What do we mean when we say, “I am a Liberal Democrat…”?

by Stephen Tall on August 26, 2015

The catastrophic election results have prompted the Lib Dems to undertake a process known as Agenda 2020, ‘a party-wide consultation to help inform our policy-making over the next five years. This is a chance for us to have an in-depth discussion about our values and beliefs, and about the challenges the UK is likely to face in the next Parliament.’

Earlier in August, a paper published by the Federal Policy Committee offered a definition of the Liberal Democrat philosophy. I was both surprised and impressed that a paper agreed by a committee, especially a committee of liberals, had managed to arrive at something as succinct and successful as that statement. It manages to be inclusive of the different strands of thinking in the party (economic and social liberals) while largely avoiding bland wooliness — that is no half-hearted compliment!

Now the FPC has published a collection of 11 essays in which a range of individuals have been invited ‘to write about their views on the Liberal Democrat philosophy, core values, beliefs and approaches — either how they saw it now, or how they thought it should be developed or be better expressed … Our aim was to enable readers to focus on and discuss what we mean when we say ‘I am a Liberal Democrat’ — what we believe, what we think is important, and what underlies our support for specific policies.’

Contributing authors include David Laws, Jo Swinson, David Boyle, Sarah Ludford and, erm, me. You can read it here, or scroll down to the foot of this page.

My 1,500 word essay makes an unapologetic pitch for our party to remain resolutely within what I term the liberal mainstream (I’ve given up on using the phrase ‘liberal centre’, too toxic and usually misunderstood) — to put it another way, that the party should remain committed to ‘a stronger economy and a fairer society’.

Partly because it is a belief which genuinely springs from the party’s philosophy. And partly because it is precisely our liberal, rational, pragmatic, flexible, grown-up, balanced, centrist (yes, the C-word!) disposition which gives us the voters’ permission to get a hearing on those outlier enthusiasms which drive many of us activists — wealth and land taxes, civil liberties, drugs legalisation, the EU, environmental sustainability, localism, immigration, prisoner rehabilitation, constitutional reform — but about which the voters tend to be at best lukewarm.

Agenda 2020 consultation: The Liberal Democrats' core beliefs, values and approach – Essay Collection (Augu… by Stephen Tall

It’s not just Iraq – the success of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign is founded on a big Labour apology

by Stephen Tall on August 21, 2015

Apologies are in the air: Jeremy Corbyn has said he will apologise on behalf of the Labour party for the Iraq war if he’s elected leader in 21 days.

As Ian Leslie points out, this is a clever deployment of Lynton Crosby’s infamous ‘dead cat’ ruse, distracting attention from the mounting evidence of his embarrassing links with anti-Semites and the re-emergence of his at best carelessly worded qualification that “some of what [Isis] have done is quite appalling”. It also rather smartly puts his leftist rival Andy Burnham — who, back when he was an arch-Blairite (ie, up to and including 2010) was a stout defender of the war in Iraq — on the defensive. However backward-looking are his economic policies, Corbyn’s astute tactics are bang up-to-date.

An apology is an apt Corbyn strategy because the success of his entire campaign is founded on the collective wish of a growing number of the party’s members and supporters to atone for the sins of their New Labour fathers.

I wrote two days ago: ‘And to think in 2006 the Labour party conference rose in unison to give Tony Blair a rousing and emotional standing ovation. Just wow.’ That’s the point: Blair had a mesmerising ability to win over his tribe — usually against their own instincts — convincing them that not only was his way electorally successful, but that it was also righteous. And now they feel ashamed that they were so easily seduced.

It’s interesting listening to Chris Mullin’s 2005-10 diaries and his account of ‘The Man’s efforts to woo him into supporting the Labour government in introducing 90 days’ detention without charge. But having been loyal enough to suppress his doubts and vote with Blair on Iraq1)edit: Mullin voted against but also abstained on the key motions, Mullin — who championed the cause of so many miscarriages of justice during the 1980s, most notably the Birmingham Six — stuck to his guns and rebelled.

We are now witnessing a similar uprising on a mass scale. Many Labour members, both new and old, are mortified that they were talked into backing so many things which, with hindsight, they now realise they never really believed in. Paddy Ashdown once summed up his famous skills of persuasion: “Tony Blair is like Don Giovanni – he means it when he says it.”

It’s not just Jeremy Corbyn who’s saying sorry. It’s the Labour party. In fact, they’re so sorry they’re sacrificing their party’s hopes of winning the next election to prove how much they mean it.

