Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The A–Z of the coalition government

Two years after David Cameron entered Downing Street, Progress presents our take on the government’s record so far

A Aircraft Carrier

The government’s defence review in 2010 axed 7,000 soldiers, 5,000 personnel from the RAF and 4,000 from the navy. But most media attention was focused on the decision to leave Britain without an effective carrier strike capability – a working aircraft carrier equipped with fighter jets – until 2020 at the very earliest. Harrier jump-jets were scrapped in 2011 and the F35 Joint Strike Fighters replacing them will not be available for another decade, leaving Britain’s aircraft carrier to patrol the high seas without any planes. While our allies deployed Harriers from carriers during the conflict in Libya, Britain could not do so. Its sole carrier has recently been taken in for repair, leaving us with no operational carrier at all, and the date for the new jets entering service is unknown.


B Big Society  

The most elusive of policy beasts. Rare glimpses show it is the prime minister’s ‘passion’ for a smaller government and more engaged citizenry. However, detailed study reveals policies that tax wealthy people’s charitable work and centralise policy to the point that national citizens’ service and community organiser programmes are devised, funded, and controlled from Downing Street itself. Go figure.


C Nick Clegg

The free-market libertarian

Nick Clegg is essentially a wealthy Dutch liberal, by parentage and outlook. His mother is Dutch, his family very well-off, his education elite private (‘prep’ school then Westminster School), and his career until becoming an MP based largely in Brussels. He is a classic liberal on libertarian and constitutional issues. He is internationalist, pro-European and multilingual. He is socially progressive. But he is on the right on economics, favouring a smaller rather than a larger state or even the status quo. And he does not have much – if any – understanding of the toiling mainstream or what he termed ‘alarm clock Britain’.

The recent biography of Clegg by Chris Bowers quotes a number of his friends. ‘I think of him more as a continental liberal than perhaps a mainstream British liberal,’ says his former European parliamentary colleague, Chris Davies. ‘If the Conservative party had been how it used to be under Edward Heath, Nick would be a Tory, albeit a natural liberal, pro-European Tory like Chris Patten and Ken Clarke,’ argues another, Andrew Duff. ‘He didn’t like Labour at all and didn’t like the Conservatives enough [to join either]. He was very unhappy with the Conservatives’ European policy,’ suggests Leon Brittan, for whom Clegg worked at the European Commission.

The tuition fees episode sums all this up. To Clegg and his family, £9,000 is neither here nor there. I doubt he has any real understanding of how much this represents even to middle England, let alone to students from working-class families. So having bitten the bullet on the principle of fees – which Bowers’ biography says, tellingly, he had wanted to do before the election, but he deferred to his party conference – he had no difficulty in going straight to £9,000. This means around £50,000 of debt for a full university education. I know, with near-certainty, that Tony Blair would not have gone near such a figure, for all his modernising and marketising instincts. He would have instinctively felt this to be more than middle England would or could bear.

Clegg’s free-market libertarianism is common in liberal parties on the continent well beyond the Netherlands. However, it is out of step with the British 20th century left-of-centre progressive tradition which dominated the Liberal party and its successors from Asquith, Lloyd George, Keynes and Beveridge through to Roy Jenkins, Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy. It is also out of step with the Liberal Democrat mainstream, and herein lies Clegg’s problem and the seeds of all the difficulties he has, and will continue to have, with his party.

Ask Clegg privately what he has achieved in government and he will probably tell you that he has ‘stopped the Tories from being far worse’. But look at what he ‘stopped’ and the nature of his liberalism is revealed. He has stopped the abolition of the Human Rights Act, any reneging on existing European treaties, and (perhaps – let’s see) the ditching of the Tories’ own commitment to an elected House of Lords. But he has not stopped any notable aspect of George Osborne’s pre-election economic plan. He has not stopped the scrapping of the 50p tax rate or the health reforms. And he did not stop those £9,000 fees, which are likely to be his greatest memorial.

Andrew Adonis is chair of Progress


D Iain Duncan Smith

Fighting the last war

Under Iain Duncan Smith, the coalition has narrowed the social policy ambitions it inherited from the Labour government in two important ways. First, it has focused the concept of fairness almost entirely on social mobility for children on free school meals, thereby passing over the aspirations of the broad range of low- and middle-income children, as well as adults already in work. Second, it has reduced the definition of social justice to what used to be called ‘social exclusion’ or ‘entrenched poverty’. Wider inequalities in social and economic relations, such as rising top pay and the squeeze on real wages and household incomes for working families, do not feature in its account. Only the very poorest are in its line of sight.

