Stephen Tall’s Diary: liberal jottings on the week’s big events

by Stephen Tall on November 27, 2015

This is my latest weekly diary over at LibDemVoice today…

Spending Revue Reviewed

‘You make your own luck,’ goes the saying. In which case, and only in this respect, George Osborne truly has started a “march of the makers” because he’s one hell of a lucky Chancellor. Had the independent Office for Budget Responsibility not lavished on him a £27 billion fiscal (and notional) windfall, this week’s Autumn Statement would have been far more wintry. As it was, he was able to play out the role of Santa, albeit a very Tory version: snatching away fewer of the kids’ presents in order to re-gift them to their grandparents. For this was a spending review which confirmed this Government stands shoulder-to-shoulder with pensioners (who vote, in droves) while shrugging its shoulders at the plight of the younger, working poor (who often don’t vote, and if they do probably vote Labour anyway).

Yes, the tax credit cuts were jettisoned for now — take a bow all those who’ve campaigned against them because it took concerted action to persuade the House of Lords and a few Tory MPs with a social conscience to stand up to this government — but, really, they’ve just been deferred. Once universal credit has been implemented (assuming that Godot-like day ever arises) the Resolution Foundation calculates eligible working families with children will be £1,300 a year worse off (even taking into account the so-called ‘national living wage’ and planned increases in the tax-threshold). Which might sound bad, but that average actually conceals far worse news for some. For instance, a single mum working part-time on the minimum wage will receive £2,800 a year less by 2020 under the Tories’ plans, while a working couple on the minimum wage with three kids will lose out to the tune of £3,060. Meanwhile the pensions ‘triple lock’ (of which Lib Dems have often boasted) will guarantee that pensioner benefits grow to more than half of all welfare spending.

Gone are the days when the Lib Dems could require a distributional analysis to ensure the pain of cuts was shared around to ensure that, as far as possible, Britain was all in it together. It’s George’s Show now. It’s just a shame some of his luck won’t rub off on those “hard-working families” he’s soon going to clobber.

Rational actors

There was much talk before the election of a thing called ‘the candour deficit’, the unwillingness of politicians, especially (though not only) the Conservatives, to level with the voters about what their policies would mean for their living standards. “We may, we may not, decide that it’s relevant to put something out there about some of those changes,” said Iain Duncan Smith in March, airily dismissing the notion that those who’d lose out from the Tories’ planned £12 billion cuts to social security should understand this before they voted. I suspect one of the lessons politicians will draw from the OBR’s major revisions will be further to entrench this candour deficit. After all, why risk antagonising a whole load of voters weeks before they cast their ballot by spelling out the consequences of cuts you think might be necessary if it’s quite possible a later change to economic modelling will give you all the wiggle room you need? The rational politician will put off making their final decision until the last possible moment in the hope that something might just turn up. It’s worked for George. This time.

Magic Mao-ments

Enough incredulous bafflement has already been expressed at Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s excruciating decision to stand at the despatch box in his spending review response and shout “Let’s quote Mao” before flinging his own copy of the Little Red Book at Osborne. Some things cannot be un-seen and some tracts cannot be retracted. It doesn’t, of course, make McDonnell a Chinese Communist; but it does make him a fool. (What is it with the Bennite Left? They’ve had more than three decades to prepare for this moment and now they look like they’ll be un-done through their utter incompetence rather than their ideological idiocy.) The figures you pray in aid in such situations should be those your opponent will find embarrassing, not you. Thus McDonnell could have laid into the Tories’ decision to give millionaires an inheritance tax cut by invoking free market hero Adam Smith, a powerful opponent of the inequality of inherited wealth: “A power to dispose of estates for ever is manifestly absurd. The earth and the fulness of it belongs to every generation, and the preceding one can have no right to bind it up from posterity. Such extension of property is quite unnatural.”

But Syria-ously

Should the UK join the bombing raids on Syria to counter the threat from Isis? It’s a dilemma I’m still wrestling with (and am mystified by those who’ve already made their minds up with cast-iron certainty on either side). No perfect outcome currently appears possible either way: both action and inaction will result in death and destruction to many innocent people. The principled, moral case for intervention is clear to me: as per last week’s UN resolution we should be “determined to combat by all means this unprecedented threat to international peace and security”. What’s a lot less clear, even after David Cameron’s Commons’ statement yesterday, is what will happen after the bombing (hopefully) weakens Isis’s grip on its Raqqa stronghold. While it’s hard to believe things can get much worse for the region than they already are, no-one can be sure. Yet I also know it’s wholly unrealistic to expect a perfect exit strategy that pretends everything will be happy ever after. Bismarck said politics is the art of the possible. Put another way, it’s about choosing between the least worst reality.

