Sir Vince Cable has said the Liberal Democrats will not succeed as a one-issue “reverse Ukip” party, pledging that they will develop radical proposals for economic reforms including taxes on second homes and changes to tuition fees.
The new Lib Dem leader attempted to put clear water between his leadership and the two years under his predecessor Tim Farron, declaring he wanted to re-establish the Lib Dems as a serious party of government, in his closing address to their autumn conference.
The former business secretary, who won back his seat in parliament only three months ago, called for an “end to the stranglehold of oligarchs and speculators” in the property market. He said second homes must be disincentivised and the tax system needed radical reform to tax wealth rather than work.
In the hall on Tuesday, where he walked in to the theme of Ski Sunday, his latest sporting hobby, Cable defended the record of the coalition government, which Farron distanced himself from during his tenure.
However, Cable said the party still had “to scrub ourselves hard to get rid of the smell of clearing up other people’s mess”.
Senior party sources suggested that, although Cable backed the policy first proposed under Farron of a second referendum on Brexit, he wanted to lean heavily on his credibility as a former cabinet minister to give the party more gravitas.
“I want our party to lead the fight against Brexit. But we should not be consumed by Brexit to the exclusion of everything else,” he told the auditorium in Bournemouth, watched from the front row by the party’s clutch of new MPs as well as new Lib Dem member Rachel Johnson, the columnist and sister of the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson.
“We are not a single-issue party … we’re not Ukip in reverse. I see our future as a party of government.”
Cable has insisted in interviews given throughout the four-day conference that he believes he is a credible candidate for prime minister – despite leading a party of just 12 MPs. “Our party is not just a coalition partner of the past, we are the government of the future. And my role, as your leader, is to be a credible potential prime minister,” he said.
His advisers have insisted to reporters that Cable believes it is a serious possibility, given the shock success of Canada’s Liberal prime minister, Justin Trudeau, and the centrist French president, Emmanuel Macron, though some of the party’s MPs have privately been more realistic about the size of the hill the party must climb with the electorate to even become influential in parliament.
The conference had felt relatively light on policy, apart from a vote to recommit to a referendum on the final Brexit deal, with the option to stay in the EU. However, Cable said the party would put forward a new agenda of economic reform over the coming months, calling the Lib Dems “a workshop for new ideas”.
Cable said he wanted to see renewed investment in adult education, speaking of both his parents’ education at night schools during his childhood, but said new technical training courses were needed to retrain middle-aged workers whose jobs were coming under threat from automation.
“Millions of workers in middle age now face their office and factory jobs disappearing with the advance of automation and artificial intelligence,” he said. “We’ve got to be the party with the answers for those people.”
Cable hinted his party was no longer convinced of the need for continued austerity as they had been in coalition until 2015, when the Lib Dems were party to a series of tough welfare and spending cuts.
He called for reforms to allow councils to borrow to build affordable homes and said there must be a massive injection of public investment in the railway network and broadband, and in a new generation of garden cities.
Cable said the housing market was being dominated by exploitative practices. “I want to see fierce tax penalties on the acquisition of property for investment purposes, by overseas residents,” he said.
“And I want to see rural communities protected from the blight of absentee second-home ownership, which devastates local economies and pushes young people away from the places where they grew up.”
Though Cable’s speech drew heavily on the Liberal Democrats’ record in coalition, he said he was now convinced of the need to rethink the student debt burden. It was the promise not to raise fees which was the error, rather than the policy, he said, telling the hall it was “right that the most highly paid graduates pay most; those who earn least pay nothing at all”.
Cable said he was more convinced a graduate tax would feel less of a burden, given escalating levels of interest. “Just because the system operates like a tax, we cannot escape the fact it isn’t seen as one; the worry about debt does cause students and their families real concern,” he said.
Former Lib Dem MP David Howarth would lead a party review to recommend options for reform, including the possibility of a graduate tax, he said.
This article was written by Jessica Elgot Political reporter, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 19th September 2017 15.07 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010