Comment: Redistribute wealth and power

Podium: An extract from a speech made by the Liberal Democrat MP for Newbury to his party conference at Brighton
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The Independent Culture
A SENIOR official of the AEEU recently made clear his views on Mark Seddon, one or the candidates for Labour's National Executive. "We don't want Mark Seddon on the NEC because he represents trouble for the Labour Party." And what was the official's reason for this? "Because Mr Seddon believes in the redistribution of power and wealth." If that's the case, I am also going to cause trouble for the Labour Party, because I also believe in the redistribution of power and wealth.

What, after all, was the introduction of pensions by Lloyd George, or the Liberal Democrat policy of a 50p tax rate on earnings of over pounds 100,000, if not a redistribution of wealth? What is our policy of strengthening local government or of introducing a fair voting system, if not the redistribution of power?

Others also believe that Labour has now abandoned support for the redistribution of power and wealth. A Labour minister, asked recently if this was the case, hummed and hawed for some while, thinking perhaps that he was being led into a trap. Eventually the best he could come up with was: "We believe in the redistribution of opportunity." But giving opportunities to school leavers with no GCSE passes to apply for the fast-stream of the Civil Service frankly doesn't get them very far.

So what is the evidence that we need a redistribution of wealth in our country? A recent UN report pointed out that we are one of the most illiterate and poverty-stricken of all the industrial nations. More than one-sixth of British citizens lives in poverty, the third highest proportion of the 17 industrial nations listed.

The gap between the rich and the poor is too large and it is growing. This is not an efficient way to run an economy. Concentrating so large a proportion of spending power in the hands of so few people distorts rather than smoothes our economy, and is totally unnecessary.

Surprisingly, perhaps, this view is becoming more widely accepted. Recognition that the financial chasm between the richest and poorest in our country distorts the demand side of the economy has now spread to commentators of all persuasions.

The Liberal Democrats are realistic enough to understand that the redistribution of power and wealth will never come about without turning to good effect people's natural instincts for self-improvement.

One of the defining moments of my political education was to hear a lecture while still a school boy about the damage done to our country by its industrial structure - with the shareholder side of industry benefiting from holding down wages and maximising profits, and the employee side benefiting from the opposite. If the ownership of industry could gradually be transferred to the employees through worker share ownership schemes, the waste involved in industrial conflict would be avoided.

But there will always be some who, for whatever reason, cannot work. We must, therefore, retain an efficient and effective social security system. Unlike the Government, the Liberal Democrats recognise that increasing spending on social security is not necessarily wrong. There will, for example, inevitably be increased spending on the elderly as the number of pensioners increases.

So welfare reform to us is not simply a question of short-term benefit cuts, instead it should concentrate on long-term solutions.

This week, we have decided on a policy of doubling Child Benefit for one child in every family with pre-school children. Many parents believe it is best to look after their own families in their own home. We do not want to see such parents forced out to work.

We also intend to introduce a compulsory second-tier pension, so that the elderly in future have a reasonable standard of living, even though the State Retirement Pension is becoming less and less adequate every year.

The Liberal Democrats have ideals and political principles which have served us well for many decades. We have no need to change them.

The aim of politics is to put your ideals and principles into practice. One way in which we may be able to do that is in coalition. One way is to do it in opposition, and the sudden decision of Gordon Brown to give the Bank of England its independence shows how effective the Liberal Democrats can be in that way.

But the best way to en-sure that your ideals and principles become those of the society you live in is by being in government yourself. That remains our aim.