These normative shifts translate directly into a retreat from a majoritarian welfare state. Tax credits, child benefit, child trust funds, and education maintenance allowances have all been cut or scaled back. Welfare cuts would have happened if Labour had been re-elected, but the coalition has chosen to retreat from policies with wide population coverage and to abandon universalism in key areas like child benefit. Its approach is inconsistent, however. It promotes work while cutting work incentives in the tax credit system. It promotes dual-earner families in the universal credit, while tapering out child benefit for better-off couples where both are at work. Universalism is cut for the young and those of working age, but strengthened for the over-65s.

Some of Duncan Smith’s policies have real merit, nonetheless. The universal credit is a long-overdue simplification of the benefits system. Early intervention for vulnerable children is vital. Intensive, sustained help for troubled families is the only way of tackling multiple disadvantages.

Yet he is in danger of fighting the last war, rather than taking a strategic approach to the future of the welfare state. The work programme is a flexible version of Labour’s New Deal, but it is being overwhelmed by the rise in long-term unemployment. Only a job guarantee for those out of work for more than a year can stop sustained damage to people’s lives. The universal credit improves work incentives, but childcare tax credits have been cut, despite the fact that countries with the highest employment rates have universal, affordable childcare systems. And the middle classes are losing welfare entitlements just when their support for the welfare state is most needed. The 70th anniversary of the Beveridge report would be a good time to bring in a national salary insurance system to pay decent replacement wages to the unemployed.

The fiscal position is getting worse, not better, so Labour will have to switch spending out of benefits that do little substantive or political work, like the winter fuel allowance, and tackle unjust tax reliefs that enable higher-rate taxpayers to accumulate assets at the expense of services for the majority. Priority should go to a universal childcare system. Child poverty targets should be focused on the under-fives. The government has abandoned the targets set out in Labour’s Child Poverty Act but has not formally admitted it. Nor has it suggested a new framework to replace it. It is urgent that a fiscally credible plan for reducing child poverty be developed and agreed, preferably on a cross-party basis.

Nick Pearce is director of ippr

E Economy

Economy blues

The coalition’s economic policy was born in the frenzy of negotiations in the days after the 2010 election. While two parties came together, the outcome was an economic policy that owed more to Conservative proposals and instincts than to the Liberal Democrat manifesto. In the run-up to the election our economic establishment allowed itself to get nervous about an early phase of the Greek debt crisis. Would there be a run on UK government bonds? The answer was ‘no’ but it seems the Treasury and Bank of England supported a new fiscal orthodoxy and this pressure, combined with the instincts of the Orange Book Liberal Democrats and the attraction of power, helped seal the deal on the coalition.

The coalition agreement recognised the deficit as the most urgent issue facing the country and committed the government to ‘accelerate the reduction of the structural deficit’, mainly by cutting spending rather than raising taxes. An emergency budget set the scene for the spending review a few months later which convinced Standard & Poor’s to keep the UK on a AAA rating. The new Office for Budget Responsibility made forecasts and assessed Treasury plans. The coalition was right to focus on market confidence, but UK borrowing costs remain low compared to previous interest rates and to eurozone government bond yields. The OBR was a welcome innovation because confidence in Treasury economic forecasts in particular was low, yet it does risk tying future governments to prevailing economic orthodoxies.

The OBR estimated that under Labour’s plans the annual deficit would fall rapidly over five years but net debt would continue to rise, to 74 per cent of GDP by 2014-15. After the coalition’s budget in June 2010, the OBR predicted that net debt would be 69 per cent of GDP in 2014-15 and falling, with the structural deficit eliminated in time for the next election. An important factor in this were cuts to welfare spending, an area previously avoided by all parties, which helped define the regressive character of the coalition’s fiscal policy.

However, the OBR assumed a rapid return to economic growth which has yet to occur. For example, it predicted GDP would grow 2.3 per cent in 2011 but the actual figure was 0.7 per cent. In November last year the OBR revised its forecasts substantially. Growth estimates were revised down and the structural deficit was revised up. That new forecast suggests the government will not eliminate the structural deficit until two years after the election. Net debt is now expected to peak at 76 per cent of GDP in 2014-15. George Osborne survived this severe blow to his economic policy relatively unscathed. This might be explained in part by the lack of a clear alternative view at the time from Labour. The comparison with eurozone countries also helped.

