Election notebook #12: Manchester silence; polls-axed; Lib Dem “bed-blockers”?

by Stephen Tall on May 25, 2017

I went to bed Monday night poised to write this latest notebook the following day. There was lots to say: about the Tories’ dementia tax U-turn, Theresa May’s interview with Andrew Neil, Labour’s polling ‘surge’.

And then an “evil loser” (only time I’ll probably quote President Trump approvingly) strode into the Manchester arena to try and kill as many children and their families enjoying a pop concert as he could.

Suddenly it all seemed so small, besides the pain and loss those closest to them are enduring. It wasn’t the first, won’t be the last, indiscriminate act of slaughter; but the targeting of kids is a cowardly new low.

Life goes on for those of us lucky enough not to be directly affected (this time). Of course it does. It has to. But write about it? Or anything else straight after? Beyond me. I’ve scrolled through Twitter and Facebook and fair do’s to those who’ve shared their emotions — anger, sadness, incomprehension, defiance — but that’s not for me. I’ve just felt numbed, anaesthetised by it.

So, sorry, no pat answers, no epigraphic wisdom, no concluding one-liner. Just the words “why?” and “kids” ceaselessly reverberating in my head.

**

For most of us politicos, such tragedies also provoke uncomfortable questions: what impact (if any) will this have on the election? There’s no shame in that. It is possible to hold two or more thoughts in your head simultaneously, however glib or “too soon” it may seem. More accurately, it can be impossible to avoid your mind going there.

The assassination of Labour MP Jo Cox by a far-right extremist ahead of last year’s EU referendum was reckoned at the time to be a game-changer, the moment the Leave campaign’s xenophobia (remember that Farage poster?) over-reached. We now know that whatever impact it had was not enough to alter the outcome.

By the same token, it’s unlikely the massacre in Manchester will make a difference to voters’ views. True, it abruptly halted the campaign at just the moment the Conservatives’ feet were being held to the fire, having (rather bizarrely) chosen the heat of an election campaign to launch an ill-considered reform to social care which worries their best voter demographic, the elderly. The debate has, also and inevitably, shifted back to terrorism and security, which favours Theresa May over Jeremy Corbyn.

A few tin-hatted conspiracy theorists have even joined these isolated dots, creating an elaborate picture visible only to their eyes, which just goes to show what reading The Canary can do to your mind.

But the fundamentals of this campaign will not turn on this week’s events. As Philip Collins notes in The Times today, it is ‘invariably the case that the party in the lead at the beginning of an election period is in the lead at the end … a wise campaign is not a lot more than an elaborate series of lifts to the polling station.’

**

I’ve tried, as far as humanly possible, in these notebooks not to indulge my fascination with opinion polls. Journalists’ obsession with sooth-saying, as opposed to investigating and explaining, is my pet peeve about the media; especially as too few care about statistical probabilities to caveat their reporting with the uncertainty which is inherent to what data can tell us.

Actually I’ve found it less of a struggle in 2017 than I did in 2015, when I endlessly refreshed Twitter in anticipation of the latest YouGov etc. Partly because they got it sufficiently wrong last time (and they’re none of them convinced they’ve yet fixed the problem) that it feels pointless. And partly because the gulf between the Tories and Labour this time means that it actually is pointless.

Still, the narrowing in the Conservative lead — from 15-20% to 10-15% — got a few folk excited last weekend, understandably so in an otherwise remorselessly inevitable campaign. The likely explanation isn’t that Labour has persuaded a load of Conservative voters to switch; but that Labour-inclined voters have upped their self-assessment of how certain they are to vote for their party.

In one sense, that should cheer Labour; Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign, aimed squarely at Labour’s core vote, is having its desired effect. However, the recent jump in support for Labour is among those groups of voters who, historically, have proved least likely to actually turn out.

Those of us who recall oh-so-clearly the deflating Cleggmania balloon of 2010 remember those voters all-too-well. And on polling day 2015, I remember reading the final poll in the London Evening Standard forecasting a hung parliament, based on a turnout estimated in excess of 80% (compared with the actual 66%).

I’ve not done a final prediction yet. But my ‘nowcast’ is sticking at a 150-170 seat majority for the Conservatives, thanks to their huge lead among older voters and the large swings we’re seeing away from Labour in Leave-voting areas, especially in the Midlands and the north of England.

**

Finally, the Lib Dems. Hugo Rifkind published a provocative article in Tuesday’s Times, completely over-taken by events in Manchester, accusing my party of being “bed-blockers”, preventing a centrist liberal party from emerging:

There is a centre struggling to form in British politics. It would draw George Osborne from one side, and Sadiq Khan from the other, with room for Nick Clegg, Yvette Cooper and others in between. It would cherish metropolitan Britain, and concern itself with spreading metropolitan prosperity elsewhere. In the centre they may sit, but the Lib Dems are not that party and don’t even want to be. … They are the bedblockers in the delivery ward, preventing that party from being born.

