Me (and others) on the political year on Radio 4’s The Westminster Hour. (Also: a reflection on “cheer-leading” versus “critiquing” the Lib Dems as a sometime pundit)

by Stephen Tall on December 23, 2013

WESTMINSTER_HOURI popped along last night for Radio 4’s The Westminster Hour’s studio discussion on the political year. It’s the first time I’ve turned up at the BBC’s Millbank studios and been offered a glass of wine ahead of going live on air. I guess it was because it was Christmas – but that counts as case law precedent, right?

The programme was hosted by the lovely Carolyn Quinn, with The Spectator’s Isabel Hardman providing the independent commentary, and Harry Phibbs (ConservativeHome), Mark Ferguson (Labour List), and me offering semi-independent insight from our respective parties’ perspectives.

If you missed it last night, you can catch up on the discussion here. If you heard it last night, you can listen again, also here (though, really, unless you’re my mum I don’t know why you’d do that to yourself).

I say ‘semi-independent’… This is one I wrestle with a lot: to what extent should I ‘cheer-lead’ for the party, and to what extent should I be critical?

The obvious answer is you should ‘speak your mind’, ‘tell the truth as you see it’ etc etc. That’s always my aim. And in what I write I have the chance to put across the spectrum of my opinions – the 60-70% I agree with official Lib Dem policy and the 30-40% I don’t so much.

But inevitably you only get a limited amount of air-time. Last night’s discussion was a generous 25 minutes, but, shared between five of us, it amounts to no more than half a dozen 45-second bites. Should I use what little time I have to critique my own party on the areas I disagree, or focus on the two-thirds of party policy I do like?

There’s an extra pressure if you’re a Lib Dem. Because there are so few people in the media who give the party a fair hearing there’s an implicit sense that those of us who do get some ‘pundit time’ on TV or radio should make the most of it to redress the balance.

Fortunately, this wasn’t much of an issue last night. The topics I mostly got the chance to talk about – the party’s election prospects, differentiation from the Tories, tax-cuts for the low-paid, immigration – are ones where my views are in the Lib Dem mainstream.

The only one I went off-message on was to point out quite how fantastical the terms of debate on the economy are. In case I argued my point inadequately last night, here’s my summary… The Tories before the crash promised to match Labour’s spending plans – but now blame Labour for wrecking the economy. Labour after the crash promised cuts “worse than Thatcher” to repair the economy – but now blame the Coalition for implementing them. Meanwhile all parties are maintaining the fiction that only limited tax rises and/or limited spending cuts will be needed after 2015 to eliminate the deficit.

Anyway, you can listen to our discussion here: enjoy… And remember, it’s best accompanied by a glass of BBC licence fee-payer-funded wine. Go on, it’s Christmas.