Why I’m supporting Tim Farron for Lib Dem leader

by Stephen Tall on May 22, 2015

Tim-farronI have a pretty appalling record when it comes to voting for party leaders. So you may be best to note the headline, which is after all the nub of what follows, and read no further.

The first time I voted was in Labour’s 1994 leadership contest: I chose Blair and Prescott as my dream ticket, and so did my then party. I think that’s when I peaked, at least in terms of choosing winners.

The next time I had a leadership vote, in 1999, I was a Lib Dem: I voted for David Rendel (on the naive grounds he did best at the hustings I attended). Seven years later, I chose Ming Campbell (I think I realised my mistake almost as soon as he did). And the last time, in 2007, I opted for Chris Huhne (because it was about time the Lib Dems had a bit of a bastard at the top). If, knowing these facts, you think still my views are worth bearing in mind, then read on… at your own risk.

So first question: why is a stout defender of Lib Dem centrism who’ll still happily bandy about the term Orange Book liberalism (ie, me) supporting the candidate who most readily identifies with left-liberalism (ie, Tim Farron)?

My first answer, and this matters, is that I like him. He’s an honest, heart-on-his-sleeve, lifelong liberal, who lives and breathes my party’s philosophy, and has done since he was 16. I’ve heard him speak a few times, and have always felt lifted, energised, inspired. That’s a rare gift. When someone has it, you can do worse than elect them your leader.

That doesn’t mean I agree with Tim all the time. I don’t and I won’t. He’s more of a tax-and-spender than I’d be. For example, he supports the 50p top-rate of income tax whereas I think it’s an inconsequential economic irrelevance — a symbolic totem that raises very little revenue but limits the political space to tackle unearned wealth.

Tim also has a touching faith in glitzy, expensive, state-sponsored infrastructure projects (ironically something which unites him with Jeremy Browne on the party’s other wing) remarking at last year’s party conference that “we should be planning not just HS2, but HS3, 4 and 5 too!” Whereas I think the massive price-tag is a huge opportunity cost, and we’d be much better off spending half the money on upgrading the current rail system.

So, in voting for Tim, I’m under no illusion I will always like the direction of party policy under his leadership.

But he is exactly what the party needs right now. Lib Dems have suspended our disbelief at the election result. It was so crushingly bad it’s knocked all the stuffing out of the party. Sure, we’ve got an extra 13,000 members — that’s terrific and a warm welcome to them — but (no offence intended) I’d swap them for 13 extra MPs.

The plain fact is the party has now to begin a long, slow, painful climb back. Absent some John Major-eque collapse by the Tories (which can’t of course be ruled out) c.20 MPs is the summit of our hopes at the 2020 election. Given the boundary changes to come, we may be doing well simply to hold on to the eight seats we’ve got.

We certainly won’t be in a position to go into coalition government again in the forseeable, even if the party were willing to vote for it (very unlikely). But, then, that also means I don’t need to worry about disagreeing with Tim on our tax-and-spending policies too much.

Tim’s drive, determination and campaigning nous are going to prove essential to breathe new life back into the party. “We should be encouraged by the fightbacks of the past but nothing is inevitable. We might fail,” notes one senior Lib Dem. This is true and a valuable warning.

In the past, the Lib Dem vote has been swollen by protest voters wanting to give Labour and the Tories a kick in the shins. The public now has many other anti-establishment parties to turn to, all of them less contaminated by a recent spell in government, and with more strikingly populist messages: Ukip’s anti-immigration dog-whistle, the SNP’s pro-nationalism placebo, the Greens’ anti-austerity posturing.

We need a leader who doesn’t look like the latest Westminster SpAd-turned-MP to trundle off the conveyor belt, who has the authenticity to connect with voters, who can speak-from-the-hip and sum up Lib Dem values simply and compellingly. That Tim can do by the bucket-load.