References   [ + ]

1. edit: Mullin voted against but also abstained on the key motions

My must-reads this week August 21, 2015

by Stephen Tall on August 21, 2015

You can read all the articles that have caught my attention this week here: https://delicious.com/stephentall Below are a selection…

Confessions of a Labour entryist: how I’m voting in the leadership election

by Stephen Tall on August 20, 2015

A month ago today, I registered as a Labour supporter, paid my £3, and was swiftly thanked by the party’s general secretary.

I was partly driven by curiosity — kind of a mystery shopper excursion to see, having just witnessed the LibDems’ leadership election, how Labour would handle theirs.

I was partly driven by nostalgia — I joined Labour in 1994, voted for Tony Blair (and, God help me, John Prescott) in the leadership contest, before quitting in 1999 as I realised New Labour was just as centralising as Old Labour (though a lot more effective).

And I was mostly driven by self-interest — competition is important, and, with the LibDems reduced to just 8 MPs, we desperately need an opposition party that can make the Tories sweat.

Labour friends had warned me to expect a deluge of email/text/post spam from candidates. No such bad luck. Over the past 30 days, I’ve received just 10 emails:

Leadership contest:
Andy Burnham = 3
Yvette Cooper = 1

Deputy leadership contest:
Tom Watson = 4
Stella Creasy = 2

Through the post, I’ve received one leaflet each from Jeremy Corbyn, Yvette Cooper and Tom Watson. I’ve heard nothing from two of the leadership candidates nor three of the deputy leadership candidates. I’ve had no text messages at all (perhaps I opted out when I joined, I can’t recall).

I was ambivalent whether I would actually exercise my vote, but decided that, if I did, it wouldn’t be to troll Labour by choosing Jeremy Corbyn: I would vote for the candidate the other parties would least like to face.

Assuming, that is, Labour gave me a vote. After all, the party assures us they have “rigorous due diligence” processes in place to weed out infiltrators from other parties. Having stood for election against Labour a few weeks ago, I half-assumed they’d (quite legitimately) disenfranchise me.

But then yesterday morning I received my online ballot paper:

lab ballot

Here’s how I would rank the leadership candidates in order of preference according to my stated objective: voting for the candidate the other parties would least like to face.

1 – Liz Kendall

Yes, her campaign’s disappointed after a strong start: her inexperience has been shown up as the contest has worn on. And no, I don’t agree with her stance on the welfare bill: the notion of the state penalising children by cutting off social security at an arbitrary number it disapproves of is repugnant to me. But she’s asking the hard questions of her party it needs to find answers to, and she’s the only one doing so. That takes guts and it deserves credit. And she’s offered a localising manifesto Labour desperately needs. As she won’t win anyway, all Blairites and Labour moderates should (in my view) cast their first preference for Liz so that her agenda can’t be wholly ignored by Jeremy Corbyn’s Bennite putsch.

2 – Yvette Cooper

No spark, no fresh ideas, no vision. But she’s undoubtedly competent and is the best Labour can hope for. Sensible Tories know Yvette’s the one to watch, especially as Cameron’s not at his best when facing a woman.

3 – Andy Burnham

His campaign has been so risible, he doesn’t deserve even a third preference. But… Anyone But Corbyn. At least Labour will live to fight another day with Burnham as leader.

So there you have it: Liz, Yvette, Andy. You know it makes sense.

However, I’m not going to exercise my vote. No matter that I’d be doing it in Labour’s own best interests, this is their genuine supporters’ look-out. I’ve no right to interfere just because I think I know better.

And yes, that is a heavy-handed parting shot directed at that party’s centralisers.

Why I still don’t think Corbyn will win (and why I may be talking rubbish)

by Stephen Tall on August 19, 2015

Unless you’re a bookie looking for an easy publicity-shot, we have no idea who will be named Labour’s new leader on 12th September.

At the moment, Jeremy Corbyn seems a shoo-in. But there are dissenters — well-informed ones at that — who say no way. Labour Uncut editor Atul Hatwal is probably the most prominent. I’m also a dissenter (I’m sticking by my wet-finger-in-the-air hunch of Yvette Cooper) though not at all informed.

And I’m also very uncertain. Because no-one can or should be. Yes, #JezWeCan is drawing the crowds (and, hell yes, they’re impressive), but, as we saw on 7 May, conventional wisdom can turn out to be more the former than the latter.

