Election notebook #9: Regressive Alliance; 2 policies I like (and 1 I don’t); & my letter to Mrs Thatcher

by Stephen Tall on May 10, 2017

What to make of the much-mooted ‘Progressive Alliance’, with some on the liberal-left urging their parties to gang up on the Conservatives? In 1997, anti-Tory tactical voting delivered a body blow to the Major government, halving its number of MPs overnight. Yet in both 1992 and 2015, the prospect of a Labour prime minister in a hung parliament spooked the electorate into holding onto nurse for fear of something worse. So which scenario might it be in 2017?

It’s no surprise it’s come up now. Last week’s local election results, with the dramatic collapse of Ukip whose vote was largely swallowed up by the Conservatives, means the right-wing is again united (more or less) under Theresa May. But the opposition is split. Worse, it’s split between three weak parties: Labour because of its disastrous leader; the Lib Dems because of its disastrous result last time; and the Greens because the disastrous decade of austerity has squeezed its political space.

The question is: could the sum of their parts help reduce the inevitable Tory landslide? I’m mostly sceptical, both on principle and in practice. The principle is an obvious one: it’s the voters who deserve a proper choice and it’s not up to parties to do deals to limit their choice. I know how cross I’d be if I lived somewhere the Lib Dems decided not to stand.

In practice, I’m not sure it’ll work. In 1997, there was a real desire among many voters to punish the Conservative party for its arrogant and incompetent fourth term in government. I don’t detect that mood now, or anything like it. There’s no guarantee at all that Lib Dem-inclined voters will automatically line up behind the anti-Tory just because the local party says they should. In 1983, contrary to Labour folklore, the SDP did not guarantee Margaret Thatcher’s victory; if the SDP hadn’t existed, a clear majority of its voters would have voted Tory while wearing a nose-peg, and Labour’s margin of defeat would have been greater than it was.

This perennial has sprung to life again because Sir Vince Cable was recorded saying he would likely vote for Labour’s Rupa Huq, a centre-left Remainer, in Ealing Central and Acton, where she is defending a wafer-thin 274 vote majority against a Conservative Brexiteer. In doing so, he committed the sin of being completely honest during an election campaign. What Vince said will now be used against Lib Dems up and down the country, with the Tories (and their client press) claiming this shows the Lib Dems will prop up Jeremy Corbyn — even though (1) Labour will be in no position to do deals, and (2) even if they were, Tim Farron has emphatically ruled out any kind of coalition (with Labour or the Tories). If you want to know why politicians often avoid answering questions directly, the way in which Vince’s words have been twisted is why.

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I get the occasional pang that I’ve never stood for parliament. But one of the advantages is that at least I don’t have to worry when I criticise my party. Its decision to protect pension ‘triple lock’ — that pensions must rise by each year by the inflation rate, average earnings or 2.5%, whichever is the highest — is quite wrong, as the IFS has previously set out.

Of course we should tackle pensioner poverty, but there are much more effective ways of doing so; and which can then free up resources to reduce the coming benefits cuts to working households. I suspect the Lib Dems are standing by it mainly because it’s one of the few Lib Dem achievements from the Coalition which still stands. It was bad policy then; it’s bad policy now.

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Right, having got that out of my system, here’s a couple of Lib Dem policy announcements I did like.

First, on schools funding, the pledge to protect per pupil funding in real terms is welcome and right. The Conservatives always use the line (they do for the NHS, too) that as a country we’re spending more than ever on education (and health). True enough: population growth and inflation make that pretty much inevitable. However, with pupil numbers rising sharply schools are going to find the next five years tough if the Conservatives stick to their plans of cash-only increases in per pupil funding (ie, no protection from inflation).

And secondly, on energy price caps — the breathtakingly populist U-turn by Theresa May to adopt the Labour policy they savaged when Ed Miliband proposed them four years ago — it was good to hear Sir Ed Davey maintain the Lib Dems’ opposition to random government intervention in the market: “It is never a good idea to copy the economic strategy of Ed Miliband. As the Conservatives pointed out at the time, this will damage investment in energy when it is needed more than ever”.

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Tim Farron has confessed to having had a poster of Margaret Thatcher on his bedroom wall as a kid (along with other assorted political icons). Though I was a youthful political nerd as well, I don’t think I can match that: it was all pretty much all Everton memorabilia.

However, I did write to Mrs Thatcher once, in 1985, when I was eight years old, urging her to drop the government’s injunction against former MI5 officer Peter Wright seeking to prevent publication in Australia of his service memoir Spycatcher. Well, what can I say — all the kids were doing it back then. I got an acknowledgement and Wright won his case. Post hoc ergo propter hoc, surely.