What I’ve written above may, I realise, run the risk of suggesting I think Tim’s wrong on everything, but sod it, vote for him anyway because he’s the Lib Dems’ best/last/only hope of electoral recovery. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t an atom, a grain, a soupçon of truth in that. And, as it happens, I think that’s a valid consideration if, like me, you think liberalism needs a successful political party to make its case to the public. However, it’s by no means my overwhelming consideration in being happy to endorse Tim.

Tim is a gut-instinct liberal: how can the individual best be empowered? is the question that drives him. It was summed up by his comments on last night’s BBC1 Question Time, passionately defending the principle (though not always the practise) of trade unions: “There is not a free market if you have big employers against atomised employees.” Collective bargaining is the personal pooling of individual sovereignty: it evens up the power imbalance, makes negotiations fairer. There is a parallel here, of course, with the UK’s membership of the European Union (the popular defence of which will be a crucial role for the next Lib Dem leader): we are stronger together than when trying to plough our own lonely furrow.

His liberalism isn’t always popular within the party — three years ago, I stuck up for Tim when he spoke out against the Advertising Standards Authority (for banning an advert by the Healing On The Streets ministry in Bath) on free speech grounds. He’s come under similar fire for having expressed concerns that the same-sex marriage legislation did not take sufficient account of conscience clauses.

I think the liberal arguments on these issues are more finely balanced than some of his critics allow: I think the state is right to outlaw discrimination in the public sphere; but not to try and outlaw bigotry in people’s private lives. I’d much rather know who the sexists and homophobes and transphobes are so that they can be persuaded to change their minds, and boycotted if they don’t, than have them forced by law to suppress their beliefs. In any event, nothing of what I’ve seen, read or heard from Tim suggests to me he will be anything other than a principled champion of liberal causes.

And there are going to be a lot of those liberal causes needing championing in the next few years: pro-immigration, anti-welfare cuts, pro-internationalism, pro- a reformed-more-democratic EU, pro-housing, pro-human rights, pro-drugs reform etc etc. Tim is, without doubt in my mind, the best person to lead our campaigning on all these issues and more. I hope he wins.

You can find out more about Tim’s campaign, and sign up to support him, here.

My must-reads this week May 22, 2015

by Stephen Tall on May 22, 2015

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

The Economist is right. Liberalism is winning. Which could be bad news for the Lib Dems in 2020

by Stephen Tall on May 19, 2015

cam clegg

“Mr Clegg lost not because liberalism is under threat but because it has become mainstream.” That’s the striking, counter-intuitive conclusion of this week’s Economist, examining the reasons for the massacre of Lib Dems at the polls:

Another explanation for the Lib Dems’ terrible performance is that they are no longer necessary. In a tearful farewell speech, Mr Clegg lamented the demise of liberalism and the “fear and grievance” evident in the rise of Scottish and English nationalisms. He vowed that he would not allow “decent liberal values” to die.

But they have not. The Tories ate up Lib Dem votes partly because they have swallowed much of the party’s ideology. The Conservative embrace of causes like gay marriage means liberals do not have to vote Liberal Democrat these days. Indeed, although the Tories still have plenty of illiberal edges, David Cameron, the prime minister, has called himself a liberal conservative. Tony Blair had absorbed much liberalism into the Labour Party. Even the SNP, though illiberal in its nationalism, is pro-gay marriage and pro-immigration.

It is true that a significant minority is anti-liberal. UKIP secured 12% of the vote (though only one seat) by kicking back against the globalised, multi-ethnic society that Britain has become. Yet overall, Mr Clegg lost not because liberalism is under threat but because it has become mainstream. Indeed, the metropolitan assumption that liberalism conquers everything is part of what UKIP so dislikes. That will be small consolation for Mr Clegg as he watches the triumphant Mr Cameron trying to balance those competing forces. But it is hopeful for Britain.

Most Lib Dems will harrumph at this, pointing out (not unreasonably) that neither David Cameron’s insular Conservatives nor Tony Blair’s centralising Labour party have been especially liberal.