The reason Jeremy Corbyn is such a runaway favourite is, primarily, because of the two YouGov polls showing him with convincing first-round leads; indeed, in the most recent his first round vote of 50%+ would be sufficient to make further rounds unnecessary.

Fair do’s to YouGov for daring to put their heads above the parapet so soon after the disaster of the 2015 general election, when they (and every other pollster) forecast a dead heat. But given Labour’s electorate has expanded from sub-200k to 600k-plus in a matter of weeks, we’ve no idea if Peter Kellner is going to end up Confucius or confounded. (And nor does he, it seems.)

The reason I remain sceptical Jeremy Corbyn will triumph is that I’m doubtful all his fanatical supporters will end up voting for him; while I think Cooperites (and even Kendallites) will likely be over-represented among the still-to-make-their-minds-ups. Ed Miliband was let down by ‘Lazy Labour’ clicktivists — will Corbyn be, too?

But my prediction may turn out chaff. I also didn’t believe the SNP would win more than 50 seats. Such political earthquakes are more often predicted than delivered, was my rational but wrong-headed presumption. Labour may be about to ape that Scottish craziness, craving a similar feel-good factor, rallying bloody-mindedly in fulsome support of the movement the rest of the electorate has just rejected.

It could happen. I just can’t quite believe Labour will be that nihilist. But if you really are convinced Labour is condemned inevitably to a decade in the wilderness — or are equally-and-opposite deluded to believe the only reason it lost last time was because it wasn’t left-wing enough — then maybe you reckon it just doesn’t matter much.

And to think in 2006 the Labour party conference rose in unison to give Tony Blair a rousing and emotional standing ovation. Just wow.

We (Lib Dems) don’t need no education. Apparently.

by Stephen Tall on August 9, 2015


Tim Farron has announced his seven campaigning priorities for the Lib Dems this Parliament. And one topic is notable by its absence:

Rural Communities and Vice Chair – Mark Williams MP
EU referendum – Catherine Bearder MEP and Lord Jim Wallace (Deputy)
Mental Health – Norman Lamb MP
Immigration – Shas Sheehan
Civil Liberties – Alistair Carmichael MP
Green Economy – Baroness Susan Kramer
Housing – Tim Farron MP

Nothing wrong with any of the seven, of course. And I realise that any prioritised list will disappoint someone or other.

But, for me, education must always be at the heart of what liberalism is about and what a liberal party should campaign on. As I wrote last month:

A liberal party which doesn’t make education one of its top three priorities strikes me as a little odd (especially with schools facing a real challenge in the next five years with rising pupil numbers, reduced funding and a likely recruitment crisis).

I’m sad to see it relegated so far down our party’s campaigning priorities.

My must-reads this week August 7, 2015

by Stephen Tall on August 7, 2015

You can read all the articles that have caught my attention this week here: https://delicious.com/stephentall Below are a selection…

My take on the Labour leadership: enjoy Peak Corbyn, then prepare for Competent Cooper

by Stephen Tall on August 4, 2015

peak corbynJust when I think we’ve reached Peak Corbyn, the summer madness ratchets up another notch.

Last night, we reached Peek Corbyn, as crowds of Jezzabeaux and Jezzabelles descended on Camden to hear the Sage of Islington spake.

The New Statesman’s Stephen Bush, the must-follow commentator on the Labour leadership (along with LabourList’s Conor Pope), has long predicted Jeremy Corbyn will win, weeks before it was fashionable.

In a sense, we shouldn’t be surprised: he is by some distance (as I noted in June) the most articulate and sure-footed of the four candidates, and offers an infectious hope and ambition.

But the hysteria will subside and Labour will return to its senses. I have no special insight into this contest, beyond my conviction that realism will wrest back control of the party from the hyper-ideologues fuelling Corbynmania.

Fantastical political upheaval is a rare occurrence, and I think its finite supplies were probably exhausted by the 7 May general election result.

True, there are polls showing Corbyn in the lead on first preferences. None, not even the slightly dodgy leaked private polls, has yet shown him in a convincing lead after second and third preferences are accounted for. And it seems plausible that such polls will end up over-stating the likelihood of younger eligible Labour voters — the core Corbynites — actually to cast their ballot: ‘lazy Labour’ inflated the party’s support in the national polls, and are probably flattering Corbyn’s internal numbers now.