Damned lies, and “1 in 5” statistics

Much controversy this week, after The Sun splashed with the misleading headline ‘1 in 5 Brit Muslims’ sympathy for jihadis’, prompting the pollster they paid, Survation, to disown the tabloid’s distortion. Another ‘1 in 5’ poll result caught my eye this week – that’s the proportion of Lib Dems who trust Jeremy Corbyn to make the right decisions in regard of Syria and Isis. Which is better than he scores among Labour MPs.


‘It may just be, with all that happened, that we were simply fucked anyway’ was the rather brilliant last line of Nick Harvey’s verdict in Liberator on the Lib Dems’ election catastrophe. However, the rest of his article strains to identify “a better strategy” which could have saved the day. For example, Nick suggests the party should have tried “to scare the nation witless about what a majority Tory Government would be like” — nice idea, but with not a single poll suggesting that was a remote possibility, we’d have got short shrift. And I couldn’t help but remember Nick’s interview with the Huffington Post two years ago when he declared with near-certainty, “Labour is on course to win the next election.” He also added he was confident the party’s 56 MPs “will survive largely intact”.

As you know, not all my election predictions worked out well, either. But I’m going to claim a little credit for this one: ‘So how’s my scenario 3 – a Tory lead of 6% by May 2015 – working out then?’ Especially as, dear reader, many of you were pretty scornful when I first suggested it.

And finally…

“No one can do a sex scandal like Tories can,” claims David Aaronovitch, prompted by the revelations surrounding top Tory Mark Clarke. How soon we Lib Dems are forgotten.

My must-reads this week November 27, 2015

by Stephen Tall on November 27, 2015

You can read all the articles that have caught my attention this week here: Below are a selection…

6 big challenges facing schools today

by Stephen Tall on November 23, 2015

eef blog

What are 6 of the biggest challenges facing schools today? I’ve set out my list today, drawn from our ‘really difficult box’, in a blog-post with my Education Endowment Foundation work-hat on — together with some thoughts on how we aim to support schools in tackling them. Here’s point 2:

2. Fragmentation of the schools system

Over the past five years, what’s billed as an “autonomous school-led system” has been gradually replacing the previous local authority-run model. Almost 60% of state-funded secondary schools are academies, up from 6% at the start of 2010.

As the EEF’s chief executive Sir Kevan Collins has noted, this can be a double-edged sword. Positively, “it can drive innovation and enable schools to respond to the precise needs of its students and their families”, but, he cautions, “the dividing line between an autonomous school and an isolated one can be fine.” Where does the school which is struggling turn; where does it access the capacity to self-improve?

There’s no simple or easy solution. But we think one part of the answer is giving schools ready access to high-quality evidence of the most effective teaching and learning strategies – which is exactly what our Toolkit does, alongside its Early Years companion. If schools use evidence to inform their school improvement then autonomy can help achieve the goal of consistent excellence.

You can read my full post here.

Stephen Tall’s Diary: liberal jottings on the week’s big events

by Stephen Tall on November 20, 2015

This is my fifth weekly diary over at LibDemVoice today…

Labour pains

“Ten-word answers can kill you in political campaigns.” So said every liberal’s fantasy US president, Jed Bartlett – surely someone in Team Corbyn is a West Wing fan? Clearly not, or they might have advised the Labour leader not to think-out-loud in TV interviews this past week, especially when the thoughts which frothed forth were so, well, thoughtless. Of course it would have been “far better” if Mohammed Emwazi (“Jihadi John”) had been tried in a court of law. It’s just that the absence of an extradition treaty with Isis makes that a bit of a challenge (unless Jezza’s up for a bit of cheeky rendition). And of course no-one is “happy” with the idea of a shoot-to-kill policy being operated by the UK police or security services — but, then, that isn’t the actual policy.

What the last week has revealed is that Corbyn is incapable of moving beyond the glib agitprop sloganeering of hard-left oppositionalism. That’s probably not surprising after 32 years as a backbencher never having (or wanting) to take responsibility for a tough decision. But it remains disastrous for the Labour party, which needs a plausible prime minister as its leader, and disastrous for the country, which needs a plausible alternative government. I’ll confess a sliver of me is enjoying the schadenfreude of watching Labour self-immolate as a result of the self-indulgent stupidity of its membership in handing the leadership to someone painfully obviously unfit for the office. But the responsible part of me knows that, for all our sakes, Labour needs to get real again, and quickly.

