Vince Cable: first thoughts on his leadership (and his biggest challenge)

by Stephen Tall on July 20, 2017

Finally — after a slightly absurd delay even when it became obvious there would be no other candidates, and a decade after he first ruled himself out of the running for the job on the grounds of his age — Vince Cable has been ‘elected’ Lib Dem leader.

I’d probably have voted for him if the position had been contested, but I wouldn’t take my endorsement as a golden pat on the shoulder. Since I left Labour and joined the Lib Dems in 1999, I’ve given David Rendel, Ming Campbell, Chris Huhne and Tim Farron my first preferences as leader. The only two I backed successfully (Ming and Tim) had the shortest tenures. Correlation isn’t causation, but, still, I wouldn’t blame you for doubting my sagacity.

But sagacity is, of course, Vince’s forte. He was among the few to foresee the dangers lurking beneath the surface of the seemingly unsinkable British economy in 2007. His lowest professional moment — being stripped of his cabinet responsibility for assessing Rupert Murdoch’s bid for outright control of Sky after unwisely letting slip to an undercover journalist that he had ‘declared war’ on the media mogul — was later transformed into triumph after the phone hacking scandal forced all politicians to declare war on Murdoch (very temporarily in the Tories’ case).

I declared him my un-hero back in the days when blogging was cutting-edge social media. For all his brilliance, though, he has his flaws — most notably, for not being collegiate. He launched his ill-fated ‘mansion tax’ on to an unsuspecting Lib Dem conference in 2009, much to the chagrin of his colleagues in neighbouring seats whose constituencies would be most affected. Still, collegiality is less of an essential requirement for the leader’s job now they have fewer colleagues.

The main criticism levelled against him in this non-campaign (other than being too old, which is beyond is control) has centred on an interview with the New Statesman, which led to accusations — obviously, though not only, on the Guido Fawkes website — that he had hand-waved away the idea sexism or racism are issues any more. Here’s the full passage:

… Cable is 74 years old. Is he the right leader to attract youth support? “There was a phase – was it 20, 30 years ago? – when there was a faith in youth,” he says. “You know, Tony Blair, Nick [Clegg] and others. And the mood has changed. It’s more sober. People are puzzled and angry . . . and I think they’re willing to listen to people who’ve got some experience, some historical memory, of the way things are.” …

Yet many Lib Dems say that it’s time for a younger, fresher face. There was widespread disappointment that Jo Swinson, who could have been their first female leader, didn’t stand. Cable praises Swinson, who will be his deputy, but he insists that he is “not standing as a caretaker”.

“Gender isn’t an issue any more, rightly so,” he adds. “Thanks to Obama, race isn’t really an issue any more – at least, we hope not. And age shouldn’t be, either. It should be who you are and what you have to say.”

Now, the quote which got snipped and landed Vince in trouble in some quarters is “Gender isn’t an issue any more”. But, in context, it’s clear he’s talking about whether gender (or race) is any more an automatic bar to being a political leader — which is very different to the accusation levelled against him that he was denying the existence of sexism and racism. An accusation which must be pretty hurtful to someone who started an inter-racial family and whose father didn’t speak to him for four years as a result.

Here are some things I think Vince has going for him (other than being pretty darn clever):

He gives good talking head: the media will actually want to interview him. For a party with 12 MPs, that’s a pretty good qualification in itself. Of course, that does carry with it the risks of occasional loose lips (see above) — but if there’s one thing worse than being talked about…

He will appeal to moderates: as I’ve asked before, who should the Conservative who liked John Major, or the Labour supporter who wanted Yvette Cooper to be leader, vote for? Certainly not the current incarnations of their party. Vince might well be taken seriously by voters who didn’t warm to Tim Farron’s cheeky chappiness.

He’s a grown-up: true, Vince hasn’t been tested by a leadership campaign. As Gordon Brown and Theresa May both proved, that’s a short-term convenience and a medium-term problem. But Vince is a known quantity, for better or worse, and intellectually secure (sometimes, perhaps, to excess). He’s not going to be worried going up against Andrew Neil.

Vince’s biggest challenge is the one regularly posed by Mark Pack and David Howarth: from the doldrums of 8% at the last election, can he help foster a Lib Dem core vote, one that isn’t reliant on the Stakhanovite efforts of (sometimes eccentric) individuals dotted around the country, but which has genuine appeal to enough liberal-minded voters to form a cohesive voting bloc?

