Labour seat, out of a belief that my support for your party – along with that of thousands of like-minded others – would speed the adoption of a system under which unassailably safe seats do not exist, and under which my vote counts as one, equal to all others, rather than the .005 of a vote it effectively now is.

Electoral reform is an issue of fundamental importance to this country; I believe it to be a great shame that a country that seeks to teach democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan is still having its own problems. A move to a proportionate voting system – of which there are several of comparable merit – would see the voices of the United Kingdom’s people represented equally, fairly, as they deserve, rather than arbitrarily weighted depending on accidents of geography.

Electoral reform is a priority; but it is not the most important issue at stake.

The Liberal Democrats are the party of electoral reform, but they are not solely the party of electoral reform. They are the party of Britain sensibly integrated in Europe, of Britain accepting rather than rejecting those who come here seeking a better life, of Britain seeking to ease the burden on the poor rather than make it heavier. Of education and higher education for all, not merely the ultra-privileged. Of progressive tax, compassionate welfare, and a movement towards pacifism. All those things, not merely one or two, have been promised to the electorate as Liberal Democrat principles and ambitions. All of them.

You, the Liberal Democrats, have presented your party to us, the electorate, as the party of equality and progressive change. On the back of those promises you received the votes of six million Britons – one in every ten of the country’s population who wishes to see the advancement of progressive ideals.

That is the Liberal Democrats.

Let us now consider another party.

There is a party which has promised to close Britain’s borders tighter than ever, withdraw partly or wholly from Europe, squeeze those on welfare and low incomes further still whilst giving unearned tax breaks to the incredibly rich, and encourage the continuation of broken and abusive relationships by taxing those who leave them; which has allied itself in Europe with parties of anti-Semitic and homophobic extremists and whose own ranks include outspoken and virulent homophobes; which is, as it always has been, a party composed largely of those born into privilege who have never thought to examine it, and has always actively worked to perpetuate inequality; a party the leader of which has said plainly in interviews in the last day that he does not want proportional representation, will not support it, and will not call a referendum to let Britain’s citizens decide for themselves.

This is a party that I think may be rightly called the antithesis of the Liberal Democrat party on multiple counts, though not least because from their recent remarks they appear to be opposed to both liberty and democracy. I did not vote for this party; I voted, indeed, in the sincere hope that they would not achieve a majority. Had I lived in a constituency where this party is strong, I would not have hesitated to vote tactically to keep them out. I do not doubt that many thousands of Liberal Democrat supporters did the same.

To take the votes of those six million people, those six million voices for real and progressive change, and effectively gift them to a party that has shown itself utterly antithetical to that aim would be nothing less than a comprehensive betrayal of the confidence one-tenth of this country has placed in you, and would lead inescapably to the conclusion that the Liberal Democrat party are more interested in gaining power than in the principles they profess to espouse – a sad revelation, if it be true, and one likely to destroy voters’ faith in your party just as it has destroyed our faith in the Labour and Conservative parties before now.

Today my vote, and six million others, are in your hands. Today, they are yours to give away. But if today you give my vote, my support – support offered on sincere principle – to a party the leaders, ideas and ideals of which I despise, then tomorrow, my vote will go elsewhere.

The Liberal Democrats have painted themselves as the party of honesty, of sincerity, of democracy and equality. That portrait gained the trust of millions. Do not betray that trust.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. Paul Skinner permalink
    May 9, 2010 12:22 am

    “whilst giving unearned tax breaks to the incredibly rich”

    I really take issue with this.

    Unearned is quite wrong in a great deal of cases.
    Because someone has amassed a fortune it does not automatically mean they deserve to be taxed proportionally more than other people as has been the case under many governments (not just New Labour).

    What I see the Conservatives doing this time around *on this issue* is restoring somewhat the percentage balance that rich people have been charged.

    I’ve made it clear before that I believe a flat percentage rate should be charged regardless of income and I wholeheartedly stand by it.

    Let’s look at this in reverse:

    It’s all very well thinking poor people deserve a tax cut, but some of the poor people *don’t* deserve a tax cut. There are a reasonable amount of people who *choose* to live on benefits.
    This is the same logic as rich people not deserving a tax cut (from the current tax levels). Not all of them are fat-cats who’ve got all their money from Daddy. Probably not even the majority.

    I just see no need to be so vehemently opposed to people amassing a fortune.

    However, I agree with every other point you’ve made about them and that they’ll quite likely be bad for the country as a whole.