Time for Tim

“Lib Dem Tim Farron’s first ‘big speech’ on Thurs. By default he’s becoming leader of the Opposition” – so said The Sun’s (yes, really) Steve Hawkes this week. It’s a mystery to me why Corbyn hasn’t tried to map out his policy agenda in any set-piece speeches yet, and has instead left a void which the Tory press has gleefully filled — has Labour learned nothing from Ed Miliband’s early failure to define himself as leader? But that’s not our problem, and Tim did a good job of setting out liberal economic principles: invest now in infrastructure, back enterprise, and take the long view. Now that’s how you do ten-word answers. There was little that was new, but that’s not a criticism — one of Tim’s strengths is talking up what the Lib Dems argued for in coalition in a way which puts the party at ease. As Edward Docx notes for The Guardian, “There were two oppositions in the last parliament. Now we don’t have any.”

Best line of Tim’s speech? Denouncing George Osborne’s dogmatic obsession with generating a surplus within the next five years: “… the fiscal charter is nothing to do with eliminating the deficit – it goes well beyond that. The fiscal charter is simply a trap for the Labour party. And you really don’t have to set Labour traps these days.”

We don’t need no education?

There was, however, one notable omission in Tim Farron’s speech. It’s one I’ve highlighted before and will continue to nag on about: what does the party have to say about education? For years, the Lib Dems defined ourselves as the party of learning. And yes, I know, “but tuition fees” blah-blah, etc. But, at some point — I’d say now — we need to get beyond torturing ourselves about that cock-up. For a start, the Lib Dems have a record worth defending: the under-appreciated Pupil Premium was one of the most progressive policies implemented in the last decade. Secondly, I’d be amazed if education didn’t shoot up the political agenda over the next five years. Schools are facing real-term funding cuts of eight per cent; we’re going to have to find ways to cope with an extra 630,000 pupils; and schools are struggling to recruit, following a 17% drop in teacher training entries over the past five years. Lib Dems should be ahead of the game in developing a programme to tackle these issues. There are no quick fixes or easy solutions — we will need to take the long view — but we won’t reach the liberal nirvana of opportunity for all, let alone create a growing economy, unless we put education at the heart of our policy development.

Beyond my Ken

It was odd watching Ken Livingstone’s lacklustre interview on Channel 4 News in which he tetchily and vainly (in every sense) defended his stigmatising jibes against Labour MP Kevan Jones, who’d accused him of lacking the experience to co-chair Labour’s Trident policy review. Here was a man who as Mayor of London in 2005 earned deserved plaudits for his astute and defiant response to the 7th July terrorist atrocities. Yet instead he waved the credentials of “my five years as GLC leader responsible for civil defence”. It was almost as if he was air-brushing from his own history his two terms operating as a pragmatic, reformist politician in favour of the impetuous, confrontational radicalism of his past. As I say, curious.

Lib Dem boat rocked

On Monday, the New Statesman got in touch to ask me to contribute a piece “on the special conference on Rennard that has just been triggered”. My heart sank a little. At the time it felt like the party was about to tear itself apart in public on an issue on which closure is impossible. I started writing it that evening, but couldn’t think how to end it. The only conclusion I could come to was that “no-one knows how this ends, except badly”. Thankfully, the following morning some common sense re-asserted itself: Chris Rennard resigned from the Federal Executive and the crisis was averted. The conclusion I did end up with in the published piece was little more optimistic, though: “Rennardites feel a man who’s never been found guilty of any wrongdoing has been shabbily treated by the party that’s been his life. The Rock the Boaters feel that Rennard is symbolic of an entitled bullying culture in politics that for too long has gone unchecked. Both sides are resolute – which means resolution is a distant hope.” I hope I can be proven wrong.

Zoo-time’s over

I didn’t shed a tear at the news this week that lad-mags FHM and Zoo are gone to join Nuts and Loaded on the top-shelf in the sky. On the occasions I read them (at the barbers, to be clear) I was faintly embarrassed to realise their staple of tits-and-bantz was targeted at blokes like me. Or, more accurately, blokes nothing like me. But then I find most gender-defined magazines pretty baffling. What is it about what I have in my pants which supposedly defines my preferences? My ideal read would, I guess, be a mix of The Economist, Radio Times, Private Eye, Heat, Four Four Two, History Today, the LRB, BBC Good Food, and Homes and Gardens. In short: a weekend newspaper.