During the financial crisis, the UK economy took a significant hit and GDP fell sharply. But it rebounded quickly, too. However, by mid-2010 the economy seemed to have stalled. To some extent, talk of austerity must have dampened economic confidence. The coalition’s attempts at growth plans have been woeful because they have not met the reality of the situation. Financial crises require clear government commitments to growth because economies take so long to recover unaided. The eurozone debt crisis also hit confidence, leading to a mini slowdown at the end of 2011. Initial estimates of GDP growth in the first quarter of this year suggest the UK is back in recession, or at least going nowhere. The lack of growth, together with spending cuts, has pushed up unemployment. The result is an economy limping along with government debt plans supported by ‘jam tomorrow’ forecasting by the OBR as it hopes growth will pick up strongly a few years hence. However, growth forecasts rely on business investment picking up strongly which has also yet to happen. Every new concern about the financial system encourages companies to be their own banks and hoard cash. The coalition government has been largely absent when leadership has been required. The contrast with the economic activism promised by the Liberal Democrats is stark. There is no sign, for example, of the United Kingdom Infrastructure Bank they advocated before the general election.

During the recession unemployment did not rise as much as had been expected. Labour market flexibility was evident in reduced hours worked rather than mainly through redundancies. Yet the unemployment level plateaued and later increased – with slower growth coupled with public sector redundancies a cause. In addition, Labour’s efforts to reduce youth unemployment, in the form of the Future Jobs Fund, were scrapped by the coalition, only to be later reinstated in similar form. A Liberal Democrat voice in government, which could have argued for the young persons’ workplace scheme the party promised before the election, has again been largely absent. Meanwhile, inflation has remained above wage growth, thereby eroding living standards.

Public anger against the banks has simmered since the general election. The Occupy movement was one manifestation and a reminder that the issue has not gone away – banks themselves have played a part with their continuing commitment to excessive pay awards. The sector has proved unable and unwilling to reform itself. The coalition’s Independent Commission on Banking was therefore important, even though it compensated for lack of policy in this area. However, the commission gave too little attention to the case for splitting banking activities and did not advocate the Liberal Democrat manifesto promise to ‘break up the banks’. It did suggest a form of separation, with retail banking requiring special protection, which should help prevent another crisis or dampen its impact. However, these measures will not be implemented until 2019 and the coalition has not succeeded in other efforts to change bank behaviour. Executive pay schemes remain excessive despite public anger, and the power of the banking sector remains. Efforts to boost lending to small businesses remain paltry.

The UK economy has not collapsed into another deep recession and unemployment still remains below three million. Businesses are hiring and our banks are healthier than many in the eurozone. These are blessings we should cherish; it could be worse. Yet two years since its formation, the coalition is facing a serious test of its economic credibility. Its original deficit reduction plan has failed and it has neither growth nor even a credible growth strategy. In 2010 the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats recklessly compared our economy to that of Greece. Today, the risk is that the UK follows Spain in an austerity death spiral in which low growth leads to higher deficits and more spending cuts, which themselves hit future growth.

Stephen Beer is senior fund manager and UK strategist at the Central Finance Board of the Methodist Church. He is also chair of Vauxhall CLP and author of The Credibility Deficit. This article represents his personal opinion


F Forests 

When you manage to unite Annie Lennox, Dame Judi Dench and the Archbishop of Canterbury against you, you are probably doing something wrong. And they were. Plans to flog off 258,000 hectares of state-owned woodland in England were unceremoniously dumped by a ‘sorry’ Caroline Spelman in February 2011.


G Gerrymandering

In return for the AV referendum, the Liberal Democrats gave the Tories a boundary review that aims to cut the number of parliamentary seats from 650 to 600. ‘Schizophrenic, unnecessary and haphazard’ is how Liberal Democrat members appealing the changes in the west Midlands describe them. And that is certainly a good description of the new constituency of Mersey Banks, which would encompass communities on both sides of the Mersey river which are not connected by any bridge, and takes in parts of outer Liverpool, the Wirral and Cheshire. The biggest winners from the change will be the Tories, with their coalition partners estimated to lose 14 of their 57 seats, the biggest proportional hit for any party. Who says turkeys don’t vote for Christmas?


H Human Rights Act 

It needs to go, says Theresa May. It even stopped an illegal immigrant who had a cat being deported, she lamented to the 2011 Tory party conference. ‘I’m not making this up,’ the home secretary assured us. Turns out she was. ‘Theresa May appears to have fallen for some classic Daily Mail spin,’ concluded Channel 4 News’ ‘Factchecker’, Cathy Newman. May’s cabinet colleague, Ken Clarke, helpfully added: ‘I’ll have a small bet with her that nobody has ever been refused deportation on the grounds of ownership of a cat.’


I Immigration Cap

Words, not deeds

At the heart of the failure of Tory immigration policy rests an emphasis on appearance rather than delivery and rhetoric in response to tabloid-led prejudice rather than real action. Thus the 2010 Conservative manifesto stated: ‘We will take steps to take net migration back to the levels of the 1990s – tens of thousands a year, not hundreds of thousands.’ This was confirmed by the coalition agreement, which suggested: ‘We need to introduce a cap on immigration and reduce the number of non-EU immigrants.’