    On electoral reform:
    There are ignorant people (and a truly disturbing amount of them) who are allowed to vote in elections. For example I had someone at work shouting off about how Brown has been useless, but then couldn’t even remember what party he was the leader of yet she’d (in this case) decided to vote. This is one of many examples I’ve seen (can you sense how enraged I was at the time?).

    I believe voting should only be allowed if you have a license. Perhaps a simple quiz asking who is the leader of which party, and who is standing in your own constituency for the main parties (or at least who is currently MP for your constituency, because try as I might I had no idea who was standing for Labour in my seat – absolutely fuck all canvassing).

    I pretty much don’t believe democracy works when you allow people to vote in complete ignorance (which I presume is the reason for not letting under 18s vote).

    I also believe this of using a computer incidentally.
    There should be a license to stop people who don’t know what they’re doing from using a computer until they do. It’s dangerous letting people who don’t know how to check that they’re *actually* on their bank’s site before putting in their details use a computer.

    P.S. I honestly try not to be against all of your posts. I find it interesting to hear opposing viewpoints that are well written and from someone who knows the subject area pretty well. Generally I agree with most of what you say, but I neglect to point it out and instead focus on things I disagree with. My apologies for this.

    I fear this has become an essay rather than a comment, so I’ll stop here.

  2. May 9, 2010 10:13 am

    It seems the idea of the ‘undeserving poor’ didn’t die with the Victorians.

    You’re right to point out that the rich have been taxed proportionally more under other governments than New Labour: in fact, they were under Thatcher’s government as well, and indeed under every government since 1798, because a graded tax is the only way to pay for government spending without taking away anyone’s means to live. Charge the same percentage across the board and you will have either a penniless government unable even to pay the cleaning bill for the Houses of Parliament, or a significant section of the population unable to pay the rent.

    Rich people deserve to contribute more of their income to the running of this country, not because they’re inherently worse people than the poor (I don’t say that, and I don’t believe it), but because we all live here and they can afford to help out more.

    As for whether poor people deserve a tax cut, it is an undeniable fact that, to the frustration of idealists everywhere, not all poor people are good people. But that is none of the government’s business. As Hamlet said, “Use every man after his desert, and who shall ‘scape whipping?” The government is there to make sure that this is a country where everyone possible can survive, and have at least a fair go at achieving the best life that they can. Morality is our business, not theirs.

    As for the voting licence… I agree with you in principle — it’s so frustrating to think of your vote being 100% cancelled out by someone with 1% of your interest in politics — but I do suspect there would be something of an uproar if it was brought in. Not to mention abuses: making people pass a test to vote used to be the big scheme to keep black people from voting in America.

  3. May 9, 2010 10:18 am

    Excellent open letter. I agree enthusiastically with all of its points, and salute the style of its writing. I do wonder what’s going to happen. Boris Johnson said the people had found a great way to punish all the politicians at once, and much as one occasionally hears a sentence of complete clarity from a rambling mad person, I found Boris’s insight on this occasion rather perspicacious. I wouldn’t much like to be any of them just now.

  4. Paul Skinner permalink
    May 9, 2010 10:54 am

    I didn’t quite mean undeserving in the context you suggest. Undeserving of something over and above everyone else, but not undeserving of everything. I wouldn’t abolish the system of benefits or anything. I just don’t believe that some people should be able to use services without having contributed towards them even if it’s a pittance.

    I did think about this (whether the percentage would be so high as to make living unaffordable). It made me wonder. Has anyone ever done the calculation for Britain?

    It’s not unheard of. Ukraine taxed its residents 13%, Georgia implemented a 12% tax and Lithuania taxed its residents 33%. All saw economic growth of around 8% year-on-year.

    I quote this pretty much verbatim:

    “In 1994 Estonian chose to go to a 26% flat tax, the first in the world to move away from the gradual system. That number, since then has been reduced to 21% and is slated to fall to 18% in 2011. From 2001 to 2007, Estonia grew by an average of 9% per year. In 2003, its unemployment rate was in excess of 12%; just five years later, only 4.5% of its population was without jobs. Estonia has also gained a reputation for being surprisingly high-tech; over 63% of its population has access to the internet, well above the world average.”

    Unfortunately I don’t know what the tax rates were under the USSR so I can’t compare to see if this is better or worse than then for poorer people. It’s still interesting to see.

    It is at least possible in theory and I’d like to see someone work it out (who has the first clue how to go about doing such a thing – unlike me).