There is an undeniable kernel of truth in what he says. Our tribal political identities have marked eccentric boundaries. Though this is just as true of a Conservative party which encompasses Ken Clarke and Dan Hannan, or a Labour party of John McDonnell and Liz Kendall, as it is of the Lib Dems’ Nick Clegg and Andrew George.

I’ve long said I’m a liberal first, a Lib Dem second. I’ve welcomed the idea of a new centre-left party, splitting off from Jeremy Corbyn’s hard-left idiocy. I suspect post-8th June there will be much such navel-gazing, and not just from me.

But Hugo Rifkind misses something rather essential about the Lib Dems which I don’t imagine a new metropolitan Free Liberal party would capture: an anti-establishment suspicion of power and those who wield it. It’s core to liberal identity and unsurprising it’s long been well-represented in the non-conformist celtic fringes he disdains, even and including the south-west’s Brexitism. If you don’t get that, you don’t quite get what makes the Lib Dems tick.

Election notebook #11: more Lib Dem strategy woes; some praise for Tory pledges; & bracing myself for 9th June

by Stephen Tall on May 19, 2017

My if-you’re-a-Lib-Dem-slash-your-wrists notebook on Wednesday prompted a handful of people to get in touch privately. Their message: that, if anything, I had been too positive. Which given I suggested the Lib Dems might get entirely wiped out in three weeks’ time tells you something of the prevailing mood.

I think it’s becoming clearer by the day that while the party’s anti-Brexit crusade has been good for picking up members and picking off low-turnout by-elections, it’s melting in the spotlight of this national election. By our own admission, the Lib Dems won’t be in government, so a vote for the party won’t actually reverse Brexit. And I suspect to many folk we look like the bad losers we’d be accusing Ukip of being if the positions were reversed.

Rather than hiding behind a second referendum, I suspect we’d have been better off focusing on the single market and its economic benefits, setting tests by which to judge Theresa May’s deal. “The Tories have promised us a deal as good as we have now in the EU, so we’re going to hold them to that. Vote Lib Dem to make sure Britain’s better off.” Or something like that.

**

Would such a strategy work? I’m not totally convinced, to be honest. Quite apart from the comically easy ride Theresa May is being given by the press, I think a lot of the “why aren’t the Lib Dems doing better?” pre-mortems miss a pretty fundamental point: two years ago we were almost wiped out after a 5-year Coalition which utterly trashed the Lib Dems’ brand. To expect the party to bounce straight back because Brexit is simply not possible.

Partly, because the Lib Dem reputation is still too toxic among too many of the party’s potential pool of supporters. And partly, because the Coalition hollowed out local parties, with many experienced activists now gone. For sure, they’ve been replaced twice over by an influx of fresh-faced newbies — and that has many positives — but that hasn’t yet translated into community campaigning capable of winning key seats.

For those, like me, who backed the Coalition’s formation reckoning it was the best choice for the party and the country, it’s a pretty depressing thought that we may well have killed our party. Certainly it’s still in intensive care. Caitlin Moran recently tweeted, “As Labour collapses across the country, I can’t think of anything I regret more than voting Jeremy Corbyn as leader. I’m so sorry, my kids.” That goes for me and those five days in 2010, too.

**

Okay, enough of the self-flagellation. I’ll move on to something uncontroversial: the curate’s egg of a Tory manifesto which is good, in parts. I’ve previously praised them for dropping their tax guarantee (an economically illiterate thing to do) and for dumping the pensions ‘triple lock’ (a generationally unfair thing to keep).

To those I can now add the means-testing of winter fuel payments. And also the substitution of (very expensive) free infants school lunches for (much cheaper) free breakfasts, a move which is justified by the evidence; it was the charity I work for which funded the research showing free universal breakfast provision boost attainment for all pupils. Cannily, it also frees up enough cash to enable the Conservatives to ensure no school loses out when it moves to a new and fairer national funding formula.

It’s hard not to be impressed by the grown-upness of these policies, each of which is likely to be unpopular with some, and especially the elderly — the one group most politicians never dare to antagonise because they bother to vote. This is the manifesto of a party which expects to be in government and is determined to win a mandate for its reforms.

Of course, like the curate’s egg, it still stinks… of divisive grammar schools and anti-business immigration drives.

**

The less said about the Labour manifesto, the better. Apparently the party can find £11 billion to reverse the progressive tuition fees reforms Vince Cable introduced, but cannot find any money to reverse the vicious welfare cuts the Conservatives are pledged to introduce which will have a massive impact on working families.

As Ed Conway damningly writes today, “the party should admit the truth, written in invisible ink all over its manifesto: that these days it prefers to redistribute money to wealthy parents and university students than to the poor.”

**

I’m mentally preparing myself for 9th June, when I wake up (if I go to sleep) to the inevitably crushing Conservative victory. Depending on how dire it is for Labour and the Lib Dems — and I think both should prepare for the worst — the moderate liberal-left will have to do some hard thinking about what happens next.

Because one thing we know is that parties which are one day seemingly invincible can and do crash and burn. Thatcher did. Blair did. May will. Will it be the Brexit deal? Will it be a faltering economy? Will it be the dementia tax? Or all three? Or something else entirely… Whatever it is, the hyperbolic acclaim for Theresa May cannot last. And when it fails, the country needs a sane opposition capable of picking up the pieces.

