My CentreForum Liberal Hero of the Week #90: Boris Nemtsov

by Stephen Tall on February 28, 2015

cf hero - boris nemtsov

Boris Nemtsov

Russian statesman and liberal politician
Reason: for standing up for the rule of law and against Putin’s regime.

“I’m afraid Putin will kill me.” That’s what Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov worried aloud a fortnight ago would happen.

Last night, he was shot four times in the back and killed by an anonymous attacker. On Sunday, he was due to help lead a march in Moscow against the war in Ukraine. The man he was afraid of has assumed “personal control” of the investigation into his murder, which must be of great comfort to his widow and four children.

I’ve visited Moscow only once, three years ago. What struck me was the quiet despair of the Russians I met — those working in its universities and civic society — at the state of their nation. When showing me the sights, they explained to me matter-of-factly they would need to bribe the police to ensure their car could be safely parked.

Boris Nemtsov stood out against the endemic corruption and brutality of Putin’s Russia. As James Oates writes of him:

Nemtsov spoke for the Western Russia, as opposed to the Scythian one of Stalin and Putin. He believed in rule of law and rule of the people and he held in contempt those who have subverted and stolen Russia for their own personal greed. Nemtsov was not merely a political critic of Vladmir Putin’s regime, he was a moral rebuke to it. His murder today is a tragedy for Russia. …

Shooting the only major Russian opposition leader still at liberty in the back is clearly intended to underline the danger that liberal, western minded people now face in the dark and paranoid political ghost train of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Those of us cosseted in Western Europe — grown complacent in our democracy — often describe as brave those who speak up for minority views against the consensus. Few if any of us, though, ever have to put our lives on the line. That’s true heroism.

* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Research Associate at CentreForum. It showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.

LibDemVoice Fantasy Football League: how it stands after Week 26

by Stephen Tall on February 28, 2015

Congratulations to George Murray: his Marauding Fullbacks continue to lead the LibDemVoice Fantasy Football League after Week 26. In fact, there’s more than a touch of deja vu about the top 10.

But let’s also hear it for three players outside the top 10: Phil Redshaw (Brute Force) had the best week’s performance, with 78 points. Honourable mentions go to Mark Littlewood (Sporting Lesbian [seriously, Mark?]) and Max Huntley (Absolutely Fabregas), with 74 and 72 points respectively.

LDV FANTASY FOOTBALL 26-1

There are 161 players in total and you can still join the league by clicking here.

My must-reads this week February 27, 2015

by Stephen Tall on February 27, 2015

Here’s some of the articles that have caught my attention this week…

My last ever ConHome column: What I would do if I were in the Tories’ shoes

by Stephen Tall on February 26, 2015

con home cartoonHere’s my final The Other Side column for ConservativeHome, published here on Tuesday. Some time ago, ConHome’s editor Paul Goodman and I agreed that the column should cease in the run-up to the election; and besides I’m going to have other distractions over the next few weeks. It’s been a fun gig, though.

Time to end where it all began. It’s three years since — in a political exchange visit with this site’s founder Tim Montgomerie — I penned my first column for ConservativeHome, answering the question, “What would I do if I were in your shoes?” And that’s what I’m returning to in this, my last contribution, before the Coalition consciously uncouples. Here, then, are my final, parting shots…

It’s an irony and a paradox that continues to frustrate Lib Dems: strategically, the party occupies the sweet spot in British politics. When asked, almost half of all voters (48%) self-identify broadly as centrists, a much larger proportion than those who call themselves left-wing (14%) or right-wing (12%). And broadly in the centre — leaning, like the public, ever-so-slightly to the left — is just where the voters reckon the Lib Dems are, too.

But, yes, I’ve seen our poll ratings. I realise occupying the same political space as the electorate doesn’t automatically convert into voter support. My party has suffered five years’ severe collateral damage: partly our fault (that fees U-turn), partly your fault (some voters can’t forgive us for putting the Conservatives in power), and partly the media’s fault (it’s not just that they don’t like us — they don’t even want to try and understand us). The cumulative impact has devastated Lib Dem self-belief, so it’s small wonder the public finds it hard to believe in us much at the moment.

Of this I remain certain, though: our slogan, ‘Stronger economy, fairer society: opportunity for everyone’, is a winning one. Or, at least, it would be if it were used by one of the two parties which has a hope of winning this election outright. If the Conservatives lose in May, it will not be because the public think they’ll be financially worse off under David Cameron. It will be because he’s failed to persuade enough voters his party can be trusted to govern with compassion. (The reverse is true of Labour and Ed Miliband.)

Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative: this should be Election Strategy 101. It’s not hard to find the positive that Conservatives can accentuate. An economic recovery has happened on the Coalition’s watch. Though neither party actually deserves much credit for this reversion to austerity-delayed growth, there’s no doubt your much-banged-on-about ‘Long-Term Economic Plan’ is an electoral banker come May. You could even exhume your 1997 slogan, ‘Yes It Hurt, Yes It Worked’ (which would be more successful this time around, absent the crushing ‘Black Wednesday’ U-turn on which the mid-1990s’ recovery was built).

All this should give Conservatives the space you need to make nice to some of those voters you’ve rubbed up the wrong way these past five years: proving that you are in politics to help the have-nots, re-building yourselves as a national party.

Instead, the Conservatives have decided (yet again) to accentuate the negative. In just one week, the party launched yet another assault on those in receipt of welfare by planning to strip benefits from the obese and drug addicts if they failed to improve their lifestyle; stoutly stuck up for their former treasurer Lord Fink for defending his “vanilla, bland” steps to reduce his tax bill; and auctioned off a 500-kill pheasant and partridge shoot at their annual Black and White fundraising gala.

If it weren’t such an obvious clusterfuck, I’d assume the Conservatives were just trolling The Guardian. But it’s not the confirmed pinko-liberals you should worry about offending: it’s the centrists, those wanting to vote for a party with both a cool head and a warm heart. Such voters are, according to a YouGov poll this last weekend, increasingly buying into the attack on the Conservatives that you ‘look like the party of the tax-avoiding super-rich, to the detriment of the public services on which ordinary people depend’.

It doesn’t have to be this way. And, until relatively recently, it wasn’t. It’s only a little more than six years since one poll showed the Cameroon Conservatives with 52 per cent support. But that was in the days when the Tory leader was self-confidently wooing moderates, pledging to go green by hugging huskies and fitting solar-powered hoodies to the roof of his Notting Hill house (or something). True, a lot of this modernisation was cosmetic only; a concealer, the cynics would say. What comes next has to be more than just skin-deep.

There is a clear route ahead. Some of it has been mapped out by (whisper it) the Lib Dems. It was Nick Clegg who ensured the Coalition’s single most popular policy — raising the personal tax allowance for low- and middle-earners — was implemented, rather than George Osborne’s favoured inheritance tax-cuts for millionaires. And it was Clegg’s commitment  to the Pupil Premium — extra money to boost the attainment of children from low-income families — which ensured it was backed up by new cash, and not just carved out of the existing schools budget.

Other parts were signposted in last week’s 12-point The Good Right manifesto, in particular its commitment to a state-supported housebuilding programme ‘to cut the future cost of housing benefits and to rebuild the idea of a property owning democracy again’. For 30 years, up until 1979, this was a proud Conservative policy. Then you turned your attention from house-building to home-owning, from those in need of a house to those who already have one. Time to get back to basics. Welcome, too, was The Good Right’s classically liberal pledge to shift the burden of taxation away from income and onto wealth and property.

On one hot topic, immigration, The Good Right was silent. The Conservatives, though, cannot be (despite Lynton Crosby’s likely doomed attempt to message-discipline it out of your election campaign). I don’t expect you to imitate the open-borders approach of a drawbridge-down liberal like me — or even the avowedly pro-immigration Boris Johnson.

But there is a moderate, pragmatic but still principled option open to you which doesn’t involve shabbily trying to out-Ukip the ‘Kippers with dog-whistled messages. Indeed, it was set out on this very site by Sunder Katwala, who urged Conservatives to make promises you can keep by setting workable targets with three features: “address migration which is within the control of government policy; target areas that the government does want to cap; and be set at levels which it believes can be achieved over a Parliament.” In short, treat the voters as grown-ups capable of a sensible and straightforward conversation which honestly acknowledges both the pressures and the benefits of immigration.

To govern is to choose. But, with a second hung parliament seemingly inevitable, the Conservatives have to face up to an earlier choice. I once summarised this as the paradox of Tall’s Law: ‘the more right-wing the policies the Conservative Party enthusiastically pursues, the more likely it is it will be reliant on a second coalition being formed after the next general election; yet it is those very same right-wing policies which are likely to make it impossible for the Lib Dems to accept a second coalition. Which leaves me with one question: What’s your Plan B?’ I’m no nearer understanding your answer, and I don’t think you are, either.

