Liberal Hero of the Week #85: Ruth Davidson

by Stephen Tall on January 25, 2015

cf hero - ruth davidson

Ruth Davidson

Leader of the Scottish Conservatives
Reason: for sticking up for human rights

Raif Badawi, last week’s Liberal Hero, is too ill from the first 50 lashes he was subjected to by the Saudi authorities to have faced the second 50 or the third 50 that should by now have been inflicted on him. Had he recovered from his injuries he would still have 850 lashes to endure, in addition to his 10-year jail sentence for setting up the Free Saudi Liberals website.

This week saw the death of the ruler of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah. It also saw fulsome tributes paid to the King from leaders around the world. A “deeply saddened” David Cameron paid tribute to his “commitment to peace and for strengthening understanding between faiths”. Flags were lowered to half-mast at the houses of parliament and at Westminster Abbey: “a church honouring the leader of a country where conversion to Christianity is a capital offence,” as The Spectator acerbically observed. (Though, I merely note, that’s the kind of thing that happens in a church established by the state.)

It would be unfair to pin all the blame for Saudi Arabia’s continuing medieval theocracy on King Abdullah. As The Economist noted: ‘By Saudi standards, Abdullah was a moderniser, appointing the first female government minister and in 2013 appointing 30 women to the Shura Council. These moves drew protests from the puritanical Wahhabi clerics and parts of the devout population, as well as reformers who point out that women are still unable to drive or fraternise with men who are not relatives. Free speech is curbed. A number of Saudis are pushing for religion to have less of a grip on the public sphere, the results of which are strict laws on blasphemy and a ban on cinemas.’

Yet the rush to eulogise jarred, jarred badly. The death of a head of state is not the moment to grand-stand about human rights failings, but nor can they be ignored in favour of bland encomia. Pretty much alone among senior politicians, Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson stuck her head above the parapet:

Too right, which is why she’s this week’s Liberal Hero. That is all.

* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Research Associate at CentreForum. It showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.

My must-reads this week January 23, 2015

by Stephen Tall on January 23, 2015

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

10 years of blogging: happy birthday to me

by Stephen Tall on January 22, 2015

Processed by: Helicon Filter;  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
It completely slipped my mind on the actual anniversary a fortnight ago, but anyway… January 7th, 2005 was when my first ever blog-post appeared. A further 5,647 posts later I’m still here.

That first month, I covered such weighty topics as the Blair/Brown feud, Jerry Springer: The Opera, the ban on smoking in public places (still, thanks to Google search, one of my most-read posts), legalising prostitution, tuition fees, the Great British drinking problem, and Prince Harry’s fancy dress Nazi uniform.

Not sure if I’ll still be scribbling away online in 2025, but I kinda hope so. Anyway, if you have been, thanks for reading.

Rule out a coalition? Labour would be mad to do so

by Stephen Tall on January 22, 2015

Higher Education Bill vote in the House of Commons

I’m sure there are lots of posts I’ve written in the 10 years I’ve been blogging that have dated badly. But none so badly as this one published on LibDemVoice in March 2010: ‘5 reasons Nick Clegg should rule out a coalition now’.

I was reminded of it by this week’s post on LabourList by Luke Akehurst, ‘Labour should rule out forming a coalition with any other party’.

Like me five years ago, Luke sets out a number of persuasive reasons why his party should do just that. Like me five years ago, he’s being myopically silly. The reality is the parties will have to play with the hand dealt them by the electorate as best they can.

Let’s imagine a by-no-means-impossible scenario… The Tories beat Labour in the popular vote by a whisker, let’s say 34% to 33%. But Ed Miliband wins the ground-game, ending up with 280 seats to the Tories’ 270 and becomes Prime Minister. He’s a long way off the 326 he needs for a Commons majority of one, but he’s able to form a minority government by cutting a ‘confidence and supply’ deal with the Lib Dems and SNP.

So far, so good. Then what?

Well, then Ed Miliband faces the reality of the Fixed-Term Parliament Act, which has stripped him of the power to call an election when it suits him. Instead, general elections are held every five years, unless two-thirds of all MPs vote for one, or unless his minority Labour government loses a vote of confidence and there is no further successful vote within 14 days.

This leaves a minority government in a weak position, the opposition parties in a much stronger one. Ed Miliband will have to continue dealing with the other parties to get his parliamentary business through, while at the same time hoping he can keep all his backbenchers united. Tough enough at any time, let alone with more austerity cuts still to come.

