Election notebook #1: TV debates, Farron’s liberalism, Labour woes, Ukip who?, Naked run 2.0

by Stephen Tall on April 19, 2017

TV debates… I guess it was inevitable Theresa May would try and un-invent them. After all, what’s in it for her? There’s no reward, only risk. Tim Farron would relish the spotlight, and as the Lib Dems are the only actual threat to Tory seats it’s only rational for her to avoid sharing the stage. Heck, even Jeremy Corbyn might out-shine her; he’s a lot more experience of hustings than she has. The truth is that while Theresa May is a serious politician with plenty of strengths, she’s actually not very good unscripted. Even semi-scripted occasions (aka PMQs) she struggles with. She looks and sounds nervy, uncertain, unconvincing. By contrast her one-on-one interviews are blandly innocuous, and her set-piece speeches usually pretty good. So she’ll stick to her trite-and-tested ways.

I’m not so sorry. It’s a shame for Mr Farron — he’d be darned good — but the TV debates are tedious, unenlightening theatre. Sure, they draw in millions of viewers, and maybe, perhaps, some of those might even be tempted to vote as a result. However, I won’t miss the media’s self-obsessed build-ups and post-match commentary. And, in particular, I’ll be glad to say good-bye to the “who was the winner?” insta-polls which dominates the coverage to the exclusion of any serious analysis of what was actually said.

Tim Farron… I didn’t see his Channel 4 News interview which got Twitter all in a lather last night, but the clips I saw suggest it was nothing new. Mr Farron was asked “Do you think gay sex is a sin?” and he replied he was a strong supporter of equal rights but wasn’t going to get into theological discussions. From which folk who should (and probably do) know better decided to infer he is an illiberal homophobe. This in spite of his voting record — strongly for same-sex marriage — and his many public statements pushing for LGBT+ rights. Anyway, I’m not going to rake over it all again, especially as Jennie Rigg has already said it here, rather brilliantly.

The reaction was interesting. Folk who I guess would call themselves liberals lambasted Tim Farron not for the way he’d voted when the issue was before parliament, but for not necessarily holding the same set of beliefs as they do. (Ironically I’m sure they also would have been among the first to take umbrage at the Daily Mail’s OTT front page – Crush the Saboteurs – with its proto-fascist demand that parliament should fall in line behind Theresa May on Brexit.) Tim Stanley, a leader writer for the Telegraph with whom I don’t ordinarily agree, put it best: ‘There’s Liberalism as a philosophy & liberalism as cultural identity. Farron eloquently represents the first; his critics embody the latter.’ Quite. In fact, I’d argue that voting against your personal beliefs in order to give others the right to live their lives as they choose (rather than as you would choose) is about the biggest statement of liberalism you can make.

The Labour train wreck… It’s pitiful, really, what’s happened to this party. In 2015, I assumed Labour members would see sense and elect Yvette Cooper, the candidate her opponents least wanted (and her spiky performance at PMQs today showed why). Instead, they indulged themselves, and in doing so helped hand victory to the Brexiteers and the next 15 years in government to the Tories. Now they face a snap election and reality is, belatedly, dawning. I don’t feel sorry for the Corbynites, whether soft or hard left: they voted for this crushing inevitability. I do feel sorry for (what’s left of) the moderate, sane progressives, caught between wanting the defeat to be just bad enough Jeremy Corbyn has no choice but to go, but not so bad the next leader (Yvette Cooper?) is doomed from the start.

Whatever happened to Ukip…? It’s early says, I realise, but at the moment they’re the mad dogs not barking. Unless you count Arron Banks, who is.

Good news… It’s good to see Nick Boles given the cancer all-clear and able to stand again for parliament. And a last (?) hurrah for Ken Clarke, too. Great that Jo Swinson is standing again in what is the Lib Dems’ top target seat in Scotland. And, while I did everything I could for a decade to unseat him in Oxford East — and despite his pivotal role in getting Mr Corbyn on the Labour leadership ballot paper — my best wishes to Andrew Smith for his retirement. After very narrowly holding on in 2005, he turned the constituency into a Labour fortress with the highest canvassing rate in the country. Which, I hope he appreciates the irony, is one of the best illustrations of the transformative power of market competitiveness.

And finally… Sorry, but I couldn’t resist: