Vince Cable – 2008 Speech to Liberal Democrat Conference


Below is the text of the speech made by Vince Cable at the 2008 Liberal Democrat Party Conference in Liverpool.

I don’t want to overdo my Stalin joke.

But I did, I think, capture the pathos of Gordon Brown’s sad decline: from ruthless to rudderless: bully to bumbler; from Brezhnev to Black Adder.

He genuinely saddens me.

After Blair was obsessed by image and positioning.

We hoped Brown would be a serious man with serious ideas and a serous commitment to social justice.

No chance.

Within weeks he was dressing up in a Penguin suit to grovel to a Saudi king who presides over the execution of women for immorality and corruption which makes the late President Mobutu look like a small time pick pocket.

The nuclear power lobby, the airport expansion lobby, the arms dealers all know they have a true friend in Downing Street. And, as for social justice, he stands ready to copy whatever regressive, badly thought out wheeze the Tories dream up on a boozy night out at the Bullingdon Club.

But the real issue is competence. Gordon Brown’s list of disasters is becoming as long as the list of Don Giovanni’s lovers:

Northern Rock; lost data on 15 million families;

mismanaged reforms to CGT and non-dom taxation;

Metronet and the disastrous London Underground PPP;

tax credit overpayments;

the QinetiQ sale;


IT mismanagement in HMRC;

the collapse of occupational pensions;

Equitable Life;

Individual Learning Accounts;

Film Tax Credit:

U-turns on SIPPs and Company Incorporation


Operating and Financial Reviews.

That’s just for starters.

In fact, the Conservative’s should be benefiting more than they are from the government’s serial incompetence.

They have a problem.

Their own history. Black Monday.

15% interest rates.

3 million unemployed.

Record repossessions.

All that.

Cameron and Osborne have an Alzheimer’s strategy: a fervent hope that the country will lose its collective memory of Conservative government.

These days the Tories simply don’t seem to know what they stand for.

They don’t even seem to believe in tax cutting any more.

Or perhaps I am being a little unfair.

They do have a programme of targeted tax cuts.

Top priority target is a further inheritance tax cuts designed to favour dead millionaires.

Dead millionaires are clearly at the heart of the Tory core vote strategy.

We, on the other hand, have been consistent and right in our analysis of the UK economy.

I warned Gordon Brown almost 5 years ago that there was a growing problem of personal debt, much of it secured against a dangerous bubble in the housing market.

Since then, inflation and house prices have reached levels, in relation to income, unsurpassed in our history and the highest in the western World.

The truth is that just as binge drinking has become one of Britain’s main recreational activities, binge lending has now become the mainstay of the economy.

Banks have become the financial equivalents of a Wetherspoons pub – but with even less of a sense of responsibility.

They make their money by getting people to borrow more than they can handle.

The mess afterwards is someone else’s problem.

The binge in lending has fuelled the house price boom.

Housing has become unaffordable for millions of young first time buyers.

Borrowers are struggling to maintain their debts.

Too much unsustainably cheap credit created an unsustainable ratcheting up of house prices.

People have been duped into believing that acquiring property is better than saving and a more reliable store of value than a bank account, shares or a pension.

Yet this is a market that is, and always has been, dangerously volatile.

After the binge, there is inevitably a hangover.

It is just starting.

House prices are now falling month by month across the country.

Debt arrears are mounting.

Repossession orders and repossessions are rising rapidly back towards levels last seen in the mid 1990’s.

Negative equity is back.

Serious economic analysts worry that our home grown problem of asset deflation will interact lethally with the global credit crunch.

And also global inflation in energy and food prices could combine to create a perfect economic storm.

If there is an economic storm the public will want to know that the ship is being steered by people who know what they are doing.

During the Northern Rock crisis the boat was drifting listlessly.

Captain Brown was hiding in his cabin.

And Midshipman Osborne was jumping excitedly in and out of a lifeboat.

We knew what had to be done.

But the Government only finally listened after months of indecision.

The delay caused untold damage to Britain’s reputation and cost a fortune in legal and accountancy fees.

Now the Government has seen the benefits of listening to the Liberal Democrats perhaps they can make it a habit – to tackle the dangers of our slowing economy.

The Bank of England has to be freed up to use interest rates more aggressively by making sure that its inflation target reflects the fluctuations in house prices.

We cannot and should not try to stop lenders adjusting to higher standards of risk management.

But the binge lenders have to accept some of the pain they happily inflict on their borrowers.

There will have to be a check on repossessions so that we do not have a massive fire sale of homes and a pandemic of homelessness.

No one should face repossession until there has been an opportunity for independent financial advice.

The bank must be required to offer a range of alternative properly regulated options, including shared ownership.

The vultures who are exploiting the situation must be brought within mortgage regulation.