This is true in a narrow sense, but wrong, I think, in a broader sense. A form of liberalism (albeit not the Lib Dems’ preferred model) won the twentieth century, as even its opponents on the right and left of the political divide have in the past acknowledged: Britain became considerably more socially liberal and economically liberal.

This, I guess, is a triumph for the liberal disapora — what has proved a weakness in building a Liberal Party big enough to win by itself has proved a strength by embedding itself in the Conservative and Labour parties that have governed Britain.

Many Lib Dems have comforted ourselves in the last fortnight by telling ourselves that the British public will miss us now we’re gone. Indeed, the Labour-leaning Guardian and New Statesman have joined in this anticipatory ‘told you so’ lament.

This assumes, though, that the Conservatives will revert to type, that their swivel-eyed, nut-job element will triumph.

This may still happen: David Cameron’s wafer-thin 12-strong majority may force him to tack to the right. His surprise victory smacked of 1992; who can say deja vu won’t strike again?

But it’s not an inevitability. For the past five years, David Cameron has been forced to moderate his policies because of the Lib Dems. Who’s to say he won’t now choose to moderate his policies — indeed, that he won’t find it easier to be himself a moderate because it will now be Tory ministers implementing small-l liberal measures?

The Prime Minister will (almost certainly) lead the pro-EU side of the in/out referendum campaign, and has appointed the ex-SDP-er Greg Clarke to lead devolution to local government, while the Chancellor, George Osborne, is urging forward the ‘northern powerhouses’.

This dose of liberalism may be temporary. It may all end in tears. In which case the Lib Dems may well be able to bounce back sooner than now looks likely, just as Paddy Ashdown was able to do in 1997.

But if Mr Cameron is able to stick to his guns, then 2020 may prove an even tougher fight for my party precisely because liberalism isn’t actually in retreat.

The 8 (rather dispersed) Lib Dem MPs, mapped by first name

by Stephen Tall on May 19, 2015

Map from the House of Commons research briefing, General Election 2015:

ld mps

And here’s the research paper’s blurb on the party’s performance:

Liberal Democrats lost 49 of their previous 57 seats
The Liberal Democrats have eight MPs in the House of Commons, 49 fewer than in 2010. The party is now joint fourth largest in the House
alongside the Democratic Unionist Party.
All eight Liberal Democrat MPs represent seats held by the party in 2010.
49 Liberal Democrat seats were lost to other parties compared to 2010.
27 seats represented by the Liberal Democrats in 2010 are now Conservative, 12 Labour and 10 SNP. Prominent Liberal Democrats to lose their seats include former Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills Vince Cable (Twickenham), former Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch &
Strathspey), former Minister of State at the Ministry of Justice Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) and former party leader Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Lochaber).
In 2010, of the 46 seats in England and Wales represented by the Liberal Democrats the Conservatives came in second place in 34, Labour in 11 and Plaid Cymru in one. In 2015 the Conservatives took 27 of the 34 Liberal Democrat seats in which they had come second in 2010; the Liberal Democrats held six and Labour took one. Labour took all 11 of the Liberal Democrat seats in which its candidates had come in second place in 2010.
Across Great Britain’s 632 seats, in 2015 Liberal Democrat candidates came in second place in 63 seats, in third place in 36 and fourth in 348.
The party lost its deposit (that is, won 5% or less of the vote) in 341 constituencies, compared to none in 2010.

The ‘liberal’ in ‘liberal centre’ is not silent: a reply to the estimable David Boyle

by Stephen Tall on May 18, 2015

boyle blogI’m discovering a new affinity with the word ‘gnosis’ – not so much the spiritual side as that the ‘g’ is silent. And similarly, whenever I talk about the ‘liberal centre’, it appears only the word ‘centre’ is heard.