It’s no easy task, especially as Jeremy Corbyn has proven himself to be much more adept at appealing to educated, middle-class professionals, the group most likely to label themselves progressive small-l liberals — as evidenced by Labour’s stunning performance on 8th June in places like Bristol, Cambridge and Canterbury, as well as London — than he has Labour’s working-class base, whose support for Labour has declined.

But if the Lib Dems are to have a viable and sustainable future, it’s the only choice. Brexit, of course, gives him a platform, with the anti-EU Corbyn himself at least as committed to a Hard Brexit as Theresa May (probably: no-one really knows), and Labour MPs split, depending on whether they represent a Leave-voting working-class seat or a Remain-voting metropolitan seat. Add to that a stuttering economy and public services showing the strain of austerity and the conditions are there for a revival.

I hope so, anyway. British politics is pretty depressing, at the moment. Neither the Conservatives nor Labour have shown themselves fit to govern, yet they’re currently the only show in town. If a new Centre Party isn’t going to shake things up, it’s up to the Lib Dems. Over to you, Vince…

The deliciously ironic leadership contest Vince Cable’s coronation will deprive us of

by Stephen Tall on June 28, 2017

I don’t share the angst of so many Lib Dems that — it appears — the party has been deprived of a leadership contest. First, Jo Swinson, then Norman Lamb, and now Sir Ed Davey have all declined to take on Sir Vince Cable.

Jo’s and Ed’s public reasons were each good and believable.

Both have just won back seats they lost and need to focus on defending them. The fates of their predecessors, Nick Clegg (defeated) and Tim Farron (big majority slashed), hang heavy in the air. Both also have young families and don’t want to miss out on those unrepeatable moments.

The task of Lib Dem leader is, I reckon, the second worst in politics (after Prime Minister), trying to satisfy a notoriously querulous membership on practically zero resource.

Norman’s public reasons for skipping this contest are more contestable. Citing the “gruelling” campaign to retain his Leave-voting North Norfolk seat, he then anticipates that his abstention on the vote to trigger Article 50 would have sunk his leadership chances: “for many in the party that abstention was an act of betrayal.”

He’s probably right. The pro-EU fervency among many Lib Dems, especially the 20k ‘newbies’ who joined post-23 June — in large part as a result of Tim Farron’s instinctual anti-Brexit stance — would suggest a ‘Eurosceptic Lib Dem’ (the term is relative among our ranks) might struggle.

Though that’s not really a reason not to try, especially if you have a message you think the party needs to hear. For Norman to duck the challenge is understandable; but also more than a little disappointing.

It’s also quite ironic, given that it now seems certain Sir Vince ‘Strong and’ Cable will be coronated. For Vince has long been the No. 1 ‘Eurosceptic Lib Dem’. He once branded the Common Agricultural Policy “a complete disgrace” while opposing the Euro — sensible chap — and (correctly) demanding EU budget restraint despite activist outrage.

More recently, he has questioned the Lib Dems’ decision to bang on about a second referendum, rightly raising awkward questions that many in my party would prefer to shrug off (“Which side would we be on if there was a soft Brexit?”) and arguing for more focus on outcome than process (“I would just like to see more emphasis on what it is we want from these negotiations rather than arguing about the tactics and the means”).

He has also — to the consternation of EU-philes among the party ranks — highlighted the current hypocrisy in which the Lib Dems campaign for preferential treatment for Europeans over non-Europeans (so much for true internationalism!). The same rule should apply to all, regardless of nationality. “The demand for effective immigration control coexists with greater tolerance of diversity,” Vince has noted — a statement reckoned by some Lib Dem activists to rank alongside Enoch Powell, but which probably sounds ultra-liberal to your average punter.

It’s a shame, then, that the Lib Dems are depriving the public of the delicious irony of its two most Euroscpetic MPs contesting the leadership of the most devotedly pro-EU party.

Yet in some ways it’s better a contest is avoided. The actual policy differences between Jo Swinson, Sir Ed Davey, Norman Lamb and Sir Vince Cable are so slight, so cigarette-paper thin, that the campaign would almost certainly have descended into personalised bickering (if not between the rivals themselves then between the factions that would get behind them, projecting their own views onto their chosen candidate).