My must-reads this week November 20, 2015

by Stephen Tall on November 20, 2015

You can read all the articles that have caught my attention this week here: Below are a selection…

Me for the New Statesman on Rennard, Rock the Boat, and what next

by Stephen Tall on November 18, 2015

I’ve written a piece for the New Statesmen on the latest instalment in the ongoing Lord Rennard saga which has been giving the Lib Dems very public grief for almost three years now.

They asked me to write it on Monday — at a time when it looked like the party was going to end up split down the middle on the issue with neither Rennard nor his opponents seemingly prepared to back down — and I wrote most of it that evening.

At that point I had no idea how to conclude the piece: if neither blinked, the party would have ended up with a very messy, expensive and damaging special conference debating a constitutional amendment to strip the Lords’ group of its seat on the party’s ruling Federal Executive. Wave good-bye to the #LibDemFightback.

Thankfully, better sense intervened. But the issue’s far from resolved, so don’t be surprised if the party ends up breaking out in hives again (for example, if Lord Rennard succesfully stand for a post elected by party members).

Anyway, you can read my piece in full over at the Staggers’ website here. Here’s how I did manage to conclude it, once the party had stepped back from the brink:

A crisis averted, then, with Farron’s leadership strengthened (albeit at the cost of further damaging his already strained relations with many of the party’s peers), as well as a sharp reminder that the Lib Dem grassroots don’t care to be trampled on.

Yet few expect this to be the end of the affair. The Rennardites feel a man who’s never been found guilty of any wrongdoing has been shabbily treated by the party that’s been his life. The Rock the Boaters feel that Rennard is symbolic of an entitled bullying culture in politics that for too long has gone unchecked. Both sides are resolute – which means resolution is a distant hope.

My must-reads this week November 13, 2015

by Stephen Tall on November 13, 2015

You can read all the articles that have caught my attention this week here: Below are a selection…

Liberal jottings: my take on the week’s big events

by Stephen Tall on November 13, 2015

This is my fourth weekly diary over at LibDemVoice today…

Status Quo’s winning record

Painful though it might be for liberals to admit the fact, Britain is a fundamentally conservative country. Opposition is more often expressed with a tut or a sceptically-arched eyebrow than a revolution. And then things generally revert to how they were before. Which is why, though I’m more careful these days about predicting what will happen next in British politics, I remain sure ‘remain’ will win the EU referendum.

A few years ago, after our AV knock-back, I looked back at the history of referendums in this country (starting with the first ever UK plebiscite, the 1973 Northern Ireland sovereignty referendum). Doing so, I formulated what I’m going to call Tall’s Law in the hope it catches on (though Tall’s Rule of Thumb would be more accurate): “the public will vote for the status quo when asked in a referendum except when the change proposed in a referendum is backed by a coalition of most/all the major parties”. Come the EU referendum, we will see the Conservatives and Labour (to one degree or another) as well as the Lib Dems united in favour of Britain’s continuing EU membership. Sure, take nothing for granted — but a defeat for ‘remain’ would be an unprecedented occurrence. And precedent is a very British custom, for better and worse.

Burnham down

Tom Lehrer famously quipped that the decision to award Henry Kissinger the Nobel Peace Prize “made political satire obsolete”. I was reminded of the remark by Andy Burnham’s latest U-turn. In last week’s Jottings, I noted sarkily that “for all the talk of new politics, Labour’s shadow home secretary Andy Burnham is supporting [Theresa May’s surveillance] plans — though I guess that means there’s a good chance he’ll take the opposite position by next week.” Sure enough, by Monday he’d reversed his initial warm welcome. It’s better to have a reputation to live up to, Andy, than to live down to your own parody.

Opportunity knocks

I attended this week’s re-launch of CentreForum. Formerly “the liberal think-tank” it’s now re-branded as “the opportunity think-tank” headed by new executive chair, David Laws, one of last May’s many defeated Lib Dem MPs. Introducing him, its principal funder and Orange Book co-editor, Paul Marshall, recalled Winston Churchill’s famous riposte to his wife’s consoling remark (“It may well be a blessing in disguise”) after the electorate booted the Conservatives out of office in 1945: “At the moment it seems quite effectively disguised.” David in turn introduced their keynote speaker, education secretary Nicky Morgan, and gave her advance notice that CentreForum would continue to deliver both welcome and unwelcome advice to the government. “Much like our experience in Coalition,” he added.