In practice, however, it is emigration not immigration that has driven changes, with immigration remaining stable since 2004 while emigration remains low by recent standards. The International Passenger Survey estimated long-term emigration in the year to June 2011 as 343,000 and long-term immigration as 593,000, so net migration was 250,000.

British and other EU nationals come and go by right. Immigration which can be controlled by the government includes students (of whom 295,000 came into the UK in 2010-11, 80,000 more than in 2007-8) and workers, with 149,000 entry clearances issued in 2011. This figure is down from 204,000 in 2007 and 183,000 in 2008 but not fast enough to hit the target. Family members admitted to the country were also down, with 37,300 arriving in 2010, as against 52,700 in 2007. Finally, new asylum applications are down to under 20,000 per year, but this is not primarily controlled by governments.

The Conservative manifesto, adopting somewhat student-unfriendly rhetoric, suggested: ‘Our student visa system has become the biggest weakness in our border controls.’ This may persuade some students to go elsewhere, but it will have knock-on effects on the funding of universities and colleges and on growth. In fact, the only formal ‘cap’ – at 20,700 per year – on people coming to work is on Tier 2 of the points-based system, the entry route for skilled workers with a job offer to fill gaps in the UK labour force. This, though, has been consistently under-utilised and is a tiny proportion of those coming here to work. Businesses are getting round controls, often in ways which may be damaging to the UK economy such as employing people in different countries, or moving work abroad.

And, as Brodie Clarke, the former head of the UK Border Agency, argued last month, Heathrow’s border checks are in chaos, catching fewer abusers than the previous risk-based system and sacrificing both effectiveness and passenger convenience so that the government can look tough. As an MP representing a constituency near Heathrow I receive growing numbers of complaints from local businesses about delays and difficulties there which harm inward investment and tourism.

This lack of real action can be seen in the way this Eurosceptic government has failed to work with our European partners to strengthen external borders in the Schengen travel area, a gateway to Britain. It is reducing efforts to work with other EU countries on cross-border crime, and has been slow to act on human trafficking, making things worse by ending the domestic workers visa, recognised by all who have examined it as important protection against trafficking and abuse.

At a time when there are few jobs immigration is not popular with voters. But if Labour offers an alternative based on principles like family unity, refuge from persecution, the right to live in the country of your citizenship, fair wages for all workers and economic growth we can win their respect.

Fiona Mactaggart MP is a former Home Office minister


J Justice

‘When even Norman Tebbit says a public spending cut is going too far you know something is wrong,’ wrote Matthew Elliott, the Taxpayers’ Alliance chief executive, of the government’s legal aid cuts in January. ‘Almost everyone who has looked at these particular cuts thinks that too many of them will end up costing taxpayers more than they save,’ he continued. ‘The Citizens’ Advice Bureaux point out that advice costing £80 to deal with a housing problem can save thousands for councils who are legally required to house homeless families. King’s College London found that cutting £10.5m for legal aid in clinical negligence cases will cause knock-on costs to the NHS of £28.5m … Spending needs to be cut, but we can’t have taxpayers’ money wasted on legislation and cuts that aren’t backed by adequate financial forecasting and evidence.’ And that is just what the government’s friends think.


K  Mervin King

The outgoing governor of the Bank of England may not be a member of the coalition government, but his role in the talks which led to its formation has been a matter of controversy. While Mervyn King is said to have denied to a concerned Gordon Brown that he had been talking to other parties during the coalition negotiations, former chief secretary to the Treasury David Laws’ account of the government’s formation suggested some form of contact with the Conservatives. Danny Blanchflower, a former member of the bank’s Monetary Policy Committee, urged King to quit: ‘He has now committed the unforgivable sin of compromising the independence of the Bank of England by involving himself in the economic policy of the coalition. He is expected to be politically neutral but has shown himself to be politically biased.’


L Law and Order
Broken promises

A manifesto is a bit like a battle plan: it only stands up ‘til the first whiff of gunpowder. Looking back at promises made two years ago the smell of cordite was clearly hovering.

Labour promised to ‘reduce the fear of crime by protecting frontline policing while making the police more responsive and accountable and taking faster action on antisocial behaviour’. Sadly, we did not get the chance to implement Alistair Darling’s economic plan which would have seen reductions in budgets guided by what policing needed to sustain effectiveness.