I’m at ease with a Vince Cable leadership. He’s a grown up, has media smarts, will get a hearing. Of course, there are all sorts of flak that will get thrown at him — tuition fees, Royal Mail, his age — but if anyone can ride that out, he can. And if he can’t, well he’s said he’ll stand down in three years, so we can have another go then. (Did I say ‘go’? I meant Jo.)

Until then, arise Sir Vince.

What do the centrists do now? Here’s my suggestion…

by Stephen Tall on June 27, 2017

I’ve written before about my sympathy for a new ‘Centre Party’ (much as I dislike such a split-the-difference name). The election result means the issue has simultaneously both become more urgent and less likely.

More urgent because who does a centrist voter now vote for?

The Conservatives, already moving to the right as Theresa May made slashing immigration her party’s top priority, have now sealed the deal with the antediluvian DUP. If you’re the kind of Tory who liked John Major, to whom do you now turn?

Meanwhile, Labour is now in thrall to Jeremy Corbyn following his expectations-defying result, with the party’s hard-left even more determined to exert control, and looking to purge MPs suspected of any Blairite tendencies. If you’re the kind of Labour supporter who voted for Yvette Cooper as leader two years ago, to whom do you now turn?

And less likely because 2017 saw the revival of two-party politics, with the Conservatives and Labour hoovering up more than four-fifths of voters on 8th June. Outlier, or reversion to the mean? We don’t yet know, but it’s going to be harder to justify quitting a party polling 40%+ than it is one languishing in the 20%s.

Nonetheless, there are currently a lot of centrist, politically homeless Tory and Labour voters voting for their parties in spite of, not because of, their leadership and their policies. To whom do they now turn?

A new Centre Party, that’s who. So say Conservative MP Anna Soubry and former Labour speech-writer Philip Collins. Heck, even Nick Clegg, sort of.

Such a Centre Party would be fiscally conservative and socially liberal. It would promote economic growth in order to fund schools and hospitals. It would accept Brexit while retaining UK membership of the single market. It would invest in housing and roads and safeguard the environment. It would guarantee a safety net for the vulnerable.

In short, it would be unashamedly sensible and boring.

Defining what a ‘Centre Party’ would stand for is the easy bit, of course.

The far harder part is working out how on earth you build from scratch a party capable of winning seats in our first-past-the-post system. And working out who among the current crop of politicians has the vim and vigour to lead it. (Pro-tip: if your answer is David Miliband flying back from New York then try again.)

It is not the lack of ideas, then, which is preventing the birth of a ‘Centre Party’. It is the structure of our electoral system which is tilted against parties with broad national support.

Which is why I have a simple suggestion for the centrists: join the Liberal Democrats.

I know, I know. Only 12 MPs, wasted vote, etc. But, actually, I’m serious.

For a start, we have a great future leader in Jo Swinson — modern, pragmatic, determined — waiting in the wings.

Moreover, membership of the Lib Dems has been transformed over the past two years. In 2015, there were 45k members. Today, there’s over 100k. A good chunk of these new members (to the chagrin of some veteran sandalistas) are moderate liberals.

They liked, or at least understood the need for, the Coalition. They are pro-European (sometimes a bit too obsessively so, but none of us is perfect). They want to be in power, not shouting from the sidelines. They are exactly the kind of people a new ‘Centre Party’ would be trying to attract.

So don’t cannibalise this group; join them. And make the Lib Dems great again.

Brexit, one year on. And no-one is yet any the wiser

by Stephen Tall on June 23, 2017

One year on — a referendum and general election later — we’re still no closer to understanding what either of the two main political parties intend to do about implementing Brexit.

The Conservatives committed in their manifesto to the UK leaving the single market and customs union. But, then, they pledged a lot else in their manifesto which they’ve since abandoned. Brexit secretary David Davis has previously promised a deal “that will deliver the exact same benefits as we have”, while chancellor Philip Hammond would clearly like to do so by sticking with the very good deal we already have. This enigmatic position is echoed by their ‘friends and allies’, the DUP, whose manifesto promises ‘customs arrangements which facilitate trade with new and existing markets’ — which implies leaving the single market and customs union while discreetly stopping short of calling for it.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour has, with Blairite finesse, successfully straddled a position which supports both a ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ Brexit while still attracting the votes of educated, metropolitan Remainers (and, miraculously, maintaining a reputation for straight-talking). Shadow chancellor John McDonnell has been clear Labour supports leaving the single market (though, like David Davis, he wants to keep the same terms of trade, somehow). Shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer has been equally clear that Labour supports keeping single market membership on the negotiating table.

