Many would be surprised to learn that during the late 19th century, the Liberal party abandoned its free-market policies and was fast becoming a socialist party. Sidney Webb, writing at the time, declared that the Liberal party was committed to universal education. In fact, the actual words Webb used for the party’s education policy was a dedication to ‘free schools’ – though not in the sense that it has taken on today, characterised by commercialising the schooling system through encouraging businesses to intervene. Where elected and accountable local councils would have before, private companies will be providing primary and secondary education in the new ‘academies’. Alongside Victorian Liberals’ commitment to free education was a programme of investment for ‘housing for the poor’.
The Liberal party of the late 19thC also aimed to undertake a ‘revolutionary extension of local self-government’. Currently council’s are facing cuts of 28% over the next four years. So much for a commitment to localism. Even the Tories of 1888 were embarking on what many on all sides of the spectrum amounted to ‘municipal socialism’. Now we are facing unprecedented attacks on local government.
Mainstream Liberal opinion and policy during the period in London was what many deemed an ‘extreme socialist proposal’ of building ‘unlimited dwellings’ paid for by a tax on landlords. Instead, the 21st century Con-Dem government is bringing about massive cuts to housing benefit, forcing tens and hundreds of thousands of families and individuals out of their homes, especially in London where rent is high. Social housing is facing another assault after decades of marketisation under Thatcher, and the decline of the council housing stock under the ‘right to buy’ scheme – now thankfully being abolished in Scotland. Families living in social housing will be forced to pay near-market rates, and many people will be forced out after a few years. When there are already huge levels of homelessness, the housing market is in turmoil and the job market just as weak (with five people chasing every vacancy), the changes will be detrimental.
Obviously it is wrong to compare too much the Liberal party of the late 19th with the Liberal Democrats of today, but it is interesting nonetheless. Indeed, many radical Liberals at the time were adopting the ‘Star’ programme which explicitly advocated the ‘extinction’ of the upper class and demanded an end to the sub-contracting of local government services. In Barnet, the local authority delegated all its primary services to profit-driven businesses, which has been dubbed ‘EasyCouncil’. Local councils are becoming a mere hub to pass on their responsibilities to companies which put people before profit.
If only the Liberals of today could re-embrace the socialist policies of the 1800s.
The figures for council cuts are shocking when looked at. Tower Hamlets, a deprived left-leaning constituency (with many Respect and Labour councillors), is facing 9% cuts. Conservative supporting areas such as Richmond and Kensington are seeing cuts of less than 1%. Around the country it is the same. The poorest areas are getting hit the hardest.
I’m reminded of Oscar Wilde: ‘Recommending thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting. It is like advising a man who is starving to eat less’. Indeed.
It can only be hoped that Lib Dem-controlled councils (like Truro city council) reject the cuts. Most campaigned on the basis that they would delay cuts until the economy is stable. However unlikely Lib Dems are to vote against cuts, it must be remembered that only a month or so ago over 100 Lib Dem 2010 election candidates signed a petition in opposition to the government. Let’s hope that local authorities and Lib Dem constituencies think with the same independence. Many on the left (such as Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, the Labour Representation Committee etc.) are campaigning for Labour councillors to vote against the cuts. But it is also important to pressure Lib Dems to defend public services. The party does, after all, have a surprisingly radical history.