    R.E. The voting license:

    I would offer educational classes for 3/4 months running up to the election. It would include offering manifestos on audio CD or braille. I would strive to make it as easy as possible for people to vote whilst making sure that the most ignorant of people weren’t allowed to vote. I would accept slight ignorance (i.e. not having a clue how the chambers work). At least people should know who is leader of what party and what their key points are.

  5. Ruthie G permalink
    May 9, 2010 3:15 pm

    “I pretty much don’t believe democracy works when you allow people to vote in complete ignorance (which I presume is the reason for not letting under 18s vote).”

    This sentence really sounds like in your mind under 18=completely politicaly apathic. As a 15 year old, this really offends me.

    The time that I was at school during the run up to the election (with holidays and exam leave, a fairly short time) there was a lot of interest. I had an exam Friday, most discussion between papers was about the election results. Politics is mentioned fairly regularly, and some frinds and I have supported the Lib Dems since way before the first debate.

    I realise that a sample of a section of one year from one school is not a big enough group to make a general statement about, but this is my experience of under 18s reaction to politics. Being young ≠ ignorance.

    (If this isn’t your opinion, then I apologise, I’ve just heard too many comments recently about why my opinion is made less valuable becaue of my age.)

  6. Ruthie G permalink
    May 9, 2010 3:19 pm

    I’m from Scotland. One constituency voted Tory. I’m not pleased.

  7. Paul Skinner permalink
    May 9, 2010 7:32 pm

    I was going by what I presume is the reason they’re not allowed to vote as we currently stand. I too believe it’s faulty logic. It was meant to point out that it’s already ok to stop some people from voting based I what I conclude is the government’s belief that under 18s can’t think for themselves. It was badly worded, my apologies.

    It is, after all, your future too that this decision is potentially affecting.

    I for example was 17 at the last general election and knew a good amount about what was going on and who stood for what. It was a shame I wasn’t allowed to vote as I was living in an area where it might have actually made a bit of a difference (unlike now, as I live in Eric Pickles – Conservative party chairman’s constituency).

    I wouldn’t be against younger people voting if my testing scenario was in place.

    What I don’t like is people wandering in to polling stations voting for someone because he/she looks nice etc. This is an example of someone who should be allowed to vote.

  8. wickedday permalink
    May 10, 2010 10:31 am

    Morning all. Sorry for not getting to this conversation earlier – for the last two days I’ve been doing almost nothing but dissertation. Anyway. Here now.

    TAX: The tax break I was specifically complaining about is on inheritance tax. Inherited money is by definition unearned, and you know, if massive inheritance tax encourages people to put their cash back into the economy before they die, I’m all for it. (I think the overall difficulty with the tax system is that the rich have more resources to avoid paying up. Cracking down properly on tax evasion would probably put more money back into the governmental coffers than almost any tax rise.)

    VOTING: To me voting licenses are one of those things that most people, in their curmudgeonly hearts, secretly think might be a good idea. In real life it doesn’t work, same as requiring intelligence tests for, say, breeding doesn’t work – it will be abused to shut out today’s flavour of undesirables.

    If we’re going to accept the right to a democratic say in the running of one’s country as a fundamental one (and I do), then you have to extend that right on a basis that can’t be abused. Intelligence tests, as Seamus points out, absolutely can be, and indeed have been. There’s also the point that even a fair intelligence test will discriminate in some fashion, if only format – people absorb information in different ways. Someone who’s baffled by jargon-filled text might be fine with a graph. Someone who’s bamboozled by both of those might be fine if someone explains it orally. You can’t balance any kind of test for all learning styles.

    While the current means of determining who gets the vote – age – can seem unfair on politically aware people under that age (welcome, Ruthie), its upside is that age simply cannot be culturally biased. You’re either 18 years old or you aren’t, regardless of the colour of your skin, your sex, your sexuality, your religion or how well you speak English. Very few factors are that absolute, and I think that (whether or not that’s why age-based voting was introduced in the first place; I suspect not) is why we should keep an age limit. Almost anything else can be skewed in one way or another.

    The age limit could do with being lower – if you’re old enough to be a parent at 16 then you’re damn well old enough to vote on who gets to determine your child’s future – but I think a hard limit is still the way to go.

    And you know, it’s none of my business why someone votes. If someone’s really concerned to have nice-looking/friendly-looking/football-supporting people in Parliament, that’s their right to try and bring it about. You might as well say that you don’t like people wandering into the voting booth and picking someone who’s said nice things about them – which, indirectly, is lots of us – or someone they wouldn’t mind going for a drink with. The constituency system means that you do have an interest in making sure your MP is a decent person, regardless of their party affiliation.

