Monday, July 04, 2011

Banks and supermarkets: Two good issues for Liberal Democrats

Coalition or no coalition, I am all in favour of the Liberal Democrats challenging what the government is doing. It's just that I do not always think we choose the right issues.

The rebellion on the Health & Social Care Bill, for instance, seemed chiefly aimed at involving NHS professionals other than GPs in the proposed new structures. This was sensible as far as it went, but it was a long way from the sort of democratic reform of the NHS the party should be championing.

And the other week Politics Home reported that the Social Liberal Forum will be turning its attentions to education, with a demand that the governing bodies of free schools and academies should include community representatives.

I would support this, even if I do suspect that some of those behind the idea don't really want to see free schools and academies at all. I am liberal enough to believe that wider participation need not proved a brake upon innovation.

But I have deeper worries about these campaigns on health and education. They essentially involve defending the position of public-sector professionals, a group who are already well represented in our politics. I would like to see the Liberal Democrats showing more awareness of the interests of the wider public, which are not always the same as those of professionals.

And above all, there is something almost amusing about a party that has been out of power for around 90 years devoting its campaigning energies to what sometimes amounts to not much more than defending the status quo.

So what can Liberal Democrats campaign to change? Yesterday's Observer supplies two good issues.

The first is taking on the banks, and the Observer suggests that this is already underway:
Senior Liberal Democrats are demanding drastic action to break up UK banks into separate retail and investment divisions, as banking reform threatens to cause a new rift in the coalition.

In a letter to the Observer on the eve of the deadline for industry groups to respond to a government-commissioned report on reform, peers, MPs and senior figures in the national party insist that chancellor George Osborne's suggested approach falls short of what is needed.

The Lib Dems join a list of more than 50 politicians, academics and economists to demand that the party honours its commitments – most recently made at its spring conference – to achieve a full breakup.
The Lib Dem signatories of the letter are Adrian Sanders, Lord Trevor Smith, Linda Jack, Richard Grayson and Stephen Knight.

In the end this is a technical issue: if George Osborne's more limited reforms were likely to work, then there would be no reason not to accept them. But if there is any doubt, and there does appear to be considerable doubt, we cannot run the risk of having to bail out the banks again and must press for more substantial measures.

And, of course, being seen to take on the bankers would be good politics for the Liberal Democrats.

The second issue is the power of the supermarkets, again the subject of an article in yesterdays Observer. The article by Alex Renton reinforces the impression that today's supermarket barons have become the union barons of the 1970s. They have become over mighty and the government must take action to curb them.

Andrew George is one of the politicians who have taken up this issue, and it is one connects our concerns for the environment and local enterprise too. It is one we should campaign on more vigorously in future.

If the Liberal Democrats campaign to change the banks and supermarkets, and show a little less concern for opposing change elsewhere, then we will have earned the label that we too often use as a vague term of approval - "radical".

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