I say this because one of the best, most thoughtful, Lib Dem bloggers around, David Boyle, has today (in the nicest possible way) hauled me over the coals:

Now I’m all for moderation and compromise, as long as it is a small part of a greater ambition. At least, that’s what I thought as I read Stephen Tall’s contribution on this very subject, which he called ‘Why the Lib Dems should stick to centrism’ (I’ve shortened this, but you get the gist).

The bit that got shortened? Well, here’s my actual headline: ‘Why the Lib Dems should stick in the liberal centre‘. It’s that invisible word ‘liberal’. I wouldn’t mention this, except that I do end up having this debate rather a lot with people who when I say ‘liberal centre’ hear only ‘centrism’.

However, having released that over-defensive been from my bonnet, let me also acknowledge that David has called me out correctly on an important point.

As a truncated short-hand to make my point why Lib Dems are so often (self-)defined as economically centrist, I noted the party had “long favoured a mixed economy in which free enterprise is balanced against workers’ rights”. (I also noted that we been similarly centrist on public services, “open to either/both state and/or private provision of public services, rarely dogmatic, often preferring a combination if that’s what works best.”)

As David points out, though, Liberals have long championed an alternative “approach to economics based on the same Liberal principles that we use for everything else: Karl Popper’s idea of the open society, where the small must be allowed to challenge the big, and the poor, powerless and local must be able to challenge the rich, powerful and central. That is the original meaning of the Liberal concept of free trade, which emerged originally out of the anti-slavery movement as a critique of monopoly, a guarantee of the right to challenge from below.”

More specifically he advocates:

“a Liberal approach that [is] neither conventionally right or left, but which is emphatically not a compromise:

  • It would be based on a major expansion of small business and enterprise, and of the institutions that entrepreneurs need: local banks, enterprise support, mutual support, maybe even mutual credit.
  • It would mean a genuine rebalancing of the economy away from finance and property and towards productive capacity (see recent IMF report that too much finance damages an economy).
  • And it would mean a major monopoly-busting measures to give people better choice and more vibrant, diverse local economies.
  • This has echoes in some of the work that Lib Dem peer Baroness (Susan) Kramer has been advocating in the banking sector:

    If you live in a disadvantaged community, if you are yourself on benefits or a low income, if you are trying to start a new small business, there is really no place in the banking system for you. By the end of the year, and thanks to work I have done with colleagues, the big banks will be disclosing by post-code which types of lending they are doing and how much. I suspect we will see real vacuums. Add to that the limited capabilities in basic bank accounts and the success of the price-gouging payday lenders and it is clear that we need banking services of a different kind altogether. We should be building a network of Community Development Banks, Credit Unions and Funds (CDFIs) focused on our local communities who will also run them. The high street banks, as part of their banking licence, should support these CDFIs with both capital and skills. Local authorities, charities and social enterprises need to be part of the CDFI structure.

    And also echoes of the ‘grassroots economics’ which Welsh Lib Dem leader Kirsty Williams AM has been championing:

    … a British economic recovery will only come about when every part of the UK’s economic machine is working properly. Every cog must be well-oiled. The Treasury will realise this when it sees the benefits to itself of a UK-wide recovery. Its own revenue streams will be boosted if areas like Wales, or the north-east of England, or the Scottish central belt return to economic productivity. Decades of centralised government have shown us that this does not happen automatically. But recent experience suggests that devolution, when accompanied by real power to improve the economy, can make it happen. Economic growth is improved when local units have control over economic levers and a radical approach to the distribution of power must recognise this. If the competitiveness of the UK economy is one of the biggest long-term challenges facing politicians, then we must make sure our constitution gives us the power to compete.

    As it happens, I think both approaches are compatible with what I’d call ‘liberal centrism': these are practical, sensible ideas which would gain widespread support and move the economy in a liberal direction.