Chances are, Labour (any minority government in these circumstances) would stumble from one disaster to another; harried by their opponents exploiting every split, championing every populist cause they know will cause Labour maximum grief. Think John Major’s 1992-97 government, but in a Twitter-exposed age, limping forlornly to a crushing defeat.

Of course, the option is open to Ed Miliband to try and ‘cut and run’ at any time. He can deliberately no-con his own government in the hope of triggering an election (if he really thinks he can improve his position). But then the Tories — who would be united behind a new Better-Off-Out Eurosceptic leader and outraged that Labour should have formed a government despite winning fewer votes — would have the chance to form their own minority government. How tempting might it be for Theresa or Boris to do just that, if only for a few months to earn the credibility of occupying Number 10?

It’s not impossible to make minority government work. After all, Alex Salmond managed it in Scotland from 2007-11. But he benefited from a split and demoralised opposition and being able to point the finger of blame at a parliament 380 miles to the south. The question for Labour supporters is this: do you think Ed Miliband is as ruthlessly skilled at exploiting a political situation to his own advantage as the former First Minister?

If your answer is no, you really shouldn’t rule out any option (even coalition with the – spit! – Lib Dems). Not now. Not unless you want to live to regret it if the voters leave you holding the minority end of the stick in 105 days’ time.

Forget about the Greens, it’s still the economy which should worry Labour most

by Stephen Tall on January 21, 2015

Over at this morning’s edition of The Times’s Red Box email, Philip Webster says, “I’m still looking for the “killer question” that tells us who the nation wants to form the next government”. I think the one reported today is pretty close to being it — and it should worry Labour:

yougov labour econ

Overall, voters are pretty pessimistic they’ll be better off under either party. However, the net figure (‘better off’ minus ‘worse off’) for the Tories, -22%, is less unhealthy than Labour’s -29%.

The sense that Labour has failed to make up its own deficit — polls consistently show Miliband and Balls trail Cameron and Osborne on economic competence — was re-inforced by today’s Prime Minister’s Questions. As the New Statesman’s Labour-sympathising George Eaton noted in his PMQs review, ‘An easy win for Cameron leaves Labour with reasons to be gloomy’:

[Ed Miliband] then turned to the economy, deploying Labour’s stat of choice: that for the first time since the 1920s, living standards will be lower at the end of the parliament than they were at the start. But while this remains a potent charge, Cameron is now at least able to say that things are moving in the right direction. Inflation of just 0.5 per cent means that real wages rose by 1.3 per cent in the year to November. To most voters, it won’t feel as if the “cost-of-living crisis” is over (as Cameron wrongly claimed) but the improved figures will make these encounters far easier for the PM.

Most of the polling attention at the moment is focused on the current Green insurgency — the latest Guardian/ICM poll has them at a 20-year high of 11% — which is nibbling away at Labour’s overall rating.

Chances are, this Greenmania won’t last the closer we draw to May’s actual decision day. Labour’s real problem has been their inability to win back voter trust on the economy. This, to be fair to Ed Miliband, was always going to be a tough ask given the worst recession in living memory happened on Labour’s watch.

But Miliband does have to take responsibility for his failure to heed the warnings of friendly critics like In the Black Labour (and, yes, even not-so-friendly critics like Dan Hodges) that the party had to show voters it could govern effectively at a time when government borrowing has to be cut. And he does have to take responsibility for gifting the Tories that memory-fail in his last pre-election conference speech, forgetting to mention the deficit at all.

It’s the economy, stupid, always the economy. Which is why I’ve predicted the Tories will win more votes and seats than Labour.

30,000 reasons why Mike Hancock may not yet have made up his mind about re-standing as an MP

by Stephen Tall on January 21, 2015

A tweet from BBC reporter Giles Dilnot caught my eye yesterday:

Mike Hancock was (re-)elected as Lib Dem MP for Portsmouth South in 2010. He was (eventually) suspended from the party last year, and has since admitted to “inappropriate and unprofessional friendship” with a constituent. He stood as an independent in last May’s local elections and was heavily defeated.

Time to call it a day, then? Not necessarily, according to the Portsmouth News:

Portsmouth South MP Mike Hancock has said he remains undecided on whether he will stand in May’s General Election. As the 100-day countdown to the election approaches, the 68-year-old told The News he had not made a decision on whether to stand for the constituency as an independent. He revealed last September to The News that he was still making up his mind on whether to contest the seat he has held since 1997. Four months on he is still not sure of his plan. He told The News: ‘I have not made up my mind.’ Mr Hancock said he would be making his announcement ‘in the near future’, but would not comment on the factors that will clinch the decision for him.