Confusion reigns. And let’s remember, both the Tories and Labour voted to set the two-year negotiating count-down clock ticking three months ago.

Little wonder, then, that Brexit is squeezing out time for any other issues — y’know, minor matters like our notoriously sluggish productivity, or escalating social care costs, or the housing crisis — in the next two years. Instead, the politicians are going to be devoting every waking moment to working out the irreconcilable instructions of the British people: to deliver a growing economy while divorcing ourselves from a market which gives our businesses unfettered access to 500 million customers across the continent.

Enough of the electorate bought the half-truths peddled by Vote Leave last year, not least Boris Johnson’s seductive aphorism that “My policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it.” Trouble is, reality’s biting away at that cake. And there are no signs yet that either the Government or the Opposition has any real clue what they should be doing about it.

Tim Farron’s resignation: why I’m sad but also relieved

by Stephen Tall on June 15, 2017

I’m on holiday so have only just seen the news of Tim Farron’s resignation as Lib Dem leader. I’m saddened, but also, truth be told, a bit relieved.

Saddened because I voted for Tim and am pleased to have done so. His energy and enthusiasm is infectious – his instinctive, passionate speech the morning after the 23 June EU referendum captured the sadness and anger many of us felt that day (and contrasted with Jeremy Corbyn’s hopeless insistence that Article 50 should be immediately triggered). It inspired thousands to join the Lib Dems. We were, to be blunt, very lucky to have Tim in place, rather than Norman Lamb, whose Leave-voting constituency left him in a conflicted position (he abstained on the Article 50 vote).

But also relieved. It’s a harsh reality that as the leader of a minor party you get limited chances to make a good impression on the voters. Tim’s fumbling attempts to avoid answering whether he thinks gay sex is a sin holed his leadership below the waterline. It was deeply unfair – he’s a social liberal to his fingertips on issues of personal morality with a voting record to match – but that’s beside the point. If you market yourself as a great communicator you can’t complain later that you’ve been misunderstood. (And Tim has often enough put his faith centre stage that he also can’t complain it became an issue of curiosity to a secular media looking to tease out any conflicts with his liberalism.) Despite the baby-steps progress made by the Lib Dems in last week’s election – made in large part thanks to the strategy Tim put in place – he emerged from the election with his leadership diminished.

In the old days, when the Lib Dems were the undisputed third party, he’d have got another chance to prove his mettle. But the electoral landscape is much more competitive these days and much less forgiving of slip-ups. Ultimately, I think he’s made the right decision for himself and for the party.

Election notebook #19: Tory mourning after the night before

by Stephen Tall on June 9, 2017

Well that was all a bit unexpected, for me at any rate. Having confidently predicted the Conservatives would cruise to a 100+ landslide here we are facing a hung parliament, with Theresa May reliant on the DUP for her majority.

My prediction was based on solid enough foundations. Most polls (though not all – kudos YouGov and Survation) pointed to a sizeable win, including, crucially, the parties’ own internal polls – if Labour had known how the night would pan out, they’d have targeted more effectively and likely scored an even better result. The visits of the leaders during the campaign also pointed to the Tories being on the offensive and Labour on the back foot. Heck, it’s only a month since the Conservatives secured an utterly convincing win in the local elections.

But whatever the rationale, my reckoning was wrong. I assumed that the Tories’ scare tactics would work, that their dreadful campaign would dampen turnout and make little difference to the result, that the right-wing media would succeed in its biased bullying – that, ultimately, folk would vote on the basis of who they’d want negotiating Brexit and that wouldn’t be Jeremy Corbyn.

I find myself baffled but oddly cheered by the night’s excitement. I’ve said throughout this campaign that the Conservatives deserve to lose the election but Labour doesn’t deserve to win it. And that’s exactly the result. Well played, Britain! Looking around today, the right people are annoyed by what’s just happened. As Martin Bell, and before him GK Chesterton, once said:

“Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget; For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet”

Theresa May will have to resign, of course, it’s just a question of when. The Tories aren’t going to fight another election with her at the helm.

There will be lots of time to explore how they tossed away a 20%+ poll lead. The dementia tax, fox-hunting and schools cuts will all feature. So too will the Brexit-shaped opening the Tories gave Labour in moving the debate away from tight stewardship of the finances. Tory Leavers promised the voters there would be loadsa spare cash when we left the EU. Then rounded on Labour’s “magic money tree” and wondered why those attacks didn’t hit home as they did in 2015.

