Stephen Tall’s Diary: liberal jottings on the week’s big events

by Stephen Tall on November 20, 2015

This is my fifth weekly diary over at LibDemVoice today…

Labour pains

“Ten-word answers can kill you in political campaigns.” So said every liberal’s fantasy US president, Jed Bartlett – surely someone in Team Corbyn is a West Wing fan? Clearly not, or they might have advised the Labour leader not to think-out-loud in TV interviews this past week, especially when the thoughts which frothed forth were so, well, thoughtless. Of course it would have been “far better” if Mohammed Emwazi (“Jihadi John”) had been tried in a court of law. It’s just that the absence of an extradition treaty with Isis makes that a bit of a challenge (unless Jezza’s up for a bit of cheeky rendition). And of course no-one is “happy” with the idea of a shoot-to-kill policy being operated by the UK police or security services — but, then, that isn’t the actual policy.

What the last week has revealed is that Corbyn is incapable of moving beyond the glib agitprop sloganeering of hard-left oppositionalism. That’s probably not surprising after 32 years as a backbencher never having (or wanting) to take responsibility for a tough decision. But it remains disastrous for the Labour party, which needs a plausible prime minister as its leader, and disastrous for the country, which needs a plausible alternative government. I’ll confess a sliver of me is enjoying the schadenfreude of watching Labour self-immolate as a result of the self-indulgent stupidity of its membership in handing the leadership to someone painfully obviously unfit for the office. But the responsible part of me knows that, for all our sakes, Labour needs to get real again, and quickly.

Time for Tim

“Lib Dem Tim Farron’s first ‘big speech’ on Thurs. By default he’s becoming leader of the Opposition” – so said The Sun’s (yes, really) Steve Hawkes this week. It’s a mystery to me why Corbyn hasn’t tried to map out his policy agenda in any set-piece speeches yet, and has instead left a void which the Tory press has gleefully filled — has Labour learned nothing from Ed Miliband’s early failure to define himself as leader? But that’s not our problem, and Tim did a good job of setting out liberal economic principles: invest now in infrastructure, back enterprise, and take the long view. Now that’s how you do ten-word answers. There was little that was new, but that’s not a criticism — one of Tim’s strengths is talking up what the Lib Dems argued for in coalition in a way which puts the party at ease. As Edward Docx notes for The Guardian, “There were two oppositions in the last parliament. Now we don’t have any.”

Best line of Tim’s speech? Denouncing George Osborne’s dogmatic obsession with generating a surplus within the next five years: “… the fiscal charter is nothing to do with eliminating the deficit – it goes well beyond that. The fiscal charter is simply a trap for the Labour party. And you really don’t have to set Labour traps these days.”

We don’t need no education?

There was, however, one notable omission in Tim Farron’s speech. It’s one I’ve highlighted before and will continue to nag on about: what does the party have to say about education? For years, the Lib Dems defined ourselves as the party of learning. And yes, I know, “but tuition fees” blah-blah, etc. But, at some point — I’d say now — we need to get beyond torturing ourselves about that cock-up. For a start, the Lib Dems have a record worth defending: the under-appreciated Pupil Premium was one of the most progressive policies implemented in the last decade. Secondly, I’d be amazed if education didn’t shoot up the political agenda over the next five years. Schools are facing real-term funding cuts of eight per cent; we’re going to have to find ways to cope with an extra 630,000 pupils; and schools are struggling to recruit, following a 17% drop in teacher training entries over the past five years. Lib Dems should be ahead of the game in developing a programme to tackle these issues. There are no quick fixes or easy solutions — we will need to take the long view — but we won’t reach the liberal nirvana of opportunity for all, let alone create a growing economy, unless we put education at the heart of our policy development.

Beyond my Ken

It was odd watching Ken Livingstone’s lacklustre interview on Channel 4 News in which he tetchily and vainly (in every sense) defended his stigmatising jibes against Labour MP Kevan Jones, who’d accused him of lacking the experience to co-chair Labour’s Trident policy review. Here was a man who as Mayor of London in 2005 earned deserved plaudits for his astute and defiant response to the 7th July terrorist atrocities. Yet instead he waved the credentials of “my five years as GLC leader responsible for civil defence”. It was almost as if he was air-brushing from his own history his two terms operating as a pragmatic, reformist politician in favour of the impetuous, confrontational radicalism of his past. As I say, curious.

Lib Dem boat rocked

On Monday, the New Statesman got in touch to ask me to contribute a piece “on the special conference on Rennard that has just been triggered”. My heart sank a little. At the time it felt like the party was about to tear itself apart in public on an issue on which closure is impossible. I started writing it that evening, but couldn’t think how to end it. The only conclusion I could come to was that “no-one knows how this ends, except badly”. Thankfully, the following morning some common sense re-asserted itself: Chris Rennard resigned from the Federal Executive and the crisis was averted. The conclusion I did end up with in the published piece was little more optimistic, though: “Rennardites feel a man who’s never been found guilty of any wrongdoing has been shabbily treated by the party that’s been his life. The Rock the Boaters feel that Rennard is symbolic of an entitled bullying culture in politics that for too long has gone unchecked. Both sides are resolute – which means resolution is a distant hope.” I hope I can be proven wrong.

Zoo-time’s over

I didn’t shed a tear at the news this week that lad-mags FHM and Zoo are gone to join Nuts and Loaded on the top-shelf in the sky. On the occasions I read them (at the barbers, to be clear) I was faintly embarrassed to realise their staple of tits-and-bantz was targeted at blokes like me. Or, more accurately, blokes nothing like me. But then I find most gender-defined magazines pretty baffling. What is it about what I have in my pants which supposedly defines my preferences? My ideal read would, I guess, be a mix of The Economist, Radio Times, Private Eye, Heat, Four Four Two, History Today, the LRB, BBC Good Food, and Homes and Gardens. In short: a weekend newspaper.

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One comment

I note that the LibDem boat was not rocked by a suicide. Pieces in the Mail and by Guido refer.

by Frank Little on November 20, 2015 at 11:17 am. Reply #

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