These are, necessarily, palliatives.

We also need to think ahead to a different model of growth.

It should not depend on a debt financed, unsustainable, short term splurge in consumer spending.

It should instead draw on long term investment in this country’s human resources of skill and science, respecting environmental limits and repairing a fractured sense of social solidarity.

But the truth is that in the immediate future there are hard times ahead.

There will be financial casualties.

Neither I nor anyone else can offer a pain free solution as the excesses of the last few years are purged from the system.

What we must insist on however is that everyone contributes according to their means.

We cannot tolerate a two nation society divided between the tax payers and the tax dodgers.

The extent of tax avoidance amongst many rich people has become a national scandal.

The super rich are complaining because our spineless government decided to tinker with capital gains tax.

But they will still pay far less than their cleaners – 18% versus 20% plus 10% NICs.

They will still pay less than half the tax rate they paid under Mrs Thatcher and Nigel Lawson.

But all we hear is a whine of self pity.

Let me be clear.

I have no problem with people making serious money through hard work building businesses and creating jobs.

There have to be realistic incentives in a market economy.

But the idea that the super rich should be elevated above taxation is immoral and deeply insulting to those on modest incomes who pay their full whack of tax.

Then we have the so called non-doms. These are people who, on the strength of having no more overseas connection that a foreign father, can choose not to pay any tax on their overseas income and capital.

And they can avail themselves of a battery of off-shore tax loopholes which enable them to avoid tax on UK income and capital. Probably 5 million people – many in this room – are eligible.

Growing numbers are taking advantage.

After ten years of dithering Gordon Brown has decided to act.

As a veteran of the struggle against Mrs Thatcher’s poll tax, he has decided – you’ve guessed already – to introduce a poll tax.

Billionaire Lakshmi Mittal is to pay the same tax as a non-dom shopkeeper.

Not surprisingly, the Tories agree that this is fair, indeed, they claim to have thought of it first.

Yet there has been an almost hysterical reaction from the City.

How dare British politicians query the tax privileges of the rich?

If we are not careful, they say, Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs living in £80 million houses will no longer feel welcome.

They might go somewhere else.

That’s tough.

Let them go.

We say that foreign expatriates are welcome to live and work in Britain.

But when they have been here seven years, they pay British tax like the rest of us.

Pay up or pack up.

And it isn’t just rich individuals who dodge tax.

Companies are at it as well.

There are only two reasons for British companies to operate from Caribbean tax havens: secrecy and tax.

I salute the journalists who are running the gauntlet of libel lawyers by exposing the tax affairs of leading British companies who use Caribbean bolt holes to avoid tax.

Tesco admitted last week that it had organised itself to avoid £250 million in stamp duty this way, £10 for every UK taxpayer.

While the super rich and corporate Britain uses every dodge in the book to avoid paying tax, those on low pay face higher taxes.

The one certainty about next week’s Budget – because a commitment was made last year – is that 23 million workers and pensioners will pay 20% on their first slab of taxable income, instead of 10%.

5.3 million people will pay more tax.

The Lib Dems don’t want higher overall levels of tax.

We want to see fairer taxes making sure that the tax dodgers are brought to book.

It means that the very well off pay a bit more in capital gains and income tax so that low and middle income families get a tax cut – 4p in the pound of national income tax.

We also believe that tax can be used, albeit carefully, to change behaviour.

That is why we argue for green taxes, particularly on polluting aircraft, raising revenue for our package of tax cuts elsewhere.

The evidence, from the Government’s Climate Change Levy, is that environmental taxes do change behaviour.

And they raise revenue – which we would use to cut taxes in a progressive way.

We should also be using taxes to discourage binge drinking.

There is massive evidence of the damaging effects of alcohol on health and crime.

Yet the Government has cut taxes in real terms on highly alcoholic beverages.

Many will wonder why a government which has raised income taxes on the low paid and Council Tax on pensioners is helping to promote cut price Bacardi Breezers and vodka shots.

Tax should be raised on drinks with high alcohol content – raising £225 million.

We would use the money to cut VAT on healthy, 100% fruit juice from 17.5% to 5%.

This will complete the transformation of the Lib Dems from being the party of beards and sandals to the party of Smoothies.

If I were to be self critical, I would say that we haven’t been radical enough.

I would like to see a much stronger commitment to cutting the taxes of low and middle income families.

And I would like to see a much tougher approach to the windfalls on property and land values enjoyed by the super rich.

Liberal Democrats represent the millions of families ignored by this Government.

Yes we believe in enterprise.

Yes we believe in an open economy.

But we don’t have to go down on our knees to the rich and powerful.

We will stand up for fair taxes.

We will stand up for green taxes.

And we will fight for a more equal Britain.