In truth, the Labour manifesto is an indulgent mess of middle-class subsidies which does very little more for the working poor than the Tories were threatening. But that reality doesn’t matter. Jeremy Corbyn has — brilliantly, it turns out — played the right mood music: uplifting and hopeful for a nation tired of and bored with a decade’s unremitting austerity.

It was, though – let’s be candid – a crushing night for moderate, liberal progressives, like me, epitomised by the ousting of Nick Clegg. Sure, the Lib Dems made a handful of net gains (and were achingly close to recovering to 16 MPs), which was better than I’d feared. But the party’s vote-share is down to just 7%, its worst performance in over 50 years. We can gloss that all we like, but two-party politics has reasserted itself and it’s going to be the devil of a job to break the mould again.

Two final points. This so-called Brexit election was never about Brexit and still isn’t. Both the Conservative and Labour are committed to a ‘hard Brexit’ – ending free movement, withdrawal from the single market and the customs union – so that’s not going to change. Perhaps, though, now the Prime Minister’s wings have been clipped, it will happen in a less bellicose way (or perhaps more so; I’m going to be more cautious with my predictions from now on).

And finally, I do not think an early election likely. After all, who has the incentive to trigger it? The Conservatives have just seen the unpredictability of what can happen. And I’m not all that sure Labour wants to actually have to get to grips with Brexit negotiations if it did win. And, above all, I’m not sure it would change the result very much anyway. The next five years are going to be a bumpy ride…

Election notebook #18: 7 things I expect to happen in the next few days

by Stephen Tall on June 8, 2017

Following on from my prediction yesterday – an overwhelming Conservative victory – here are seven things I expect to happen in the days ahead:

The Conservative election campaign will be acclaimed. Forget the wobbles and the premature “Is Theresa May finished?” political obituaries. The media will instead be full of analysis of how the Tories defied the polls and the pundits. The fundamentals, we’ll be told, always favoured the Conservatives and their singular focus on “who’s best to negotiate Brexit?” proved to be decisive. Expect particular praise for Lynton Crosby’s ruthless targeting of Labour MPs in Leave-voting constituencies.

The Labour reaction will continue to be conflicted. The hard-left Corbynistas will, on the one hand, trumpet Labour’s vote-share while, on the other, use the defeat as a reason further to damn the ‘disloyal’ Blairites in their ranks, who (they will claim) are all that stood between #Jezwecan and victory. More sensible left-wingers will reflect on the missed opportunity and recognise that leadership and economic competence still matter most. The moderate centre-left will continue to quietly despair while not putting up any sort of intellectual fight and cleaving tribally to their party.

The Lib Dems will remain defiant, earnestly and eagerly awaiting the Brexit-calypse the party is convinced will validate its “second referendum” position. This will be seen as reason to continue doggedly sticking to a position which appeals to a niche audience, rather than attempt to engage with the mainstream. Largely absent from the post mortem will be a serious analysis of how the party restores its post-Coalition reputation. Expect a fiercely protective defence of Tim Farron’s leadership which will gloss the tougher questions his performance has prompted.

If turnout is down to dire 2001 levels, as I suspect it will be, expect lots of furrowed-brow worrying about what this says about the state of British democracy. There will likely be a stale argument about why young people don’t vote, pitching glib “we don’t see the point” vs “it’s their own fault” arguments against each other. Worthy think tanks will come up with worthy proposals – such as electoral reform, Sunday/electronic voting and polling day bank holidays – which will get tweeted around for a day and then forgotten about, as usual.

Everyone who’s written off the impact of newspapers on the campaign – “look at the crowds for Corbyn!”, “actually this is the first Facebook election” – will remember that newspapers are, it turns out, still hugely influential. Sensible Conservatives will worry what that means for Theresa May standing any chance of landing a pragmatic Brexit deal while squaring the Europhobic Mail, Sun and Telegraph. Meanwhile, the left will muse impotently about press regulation and the hard-left will scream ever louder into its social media echo chamber.

Whichever polling companies’ models have come closest will get the bouquets; whoever’s made the wrong assumptions will get the brickbats. So the real question – of whether heavy weighting and turnout filters are pre-loading assumptions to compensate for the failure to contact truly balanced population samples, which will again lead to a major future polling fail – will be put on the back-burner.

