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

by Stephen Tall on November 27, 2015

This is my latest weekly diary over at LibDemVoice today…

Spending Revue Reviewed

‘You make your own luck,’ goes the saying. In which case, and only in this respect, George Osborne truly has started a “march of the makers” because he’s one hell of a lucky Chancellor. Had the independent Office for Budget Responsibility not lavished on him a £27 billion fiscal (and notional) windfall, this week’s Autumn Statement would have been far more wintry. As it was, he was able to play out the role of Santa, albeit a very Tory version: snatching away fewer of the kids’ presents in order to re-gift them to their grandparents. For this was a spending review which confirmed this Government stands shoulder-to-shoulder with pensioners (who vote, in droves) while shrugging its shoulders at the plight of the younger, working poor (who often don’t vote, and if they do probably vote Labour anyway).

Yes, the tax credit cuts were jettisoned for now — take a bow all those who’ve campaigned against them because it took concerted action to persuade the House of Lords and a few Tory MPs with a social conscience to stand up to this government — but, really, they’ve just been deferred. Once universal credit has been implemented (assuming that Godot-like day ever arises) the Resolution Foundation calculates eligible working families with children will be £1,300 a year worse off (even taking into account the so-called ‘national living wage’ and planned increases in the tax-threshold). Which might sound bad, but that average actually conceals far worse news for some. For instance, a single mum working part-time on the minimum wage will receive £2,800 a year less by 2020 under the Tories’ plans, while a working couple on the minimum wage with three kids will lose out to the tune of £3,060. Meanwhile the pensions ‘triple lock’ (of which Lib Dems have often boasted) will guarantee that pensioner benefits grow to more than half of all welfare spending.

Gone are the days when the Lib Dems could require a distributional analysis to ensure the pain of cuts was shared around to ensure that, as far as possible, Britain was all in it together. It’s George’s Show now. It’s just a shame some of his luck won’t rub off on those “hard-working families” he’s soon going to clobber.

Rational actors

There was much talk before the election of a thing called ‘the candour deficit’, the unwillingness of politicians, especially (though not only) the Conservatives, to level with the voters about what their policies would mean for their living standards. “We may, we may not, decide that it’s relevant to put something out there about some of those changes,” said Iain Duncan Smith in March, airily dismissing the notion that those who’d lose out from the Tories’ planned £12 billion cuts to social security should understand this before they voted. I suspect one of the lessons politicians will draw from the OBR’s major revisions will be further to entrench this candour deficit. After all, why risk antagonising a whole load of voters weeks before they cast their ballot by spelling out the consequences of cuts you think might be necessary if it’s quite possible a later change to economic modelling will give you all the wiggle room you need? The rational politician will put off making their final decision until the last possible moment in the hope that something might just turn up. It’s worked for George. This time.

Magic Mao-ments

Enough incredulous bafflement has already been expressed at Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s excruciating decision to stand at the despatch box in his spending review response and shout “Let’s quote Mao” before flinging his own copy of the Little Red Book at Osborne. Some things cannot be un-seen and some tracts cannot be retracted. It doesn’t, of course, make McDonnell a Chinese Communist; but it does make him a fool. (What is it with the Bennite Left? They’ve had more than three decades to prepare for this moment and now they look like they’ll be un-done through their utter incompetence rather than their ideological idiocy.) The figures you pray in aid in such situations should be those your opponent will find embarrassing, not you. Thus McDonnell could have laid into the Tories’ decision to give millionaires an inheritance tax cut by invoking free market hero Adam Smith, a powerful opponent of the inequality of inherited wealth: “A power to dispose of estates for ever is manifestly absurd. The earth and the fulness of it belongs to every generation, and the preceding one can have no right to bind it up from posterity. Such extension of property is quite unnatural.”

But Syria-ously

Should the UK join the bombing raids on Syria to counter the threat from Isis? It’s a dilemma I’m still wrestling with (and am mystified by those who’ve already made their minds up with cast-iron certainty on either side). No perfect outcome currently appears possible either way: both action and inaction will result in death and destruction to many innocent people. The principled, moral case for intervention is clear to me: as per last week’s UN resolution we should be “determined to combat by all means this unprecedented threat to international peace and security”. What’s a lot less clear, even after David Cameron’s Commons’ statement yesterday, is what will happen after the bombing (hopefully) weakens Isis’s grip on its Raqqa stronghold. While it’s hard to believe things can get much worse for the region than they already are, no-one can be sure. Yet I also know it’s wholly unrealistic to expect a perfect exit strategy that pretends everything will be happy ever after. Bismarck said politics is the art of the possible. Put another way, it’s about choosing between the least worst reality.

Damned lies, and “1 in 5” statistics

Much controversy this week, after The Sun splashed with the misleading headline ‘1 in 5 Brit Muslims’ sympathy for jihadis’, prompting the pollster they paid, Survation, to disown the tabloid’s distortion. Another ‘1 in 5’ poll result caught my eye this week – that’s the proportion of Lib Dems who trust Jeremy Corbyn to make the right decisions in regard of Syria and Isis. Which is better than he scores among Labour MPs.


‘It may just be, with all that happened, that we were simply fucked anyway’ was the rather brilliant last line of Nick Harvey’s verdict in Liberator on the Lib Dems’ election catastrophe. However, the rest of his article strains to identify “a better strategy” which could have saved the day. For example, Nick suggests the party should have tried “to scare the nation witless about what a majority Tory Government would be like” — nice idea, but with not a single poll suggesting that was a remote possibility, we’d have got short shrift. And I couldn’t help but remember Nick’s interview with the Huffington Post two years ago when he declared with near-certainty, “Labour is on course to win the next election.” He also added he was confident the party’s 56 MPs “will survive largely intact”.

As you know, not all my election predictions worked out well, either. But I’m going to claim a little credit for this one: ‘So how’s my scenario 3 – a Tory lead of 6% by May 2015 – working out then?’ Especially as, dear reader, many of you were pretty scornful when I first suggested it.

And finally…

“No one can do a sex scandal like Tories can,” claims David Aaronovitch, prompted by the revelations surrounding top Tory Mark Clarke. How soon we Lib Dems are forgotten.

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One comment

The use of Smith rather than Mao for McDonnell to make his point would indeed have been more intelligent politics. I would certainly like to see McDonnell throw Lectures on Jurisprudence round the House, though as it’s much heaver and thicker than the Little Red Book there is some risk of mild injury. However, let us not assume that the passage Stephen quotes suits the arguments of Corbyn and McDonnell. It is on page 468 of the only edition available as far as I know, Oxford University Press edition reprinted by the Liberty Fund. Smith is specifically addressing the issue of entail, that is laws that oblige the aristocracy to leave its landed property to one (usually male) heir. It is not about the rate of taxation on inheritance. You could make a Piketty style argument that high tax rates on inherited wealth is necessary to prevent a new form of hereditary aristocracy/oligarchy, but that was not Smith’s argument. It is a whole new argument requiring supporting evidence and argument separate from Smith’s position on entailment. (Also posted at Liberal Democrat Voice)

by Barry Stocker on November 28, 2015 at 3:14 pm. Reply #

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