No matter what you may have been mis-informed in the past, there is always an alternative. If I were in your shoes, I’d seize it quick.

**

I would like to say thank you to ConservativeHome for its generosity in giving a member of the Yellow Peril this platform to provoke – constructively, I hope. As I wrote in this column recently, ‘What I’d like is very straightforward: frank, honest and open debate about big issues minus the assumption that those who disagree also eat babies for breakfast.’ By and large, I think that’s what’s happened here, for which much thanks to those of you who’ve joined in the conversation below-the-line.

My CentreForum Liberal Hero of the Week #89: Frankie Boyle

by Stephen Tall on February 21, 2015

cf hero - frankie boyle

Frankie Boyle

Scottish comedian and writer
Reason: for standing up for free speech.

Three weeks ago, this series celebrated Benedict Cumberbatch. The reason? For challenging race discrimination in the film and entertainment industry. But, in doing so, he used a word, ‘coloured’, regarded as offensive and as a result was subject to a torrent of deeply unfair criticism.

Benedict apologised, profusely. One man who wouldn’t, I suspect, is Frankie Boyle. His comedy walks a tightrope between hilarious and tasteless, deliberately so: he wants his comedy to provoke, to stimulate, to challenge. Too often for my liking, he chooses easy targets — especially people’s physical characteristics — to get laughs. It’s a criticism he accepts. As he wrote this week:

Anyone offended … should note that even on a good day I only really half agree with myself. So why did I write it, if it might offend you? Because it’s worth saying, even though it’s not entirely correct, and I don’t really give a fuck about you, someone who might find a group of words in the wrong order too much to bear.

He continued:

The sheer range of opinion on this planet means you can’t be inoffensive. It’s something that can only really be aspired to within homogeneous groups or authoritarian societies. What would a completely inoffensive cartoon look like? Those little cartoons you used to see in Punch or Private Eye in a doctor’s waiting room maybe? …

I’m actually all for political correctness. If you want to work to change the usage of a word that’s discriminatory then fine, I’m behind you. But that’s a conversation that needs to be had in the culture. You can’t just decide that commonly used parts of a language are evil and that the people who didn’t get the memo must be bad people. …

If you’re any kind of writer these days the culture seems to be saying “Please challenge and provoke me, redefine how I see the world, while I scream my head off every time I hear something I don’t like.”

So now a lot of challenging stuff just doesn’t get made. Good stuff that does get made is weaker because it has to contain the seeds of its own defence. Because when the baleful burning eye of journalism turns upon you, you want to be able to say that it was all completely defensible.

Free speech is exactly that: the fundamental right to express views, no matter how at odds they are with convention or taste or personal preference.

The comedian Chris Rock made a similar point to Frankie Boyle’s a couple of months ago — that culture is turning conservative because of the fear of offending:

It is scary, because the thing about comedians is that you’re the only ones who practice in front of a crowd. Prince doesn’t run a demo on the radio. But in stand-up, the demo gets out. There are a few guys good enough to write a perfect act and get onstage, but everybody else workshops it and workshops it, and it can get real messy. It can get downright offensive. Before everyone had a recording device and was wired like fucking Sammy the Bull,4 you’d say something that went too far, and you’d go, “Oh, I went too far,” and you would just brush it off. But if you think you don’t have room to make mistakes, it’s going to lead to safer, gooier stand-up. You can’t think the thoughts you want to think if you think you’re being watched.

“You can’t think the thoughts you want to think if you think you’re being watched.” That has always been the liberal critique of the surveillance state, and we now have a surveillance culture. Kudos to people like Frankie Boyle for being willing to make the unpopular point that free speech applies to things you don’t like, not just things you approve of.

* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Research Associate at CentreForum. It showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.

“It’s not the policy, it’s the pledge.” Ed Miliband joins the tuition fees U-turn Clegg club

by Stephen Tall on February 20, 2015

fees miliband

“It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up” originated with Watergate.

There’s a British political equivalent now: “It’s not the policy, it’s the pledge”.

First, it applied to the Lib Dems. My party’s infamous U-turn on fees has bedevilled Nick Clegg ever since. Not because the policy has failed – applications to universities continue to rise, including and especially from students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and universities are better funded – but because the Lib Dems had campaigned so heavily agin them. (Despite Nick’s subsequent and disingenuous attempt to distance himself: “I didn’t even spend that much time campaigning on tuition fees.”)