One factor might be the Parliamentary Resettlement Grant. This used to be available to MPs when they retired or were defeated to help them transition from SW1 to civvy street. However, for this Parliament it’s available only to defeated MPs.

This means that, if Mike Hancock were to stand and lose, he could claim one month’s salary for every year he’s worked up to a maximum of six months, or almost £33,000 — the first £30,000 of which are tax-free. If he retires gracefully, though, he gets nothing. Draw your own conclusions…

LibDemVoice Fantasy Football League: how it stands after Week 21

by Stephen Tall on January 17, 2015

There’s no change at the top: congratulations to George Murray and his Marauding Fullbacks, who continue to lead the LibDemVoice Fantasy Football League after Week 21, with an impressive 1,233 points.

But let’s also hear it for three players outside the top 10: Kye Dorricott (Chip Bang Utd) and Andrew Tennant (Secret Ginger XI) had the best week’s performances, amassing 93 points. An honourable mention, too, to a certain Adrian Sanders (TheOnlyWayIsUp), just behind with 92 points.


There are 158 players in total and you can still join the league by clicking here.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

Liberal Hero of the Week #84: Raif Badawi

by Stephen Tall on January 16, 2015


Raif Badawi

Saudi Arabian writer who created the Free Saudi Liberals website
Reason: for standing up for free speech against an autocratic regime

A lot of people have spoken up for free speech in the days since the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris. It’s easy for us. The worst most of us can expect if folk disagree is a bit of flak on Twitter.

Not so in Saudi Arabia. Not so for Raif Badawi, who called for free speech on his website and as a result was sentenced to 1,000 lashes: 50 lashes every Friday for five months. Amnesty International describes his case:

Raif’s sentence stems from his creation of the website ‘Saudi Arabian Liberials’, which he envisaged as a forum for political and social debate. He was subsequently charged for content he had posted to the site, including an article published on Valentine’s Day 2012 in which he was accused of ridiculing Saudi Arabia’s religious police, the Commission on the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice – as well as failing to remove ‘offensive’ posts by other contributors.

Raif was arrested in June 2012. In May 2014 he was found guilty of breaking Saudi Arabia’s strict technology laws and insulting Islamic religious figures by creating and managing an online forum. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, 1,000 lashes, a fine of 1 million Saudi Riyal (over a quarter of a million US dollars), and prevented from using any kind of media or travelling until 2034. Raif simply championed free speech.

The Guardian has published excerpts of Raif’s writings. Here’s what he said in May 2012 about the nature of liberalism.

For me, liberalism simply means, live and let live. This is a splendid slogan. However, the nature of liberalism – particularly the Saudi version – needs to be clarified. It is even more important to sketch the features and parameters of liberalism, to which the other faction, controlling and claiming exclusive monopoly of the truth, is so hostile that they are driven to discredit it without discussion or fully understanding what the word actually means. They have succeeded in planting hostility to liberalism in the minds of the public and turning people against it, lest the carpet be pulled out from under their feet. But their hold over people’s minds and society shall vanish like dust carried off in the wind.

Often I use the term ‘Hero’ in this column metaphorically. Not this time.

You can support Amnesty International’s petition calling on Saudi Arabia to

Stop flogging Raif Badawi
Release Raif immediately: he is a prisoner of conscience, detained solely for exercising his right to free speech
Overturn Raif’s conviction and drop all sentences against him.

by adding your name here.

* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Research Associate at CentreForum. It showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.

My must-reads this week January 16, 2015

by Stephen Tall on January 16, 2015

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

Showing my working… How I arrived at my May 2015 general election predictions

by Stephen Tall on January 16, 2015

I offered up my predictions for the next election in my ConservativeHome column this week. I thought I’d explain here how I arrived at my guesswork that this is what we’ll wake up to on 8th May:

Conservatives: 35% (291 MPs)
Labour: 32% (283 MPs)
Lib Dems: 12% (32 MPs)
Ukip: 11% (3 MPs)
Others: 9% (41 MPs, including 22 SNP MPs)

First, I’ll explain the poll-shares…

The Conservatives are currently averaging 33% in the polls (UK Polling Report). It is highly likely that will increase by 7th May. In the last national election, May 2014’s Euros, most of the polls under-stated the Tory vote (and over-stated Ukip’s) and I think we may see something similar this time. However, I find it hard to imagine the Tories exceeding the 36% they achieved in 2010. So 35% it is.