    Also, if voting for frivolous reasons is to be banned, then I take it you’re also calling for the dissolution of the Monster Raving Loony Party. Up with that I will not put!

  9. May 10, 2010 10:53 am

    Not re-entering the discussion just now, because I’ve got 58 pages in front of me to take and hand in, but a brief point of information: as unlikely as it sounds, that really was why age-based voting was introduced; it was brought in to replace voting by the heads of households (to stormy indignation from the Tories, as you no doubt have guessed).

    For all the faults of the household system, one bizarre footnote to the history of UK democracy is that under household voting, women could and did vote.

  10. knightofthedropdowntable permalink*
    May 10, 2010 12:49 pm

    “It’s all very well thinking poor people deserve a tax cut, but some of the poor people *don’t* deserve a tax cut. There are a reasonable amount of people who *choose* to live on benefits.”

    There are a couple of things wrong with this – for a start, benefits provide the amount of money judged to be the minimum for living in this country, so taxing them would only result in increasing them by the amount they are being taxed, rendering the whole thing pointless. The same goes for people earning less than the income tax threshold, these people are judged to need every penny to live here, is taxing them so they can’t afford to eat really “fair”?

    I also question your assumption that there are a reasonable amount of people who choose to live on benefits – do you have any evidence for this? Everyone in government and the media likes to spout about how loads of people scrounge off the system, but none of these people have seen the system, and know just how difficult it is to cheat. Add to that the sheer number of people I met on the mandatory job-hunting courses who genuinely wanted to get out and work, and I just can’t believe that there are that many people cheating it. Anecdotes aren’t evidence, true, but it’s more evidence than I’ve ever seen for the opposite position.

  11. Paul Skinner permalink
    May 10, 2010 10:02 pm

    Ah, no I don’t mean tax benefits. That would indeed to a completely pointless exercise. If you’re out of work there’s no need for people to pay tax. I thought that was a given.

    “is taxing them so they can’t afford to eat really “fair”?”
    I never at any point said this. Raising minimum wage is one combatant to this.

    I spent probably 50% of the last year on JSA in between freelance work. My particular Job Centre was Harlow. The sheer volume of single parents speaks volumes. Plenty of those seemed to be through choice. They showed complete apathy to search for a job through their manner with the staff at the Job Centre. Of course this wasn’t everyone, but of the younger people there it was a shocking amount. That’s my experience. Elsewhere may well be different.

  12. Paul Skinner permalink
    May 10, 2010 10:22 pm

    I seem to have lost the reply button to your comment, wickedday, so alas here it is instead:

    It’s interesting you bring up both the voting age and the Monster Raving Looney Party in one comment.
    They were the first to propose the last lowering of the voting age from 21 to 18.

    As an aside, two other manifesto points that have since come in to law are:
    Passports for pets, and all-day pub opening.


    “TAX: The tax break I was specifically complaining about is on inheritance tax. Inherited money is by definition unearned, and you know, if massive inheritance tax encourages people to put their cash back into the economy before they die, I’m all for it.”

    It’s not actually a tax on inheritance. That’s the problem I have with it. It’s taken pre-inheriting. Regardless of the amount of children you’ve got the tax is taken from the sum of the estate being split.

    This is wrong. This is in fact a tax on earned outgoings.

    I don’t see why 4 children inheriting a £400,000 estate should be taxed, but one person inheriting a £100,000 estate shouldn’t. It’s fundamentally flawed.

    And then we have the problem of heritage. Locally there are some big estates that have had to be split and given partially to National Heritage.
    One of which was an Ops base for the RAF during WW2. The family of which set up a school for the local community. It’s not good that after all their community efforts they’re just being taxed to the point where their family home is no longer theirs.

    This situation would be even more problematic if you were to tax the receiving person (unless you passed it on to 50-odd people of course, but I can’t imagine that’d help the situation).

    The only way it can be done so as to not be biased against having more than one child or have an adverse impact on heritage is to abolish it entirely.

    R.E. voting for people based on looks. That’s an interesting point well made. I think I take back what I said albeit it begrudgingly. Perhaps people should have to fail a serious test first in order to be able to vote frivolously… and we could have two Prime Ministers, one who actually runs the country, and the other presents all the press conferences 🙂

    P.S. The Monster Raving Looney Party I *think* have a policy that if ever anyone were to get 5% of the popular vote that candidate can’t stand again as they’ve become too popular.