Finally, there will be a belated recognition that we’ve endured 7 weeks of an election campaign which has told us almost nothing about the rival parties’ plans for Brexit, the economy, public services, the environment or international affairs. Never in the field of electoral conflict was so much ignored by so many with a shrug.

Election notebook #17: my final prediction

by Stephen Tall on June 7, 2017

It was 24th April when I made my first (and, ’til now, only) prediction of this campaign. I forecast a Tory landslide, a Labour drubbing and a very small Lib Dem recovery. Six weeks’ later, I stick by one-and-a-half of these expectations.

I didn’t expect the Conservative campaign to be this poor (by which I mean the ‘air-war’ – I suspect they’ve done very well in the targeted ‘ground-war’). And I didn’t expect the Labour campaign to be this successful, somehow uniting the two squabbling ‘because of’ and ‘in spite of’ Corbyn wings of the party.

As a result, the election has become more binary than any in my lifetime. If you’re anti-Corbyn, you’ll vote Conservative and, if you’re anti-Conservative, you’ll vote Labour. Some 80 per cent of you will, at any rate. The situation’s a bit different in Scotland and Wales, but across England, bar a couple of dozen seats, the Lib Dems won’t get much of a look-in.

That’s disrupted my initial calculations. I still expect a Conservative landslide (ie, a 100+ majority) and a heavy Labour defeat. But the Lib Dems will, alas, have to wait ’til 2022 for our next ‘one more heave’.

My estimate of the final vote-shares hasn’t actually changed for the Conservatives. I reckon they’ll get c.45%. But Labour, who I thought would fade, have surged. I’d now estimate they’ll finish on c.34%. And, by contrast, the Lib Dems who I thought would shine have been eclipsed. I think we’ll do no better than in 2015, on c.8%.

How will that convert into seats? Well, my working assumption is that Labour will pile up votes in seats it already holds or where it’s too far behind to make a difference; while the Conservatives will have ruthlessly targeted Labour seats to maximum effect, especially in heavily Leave-voting areas. In the office prediction competition, I’ve guesstimated as follows:

Conservative 381 MPs
Labour 197
SNP 44
Lib Dems 5
Plaid 3
Greens 1
Ukip 0
Others 19
Conservative majority = 112

**

If (and obviously it’s a big if) this is the result, I’m not sure how I’ll feel about it.

I take absolutely no pleasure in the prospect of a Conservative landslide. However, it may just mean Theresa May has the votes to negotiate a more sensible Brexit deal than if she’s reliant on her hard-right Europhobes. It will also mean she ‘owns’ the outcome, that there can be no attempt to sidestep responsibility for what follows. (Though the right-wing media will do its best to pin all the blame for a bad/no deal on the foreigners, of course.)

For Labour, the outcome will fall into the “it’s bad, but could’ve been worse” category. Jeremy Corbyn has emerged with credit from the campaign, not least because the Conservatives haven’t put much serious effort into contesting his spending splurge on middle-class subsidies. Left-wing populism, we’ve discovered, is quite capable of energising a significant minority vote. The hope for those of who want to see Labour as a viable party of government again is that the next leader will be as comfortable in their own skin as Mr Corbyn, but with the integrity and competence to (1) understand the need for economic credibility, and (2) target re-distributive support towards the working poor.

As for the Lib Dems, what to do? Labour’s continuing survival rules out the prospect of a new moderate progressive party emerging out of the ashes of Corbynism and my party’s demise. So those of us who are liberals need to focus on re-building Lib Dem capacity once again, recognising that’s not easy or quick work. If Brexit fails, the Lib Dems opportunity might come sooner than we think. If it succeeds, then it’ll be a generation’s toil. There are no ‘silver bullets’, no instant fixes.

Election notebook #16: Police numbers; non-debates; nuclear deterrence; Liberal Socialists?

by Stephen Tall on June 6, 2017

Another week, another attack, this time in London. There’s a gruesome cowardice to these outrages: crude tactics, easy targets. How can you defend citizens, always, everywhere, against these ‘losers’ ((C) President Trump, on that single occasion he judged the tone right) with infamous murders on their minds and little care for their own survival? The wearying, worrying reality is you can’t.

As a result politicians have fixated on the easy bit, armed police numbers. The Conservatives point out that numbers are on the up, having been on the down on, erm, Theresa May’s watch as home secretary. Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn, who not so long ago was saying cuts to the police were the one bit of austerity he agreed with, is now calling for increases. Go figure.