Election notebook #10: What’s gone wrong with the Lib Dem strategy?

by Stephen Tall on May 17, 2017

There’s been a slew of “whither the Lib Dems” articles in the past few days, with polls showing the party settling at 8-10% in the polls, little better than our 2015 nadir.

Given the Conservatives have hoovered up the Ukip vote and Theresa May’s ratings, buoyed by the fan-girling media, are stratospheric, it’s not impossible the Lib Dems could be utterly wiped out on June 8th. Which perhaps isn’t the optimistic opening some of you would have liked to read.

First, a caveat: let’s remember the Lib Dems are often slow starters in election campaigns. At every election in my living memory, there’s been a panic a week or two in, worrying about the lack of a polling surge. There rarely is one, at least until the manifesto is launched and not usually until voters start to feel the impact of the campaign, both the ‘air-war’ (media coverage) and the pavement politics (leaflets through letterboxes).

But the past is no predictor of future performance. The party flatlined during the campaign in 2015. It could well do so again in 2017.

I’ve seen some pundits blaming the Lib Dems’ stance on Brexit, arguing that by adopting an ultra-Remainer stance and promising a second referendum they’ve misread the public mood. I don’t buy that criticism.

As I’ve previously written, I have my reservations about this approach. It risks the party looking like “an anti-Brexit cult led by a milkman” in the cruel caricature of one of my Lib Dem friends (who I’ll happily credit in public if they wish).

But strategically it makes good sense. And besides, what alternative is there? Sure, the Lib Dems could (and do) advocate for a ‘soft’ Brexit, retaining the UK’s single market membership; but Theresa May has ruled that out, so the only way of rejecting any deal she brings back is by overturning last June’s plebiscite.

If the Lib Dems are guilty of anything in this election, it’s in thinking it’s about Brexit. That may be, officially, why Theresa May called it (in truth, it was to get her own mandate for her own policies; not, by the way, an unreasonable wish for an unelected prime minister). But, really, this election is, as they nearly always are, about leadership and competence. And given that contest pitches Mrs May against Jeremy Corbyn there can be only one winner, as all of us (except Momentum) know.

There is no realistic chance of the Lib Dems being in government, in spite of the Conservatives’ desperate (but probably quite successful) attempts to spook the voters with the spectre of Corbyn’s ‘coalition of chaos’. Tim Farron has explicitly ruled out a coalition, either with Labour or the Tories. And he has also pointed out that Theresa May will win the election with an outright majority.

Both statements are blindingly obvious and a necessary counter to the Tories’ spin. But they do unavoidably undermine the party’s central pitch that Brexit can be stopped by voting for the Lib Dems. How can it, after all, if we’ve promised we won’t be in government?

There are, of course, other reasons which make the Lib Dem campaign harder in 2017 than it’s been for some time. Talk of the death of two-party politics (which I’ve often indulged in) has proved to be premature. Seven years ago, the Lib Dems were in first or second place in almost half the UK’s constituencies; currently it’s just 71 seats, which will mean the party’s vote risks being squeezed as voters’ decision-time nears in our first-past-the-post system.

And while I remain a fan, it’s undeniable that Tim Farron’s campaign has become mired in the controversy about how his personal Christian beliefs can be squared with his party’s liberal policies. It began with gay sex, today it’s abortion (which a decade ago he labelled “wrong” though he’s since re-affirmed his pro-choice position).

Sure, Theresa May doesn’t get asked these questions. But, then, her views aren’t out-of-steps with her party activists’. In a campaign where he’ll get little chance to shine in front of a mass TV audence, Mr Farron can’t afford to become known as the one with some iffy views on touchstone issues for the educated, urban, secular, middle-classes who should be the party’s best demographic.

And then there’s Labour. As I (and others) have argued before, the Lib Dems do best — think 1997 or even 2010 — when voters aren’t scared by the prospect of a Labour government. Loose talk of a progressive alliance now (by people who should know better: yes, I’m talking about you, Vince) is almost certain to backfire.

In short, it’s all rather depressing. Just as well we’re liberals, really.

Election notebook #9: Regressive Alliance; 2 policies I like (and 1 I don’t); & my letter to Mrs Thatcher

by Stephen Tall on May 10, 2017

What to make of the much-mooted ‘Progressive Alliance’, with some on the liberal-left urging their parties to gang up on the Conservatives? In 1997, anti-Tory tactical voting delivered a body blow to the Major government, halving its number of MPs overnight. Yet in both 1992 and 2015, the prospect of a Labour prime minister in a hung parliament spooked the electorate into holding onto nurse for fear of something worse. So which scenario might it be in 2017?

It’s no surprise it’s come up now. Last week’s local election results, with the dramatic collapse of Ukip whose vote was largely swallowed up by the Conservatives, means the right-wing is again united (more or less) under Theresa May. But the opposition is split. Worse, it’s split between three weak parties: Labour because of its disastrous leader; the Lib Dems because of its disastrous result last time; and the Greens because the disastrous decade of austerity has squeezed its political space.