The Conservatives promised to ‘take steps to reduce the causes of crime, like poverty and broken families’. Really? So why is it that last October the Institute for Fiscal Studies warned that while, in 2010, 2.5 million children and 2.1 million working-age parents were living in ’absolute’ poverty, in the ‘next two years poverty  levels will get worse’? Indeed, the IFS predicts that by 2013 the number of children in absolute poverty will rise by 600,000, peaking at 3.1 million, along with 2.5 million working-age parents and four million working-age adults without children. We know that, while being poor is no crime, it is undisputed that crime thrives in poor neighbourhoods where no serious effort is being made to stimulate the economy. Crime drives business away and reduces the economic opportunities for families to prosper.

And what about helping to ‘reduce broken families’? Take one example: coalition proposals to cut legal aid by removing legal protection from women who have experienced and are at risk of violence and abuse. The Rights of Women campaign group has warned that last year’s legal aid changes would leave thousands of women with a stark choice: represent themselves in legal proceedings or take no action at all. They are among the least likely to be able to pay privately for a lawyer and the benefit, housing and welfare advice services they rely on also depend upon legal aid support.

Support for women and children in families suffering violence and abuse is a clear indication of what makes a government’s heart beat. The coalition’s heart does not beat faster with anxiety at the prospect of more broken families. Dramatic cuts of 90 per cent to the sure start grant forces local authorities to cut family support further and hits poor families with a double whammy.

We all know that the Liberal Democrats’ record on election promises is so risible that they have become a byword for dishonest politics. Their manifesto promised to ‘put thousands more police on the beat and make them work more effectively to cut crime’. However, last July Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary noted that ‘estimated force data suggests that the police workforce in England and Wales will have reduced by 34,100 by March 2015’. They went on to warn: ‘All other things being equal: higher levels of police are linked to lower levels of property crime; evidence for an association between police numbers and violent crime is weaker. But it is very rare that all other things are equal.’ I could not have put it better myself.

Jane Kennedy is standing to be Labour’s police and crime commissioner candidate in Merseyside


M Project Merlin 

George Osborne’s attempt to limit bonuses and force Britain’s banks to start lending again was launched to much fanfare in February 2011. Under the agreement, banks were to lend about £190bn to businesses during 2011 — including £76bn to small firms — curb bonuses, and reveal some salary details of their top earners. Though the banks notionally met their overall Merlin target with new loans of £214.9bn, only £74.9bn was lent to smaller companies. And bonuses? ‘If this is robust action on bank bonuses then my name’s Bob Diamond [the boss of Barclays Bank] and I’m going to claim my £9m bonus next week,’ said Lord Oakeshott as he resigned as a Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman.


N NHS Reform
Roadblock to reform

Never in the history of the NHS has a government contrived to get both the politics and the policies of change so disastrously wrong. The consequences can be seen in the reversal of the huge progress made by New Labour in cutting waiting times and improving services. The hard-fought reforms we introduced and which produced these results have also been thrown into reverse. The coalition has proved to be a roadblock to meaningful health reform.

A new wave of reform will be needed. Some on the right are already hinting that this will inevitably require changing how the NHS is funded. In my view that would take Britain down an ideological blind alley. Instead, reforms should centre on replacing the existing model of how we deliver care with a new one – based in the community, not obsessed with the hospital; focused on prevention, rather than treatment; and one that puts power in the hands of patients, not providers.

Our care system has to change because health needs are changing. By 2030 one-fifth of Britain’s population will be elderly. If the healthcare challenge of the last century was to beat infectious disease the battle for this century is about tackling chronic disease. Meanwhile, an era of low growth and indebted government will force us to find new ways of getting more out of healthcare for what is put in. The old assumption that improvements in healthcare performance could only be brought about by large increases in investment is no longer sustainable. Future governments will need to think of themselves less as big spenders when it comes to healthcare and more as ‘switch spenders’, where resources are switched from less optimum services to ones that produce better outcomes for lower costs.

That would mean merging health and social care into single local organisations holding unified budgets with responsibility for commissioning integrated care to individual patients. It would mean devolving more power to local care organisations as New Labour started to do with primary care trusts and NHS foundation trusts. Providers will need to be paid less on the basis of the quantity of what they do and more on the basis of the quality of what they achieve with financial incentives targeted on keeping patients healthy and out of hospital. A legal level playing field would be introduced so public, private and voluntary sectors can compete to be providers while subject to the same exacting standards. And, finally, it would mean introducing a transparency revolution so that patients are able to see which services work best and which do not, with hundreds of thousands of chronically ill patients having their own individual state-funded healthcare budgets to buy the healthcare that is right for them and personalised to their needs.

Just as a decade ago New Labour was able to save the NHS by introducing radical reforms it will fall to a future Labour government to make the changes that can sustain our system of care. This is the opportunity for Ed Miliband to burnish his reformist credentials and prove once again that Labour is the natural party of public service reform.

