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

by Stephen Tall on December 4, 2015

This is my latest weekly diary over at LibDemVoice today…

Honest doubt

I wrote on Syria last week that I was “mystified by those who’ve already made their minds up with cast-iron certainty on either side”. That’s still the case despite, and probably because of, the eruption of passions leading up to and beyond Wednesday’s vote. The UK is, after all, already involved in military action against Isis in Iraq. Sure, extending those airstrikes to Syria represents an intensification and, like any bombing campaign, requires serious consideration. But that is a question not of basic morality (if it were there should have been an equally strenuous efforts to cease attacks in Iraq) but of likely effectiveness.

And that, of course, is the known unknown of this week’s debate. None of us truthfully knows what will be the consequences of extending the campaign to Syria; just as we don’t know what might have happened if MPs had voted against action. There is no possibility of a controlled experiment which allows us to pose the counterfactual. All we are left with is our own opinion: which of the options facing us is most likely to result in fewest deaths? Ultimately, it’s as utilitarian a decision as that.

Which is why I get fed up with simplistic shroud-wavers shouting “blood on your hands” at those who support intervention. Innocent people are dying every day in this conflict, and further deaths are plotted daily by Isis, so delaying further this supposed “rush to war” will also directly lead to fresh casualties. See, we can all indulge this moral blackmail arms-race — but it gets us nowhere. Decisions like these are shades-of-grey. I respect opinions on both sides of the divide on Syria, but most especially those honest enough to recognise they may be wrong.

The worm’s turned

Moderate, reasoned, polite discourse: that’s my kind of politics. But it’s not everyone’s, I know, so hey, let a thousand flowers bloom (as John McDonnell would say). Anger can have its place in politics. To be clear, no MP should be subjected to personal abuse, let alone intimidation or threats of violence. But I don’t like the vogue for bracketing that unacceptable nonsense with “threats of deselection”, itself an entirely legitimate form of accountability. Personally, I think those Labour members apparently wanting to get rid of Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy because she voted for action in Syria are bonkers. But it’s their perfect right to be bonkers. And the Labour moderates have scant moral authority on this one. After all, for two decades they mobilised against left-wingers, sometimes in quite shoddy fashion: Tony Blair successfully fixed Labour’s mayoral selection to deny Ken Livingstone from running on his party’s ticket; while Neil Kinnock got Coventry’s Dave Nellist expelled from the party on the flimsiest pretext. Now the shoe is on the other foot it’s not surprising if it’s still got a taste for kicking.

Still time for Tim

Tim Farron has had some stick from a few Lib Dem activists over his Syria stance. It impressed me, though. Not just his speech, praised by the Guardian as one of the ten best and credited by Newsnight’s Allegra Stratton with persuading many Labour MPs to vote to extend airstrikes, though it was certainly heartfelt and passionate. But also his evident willingness to take a decision he knew would be controversial with some of his most ardent supporters because he believed on the basis of the evidence he had seen that it was the right thing to do. There are still too many people who I think underestimate Tim, who reckon (perhaps because of his relentless chirpiness) that he lacks that certain something which denotes a leader. He’s proven some of those doubters wrong this week, for which much kudos.

* I loved the question Tim Farron was recently asked by a primary school pupil: “Have you met the Queen?” “Yes,” answers Tim. “Does she smell?” came back the supplementary. Apparently, says Tim, the only possible answer to that is “Fragrant”. That snippet from last night’s Russell Howard’s Good News (BBC3), available on iPlayer here (starts about 15:45 mins in).

What have the immigrants ever done for us?

‘Osborne reliant on rising immigration levels to achieve budget surplus’ it was revealed this week. I say revealed, but it’s long been known. In 2012, the Office for Budget Responsibility noted that ‘… if net inward migration were cut to zero over the next five decades, the scale of the public austerity facing Britain would need to be three times larger, at £46bn.’ The Tories often parade as the free market party, yet there is no surer guarantee of getting a Tory conference to cheer than to commit to state-imposed controls of the labour market. The reality is that not only do incoming migrant workers plug gaps in our own labour market, benefiting British businesses and helping offset the negative impact of the UK’s ageing population, but migrant entrepreneurs also create thousands of jobs. In short, they put in to this country far, far more than they take out.

That may be the reality, but too few voters believe it. It’s one reason I’m attracted to the idea, first proposed by the think-tank British Future, that we create an ‘Immigration Fund’, hypothecating the financial gains from increased migration to directly manage some of the pressures communities and their services face as a consequence of new arrivals. It is necessary, but not sufficient, simply to defend immigration from the scare-mongering of Ukip and the Tories. We need also to show we have fresh ideas which can respond directly to voters’ concerns.


File this under ‘surprising, not surprising’. A survey for the National Audit Office, conducted earlier this year but published this week, shows just 37 per cent of parents have heard of the Pupil Premium, the Lib Dem policy which targeted extra money to the poorest pupils to help schools close the attainment gap. I mentioned on Twitter my disappointment that a policy I view as one of the most progressive government policies in the last decade doesn’t have greater awareness, and the general response was “We’re surprised it’s that high”. A fair point, it seems. My consolation is that the Pupil Premium — which this year will provide the average primary school with an extra £91,000 and secondaries with an additional £214,000 — has been safeguarded by education secretary Nicky Morgan for this parliament. Hopefully, over the next five years we’ll see it translate into better educational prospects for disadvantaged children and young people. And if parents notice why that’s happening, that’s a bonus.

Last word…

Kudos to Labour’s new MP for Oldham West, Jim McMahon, elected on an increased share of the vote. I’m not sure how much it tells us about Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, though. Especially in a week when I’ve discovered I am, after all, a Bennite.

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