In any case, raw numbers aren’t always a good measure of capacity or effectiveness. The bigger question remains how we tackle extremism in our society, whether Islamist or neo-Nazi, and the evident attraction it has for disaffected young men in particular. Just don’t expect any sensible answers to that this side of 8th June.

**

That’s not the only non-debate this election, though. Obviously, there’s Brexit which has gone MIA this campaign. Neither the Conservatives nor Labour have shown any inclination to debate what they think a good Brexit deal looks like and how they’re going to achieve it. Future historians will, I suspect, be mystified such a huge event in this country’s future can be treated as a “haven’t we dealt with that already” footnote.

But there are other issues, too. Such as, y’know, the economy. I’m old enough to remember when that was pretty central to an election campaign. We would have debates about growth, the appropriate level of taxation, the deficit. Properly costed manifestos would be released. Politicians would take pride in press releases exposing ‘black holes’ in the finances of their opponents. There would be an ‘Ask the Chancellors’ debate. This year, nothing.

The same goes for other crucial areas of public policy: home affairs, health, education, transport. Back in the day, the parties would have allocated a press conference to each area. The BBC would have staged debates between cabinet ministers and their opposition shadows. Yet now the party leaders are rarely been off our screens, it seems, with their colleagues sidelined, along with any detailed probing of the issues.

**

I didn’t watch the BBC Question Time debate between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn. The only clip I’ve seen was the Labour leader’s tetchy answers on the British nuclear deterrent (“I’d rather have it and not use it than not at all,” said one audience member. “Do you want to comment on that?” asked David Dimbleby. “No,” he monosyllabled.)

Cue a day’s sub-sixth form debate on Twitter as folk adopted (deliberately?) polarised positions. Anyone who believes in deterrence was assumed to love the idea of millions dying in nuclear apocalypse. Anyone who opposes deterrence was assumed to be a naive hippy who’d invite Iran and North Korea to join their progressive alliance.

For what it’s worth, I line up with the pro-deterrence lot, as I happen to think it’s the most effective way of avoiding nuclear conflagration. But it is ridiculously expensive and I have a fair degree of sympathy with those who’d prefer to divert at least some of the nuclear defence budget into greater spending on conventional forces and counter-intelligence. Both positions are arguable. Just not, it seems, on Twitter.

**

I had my criticisms of the Lib Dems during the Coalition government. But one of the most important contributions my party made was always to demand before any budget was approved that they Treasury produce tables showing the redistributive effects of the Chancellor’s proposals. They did so to check that the burden of austerity was being spread. Once free of the Lib Dem shackles in 2015, George Osborne immediately ended the practice, not least because it would have shown his first Conservative-only budget was going to hit the working poor harder than ever before.

IFS-manifesto-personal-finace-general-election-2017
It’s striking then to see the impact of the three main parties’ proposals as assessed by the IFS. What it shows is unmistakable. There is very little difference between Conservative and Labour plans for tax and welfare spend. The poorest will be hit pretty much equally hard by either. The Lib Dem manifesto make the best attempt to share the burden and protect the poorest.

Much of the money Labour does propose to raise (by jacking up corporation tax and higher-rate taxes) will be splurged on tuition fees which disproportionately benefit those who go on to be better paid than the average. Put simply, it’s a massive middle-class subsidy at a time when most benefits as well as tax credits are being cut.

As The Independent’s John Rentoul commented:

“For all that Corbyn’s supporters have built their worship on despising Tony Blair for failing to challenge Tory inequality, they are now selling a programme that promises to take from the poor and to give to the upper-middle income brackets. Under Blair and Gordon Brown, government policy became more redistributive, offsetting the greater inequality of the labour market. The Tories want to dismantle Gordon Brown’s tax credits, which have made work pay for millions and lifted them out of benefit dependency, and Corbyn and McDonnell propose to do next to nothing about it. All good socialists should vote Lib Dem on Thursday.”

And he’s got a point. (All good liberals should, too.)

Election notebook #15: Debate debased; Amber warning; polls apart; The Libconomist

by Stephen Tall on June 1, 2017

I watched the BBC’s seven-strong leaders’ debate last night, along with 3.5 million other people; half the audience Britain’s Got Talent attracted on ITV at the same time; and only 500k more than Channel 4 / Sky’s May v Corbyn head-to-head attracted on Monday.

