Yesterday at the Lib Dem conference in Glasgow a noisy group of protestors gathered outside the entrance. I couldn’t tell exactly what they were protesting about, except that I caught a reference to the so-called “Bedroom Tax” on a banner. There were fewer protestors braving the wind and rain this morning, but some of them got close enough to press leaflets about the Bedroom Tax into our hands. By the time I reached the security tent at entrance to the centre the rain had pretty much destroyed them, and I accepted the the scanning machine operator’s offer to throw them away. The Bedroom Tax has become the centre point of left wing criticism of the coalition government. It refers to the withdrawal of housing benefit from social housing tenants who are deemed to be living in bigger properties than they need. The rule has applied to private sector tenants for some time. I have not been following the issue closely, but I don’t particularly trust the complainers to report the matter fairly. But it stinks of an arbitrary change of rules that has left unforeseen misery in its wake.
Let’s change the scene to yesterday afternoon’s speech by party president Tim Farron. This speech attempted to stake out some ideological space for the party. He celebrated the consensus forged after 1945 by the great Liberal William Beveridge. His master plan to deal with the nation’s great ills (poverty, lack of decent housing, poor health, unemployment, and lack of education) did indeed evolve into a social democratic political consensus, which gave the country the NHS and social security, amongst other national,systems. According to Mr Farron’s narrative this consensus was destroyed by the malign Margaret Thatcher, with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown completing its demise. Mr Farron wanted to re-establish Beveridge’s ideas into a new consensus. Leaving aside the impossibility of forging a political consensus on the issue, he then went on to combine this idea with that of developing the party’s commitment to community politics. This struck me as being inconsistent, but I did not pay it too much attention at the time. But it became clear from a comment I made on Facebook that many Lib Dems cannot see the inconsistency. To me this sums up the ideological problem that the party faces, and I need to explain why.
The Beveridge consensus represents a bold national programme which was implemented through a series of national policies enacted by Westminster politicians to confront a series of systemic problems. Community politics is the opposite. It is about finding local solutions to problems that can be clearly identified with particular people. This is not about the local implementation of national standards and policies. There is a fundament conflict.
So what has this got to do with the Bedroom Tax? It is a problem that has clearly been begotten by the sort of national policies favoured by advocates of the Beveridge consensus. To meet the problems of inadequate housing it was felt necessary to create a system of housing benefit that was designed nationally although administered locally. This evolved into a system where massive sums of taxpayers money was being poured into the pockets of landlords with rather doubtful social benefits; the benefit simply provided an incentive for landlords to raise rents. This was difficult to reform though, so not much was done. But eventually it was deemed to be unaffordable. And hence a series of arbitrary changes to the rules were made to save money, which affected many poor people who had adjusted to the system as it was, and for whom change meant hardship. This included the Bedroom Tax.
To me this is what happens when national, centrally imposed systems collide with the complexities of world they are trying to change. It was not so much that the systems were badly designed, but that the bad design took so long to fix, and when the fix came it had many unforeseen consequences. What if municipalities had designed there own systems of housing benefit out taxes they themselves raised? It is difficult to see that they would have dug such a deep hole for themselves. For one thing it would have hit crisis point much earlier.
But what if housing benefit was merely part of a community run system of aid that was centred on the needs of individuals, rather than a set of arbitrary national rules run by a series of separate agencies each reporting to a different minister in Whitehall? This is where community politics should lead. But it is incompatible with the system of nationally run social democracy…which is where an invocation of Beveridge leads.
Most Lib Dems are very comfortable in principle with the idea of locally administered solutions. But they have little idea of the costs these have to national institutions and power structures, that they simultaneously want to preserve. Invoking Beveridge’s legacy does not help the party to make that necessary transit . Instead most prefer to occupy a soggy middle ground with elements of both. For as long as they do they will be struck by more bedroom taxes.