The question is: could the sum of their parts help reduce the inevitable Tory landslide? I’m mostly sceptical, both on principle and in practice. The principle is an obvious one: it’s the voters who deserve a proper choice and it’s not up to parties to do deals to limit their choice. I know how cross I’d be if I lived somewhere the Lib Dems decided not to stand.

In practice, I’m not sure it’ll work. In 1997, there was a real desire among many voters to punish the Conservative party for its arrogant and incompetent fourth term in government. I don’t detect that mood now, or anything like it. There’s no guarantee at all that Lib Dem-inclined voters will automatically line up behind the anti-Tory just because the local party says they should. In 1983, contrary to Labour folklore, the SDP did not guarantee Margaret Thatcher’s victory; if the SDP hadn’t existed, a clear majority of its voters would have voted Tory while wearing a nose-peg, and Labour’s margin of defeat would have been greater than it was.

This perennial has sprung to life again because Sir Vince Cable was recorded saying he would likely vote for Labour’s Rupa Huq, a centre-left Remainer, in Ealing Central and Acton, where she is defending a wafer-thin 274 vote majority against a Conservative Brexiteer. In doing so, he committed the sin of being completely honest during an election campaign. What Vince said will now be used against Lib Dems up and down the country, with the Tories (and their client press) claiming this shows the Lib Dems will prop up Jeremy Corbyn — even though (1) Labour will be in no position to do deals, and (2) even if they were, Tim Farron has emphatically ruled out any kind of coalition (with Labour or the Tories). If you want to know why politicians often avoid answering questions directly, the way in which Vince’s words have been twisted is why.

**

I get the occasional pang that I’ve never stood for parliament. But one of the advantages is that at least I don’t have to worry when I criticise my party. Its decision to protect pension ‘triple lock’ — that pensions must rise by each year by the inflation rate, average earnings or 2.5%, whichever is the highest — is quite wrong, as the IFS has previously set out.

Of course we should tackle pensioner poverty, but there are much more effective ways of doing so; and which can then free up resources to reduce the coming benefits cuts to working households. I suspect the Lib Dems are standing by it mainly because it’s one of the few Lib Dem achievements from the Coalition which still stands. It was bad policy then; it’s bad policy now.

**

Right, having got that out of my system, here’s a couple of Lib Dem policy announcements I did like.

First, on schools funding, the pledge to protect per pupil funding in real terms is welcome and right. The Conservatives always use the line (they do for the NHS, too) that as a country we’re spending more than ever on education (and health). True enough: population growth and inflation make that pretty much inevitable. However, with pupil numbers rising sharply schools are going to find the next five years tough if the Conservatives stick to their plans of cash-only increases in per pupil funding (ie, no protection from inflation).

And secondly, on energy price caps — the breathtakingly populist U-turn by Theresa May to adopt the Labour policy they savaged when Ed Miliband proposed them four years ago — it was good to hear Sir Ed Davey maintain the Lib Dems’ opposition to random government intervention in the market: “It is never a good idea to copy the economic strategy of Ed Miliband. As the Conservatives pointed out at the time, this will damage investment in energy when it is needed more than ever”.

**

Tim Farron has confessed to having had a poster of Margaret Thatcher on his bedroom wall as a kid (along with other assorted political icons). Though I was a youthful political nerd as well, I don’t think I can match that: it was all pretty much all Everton memorabilia.

However, I did write to Mrs Thatcher once, in 1985, when I was eight years old, urging her to drop the government’s injunction against former MI5 officer Peter Wright seeking to prevent publication in Australia of his service memoir Spycatcher. Well, what can I say — all the kids were doing it back then. I got an acknowledgement and Wright won his case. Post hoc ergo propter hoc, surely.

Election notebook #8: May oui; la Liberal diffusion; & Macron’s cheers

by Stephen Tall on May 8, 2017

Other than finding out I’d finished last in the seat I was standing in, I did notice a handful of other things about the local elections while on holiday…

Obviously it was the Conservatives who had the best night of it, by far. Their 39% projected share of the vote would convert into a healthy-enough 48 seat majority if repeated on 8th June. But they’ll easily do better than that when national issues are to the fore. The last 10 polls have them between 44-48%.

A little over two years ago, ratings like that would have seemed impossible. The Tory brand was still toxic to many: to progressive moderates, who disliked the glee with which George Osborne embraced austerity; and to hard-right nationalists, who despised David Cameron’s weak attempts to find an accommodation between his party and Europe.

Brexit has changed all that. What was once reckoned to be an extremist position obsessively held by an ill-assorted mix of “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” turned out to be the will of the majority. The mainstream has shifted. Leaving the EU is a question of how, not if. This was something Theresa May quickly grasped: her tilt from lukewarm Remainer to ardent Brexiteer has captured a mood — ‘If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well. It were done quickly’ — egged on by our xenophobic press.