Now it’s Ed Miliband’s turn. When he campaigned for the Labour leadership he pledged “I’d bin tuition fees” and promised a graduate tax instead.

And then, when Ed worked out that the Coalition’s fees policy was a de facto graduate tax, he tried again with a new pledge, this time to cut tuition fees from £9,000 to £6,000.

This was always an odd policy, as the only people who would gain from it would be better-off graduates – which is a novel approach to wealth redistribution.

It also sits awkwardly with Labour’s economic argument. The Two Eds have argued (rightly) that borrowing to invest, especially when interest rates are low, is a prudent thing to do. Debt isn’t automatically a bad thing as long as you use it sensibly and you’re able to afford the repayments. It’s the logic most of us adopt when we buy a house, and which students are themselves choosing to follow.

In a sane world, Labour would accept another bit of Keynesian advice – “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” — and abandon their earlier pledge, along with their current desperate attempts to tweak it into something that resembles a vaguely workable policy.

After all, it’s not as if there aren’t problems with the current fees policy which genuinely do need addressing, most obviously the impact on part-time and mature students.

The one thing that Ed Miliband usually is said to have going for his leadership is that he’s an intellectual, a policy wonk who gets how to govern. Given he has a better-than-evens chance of being the next Prime Minister, I’d love to believe that to be the case. But there’s vanishingly little evidence to justify it.

My must-reads this week February 20, 2015

by Stephen Tall on February 20, 2015

Here’s some of the articles that have caught my attention this week…

No, the Lib Dems are not being “saved” by first-past-the-post

by Stephen Tall on February 19, 2015

‘The Lib Dems have admitted that they are now relying on the first-past-the-post voting system to save them from a wipeout in May.’ (The Times)

‘… the Liberal Democrats will be saved from wipe out by the first-past-the-post system.’ (The Guardian)

It’s a meme I’ve seen repeated a lot. Oh, the irony!, it goes, Those Lib Dems banged on about electoral reform all those years and now they’re going to be saved by the voting system they wanted to change. Haha!

It’s rubbish, of course.

According to UKPollingReport’s rolling poll average, the Lib Dems are currently on 7% — that’s less than one-third of the vote the party won in 2010. Most commentators reckon that’ll convert into something like 20 to 30 seats. It would be worse, but for the fact that many of our MPs are well dug-in locally.

Twenty MPs would mean the Lib Dems have 3% of the seats in the House of Commons, less than half the 7% we’re currently polling.

If we actually polled 7% at the next election, and there was a proportional voting system, the Lib Dems would have about 45 MPs.

bar chartAnd in case that’s not clear enough, in true Lib Dem fashion I’ve drawn a bar chart. I think I’ve got the scales right, yes?

What is true is that compared to previous elections, first-past-the-post is less rigged against the Lib Dems than it has historically been.

It is not small parties that first-past-the-post discriminates against — the threat the SNP poses in Scotland disproves that.

It is, however, just as rigged against parties whose support is evenly spread as it has ever been… as Ukip and the Greens will discover in a few weeks’ time.

Listen to Caron Lindsay and me debate the “Lib Dem predicament” on Radio 4’s Westminster Hour

by Stephen Tall on February 16, 2015

On last night’s BBC Radio 4 Westminster Hour, my LibDemVoice colleague Caron Lindsay and I debated the Lib Dems’ chances at the next election and looked at what the manifesto means for the party’s strategy in the event of a second hung parliament.

You can hear our full 10-minute exchange here – it starts at about 36 minutes in. And you can hear a briefer clip here:

If you want to read a little more about why I said what I said, then these are the three key posts:

>> My prediction for the 2015 election;
>> My verdict on page 1 of the manifesto; and
>> My take on the Lib Dem election strategy of fighting for the liberal centre.

LibDemVoice Fantasy Football League: how it stands after Week 25

by Stephen Tall on February 14, 2015

No change in the top 10 this week, with George Murray’s Marauding Fullbacks continuing to lead the LibDemVoice Fantasy Football League after Week 25.

But let’s also hear it for three players outside the top 10: Will Barter (Mid-Table Meanderers) had last gamesweek’s best performance, with 70 points. Honourable mentions go to Max Wilkinson (Regency Spa Town) and Richard Farrance (Wirral_Rovers), with 68 and 67 points respectively.

LDV FANTASY FOOTBALL 25

There are 160 players in total and you can still join the league by clicking here.



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