As the recent Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton drew to a close last week, supporters and critics of the party have been left wondering how the party’s proposals will affect the decline in support two years into the coalition government. On the one hand, Nick Clegg’s heartfelt apology for breaking his promise on those tuition fees; on the other hand, however, recent reports questioning Nick Clegg’s credibility as leader of the Liberal Democrat party have surfaced, as the Independent newspaper recently reported that the majority of members of the Liberal Democrat party have lost complete faith in their leader. So, was Clegg right to make a public apology or should he have focused more on ensuring that the 2012 Liberal Democrat conference was a success and not a reflection of his unpopularity amongst his fellow Lib Dem Cabinet supporters?
Opening night of the conference rally saw Clegg admit that the Lib Dems had made mistakes during their first two years in the coalition, however, he stressed it was only ‘half-time’ in the coalition’s term of office. Hoping to dispel any rumours of his possible resignation and Business Secretary, Vince Cable’s potential promotion to Lib Dem leader, Clegg announced he would not be stepping down before 2015, promising to fight for the party’s values in the next general election. In a question and answer session with activists at the gathering, Mr Clegg also revealed that tensions within the coalition existed, as the Tories recently announced that fresh spending cuts will be made in an earnest attempt to meet those crucial deficit reduction targets. The Lib Dem party dismissed the prospect of more cuts being introduced over the next couple of years, signalling their desire to tax the wealthy through the introduction of ‘mansion tax’ on high value homes. Mr Clegg did, however, reiterate the importance of the phrase ‘belt tightening’, first mentioned in a recent interview with Andrew Marr, as means of getting Britain out of the double dip recession and restoring it to its former glory.
One of the most controversial announcements made by Nick Clegg at the party conference was his proposal for young people struggling to buy their first home to be able to ‘unlock’ their parents’ or grandparents’ retirement funds in order to secure a mortgage. The Deputy Prime Minister announced this proposal in order to convince Liberal Democrat activists that the coalition was working for them; more people would be investing in the property ladder with the help of this scheme. Mr Clegg said “So I can announce today that the Government is going to do something that hasn’t happened before: we are going to work out ways in which parents and grandparents who want to help their children and grandchildren buy a property of their own, we are going to allow those parents and grandparents to act as a guarantee, if you like, so their youngsters… can take out a deposit and buy a home.”
Although the scheme has yet to be finalised, the operation is expected to be initiated by 2015, providing hundreds, if not thousands of young people, with the eligibility to participate. The scheme is reported to work through the lump sum of pensions acting as security for raising home loans. If a young person defaults on their mortgage repayments, the lump sum will be lost, however, the rest of the retirement fund will be unaffected. Clegg hopes that this will encourage first time buyers to invest in the property market, whilst gaining votes for the Liberal Democrat party amongst those benefiting from the scheme.
As for the controversial mansion tax, Clegg hopes to distinguish between those who ‘put in a proper shift’ and those who ‘sit on a fortune’, by insisting on fresh taxes for the wealthy, a tactic which could force the Tories to decide between agreeing to the policy or abandoning Mr Osborne’s key deficit reduction targets by 2015-16. Further fuelling talks of a division between the two opposing coalition parties, Clegg was eager to differentiate his own party from that of the Conservative party by reminding Tory backbenchers that they didn’t win the last election: ‘The British people have not given you the right to act like you do’ Clegg announced. It is hoped that the mansion tax will take the burden off the poor and instead rescue the coalition government’s finances through taxation of the rich. For example, if a property is worth £2.2 million, taxes will be enforced on up to £2,000. It is not yet clear how often a property’s value would be re-assessed, however. This idea could, however, cost the Liberal Democrats the next election: a mansion tax on the rich means loss of support from the upper class; a mansion tax will be costly to the poor as ensuring that assessments are made on every property in the United Kingdom worth more than £2.2 million, will leave little much else for spending on welfare and benefits. Clegg’s ‘ingenious’ idea could in fact, be to his and his party’s detriment.
Clegg ended the five day party conference on a nostalgic note, by reminding both himself and his party that the Liberal Democrats are a ‘party that shares their values: Fairness; openness; compassion; equality; community; diversity’. Maybe Nick Clegg really is the hero we’ve all been waiting for, but for the time being, the real test of his heroic abilities will be his attempts to cut the deficit and rescue the United Kingdom from this dire recession that’s been weighing this country down.