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.

Election notebook #14: a personal U-turn; Paxo’s stuffing; Labour’s offer; more LibDem pre mortems

by Stephen Tall on May 30, 2017

Six weeks ago, when this joyless election was called, I thought it would be good for all the main parties.

The Conservatives’ inevitable landslide would cement Theresa May’s authority. Labour’s drubbing would enable sensible, moderate Labourites to oust Jeremy Corbyn. The Lib Dems would reap the electoral dividend of a Brexit backlash. And the SNP would continue to reign supreme in Scotland.

Thankfully, I did at least add a caveat: ‘elections have a funny habit of throwing up tricky unforseens’. Because, as it stands, all my expectations look set to be overturned.

The Conservatives will, of course, win; but Mrs May’s authority has been damaged, perhaps irrevocably, by her lacklustre campaign. Labour will, of course, lose bigly; but Mr Corbyn looks set to beat Ed Miliband’s share of the vote and so claim a mandate to carry on leading his party unwinnably from the populist hard-left.

Meanwhile the Lib Dem fightback has spluttered to a halt and the SNP, while likely to remain dominant north of the border, find themselves on the back-foot, defending their mediocre record in government and separatist obsession.

It looks like politics will continue as usual, but worse.

Commentators draw parallels with the 1983 election, but May/Corbyn, the latterday Thatcher/Foot, are pale imitations of the originals. This is the worst sequel ever.

**

I, along with 3 million others, watched the Sky News / Channel 4 leaders’ debate last night, with Mrs May and Mr Corbyn facing 15 minutes of questions from a studio audience and then an interrogation by Jeremy Paxman.

It was Paxo’s performance which had my Twitter timeline huffing. Yet I thought he did well, the first interviewer yet to genuinely discomfort either party leader.

To Jeremy Corbyn, he highlighted the gulf between the Labour leader’s own views and those of his party’s manifesto (which is basically a Miliband re-tread). And then, in probably the most memorable exchange of the night, he bluntly asked the Labour leader if he would order a drone strike against a terrorist plotting overseas to attack the UK. “I would want to know the circumstances,” Mr Corbyn equivocated. Well, yes, but if you’re running for Prime Minister I suggest “I’d do whatever was essential to protect the lives of our citizens” is a better response.

To Theresa May, Mr Paxman highlighted the gulf between the self-image she projects — strong and stable — and the reality of her premiership: U-turns at the first sign of serious dissent (most notably, increasing national insurance for the self-employed and the ‘dementia tax’). “What one’s bound to say is that if I was sitting in Brussels and I was looking at you as the person I had to negotiate with, I’d think: ‘She’s a blowhard who collapses at the first sign of gunfire’.” Harsh, but fair.

Yet many complained that he’d turned into a parody of himself, interrupting too often and theatrically, failing to probe effectively. I’ll be honest, Jeremy Paxman’s brusque interviewing style has long irritated me, especially as it is too often an excuse for a lack of serious homework.

Last night, though, I thought his schtick was pitched just right. After all, this May / Corbyn contest is pure pantomime.

**

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. Theresa May doesn’t deserve to win this election. And Jeremy Corbyn deserves to lose this election by the heaviest possible margin. That’s a difficult circle to square, but essentially I agree with one of my Lib Dem friends who wrote, ‘The only thing worse than a Conservative victory on 8th June would be a Labour victory.’

I don’t say that lightly, as a one-time Labour member. But Labour needs to be shocked out of its current condition. It’s being lulled by gently rising poll ratings into thinking that perhaps it’s heading in the right direction: one more heave, and all that. That way lies continuing, and deserved, defeat.

“What does Labour offer,” Ed Miliband once lamented to his colleagues, “when there’s no money to spend?” It turns out Mr Corbyn has an answer to that: it keeps on spending anyway. And, what’s worse, spending on the wrong priorities: bribes to the middle-classes (such as abolishing tuition fees) rather than reversing swingeing benefits cuts to the working poor.

As for his past support for the IRA, and deceitful attempts to re-write history — as if Mr Corbyn spent the 1980s even-handedly doing his best to promote a democratic peace settlement in Northern Ireland rather than (the truth) being a full-throated supporter of those who backed armed struggle and sought for as long as possible to thwart any kind of demilitarised reconciliation — well, so much for ‘straight-talking honest politics’.

I have friends, plenty of them, who’ve reconciled themselves to voting for Labour in spite of Jeremy Corbyn. Your choice, but (and I say this lovingly) you will get the Labour party you deserve.

**

In a depressing-but-essential article for Prospect magazine, Peter Kellner has put forward five reasons for the Lib Dems’ continuing poll woes. They are:

‘They misjudged their ability to win over anti-Brexit voters.’ So much for the 48%: just 7% of voters who backed Remain say Brexit is the most important issue at this election.

‘The rules for broadcasters used to help the Lib Dems; now they don’t.’ In the past, we benefited from exposure as the default third party. Today we share the limelight with the SNP, Ukip, the Greens and Plaid.