Alan Milburn is a former secretary of state for health


O George Osborne

Last September GQ magazine named him ‘politician of the year’, an accolade George Osborne, who fancies himself as something of a political strategist, will no doubt have revelled in. Nine months on, the chancellor’s political instincts look rather less assured. His cut in the top rate of income tax has reinforced the Tories’ biggest negative: last month, YouGov found 53 per cent of voters believing the party ‘appeals to one section of society, not the whole country’. But it is the ‘granny tax’ – the dead rabbit Osborne pulled from his hat on budget day – which could harm the Tories most. In 2010, the Tories’ biggest backers were pensioners, among whom they won 44 per cent of the vote. And, at 76 per cent, the over-65s were more likely to turn out to vote than any other age group. Not since one of his predecessors decided to raise pensions by 75p a week has there been an act of such political genius.


P Eric Pickles

Localising the blame

Eric Pickles is a petty-minded meddler with no vision and no ambition. Instead of seeing local government as an agent for change, for driving economic growth, for making local services work better for local people, he sees it only as a threat to centralised government control.

Pickles’ schizophrenic Localism Act contains some astonishingly centralising measures. The act creates over 100 new centralising powers for the communities secretary alongside the power to reverse any local government decision he chooses. What sound like interesting measures around community rights to buy, to build and to challenge turn out to be nothing more than the back-door reintroduction of Margaret Thatcher’s failed low-quality privatisation agenda. Alongside Pickles’ regular meddling in matters as mundanely local as how councils should collect the bins, run street parties, or communicate with their own residents, this all adds up to a man who talks local but acts central.

But worse than that, Pickles fails to understand the implications of his own decisions, whether they be those which curtail life chances for young people, lead economic growth to stagnate, and lock the poor into an ever more debilitating cycle of dependency. While other secretaries of state defended their departments in the spending review, Pickles offered up local government for bigger cuts than any national government department. But he did not seem to fully understand what he had done. He claimed that no council would face a reduction of more than eight per cent in the first year of cuts. When council leaders forwarded him the Treasury’s own spreadsheets showing cuts above 16 per cent, he went quiet for a few weeks before reappearing with a new way to present the figures: what his department termed ‘revenue spending power’. This deception adds money into the baseline that was never available to councils in the first place, but makes the percentage cuts look smaller in government press releases.

What is really telling about Pickles’ approach to fairness is the fact that, per head of population, councils representing the poorest communities in the north of England and London are facing the biggest cuts, while wealthier (and mainly Tory) councils in the southern shires are getting increases. Look, too, at council tax benefit. This is being cut by 10 per cent and will hurt the very poorest. But the government is letting councils ‘choose’ how they wish to apply the cut. In reality, of course, councils have no meaningful choice at all. Pickles’ intention is simply that desperate local people will blame their council rather than the government for the misery this creates.

This approach continues with plans to localise business rates, the main source of council funding which is currently shared out nationally based on need. Pickles wants councils to keep any growth in business rates generated in their areas rather than sharing it out. This leaves wealthy Tory councils like Westminster laughing, while poorer areas like Barnsley, still struggling to rebuild an economic base, will receive less money to fund far higher levels of need.

Pickles, like a reverse Robin Hood, is taking from the poor to give to the rich. But he is covering it up with spin intended to mask the fact that the only localism he is really interested in is localising the blame for his government’s decision to make the poor pay for a crisis made by wealthy bankers.

Steve Reed is leader of the London borough of Lambeth


Q Quitters

Former chief secretary to the Treasury David Laws can lay claim to the distinction of the shortest cabinet career in modern British political history, quitting the government just 17 days after his appointment. Charged with helping slash public spending, Laws was caught in the tail end of the expenses scandal. ‘If in future the multimillionaire MP wants to channel £40,000 to a partner,’ wrote Stonewall chief executive Ben Summerskill in response, ‘perhaps he might consider writing a cheque.’ Lasting rather longer but still quitting in the end: defence secretary Liam Fox, who resigned in October 2011 over his relationship with Adam Werritty, and Chris Huhne, the energy secretary, now in the dock with his former wife charged with attempting to pervert the course of justice.


R Roads

Road safety experts predict that deaths on Britain’s motorways could rise by over 20 per cent if the government presses ahead with plans to increase the speed limit from 70mph to 80mph next year. The figure is based on the statistical model the Department for Transport will itself use to assess the implication of the change. Commenting on opposition to the move, former transport secretary Philip Hammond opined: ‘I think 95 of the country will think “great”, although only five per cent will say so, but the five per cent who are opposed will say so very loudly.’ In other words, never mind the science.