It’s earned her a hearing. And she’s used that chance brilliantly, adroitly interleaving her own fortunes with those of Britain: a vote for Theresa is a vote for a better Brexit. No party has yet worked out how to respond to that pitch; I’m not sure it’s possible, not this side of the reality hitting home. Theresa’s real test isn’t this election, it’s what’ll come after. When she tries to reconcile the fantastical promises made by the Leavers with the realisation of quite what a bumpy ride we’ve let ourselves in for.

**

For the Lib Dems, it was a night of frustration. The party’s vote share, at 18%, was the highest since the Coalition was formed; but with the Tories snaffling most of Ukip’s vote, hopes of momentum-inspiring gains melted away. In the end, we made a net loss of 42 councillors. It’s all-too-easy to see this pattern repeating itself in a month’s time: vote share up, seats down.

True, we topped the polls in Cheltenham, St Albans, Cambridge, North East Fife, Cardiff Central, Bath, Edinburgh West, Eastleigh, Oxford West & Abingdon, Watford, and Eastbourne. By no means all of those votes, though, will convert straight across from the local to national elections.

We start too far behind. But, more than that, we’ve yet to persuade Conservative Remainers that we’re a punt worth taking; for the moment, they’re standing four-square behind Mrs May. (Labour Remainers we’re having greater success with; but mostly in urban seats where we have little chance of success, at least this time around.) It’s a very traditional third-party problem in a first-past-the-post system: 1-in-5 people might be voting for us again, but that’s not much help if they’re thinly spread.

**

Emmanuel Macron’s landslide win was just the tonic most of us needed after the confirmation the Tories are on course for their own landslide. For sure, it’s worrying that over 10 million people just across the channel are willing to vote for a fascist. But France has a liberal, moderate head of state voted for by over 20 million: je suis ravi.

It’s a truly astounding achievement from a standing start (his party, En Marche!, didn’t even exist 13 months ago). When the French TV series Les Hommes de l’ombre (aka Spin) imagined a third-party candidate standing for the presidency, it was reckoned it would be too unbelievable if she won. President Macron has written a new script.

A tweet from writer Ian Leslie got me pondering last night, ‘Now’s he won can we just admit the way he met his wife is creepy and wrong?’ (She is 25 years his senior and was his drama teacher when they first met, when he was 15.) It’s certainly unusual and therefore something of an object of curiosity. And if the roles were reversed, and it was he who’d been her teacher, I suspect the press (at least in this country: France is notably more permissive) would have been a lot harsher.

However, I’m not inclined to Ian’s judginess on this one. For a start, the relationship has endured for a quarter of a century which must, surely, count in its favour. And secondly, there doesn’t seem to be any obvious power imbalance, which, understandably, is the usual concern in relationships which begin as pupil-teacher. When they married 10 years ago, Mr Macron thanked those who attended the ceremony for accepting them as they are: “That is to say, maybe something not quite common, a couple not quite normal – not that I like this adjective very much – but a couple that exists.”

C’est la vie.

Election notebook #7: New Forest, New Labour; & Mrs May goes to war

by Stephen Tall on May 6, 2017

I’ve spent the past 5 days in the New Forest. Back when I was a mustard-keen young political activist, I used to look askance at party members who took holidays during election season (where was their dedication?). In fact, I booked it months ago not giving a second’s thought to the significance of 4th May. Does that make it better or worse?

It means I’ve been partially insulated from the past week’s events. I even ended up googling myself on Friday evening to find out my own election result (in a liberal-free area of Crawley, where I finished last, even trailing the Greens by 3 votes. We, rightly, stood to fly the Lib Dem flag there, but didn’t work it at all. I’m happy to say that my home patch of Horsham Hurst, where I’ve done my bit, remained Lib Dem).

**

We left for our brief sojourn on 1st May, the 20th anniversary of New Labour’s huge landslide victory. It seems so long ago. I was a student at the time. And so convinced a Labour member that I requested a postal ballot to cast my vote in my home seat of Bootle, in Merseyside, then the safest Labour seat in the country.

Why? Because I couldn’t bring myself to vote Lib Dem in Oxford West and Abingdon, even though I knew it was the tactically smart way to defeat the Tories, but knew that voting Labour was a silly way of splitting the anti-Tory vote. Well, it made sense to me (at the time). Like I say: a long time ago.

I also recall winning the college’s sweep-stake. From memory, I predicted a Labour landslide with a 150-seat majority, in reality a significant under-estimate, but no-one else believed the opinion polls. Not after after the 1992 debacle. That doesn’t seem quite so long ago.

**

Next time I looked at the news, I found that Theresa May had declared war on Europe. This, in retaliation for European commission president Jean-Claude Juncker’s gossipy leaking to a German newspaper scorning the Government’s approach to Brexit negotiations.

All too silly. Mrs May is known for her hatred of being briefed against. Mr Juncker is not known for his sober discretion. A grown up really needs to take both of them in hand: “Jean-Claude, stop telling tales on Theresa. You know she hates it. Theresa, don’t retaliate. You’re supposed to set an example.” So much for strong and stable.

But, of course, the right-wing press lapped it up. Here was the British Prime Minister sticking it to the foreigners, a brazen display of last-refuge patriotism which does nothing at all to help the national interest, but so much more to advance the Conservative self-interest. More fool Mr Juncker for giving her the opportunity. More fool any of us Brits who reckon that this is the way we’ll get a good deal from our biggest trading market.