    My favourite manifesto point is:

    “Banning semi-colons; no-one knows how to use them.”

  13. wickedday permalink
    May 10, 2010 11:15 pm

    Yeah, I’ve unthreaded the comments – I found the nested format was getting more annoying than the normal way. It’s not like people can’t take an extra line to specify who they’re talking to.

    I see your point about individual inheritances. Maybe the best solution would be a law saying that no single individual can inherit more than, I don’t know, £100k. I can’t help but feel that so many of this country’s problems (and our political system’s) are down to excessive inherited wealth or, more specifically, the aura of entitlement it tends to create. Actually, maybe a better step in that direction would be getting rid of the sodding aristocracy already.

  14. knightofthedropdowntable permalink*
    May 11, 2010 12:14 pm

    Paul: There are certainly plenty of people who are apathetic and do not want a job, but the system is still set up to cut these people off. It might take them a while to realise this, they might be under the same illusions the media have – that it’s easy to cheat – but in the end they have to actively seek work or they don’t get benefits. There are also (sadly) a lot of rude people in the world, and a rude attitude does not necessarily mean they don’t want a job.

    The sheer volume of single parents speaks volumes.
    Be very careful using phrases like this, as we all know stereotypes don’t help anyone.

    Tax: A problem I see with breaking it down into a smaller chunk per inheritee is that it then becomes almost impossible to pass on property, especially with such high house prices, as I don’t think you can divide a single house between several people in a will. Taxing each person on anything over £100k they inherit suddenly affects my dad, as his parents’ house is worth more than that, and I can assure you he is not even in the top 50% richest in the country, never mind 5% or whatever it is now.

  15. May 11, 2010 8:46 pm

    “Ah, no I don’t mean tax benefits. That would indeed be a completely pointless exercise. If you’re out of work there’s no need for people to pay tax. I thought that was a given.”

    Yes, I thought that was a given as well! And then you started saying that the poor didn’t deserve tax breaks because of people who live on benefits. So your position as I understand it is that, because a certain proportion of the less wealthy part of the population claim benefits rather than work, those who do work ought to be taxed stiffly. Why? To show the ones on benefits what a good idea it is to get a job?

    Benefit claimants and workers in low-paid jobs can only be connected by taking the benefit claimants as evidence for a generalised negative view of the country’s poorest people, which, frankly, is a very worrying attitude to take.

    Moving on from that, your examples of countries that have introduced a flat tax include three countries less than one-tenth of the UK’s size, which will have a reducing effect on the amount of public spending necessary, as government transportation and infrastructure need not be anything like as expensive. Only Ukraine is close to the size of the UK.

    If a flat tax was introduced at 20% of income, the level for the lowest tax band, public spending would have to be reduced by 46%, dropping by £277,861,000,000. To put that number in context, the Tories’ proposed spending cuts amount to £6,000,000,000. That’s just over 2% of what a flat 20% tax would entail cutting, and leading economists have argued that the six-billion-pound cuts cannot be paid for by “efficiency savings” alone, and will probably entail reductions in many public services. Multiply that by 50, and it’s apparent that a 20% tax wouldn’t be workable.

    To have the same amount of money available for public spending, a tax rate of 36.9% would be required; not much higher than Lithuania, as you will have noticed, and yet many people would be severely affected. My parents, for example — and I beg your forgiveness for using an emotionally-laden example, but they’re the only working people whose income I know about in detail — would certainly lose their house.

    By not touching incomes below £6,475 per annum, the government gives a clear implication that £6,475 is pretty much the necessary amount to live for a year in this country. Anyone with an income below £10,260 under a 36.9% tax rate would therefore be taxed to below the poverty line, and so they would have to be exempt from income tax, entailing a cut in public spending again, or else an even higher tax rate. At this point making precise calculations becomes futile, as the lower bound and the tax rate will rise in tandem in a never-ending game of Achilles and the Tortoise. But I hope this set of numbers has demonstrated why a flat tax can’t work: between making a large section of the population destitute at one end of the scale, and nearly halving public spending at the other, there’s little possibility of a flat tax which doesn’t demolish this country as we know it from one direction or the other. For one thing, the compulsory state education system would almost certainly have to go, and you, who have been talking about adding a new kind of state education, publishing manifestoes in several formats, and the like, surely can’t want that.

  16. May 11, 2010 8:57 pm

    Breaking news: Cameron is PM, coalition talks continue.

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