S Saudi Arabia

The ‘Arab Spring’ is clearly so 2011 for David Cameron, who kicked off the new year with a visit to Saudi Arabia, a regime described by Amnesty International as imposing ‘cruel, inhuman and degrading’ punishments. In November, 16 men, including nine prominent reformists, were given sentences ranging from five to 30 years. They were convicted of wanting to set up an NGO. We trust the prime minister took time on his visit to extol the virtues of the ‘big society’ to his hosts.


T Terrorism 

Both the Tories and Liberal Democrats voted against control orders when they were introduced to help combat terrorism, and the latter vowed to scrap them in their manifesto. In office, the coalition brushed aside the concerns of government anti-terrorism adviser and Liberal Democrat peer Lord Carlile that police and security service support for maintaining control orders should be ignored ‘literally at our peril’. Opting for a messy compromise, the government this year introduced terrorism prevention and investigation measures. In March, David Anderson, the independent reviewer of terror laws, highlighted concerns about the two significant differences in the new regime: the two-year limit and inability to relocate suspects, warning that ‘knowledge that the restrictions can (absent fresh evidence) last for only two years has the potential to strengthen the resolve of a terrorist who – confronted with an order of potentially indefinite length – might have proved more willing to compromise.’


U Universities

The coalition’s hike in student fees has proved the totemic U-turn of the Liberal Democrats’ time in government. But as well as engendering an overwhelming sense of betrayal, it broke one of the key tenets of New Labour’s approach: that any change in future funding would leave universities with more resources. Thanks to savage government cuts in teaching budgets, arts and humanities now have to charge in excess of £7,000 just to bring in previous income levels and that is before universities shell out more on bursaries and scholarships to counter the adverse affects on recruitment. George Osborne’s attempt to limit tax relief on charitable giving will further curtail university income streams by making alumni contributions less lucrative. And, by encouraging fee reductions over bursaries and abandoning post-qualification admissions, the coalition has turned its back on Labour’s attempt to widen participation and thus increase social mobility.


V Veto

‘The day he put Britain first’, ‘Up Eurs’, ‘Cameron stands as the lone man of Europe’. The Tory press could hardly have been more effusive in its praise of the prime minister after he effectively vetoed an EU-wide treaty change to tackle the eurozone crisis last December. More objective observers were rather less impressed: ‘To vocally champion the idea of closer fiscal union for eurozone nations for half a year, and then pop up with concerns at 2am during the summit without the support of your allies, does not seem like potent statecraft,’ sniffed one commentator. But not for the first time, Cameron’s rhetoric and actions did not quite match up. ‘His resounding “no” has become a tepid “oh, go on then”,’ argued ConservativeHome’s Tim Montgomerie after the prime minister backtracked at an EU summit barely one month later.


W Women 

In the line of fire

The coalition’s attack on women is a well-established fact. Thanks to the efforts of Yvette Cooper, the Women’s Budget Group, the Fawcett Society, the TUC’s False Economy campaign and many others, the disproportionate effect of the spending cuts on women and families has been laid bare.

Women lose out more from the loss of benefits and tax credits, women’s unemployment is at its highest in a quarter of a century, women are most affected by cuts to public services, both as employees and as service users, and it is women who are the ‘shock absorbers’ struggling to balance the family budget as the cost of the basics rises and family income is increasingly stretched.

The government argues that its austerity measures will prevent debt passing to future  generations. But this narrow and selective view avoids the bigger picture. It is not just short-term pain the government is causing – for the first time in generations, mothers fear that their daughters’ opportunities will be more restricted than their own.

That is not just unfair, it is economically stupid. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown, most of the improvement in the incomes of low-to-middle-income families in the last 50 years has come from women’s improved economic position. Child poverty had reached its lowest level in 25 years by the time Labour left office in large part because of measures to direct more money to mothers and increase women’s labour market participation. The recovery, our future economic growth, and our ability to support an ageing population will depend on maximising women’s economic contribution. Yet the government’s policies, from the universal credit, paid mostly to men and disincentivising second earners, to childcare cuts, tax breaks that benefit more men than women, and cuts to support for carers, all take us in totally the opposite direction.

And the attack is not just economic. We are seeing a sustained assault on women’s equality across a range of policies: employment rights, abortion rights, legal aid, women’s safety. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has been eviscerated, the equality duty watered down. Even the language the government uses betrays a contempt for women’s autonomy, dignity and independence. Or maybe I should just ‘calm down’?