Election notebook #6: The silent Brexit election; polls-axed; emergency Ward

by Stephen Tall on April 27, 2017

In one sense, the big news today was Angela Merkel’s speech to the Bundestag warning Brits not be under no illusion that exiting the EU means the UK will no longer enjoy the same benefits of membership as it does now:

“A third-party state cannot enjoy the same advantages or be better positioned than an EU member state. I have the feeling that some people in Britain maintain illusions in this regard. They’re wasting their time.”

Perhaps the German chancellor had in mind Brexit secretary David Davis who told parliament he was aiming for “a comprehensive free trade agreement and a comprehensive customs agreement that will deliver the exact same benefits as we have”.

I say Ms Merkel’s speech was big news, but it’s not, not really. What she’s set out is what has been clear since very shortly after 23 June, a point David Allen Green has been expanding on this week in the Financial Times. He makes the point, persuasively, that it is the EU which has set the terms of debate and stuck to them: no negotiation without triggering Article 50; an orderly exit; no access to the single market without acceptance of the four freedoms (including freedom of movement); and the 27 remaining members of the EU to act in unison.

This position, he notes, was in place even before Theresa May had become prime minister. It’s just that the British government appears to think the EU is bluffing and doesn’t quite mean what it says — over-estimating (as we Brits usually do) our own importance to the rest of Europe.

You’d think all this would be the subject of vigorous political debate. That the media would closely question the Government’s strategy and expect clear answers as to what Theresa May defines as the best deal possible. But that’s not what’s happening.

Instead the Prime Minister has been allowed by the media (let’s not even bother to mention the Labour ‘opposition’) to make the patriotic pitch that every vote for the Tory party is a vote to strengthen her negotiating hand — as if the size of the Tory majority is of anything other than passing interest to the EU.

This is the so-called ‘Brexit election’, yet it’s unlikely the issues will be explored in any depth. There will be no TV debates. Theresa May is making occasional, tightly controlled, public speeches. The aim is to avoid any risks and let Labour’s hopelessness make its own case for the Tories. This is ‘submarine’ campaigning, rarely surfacing and instead focused on torpedoing the opposition by staying well out of sight.

And let’s be clear: it will work. There’s scarily plausible analysis in the Guardian today suggesting the Lib Dems could make net losses, down to just six seats, while Labour would be scythed to 150 seats — meanwhile the Conservatives would win a 190+ majority, with over 420 MPs. This shouldn’t really surprise us. Mrs May’s party is currently riding high at 45%+ in the polls. Even with the Lib Dems improving our position a bit since 2015, that still represents a national Lib Dem -> Conservative swing, so talk of 20+ seats seems far-fetched unless and until the Tories’ ratings subside.

I’ve attached a chunk of blame to the media here and I make no apologies for that. The BBC does its best, but the broadcasters all too often follow where the right-wing press (which is the vast majority of it) leads.

However, I don’t believe in blaming products for what the consumer demands. There’s little sign, yet, that the British public wants another chance to have its say on Europe. It seems, rather, to be quite content to leave the difficult Brexit stuff to its elites. And as Mrs May appears currently to be the only ‘grown-up’ around she’s the one who’s going to get the job by popular acclaim. Vox Populi, Vox Dei.

**

In lieu of any serious debate, polling is once again dominating the media’s coverage of this campaign — despite the promises of journalists after the 2015 debacle that they’d learned their lesson, and despite the warnings of the pollsters that they’re not sure they’ve yet worked out how to put right what went wrong last time.

We’re yet again seeing even quite respectable journalists make silly over-claims for poll movements which are likely just statistical noise. I’m not a fan of banning things generally, and I know there are all sorts of problems with banning polls during election campaigns. But, nonetheless, I do wonder if, sans surveys, the media might actually try filling the vacuum with some serious analysis of what the different parties’ policies would mean for the country? A naive fantasy, I realise.

**

Tim Farron has been getting more stick this week. Having put his troubles with gay sex to bed (so to speak), he was then hit by the news that the Bradford East local party had re-selected David Ward as its parliamentary candidate.

He it was who, as an MP, caused huge offence by casually referring to “the Jews … inflicting atrocities on Palestinians”. Though he (eventually) admitted fault then, he’s continued to post inflammatory remarks, including, following the Westminster terror attack last month, that “all terrorist attacks in UK stem from our foreign policy”.

The announcement appeared to catch the Lib Dem leader on the hop. He initially pointed out to the media (quite correctly) that he has absolutely no power over the (re-)selection of candidates. The Lib Dems’ attachment to internal party democracy never ceases to non-plus journalists who are so used to the Conservatives’ and Labour’s command-and-control structures. As the Chris Rennard scandal showed, the power of the leader to hire-and-fire at will is limited to the front bench.