‘The rating of their leader, Tim Farron, doesn’t help.’ It’s not so much that he’s doing badly, but that half the voters haven’t even formed an opinion about him yet.

‘Farron’s failure is as much about the party’s identity as his own character.’ Compromised by five years of coalition, the Lib Dems have been outflanked as anti-establishment insurgents by Corbyn’s Labour party. Are we the party for Remain-voting Tories or for anti-Tory progressives? Unsure of the answer, we’re attracting neither.

‘Tactical voting is far less likely to help the Lib Dems next week than in the past.’ Unsurprisingly, as we’re not the runners-up in half the seats (as we were in 2010), but just 70 — and in many of those, especially in the south-west, the Conservatives have a sizable Ukip vote to squeeze.

Kellner’s conclusion: ‘the party will need to search its soul more profoundly after 8th June than it did after its collapse in 2015, if it is to reclaim a distinct and significant role in British politics in the 2020’s.’ So that’s something to look forward to…

Election notebook #13: Why is Labour doing better in the polls than I expected?

by Stephen Tall on May 27, 2017

No sooner had I clicked ‘publish’ on my last notebook, cavalierly asserting I couldn’t be bothered with the polls this election ‘because the gulf between the Tories and Labour this time means that it actually is pointless’, than along comes that YouGov shocker showing the gap cut to just 5%.

I’ll eat Paddy’s hat if that’s the result, but, still, the race does appear to be tightening. And that’s upended the expectations of many, me included, who reckoned Labour would drift further down in the polls as the voters neared decision time; and that faced between the stark choice of strong-and-stable Theresa May or pro-IRA, pro-the-cause-of-the-IRA Jeremy Corbyn, there could be only one outcome.

So why was I wrong? Well, to be fair to myself, I don’t think anyone would have predicted quite how poor the Conservative campaign has been. (By which I mean the so-called ‘air-war’, fought in the media, portraying your leader and your policies in the best possible light. It’s still quite possible that in the largely invisible ‘ground game’, fought door-to-door and increasingly by direct-mail and Facebook, the Tories are still utterly trouncing Labour.)

In her determination to win a mandate for controversial reforms (‘dementia tax’) and disown the Cameron brand (ending the ‘tax lock’), Theresa May appears to have completely forgotten to put in any genuinely popular policies that people will rally to. Unless she thought ‘bring back fox hunting’ was really what the denizens of Erdington were longing to hear.

Labour, by contrast, have had absolutely no compunction about promising loadsamoney in middle-class subsidies (abolishing tuition fees) and gesture politics (re-nationalisation), right, left and centre. Or, more accurately, left, further left, and hard-left. It’s easy to promise the earth when you know there’s no way in the world you’ll win. But — surprise, surprise — it turns out populism might be a bit popular.

The fact that Labour has found no money to reverse the genuinely swingeing and cruel benefits cuts the Conservatives have committed to in the next parliament, and that their manifesto is less re-distributive than the Lib Dems’, is something their supporters appear quite happy to overlook. After all, they don’t expect Jeremy Corbyn in Number 10, either, so this is guilt-free indulgence politics.

Credit where it’s due, though, Labour’s defiantly confident campaign has rallied its core support and prevented much switching to the Lib Dems — which I’d thought would happen to some extent, with hardened progressive Remainers using this last-chance vote to try and block Brexit.

But it turns out that what we always knew to be true is true: that the voters just aren’t that animated by Europe. They weren’t in 2013 when David Cameron promised that second referendum. And they’re not now Tim Farron is promising a third referendum. They’ve always thought there are bigger issues — the economy, public services — and they’re probably right.

**

There was another reason I assumed Labour would have a bad campaign: the hard-right press, aka the Mail, Sun, Telegraph, the three big mid-market, tabloid and broadsheet newspapers. Their support for Theresa May has been slavish, their denigration of Jeremy Corbyn absolute, over the past year; another few weeks of such publicity and she’d triumph, he’d be buried.

daily mailHowever, what this campaign has shown (no matter what the final result) is that there is a limit to the media’s impact. No matter that the Mail praised the prime minister to the skies for her ‘utterly candid and unashamedly moral’ move on the dementia tax, the policy tanked, forcing a humiliating U-turn which has badly damaged Mrs May’s reputation for matter-of-fact competence.

This isn’t to suggest the right-wing media isn’t hugely important. It is. Brexit is evidence of the impact decades of lies and half-truths can exert on the public mood. The newspapers do, to a large extent, create the climate. But they don’t (always) make the weather.

What happened with the dementia tax, just as with the poll tax, is that the public recoiled from a basic unfairness. With the poll tax, it was the “duke and the dustman” paying the same charge. With the dementia tax, it was the health lottery of which disease (immediate, short-term or long-term) might kill you.

Not even the right-wing press could spin that one. There’s a lesson there for the liberal-left in how to persuade voters, without throwing up our hands in despair that the newspapers rule all.

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.



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