Harris warns Clegg on fairness rhetoric

Evan Harris, the former Liberal Democrat MP, issued a warning to Nick Clegg today about his rhetoric on fairness at a fringe event at Lib Dem annual conference.

Evan Harris, the former Liberal Democrat MP, issued a warning to Nick Clegg today about his rhetoric on fairness at a fringe event at Liberal Democrat conference. Dr Harris, former MP Susan Kramer, and I were taking part in a Lib Dem Voice event titled ‘Coalition – Fairness? For Whom?’

Referring to Nick Clegg’s recent article for the Financial Times ‘Fairness should never be a numbers game’ where the deputy prime minister argued, “many people who have analysed the government’s decisions have adopted a purely numerical view of what fairness is about”, Dr Harris said:

“You can’t say because IFS analysis doesn’t agree with my rhetoric, it’s wrong.”

The former MP for Oxford West and Abingdon accused Lib Dems in Government of “raising expectations” on fairness and suggested that they should no longer claim that spending cuts could be fair. He urged instead that they should show how cuts would be fairer than had the Conservatives been left to their own devices.

Responding to my remarks about the ratio of tax rises to spending cuts, Dr Harris said that he had “some sympathy with the position that we should be raising more from taxation” to pay for the deficit. He said it was “just populist and wrong” to ignore tax evasion while cracking down on ‘benefit cheats’.

Dr Harris did, however, back up his party leader on his new position on the pace of deficit reduction arguing that timing was not a matter of principle but of judgment and that we could not know who was right for several years.

At a Q&A session, leader Nick Clegg answered a series of questions from a packed hall. Poverty campaigner Linda Jack asked whether Nick Clegg could still be trusted to run the Lib Dem party and said, “so many of these cuts are going to hit the poorest”. He faced tricky questions from the audience about the Coalition’s decision to switch from the RPI to CPI price index, which will reduce the uprating of many pensions, and on the timing detention of children in immigration cases.

Clegg insisted it was “still very early days” in the Coalition and that “the way the Coalition is being portrayed is taking time to catch up with the reality of the Coalition”. The Government was “by its very nature … a Coalition of compromises”.

Mr Clegg went on to say:

“I strongly agree with Vince that any immigration system … has to have some flexibility and pragmatism.”

He said that if the system proved to have “perverse outcomes” for business then we should be “sorting that”.

Mr Clegg said that Labour would have carried out “the vast majority of cuts” that the Coalition was planning. According to the June Budget, however, Labour was planning £39 billion of spending cuts by 2013-14 while the Coalition will cut £63 billion over the same period – most than 50 per cent higher.

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