Theresa May’s decision to stay away attracted a lot of negative publicity, further damaging her brand as a strong leader. Though, to be honest, it’s hard to say she made the wrong decision given the ensuing pile-up. The continuing squabbling, as each tried to shout over the others, gave her stand-in home secretary, Amber Rudd, an easy line: the showdown was the “chaos of coalition in action”. Fair-minded viewers, who didn’t include the whooping Corbynistas cheering his every utterance, would have concluded she had a point.

No-one really lost. No-one really won. No-one really learned anything. The problem is the format. For a start, a basic qualification for appearing on a national leaders’ debate should be that you are fighting enough seats to mean you could technically form a government. That doesn’t apply to either the SNP or Plaid. Remove them (and give them their own national leaders’ debates in Scotland and Wales) and a five-way contest would be far more manageable — as well as realistic of the choice most voters will face on polling day.

I’m still not a big fan of these set-pieces, though. The leaders all respond to questions with pre-prepared snippets from their stump speeches (I’m not blaming them; I would, too) with no chance for any probing follow-up. Leaders’ interviews and Question Time-style interaction with the public are far more effective tests of their mettle.

**

The most maddening part of the debate was the reaction to the news that Amber Rudd’s father died earlier this week. Cue a lot of people, including many who should know a lot better, accusing Theresa May of callous cruelty for forcing Ms Rudd to carry on regardless. The assumption that Ms Rudd has no agency of her own, that she couldn’t have made her own decision to appear, is the kind of sexist nonsense that would be rightly decried if levelled against anyone on the left. But Mrs May and Ms Rudd are Tories, so it’s fair game, it seems, to cast them respectively as a heartless witch and hapless victim.

**

Everyone’s getting polls-obsessed again, in spite of all their promises to kick the habit after 2015’s failure. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Here are some thoughts from a Cleggmania 2010 survivor…

My starting point is some (unoriginal) priors:

Campaigns matter at the margins, not n the fundamentals. Excitement is inverse to reality. Journalists/pundits always say “this time might be different”. Not yet, it hasn’t been.

Leadership and economic competence rule. If you’re behind on those, forget it. Labour still is.

“Look at the shares, not the gap”: the Tories are still in the mid-40%s and have a solid lock on the key 65+ age demographic.

Polling flux is a measure of propensity to vote far more than it is of switching between parties. The Tories were buoyant at the start of the campaign. Labour is now. The poll moves have reflected that.

All of which leads me to be highly sceptical of prediction models dependent on polls taken during campaigns.

What I want to see is a Nate Silver-esque model which imputes and weights a range of variables — including pre-campaign polls, ratings of who’d be best PM and is most trusted on the economy ratings, local election results, etc. — and then assigns probabilities to outcomes.

For what it’s worth, my guess is that we’ve gone from a 99% chance of a Tory majority in mid-April to to a 90% chance now. That means a hung parliament is possible; but highly unlikely. I would also estimate that the chances of a Tory landslide (100+ majority) has ticked down from say 85% to 60%. That is, I still think it more likely than not.

We’re still a long way from this kind of data journalism though. We know why: it’s a risk and expensive to do well. How do you monetise it? Lord Ashcroft is probably the only person with deep enough pockets and interest to do it (his Ashcroft Model is a step in the right direction).

Until then, the best we get is polls of polls, which aren’t much use when there’s such variance between polling companies, as they just split the difference. Oh, and endless articles with extensive caveats about potential errors which lead people to dismiss the utility of polling at all. I’d like to think we could do better than this.

**

I endorse The Economist’s (luewarm) endorsement of the Lib Dems at this election. It’s conclusion expresses perfectly my own feelings about this depressingly illiberal contest:

Backing the open, free-market centre is not just directed towards this election. We know that this year the Lib Dems are going nowhere. But the whirlwind unleashed by Brexit is unpredictable. Labour has been on the brink of breaking up since Mr Corbyn took over. If Mrs May polls badly or messes up Brexit, the Tories may split, too. Many moderate Conservative and Labour MPs could join a new liberal centre party—just as parts of the left and right have recently in France. So consider a vote for the Lib Dems as a down-payment for the future. Our hope is that they become one element of a party of the radical centre, essential for a thriving, prosperous Britain.

It’s a slim hope. But frankly that’s all the last few weeks has left me with.



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