Isabel Hardman

Lib Dems prepare for fight on welfare and taxes

Lib Dems prepare for fight on welfare and taxes
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Nothing is certain at a Liberal Democrat conference other than plenty of discussion of benefits and taxes. The left-leaning wing of the party - the Social Liberal Forum - has released a series of potential amendments and emergency motions for the party's autumn conference. The list is an interesting indication of what the grassroots (the SLF likes to describe itself as the 'soul' of the Lib Dems) are most worried about.

There's an amendment from the irrepressible Lord Oakeshott, which adds a line to a motion due for debate on the Tuesday of the conference, called 'Tackling Inequality at its Roots'. The peer's addition is, surprisingly, calling for a full mansion tax. Another SLF member, Gareth Epps, wants another amendment supporting Nick Clegg's call for a wealth tax, but not as a consolation prize for the £10 billion of welfare cuts that George Osborne is pushing for:

'Conference further believes that wealth taxes are an appropriate response to widening inequality in themselves, and calls on the government to implement wealth taxes in their own right and not as a trade-off for further self-defeating cuts to welfare spending.'

Neither of these are particularly astonishing given the SLF's stance on tax and welfare. But what is more interesting is that the emergency motion that its members are being asked to support is on the government's welfare-to-work programme. Drafted by another SLF member, Daniel Henry, it references the 'slave labour' case that the High Court rejected last month. The problem Henry has with the work experience scheme is not that he also believes it is 'slave labour' - his motion specifically agrees with the High Court's judgement, but that claimants should be given a choice over their placements, and also - more controversially - that they be paid the equivalent of the minimum wage. This would be achieved either by making the company offering the experience top up the claimant's benefits, or by limiting their hours to match the sum of their employment benefits. The latter would be more likely to be accepted should this motion be accepted for debate and then approved by conference.

Conference chooses which two emergency motions to debate through a ballot: even if this motion isn't picked, it shows that party members are uncomfortable with more aspects of the welfare agenda than simply cuts. Work is ongoing to develop a welfare policy that the Lib Dems can take with them into the next election: one that I understand involves the party trying to work out what it actually thinks benefits are for. Meanwhile, a consultative session will discuss this paper on the party's taxation policy for 2015. The problem for those working on these reviews is keeping an authentic Liberal Democrat voice on tax and benefits while recognising what it is that voters want in these policy areas.