But there is one thing this government has done for women. It has made us angry again. Women are identifying themselves as feminists, speaking out against the way they are treated and portrayed. Across the country, women are organising. Some new Tory women may be keen to proclaim themselves feminists, but it is Labour that dragged their party onto that territory. We understand that equality goes much further than a few women in the boardroom and it is our party that still has the largest proportion of women MPs (31 per cent compared with the Tories’ 17 per cent), and our policies, such as our  proposed women’s safety bill, that will make a real difference to them.

The prime minister might think he has solved his problems by appointing a women’s adviser in No 10. But every woman everywhere can see right through his spin.

Kate Green MP is the shadow minister for equalities


X Xenophobia

To honour a bone thrown to the right during the Tory leadership contest, David Cameron chose to turn his back on mainstream European conservatives led by Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and Sweden’s Fredrik Reinfeldt and ally his party with rightwing populists such as Poland’s Law and Justice party and Latvia’s For Fatherland and Freedom. When veteran Tory MEP Edward McMillan-Scott stood for the parliament’s vice-presidency to oppose ‘the rise of disguised extremism at a key moment in European politics’, he was kicked out of the party. McMillan-Scott later defected to the Liberal Democrats, and criticised the ‘antisemitic, homophobic and racist’ links of some of the Tories’ new allies.


Y Youth Unemployment

An economic and social time-bomb

The latest employment figures have shown that youth unemployment has fallen by 9,000 and now stands at 1.14 million. The first thing to say is that any fall is good and to any young person who has gone out and secured themselves a job – good on you. Succeeding in the current environment is a massive achievement.

Few policy challenges have a more human face than the legacy of a generation of young people in danger of being abandoned by their own government. By the government’s own admission there remains a crisis of youth unemployment: more than a million under-25s are out of work; 1.4 million not in education, employment or training; more than 250,000 unemployed for at least a year; and 200,000 unemployed for more than six months.

We now know the net present value cost of current levels of youth unemployment. It was independently calculated by the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations commission I chaired earlier this year at over £28bn over the next decade. In my constituency long-term youth unemployment has more than trebled in the last year, with nearly 600 young people who have been looking for work for more than six months. So we are facing both an economic and a social time-bomb.

The government points to its flagship work programme as the solution, yet this only covers one in 10 of the young unemployed. And, according to government advisers quoted at a meeting with the voluntary sector magazine Children & Young People Now, the work programme itself will help only about one in five (18-24 per cent) of those on the programme. So, in total, only one in 50 of the young unemployed is helped into work by the government programme – a devastating statistic.

In the ACEVO report we called for a series of measures that could be introduced even within the chancellor’s failed macroeconomic plan, from doubling wage subsidies this year (bringing forward spending from 2014), introducing part-time job guarantees for the long-term unemployed, encouraging mentoring by the young employed for the young unemployed, tightening up and improving work experience, to building a fit-for-purpose apprenticeship application scheme. Labour’s new part-time job guarantee policy that any young person unemployed for one year should be offered six months of work is exactly the right approach.

In the wake of the local elections it is also worth remembering it is at the local level where Labour values can be put into practice to protect people from a Tory government. So Labour councils can work together through jobs summits, as we are doing in the north-east; we can put into practice the work experience programmes pioneered by Siobhain McDonagh MP and Pat McFadden MP; and we can introduce public sector apprenticeships that set the standard.

The truth is that youth unemployment is a crisis we cannot afford – for the young people caught in the tragedy and for the debilitating expense of doing nothing about it.

David Miliband MP chaired the ACEVO Commission on Youth Unemployment


Z Zoo

Edinburgh Zoo’s two pandas – Yang Guang and Tian Tian – arrived in the city last December. With their arrival, Scotland has more pandas than Conservative MPs. Despite the pair failing to mate in April, with the Tories currently polling 17 per cent north of the border, the prospects of the country having another panda still seem rather more likely than another Conservative MP.


Bookmark this page to catch up with the A-Z of the coalition as it is released over the next few weeks here on this page … Download it here:


Photo A: Graham Anderson

Photo B: Leo Reynolds

Photo C: Liberal Democrats

Photo D: Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Photo E: Ewan McIntosh

Photo F: 38 Degrees

Photo G: Boundary Commission

Photo H: Conservative party

Photo I : Josh McKible

Photo J: Steve Calcott

Photo K: Bank of England

Photo L: hozinja

Photo M: Rev Stan

Photo N: digital cat

Photo O: Ewan McIntosh

Photo P: Departments for Communities and Local Government

Photo Q: Liberal Democrats

Photo R: smig44_uk

Photo S: Mohd Azli Abdul Malek

Photo T: Metropolitan Police

Photo U: Tom Allender

Photo V: European Council

Photo W: Gary H Spielvogel

Photo X: European Parliament

Photo Z: KathrynW1

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