(Of course, there is a difference between the electorate of the general public and the selectorate of signed-up Labour members, registered supporters and trades union affiliates. You would expect the latter to be more politically engaged. That’s the hypothesis sustaining Corbyn’s status as favourite. I’m dubious. But I may very well be wrong.)

The battle for second place — between Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper — is, I reckon, the battle to top the poll. The numbers surely favour Cooper. She is more or less tied with Burnham in nominations from constituency Labour parties (CLPs). With Liz Kendall destined to trail in fourth, most of her votes will transfer to Yvette, the next-most moderate (and the other female) candidate.

My assumption would be there will be a straight run-off between Corbyn and Cooper. My expectation is that Cooper will carry that, comfortably. (I don’t entirely rule out the run-off being between Burnham and Cooper, by the way.)

If that happens, the Westminster commentariat will exhale a disappointedly muted sigh. She’ll be no fun. Yvette Cooper is remorselessly middle-of-the-road, more or less competent, too indecisive to sound extremist, unmemorably articulate. Labour will tread water quite efficiently with her as leader. If the Tories screw up, her ‘one more heave’ approach might even enjoy the last laugh.

Political parties, at least ones which aspire to exercise power, should choose the leader their opponents most fear. I’m not sure the Tories are exactly frightened by the spectre of Yvette Cooper. But they would regret the extinguishing of Labour’s current death-wish to write off 2020 as unwinnable by electing the unelectable (to be clear: either Corbyn or Burnham are squarely in that category), thus making 2025 unwinnable, too.

I recently asked the non-Labourites on my Twitter timeline — see my Storify below — who they thought would be the best (or least worst) leader for Labour.

Overwhelmingly the answer was Cooper. She won’t set the world alight, but she won’t split the party either, was the gist. Labour will survive intact until a new, more inspiring candidate emerges. That seems the best they can hope for right now.

And while the Labour leader race is the one dominating the headlines, it is the deputy leadership which may prove at least as significant to Labour’s long-term future.

Tom Watson looks certain to win. There is a Good Tom: the fearless backbencher willing to champion the underdog (phone-hacking/child abuse victims) against the powerful (tabloids/the ‘Establishment’). And there is a Bad Tom: the Unite-backed fixer wanting to exert real grip on his party’s candidate selection. I admire the former, but it looks like the latter is in the ascendant.

Whoever gets the top job, this is no dream ticket.

Review: DI Jack Frost series (Books 1-6) by R.D. Wingfield

by Stephen Tall on August 2, 2015

frost seriesI didn’t approach R.D. Wingfield’s DI Jack Frost series with any great enthusiasm. I’d seen enough of ITV’s Sunday night schedule-filler, with David Jason in the title role, to assume it would be lightweight, middlebrow, plodding fare, with signposted comic interludes.

I was utterly wrong. I gorged all six books in the series — Frost at Christmas, A Touch of Frost, Night Frost, Hard Frost, Winter Frost and A Killing Frost — within a couple of months.

There’s little point writing an individual review of each, as they all follow the same formula… There are usually three cases on the go in each book: a child/prostitute serial murderer, something rapey, and a robbery. Frost, of course, solves all three, each time accompanied by a different sidekick sergeant he’s been mis-matched with (female / posh / ambitious). On the way, he always succeeds in getting one over on his boss, Superintendent Mullett.

Described like that, it sounds typically banale and padded ITV fare. Yet R.D. Wingfield’s writing is anything but. The books are weighty, typically around 500 pages, but they crack along. Frost is multi-dimensional and scatalogically funny, the dialogue believably terse and crude, the narrative pacy, the plot-twists surprising. In short, they are (cue the reviewer’s standby cliche) page-turners, genuinely excellent detective novels.

There are flaws. In particular, the books’ casual sexism will jar with the modern reader. There are recurring motifs of Frost “jokingly” sexually assaulting Mullett’s secretary; there’s lots of sexual leering masquerading as banter; prostitutes are rhyming slanged as “toms”; child pornography is regarded as a minor offence; under-age girls are portrayed as knowing Lolitas; and a frumpy, middle-aged lady notorious for ‘crying rape’ is a stand-by comedy caricature.

Some readers may find it hard to get past these. For what it’s worth, I find them more fascinatingly revealing of the times (the series was published between 1984 and 2008) than I do irredeemably offensive.

My advice: get stuck in, judge for yourself.

My must-reads this week July 31, 2015

by Stephen Tall on July 31, 2015

You can read all the articles that have caught my attention this week here: https://delicious.com/stephentall Below are a selection…

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