Wry asides aside, CentreForum’s decision to focus on education, mental health and prison rehabilitation makes a lot of sense. There’s a coherent thread linking these three areas — how public policy can help those in disadvantaged circumstances make the most of their lives — and a genuine prospect of influencing government thinking. However, a bit of me is saddened that CentreForum, which was named UK Economic and Financial Think Tank of the Year in 2013, won’t be furthering the post-crash debate on what a liberal economy looks like. It also presents a challenge to the Lib Dems: where does serious, liberal policy-thinking happen beyond the party’s own much-reduced function? Hopefully the party can develop its links to think-tanks like the Social Market Foundation and Resolution Foundation for further intellectual bolstering.

Orange is not the only colour

The next night I was at my local party’s AGM. Guest speaker was some chap off social media called Dr Mark Pack and it was nice to make his acquaintance. He was asked a question about whether the Lib Dems are simply too ideologically divided between economic and social liberals to stick together under one banner. Mark made the point that the divide between, say, David Laws (on the party’s ‘right’) and Evan Harris (on its ‘left’) was much less wide than its equivalents in other parties. Think Jeremy Corbyn and Tristram Hunt, or Ken Clarke and Dan Hannan. (Though it maybe helps that our tent is smaller to start with.) He also noted that it was David, together with his fellow Orange Book-identified Lib Dem Norman Lamb, who as schools and care ministers respectively had pushed for additional national funding for policies important to them: the Pupil Premium and mental health.

It’s a fair point. There was a curious irony in the last parliament that the two most popular Lib Dem ministers on the party’s social liberal wing, Vince Cable and Steve Webb, were also responsible for the most strident market reforms pursued by the Coalition. Not only did Vince back the Browne Report on student fees, he also privatised Royal Mail, something even Michael Heseltine and Peter Mandelson didn’t dare pursue. Meanwhile, Steve abolished compulsory purchase of pension annuities (“if people do get a Lamborghini, and end up on the state pension, the state is much less concerned about that, and that is their choice”) and even defended the bedroom tax. Sometimes it’s not about what you say or even how you say it, but about who you are when you’re saying it.

Beyond our Ken

Is Michael Gove the new Ken Clarke? Under Margaret Thatcher, Clarke was a combative education and then health secretary who once outraged ambulance crews without training as paramedics by calling them “professional drivers”. He then re-invented himself as a loveable cigar-chomping, hush puppy-wearing, Europhile Tory moderate (assisted by the eruption of hard-right über-Thatcherism in his party which made him seem relatively much more liberal than he actually is). Michael Gove, famously shunted aside by Lynton Crosby because of his unpopularity with teachers and parents, is now a justice secretary busily executing U-turns to reverse his predecessor Chris Grayling’s appalling judgments. Gone is the ban on family and friends sending books directly to prisoners; potentially in is the idea of earned release, so that prisoners committing themselves to learn and acquire skills would be set free early. Suspend your cynicism for a while, and let’s now see if Michael Gove continues to walk the talk of ‘one nation justice’.

Arsène about

And speaking of unlikely liberals, I’m going to leave the last word to Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger. In an interview for L’Equipe Sport and Style (translated from French over at Arseblog), he was challenged over fans’ impatience for another Premiership title victory and Thierry Henry’s statement that Arsenal “must win this season”. This was his rather wonderful reply: ““Must” can be used for death. We must all die one day. In my life, I prefer replacing “must” with “want”. Wanting more than having to. If you tell me, you have to go out tonight, I don’t want to go out as much. If you tell me do you want to go out? Yes, I want to! That’s love for life. Must, must … I mustn’t do anything!”

My must-reads this week November 6, 2015

by Stephen Tall on November 6, 2015

You can read all the articles that have caught my attention this week here: Below are a selection…

Liberal jottings: my take on the week’s big events

by Stephen Tall on November 6, 2015

This is my third weekly diary over at LibDemVoice today…

Blind chance

Here’s a paradox I’ve often pondered – why are so many Lib Dems who support name-blind job applications against external assessment of children in schools? What’s the link, I hear you ask. Okay, let me explain… Lynne Featherstone did a great job over many years highlighting the need for applicants’ names not to be disclosed on job applications to avoid employers’ bias (inadvertent or otherwise) against individuals, especially those whose gender and, in particular, race is evident from their name. There’s a stack of evidence demonstrating that equally qualified candidates are less likely to get called for interview if, for example, they have a non-white-sounding name. Increasingly, companies are going further, introducing ‘CV blind’ methods so that applicants are interviewed by panels who know nothing about their educational backgrounds. Of course, none of this is a guarantee against discrimination – after all, race and gender cannot be hidden at interview – but it does get closer to eliminating bias, conscious or unconscious. A good thing, yes? Read the rest of this entry »

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