So how did Tim Farron manage to announce within a matter of hours that he’d sacked David Ward, after all? The credit must go to some cunning member of the party’s ruling federal board, which delegated to the leader during the election campaign the power to re-instigate disciplinary procedures against previously suspended members. He did so in the case of Mr Ward, thus rendering him automatically ineligible to stand on the Lib Dem ticket.

While some in the media still criticised Mr Farron for taking a few hours to take action, those of us in the party were left pretty amazed that the leader was able to deal with the matter with due process in anything less than 18 months. Believe me, that’s almost unheard of.

Election notebook #5: This really is the last time I’ll write about Tim Farron and gay sex

by Stephen Tall on April 25, 2017

I’d intended already to have said my last on the “does Tim Farron believe gay sex is a sin?” thing which Channel 4’s Cathy Newman has been banging on about, egged on by fellow hacks and lefty tweeters who enjoy watching the born-again Christian Lib Dem leader squirm.

But it wasn’t to be, as a week later it’s the only question our lazy media can be bothered to ask him (despite his very strong record defending LGBT+ rights over the years). And so Mr Farron has been forced to give the only politically acceptable answer that’s allowed: that he doesn’t think gay sex is a sin.

Which may help shut down the media witch-hunt — though there’s plenty of other material in Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Exodus for journos to quiz him on, sin-by-sin, for the next 50 days. After all, that’s what people really want to hear about; not Brexit or the economy or public services. [/irony]

Personally, I preferred his earlier argument, that we should regard his private beliefs as just that, and judge him on his public actions. It’s a pretty fundamental liberal tenet, one underpinned by a long-held argument for the separation of church and state.

I think it admirable that Mr Farron is prepared to campaign and vote for his fellow citizens to live their lives as they choose, not as he would choose. That takes more liberal guts than it does for those of us whose personal views happen to happily coincide with the majority’s secularism.

The demand of the illiberal left for Mr Farron to atone for what they presume his private views to be is driven by two imperatives.

The first is drearily partisan: embarrass the Lib Dem leader to try and bolster the depressed Labour vote.

The second is more revealing — the bullying desire that everyone must think the same thing. It’s not enough simply to support freedom of choice; you must also advocate for those choices. You must conform to their credo. The illiberal left doesn’t just want you to be persuaded. It requires you to embrace all their feels.

Well, I am a Liberal and I am against this sort of thing.

**

As a coda, I find it interesting to compare Tim Farron’s treatment with that of David Cameron when he was running for the Conservative party leadership in 2005.

He was asked repeatedly if he’d used drugs and declined to give a straight answer, referring vaguely to a “pretty typical student experience”. Media pressure grew, and eventually he and his team came up with the line, “I’m allowed to have had a private life before politics in which we make mistakes and we do things that we should not and we are all human and we err and stray.” He stuck to it, as did his party. And the media (mostly) happily accepted it.

Which I suspect simply shows there are more former drug-users in the media than there are born-again Christians.

Election notebook #4: A first prediction; Blair’s contortions; challenging Bercow; precedent Macron; & LibDems hit 100k

by Stephen Tall on April 24, 2017

Just how bad can it get for Labour? We’ve seen polls in the past few days suggesting Labour could lose its last remaining seat in Scotland and be pushed into second place even in Wales. Combine that with the Tory absorption of the Ukip vote across England and there’s a gathering, perfect storm.

Just as opinion polls are perfect filler for newspapers, so are speculative predictions the handy stand-by of the political blogger.

I fed what I considered a plausible end-of-campaign set of figures into the ElectoralCalculus website. It produces a Conservative majority of 154, Labour losing 69 MPs, and the Lib Dems gaining only 5 MPs: Con 402, Lab 163, SNP 49, LibDem 13, Others 23. What a prospect.

Tony Blair has long been, and still remains, this country’s greatest political communicator so it’s fascinating to see the rhetorical contortions he’s performed recently to avoid saying, officially, that he supports anti-Tory tactical voting. Urging the public to back candidates who are prepared to keep an open mind on Theresa May’s Brexit deal (or no deal), he was asked if this might mean backing the Lib Dems: “What I’m advocating may mean that. It may mean voting Labour. It may mean, by the way, that they vote Tory, for candidates who are prepared to give this commitment.”

Corbynites have been expelled from Labour for lesser statements than that. Realising his words may have been correctly interpreted, Mr Blair has now sought to obscure his meaning in an article for The Guardian: ‘… for the avoidance of doubt, I have not urged tactical voting. It is up to each voter to make up their mind on how they will vote. I only want people to make an informed choice. Of course, I hope people will vote Labour, as I will.’

Bet he wouldn’t if he lived in Vauxhall, though.

But he puts his finger on the key election-winning argument the Tories are making: ‘Essentially, the Tories – who no doubt have done their own polling – have hit on a way of getting votes by presenting the election as about “strengthening the prime minister’s hand in the Brexit negotiation”, ie, they have turned a partisan Tory vote into an act of national interest.’ He’s surely right, which is why (as I pointed out last week) the Tories’ claims of a ‘coalition of chaos’ are cleverer than they’ve been treated by some commentators.