Labour is currently averaging 34% in the polls. However, there is a well-documented tendency for oppositions to lose votes in the year leading up to an election — the average loss of support is 6%. Labour was polling c.37% in spring 2014. Ordinarily, then, I’d be predicting Labour would fall towards 30%, or perhaps even lower, especially as some of the anti-Tory tactical vote drifts back to the Lib Dems in their battleground seats. However, I think Labour will be protected by some unwinding of the Ukip and Green votes back to Labour as decision-day nears. So I’m reckoning it’ll net out at about 32%.

The Lib Dems are currently averaging 8% in the polls — so how do I justify my estimate they’ll climb up to 12%? Here I’m placing my faith in ICM, historically the most reliable pollster around. Its methodology of re-allocating some voters who say they don’t know this time according to who they say they voted for last time means its polls are part-snapshot, part-forecast. They tend to be kindest to the Lib Dems — over the past year, the party has averaged 12% with ICM. What has happened in previous elections is that pollsters begin to converge as polling day draws near. Lib Dem voters who are least likely to say they are certain to vote for the party make up their minds later; and my party is more likely to benefit from tactical votes in key seats. Of course, no-one knows if what’s held true in previous elections will also hold true this May, but I’m guessing it will. So 12% it is.

Ukip is also hard to call. However, as Lib Dems know to our cost, third party surges often fade by the time voters reach the ballot box. Perhaps it’s the electorate’s caution at not wanting to ‘waste’ their vote. Perhaps the voters enjoy the flirtation but recoil from the consummation. Perhaps it’s the failure of the smaller parties’ organisational capacities. Whatever it is, I find it hard to believe Ukip will sustain ratings in the high-teens, and that some Tory (and Labour) defectors will re-rat when it comes to the crunch. So Ukip will have to settle for 11% (getting on for triple their 2010 performance).

Secondly, what does all this mean for bums on seats in the Commons? Well, despite the exactness of my prediction I’m not at all sure. I haven’t attempted a seat-by-seat analysis. But I think the following…

In the Tory/Labour battle:

If the Tories poll 3% ahead of Labour it’s very unlikely they won’t end up as the largest party, even allowing for the anti-Tory tilt in the current electoral boundaries. However, the Ashcroft polling indicates Labour is still doing well in the key marginals, and I think Labour’s ground-game is probably superior. Overall I’m not expecting a great shift in seats from Tory to Labour; after all, I’m predicting only a small national Tory to Labour swing of 2% compared to 2010.

Lib Dems:

For all the talk of Lib Dem incumbency, I’m not actually predicting there will be very much of it: the almost-halving of my party’s national rating since 2010 is likely to see an almost-halving of the party’s number of MPs. Yes, we’ll hold on to many seats we ‘ought’ to lose according to uniform national swing; but I suspect we’re in for a grim night in three categories of seats: Scotland, where Labour is in second place, and where the incumbent MP is retiring.


Ukip will win a lot of second places, but not even a handful of MPs — the party has been unable to curb its polarising toxicity, which will make it hard to break the 30-35% threshold needed to win, especially in a general election where turn-out is higher than at by-elections. It’s possible Nigel’s ‘People’s Army’ will snatch more seats than I think by sneaking through the middle in three-way contests. But I think their best chances will come in those (few) seats where they’re standing a well-known, well-organised and long-standing local campaigner.


One place I found very hard even to guess at the results is Scotland. It’s not just that I don’t know it’s electoral politics well; it’s also that the SNP’s performance is genuinely impossible to gauge at this stage. The handful of Westminster voting intentions polls we’ve seen indicate Labour to SNP swings in excess of 20%, enough to produce a nationalist landslide. I don’t think it will be quite that dramatic for the reasons set out on the blog here. However, a combination of an insurgent and battle-hungry SNP, voters’ ‘buyers’ remorse’ from the referendum rejection of independence, and the smaller sizes of Scottish constituencies mean that a big upset is possible. I’ve guessed at the SNP securing 22 of the available 59 seats, which would mean they would still trail Labour quite significantly, but, frankly, who knows?

There you have it, then. The thinking behind my predictions. How does it hold up?

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