    Review: The Prime Minister by Anthony Trollope

    by Stephen Tall on May 18, 2015

    trollope pmThe Prime Minister, Anthony Trollope

    A reluctant Prime Minister, Plantaganet Palliser, is called upon to lead a Liberal/Tory coalition ministry, a mission he accepts with great reluctance and performs with distaste. Meanwhile, the loving, eligible Emily Wharton is successfully wooed by an on-the-make adventurer, Ferdinand Lopez, and has to come to terms with the ramifications of her disastrous marriage.

    Trollope brilliantly interweaves these ‘political’ and ‘social’ elements. The chary PM — in spite of the exhuberant machinations of his wife, Lady Glen — finds peace once her efforts are exhausted by gradually reconciling himself to his office. The wronged wife finds happiness, at the last, by accepting that her mistake can be forgiven by others (in particular her childhood sweetheart, Arthur Fletcher) and, through them, by herself.

    Trollope’s genius is in treating all his character creations with sympathy, while lightly, usually ironically, under-cutting any pretensions to which they and wider society cling. While he has bigger things to say about power — as exercised by politicians in the public sphere, or by men in the private sphere — at heart his stories are deeply personal, both human and humane.

    Review: Wycliffe and the Scapegoat by W.J. Burley

    by Stephen Tall on May 17, 2015

    wycliffe scapegoatWycliffe and the Scapegoat, W.J. Burley

    I remember the Wycliffe ITV series from the 1990s, in which the eponymous detective was played, with an under-statedness bordering on boring, by Jack Shepherd. The Cornish scenery always seemed the most interesting part — so I was curious to find out if the character would come alive more on the page.

    He does, a bit: tetchy and acerbic, but also a ‘proper copper’, unwilling to stay stuck behind a desk just because he’s a chief superintendent. In this eighth instalment in the series, Wycliffe investigates the death of respected builder and undertaker Jonathan Riddle, who spends the first half of the book clocking up mortal enemies — a sprinkling of inevitably colourful Cornish characters — whose alibis can be tested in the second half of the book.

    It’s a light, enjoyable read which most of all will make you want to visit Cornwall (again).

    Review: The Whitehall Mandarin by Edward Wilson

    by Stephen Tall on May 16, 2015

    edward wilson whitehall mandarinThe Whitehall Mandarin, Edward Wilson

    The comparisons to John Le Carre are inevitable: who’s the mole in MI5 passing on secrets to the Russians? But if that sounds all a bit trite-and-tested a spy formula, don’t worry: The Whitehall Mandarin is too thoughtful, clever and fast-moving to be boring.

    The protagonist is William Catesby, a Cambridge-educated working-class socialist who accommodates himself to working his way up MI6. His nemesis is Jeffers Caudwell, an American double agent who isn’t all that he seems. They’re united by their separate pursuits of Lady Somers, the first female Permanent under Secretary to head up the Ministry of Defence, who has her own well-concealed secret.

    Much of the book is set against the backdrop of 1960s’ London with more than a passing nod to the always-fascinating Profumo Affair, and is gripping. The pace (to my taste) slackens once the story is re-located to Vietnam — and the big finale reveal feels somewhat contrived, with scant explanation of the mole’s past life-altering decision.

    But these are minor quibbles: this is a well-researched, well-told, well-I-never thriller.

    LibDemVoice Fantasy Football League: how it stands after Week 36

    by Stephen Tall on May 16, 2015

    Congratulations to George Murray, whose Marauding Fullbacks are still in pole position in the LibDemVoice Fantasy Football League after Week 36, with 2,153 points. Sam Bowman’s Sterlingization (2,080) and Jon Featonby’s What bitey racist? (2,059) are his closest rivals.

    But let’s also hear it for the three players who enjoyed the best week’s performances: Benjamin Moody’s Atletico Diabetico (102), David Roberts’ cant handle the huth (101) and James Ludley’s Ludley’s Line-up (100).


    There are 163 players in total and you can still join the league by clicking here.

    My must-reads this week May 15, 2015

    by Stephen Tall on May 15, 2015

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

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