His counter-strategy is intellectually sound — ‘my strong advice would be to make a virtue of saying: let’s make up our minds when we see what deal Theresa May gets’ — though I’m more doubtful than Mr Blair that “let’s keep an open mind” is the slogan to blow away the Tories’ “give us the tools to finish the Brexit job”.

John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons, will face a challenge from the Lib Dems in his Buckingham constituency. This goes against protocol, as the Speaker’s not meant to sully herself with party politics and so is usually given a free ride by the main parties. However, he has previously pledged to stand down in 2018, which, if he keeps to his word, would mean that for 80 per cent of the next parliament he will serve as in the Conservative ranks. So it seems only fair and proper his constituents gets a chance to have their say on whether they want that.

As someone who’s sympathetic to a new centre-left party forming out of the ashes of the Labour party, you might think I’d be pushing the easy hot-take that newcomer Emmanuel Macron’s first round victory in the French presidential election proves it can be done. But not quite:

And finally, kudos to my team, the Lib Dems, on hitting the 100,000 members mark, a doubling of the ranks since the 23 June referendum. Bad news isn’t only good for newspaper sales, it seems. And if the election result is anything like as gloomy as my prediction that suggests another growth spurt beginning on 9th June.

Election notebook #3: Lib Dem targets; Tory landslide upside; ‘Coalition of Chaos’

by Stephen Tall on April 22, 2017

What are the Lib Dem targets? In past elections, it’s usually been pretty obvious which seats the Lib Dems can hope to win – find which ones we came second in last time and where we’re within c.10% of whichever is the governing party.

On that basis, there are 16 seats the Lib Dems would hope to win: 9 from the Tories and 3 each from Labour and the SNP. That would take the party’s tally to 25 MPs (if we hold our gain in Richmond Park). A decent haul, though not quite the breakthrough some more excitable commentators (and activists) have been touting.

The question is: does Brexit upset that rule-of-thumb? Should the party be looking less at how we did in 2015 and more at which seats have the highest Remain vote-shares instead? In which case, suburban seats like St Albans (Tory majority 15,316) or urban seats like Vauxhall (Labour majority 12,708; 22,466 over the Lib Dems) come into genuine contention.

After all, in 2005 the Lib Dems scored some spectacular swings against Labour in seats where the Iraq war was especially unpopular (such as in my own then home of Oxford East) while our so-called decapitation strategy against top Tories with slim majorities — including one Theresa May in Maidenhead — proved an almost complete failure. (The sole exception was Tim Farron in Westmoreland.)

The truth is we just don’t know. Which is a little worrying because, before we all get too carried away by the Lib Dem resurgence, the spectre of 2010’s Cleggmania haunts us.

For a couple of weeks which now seem fantastically long ago the Lib Dems plauibly looked like they might top the poll and certainly beat Labour. Party activists got distracted, suddenly believing their patch might triumph, and our target seats suffered as a result. Though the Lib Dem vote went up our total number of MPs went down. Which is what happens when third parties take their eye off the ball in a first past the post system. There’s a risk history will repeat itself.

**

There are few upsides to the likely Tory landslide, but one might just be the axing of bonkers policies from their 2015 manifesto. Notably, the promise to protect the ‘triple lock’ — which guarantees decent increases in the state pension for all pensioners regardless of their income even as the working poor are hit by further benefits cuts — and the economically illiterate guarantee the party wouldn’t raise income tax, national insurance or VAT in the next parliament. The former was required last time to fend off Ukip’s appeal to older voters, but it’s no longer a threat. And the latter was made on the assumption that if the Tories ended up in power it would be in coalition, and they could drop it and blame the Lib Dems. With victory this time all but guaranteed, the Tories can afford the luxury of a bit more honesty. On that score, at any rate, good.

**

Can the Tory threat of a ‘coalition of chaos’ work? In 2015, fear of another hung parliament and Ed Miliband cutting a deal with the SNP was one of the key reasons Lib Dem / Conservative waverers ended up plumping for Cameron and handing him his surprise win. The Tories clearly want to try and repeat the trick, suggesting an alliance of Labour, SNP and the Lib Dems could thwart Brexit.

Conventional wisdom seems to be this won’t work in 2017, with polls pointing to a handsome Tory win. But I wonder. The Tories don’t need to convince the country as a whole that such an outcome is remotely plausible; they need persuade only the few thousand voters in those seats which might change hands, especially the Tory / Lib Dem marginals. Their friends in the right-wing media can always be called upon to help — as tonight’s risible effort from the Mail on Sunday shows: ‘Tory lead cut in half’ even as the Tories hit 50% in the polls — so don’t be so sure history can’t repeat itself.

You can imagine the direct mail: “You live in one of the 18 seats which could decide this election. Don’t take the risk of letting in Corbyn and seeing Brexit defeated: vote Conservative.” No wonder Tim Farron has moved quickly to promise the Lib Dems won’t go into coalition with either Labour or the Conservatives. Given the party wouldn’t vote for it this time anyway, best to make virtue of necessity and hope the message reaches the same voters absorbing the Tories’ campaign literature.



You might also likeclose
Plugin from the creators ofBrindes :: More at PlulzWordpress Plugins