The Lib Dems’ ‘bedroom tax’ U-turn: new poll on what the voters think about it

by Stephen Tall on July 20, 2014

The Lib Dems announced a few days ago the party’s 2015 manifesto would propose reform of the ‘bedroom tax’ / ‘spare room subsidy’, which would means no tenant would have any of their housing benefit withdrawn unless they had turned down an offer of a smaller property.

It was a long overdue climbdown – as I wrote in April 2013: “The principle of the ‘bedroom tax’, then — to try and maximise the availability of social housing and reduce the chronic waiting lists — is a reasonable one. Where the policy clearly breaks down is on a human and practical level. Though the Coalition has responded to concerns raised by introducing exemptions for foster carers, military families and so on, it will not have covered every eventuality. The harsh reality is some people, some of the most vulnerable in society including the disabled, will be made poorer.”

Some political commentators have said, regardless of the policy’s rights or wrong, Clegg has made a mistake. His issue with the public is trust, and therefore to renege on a policy he’s previously supported will simply compound that impression. It’s a risk, certainly, though I take the more old-fashioned view that it’s better to take the decisions you believe to be right than stubbornly stick by decisions you think, in retrospect, are a mistake.

I was interested to see YouGov’s polling on the ‘bedroom tax’, released today (hat-tip Mike Smithson), as they’ve asked the two key questions. First, how many support it. An secondly, what do voters think of the Lib Dems’ partial U-turn? Here are the results:

bedroom tax yougov july 2014

As can be seen, the ‘bedroom tax’ is divisive (and has always been so), though a narrow but clear plurality oppose it. Conservative and Lib Dem voters support it, Labour and Ukip voters oppose it – reflecting the likelihood that Labour and Ukip voters are more likely to be affected by it.

What did surprise me was that Clegg’s semi-U-turn gets a reasonable hearing from voters. True, by 44% to 38% the public reckons it reflects badly rather than well on him – but that’s a lot more evenly poised than I would expect given voters’ disillusion with politicians generally, and Clegg’s own negative ratings. Some 76% of Lib Dem voters, 42% of Labour voters and 34% of Ukip voters reckon it “Reflects well on Nick Clegg – it’s right to change your mind about a policy if it turns out not to be working”. The voters most likely to think him hypocritical are… Tories.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

My pick of 15 top books to read this summer

by Stephen Tall on July 20, 2014

reading summer - photo by hans van der bergThe newspapers are awash with summer best-reads at the moment, as well-known writers pick the books to relax with by the pool. You know the kind of thing: “It’s at this time of year I typically embark on re-reading Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, translating it into Russian (which I’m learning to relax as I prepare for my Grade 8 piano exam) from our rustic cottage in Tuscany.” Or, alternatively: “Here’s a book written by my mate.”

Always eager to copy a trite-and-tested and formula, here’s my list. Some I’ve read; others I’m looking forward to; a couple I doubt I’ll even start. But in a parallel universe, they’re all ones I would make the time to read.

Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain by Robert Ford and Matthew J. Goodwin
How do you explain the Ukip surge? Ford and Goodwin’s book is a must-read for those wanting to understand what has driven this party from the fringes a decade ago to topping a national election this May. Here’s Mark Pack’s review for LDV and my take on it all here.

The Geek Manifesto: Why science matters by Mark Henderson
How do you improve public services like health, education and clean energy? Start with the experimental methods of science (never forgetting to apply your own values – liberal hopefully). Published in 2012, this book is still just as timely.

The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge
Two of the Economist’s senior editors look at the current crisis gripping Western powers – voter disaffection – and argue that we need to look to the emerging economies and embrace their can-do activist reforms if we want liberal democracy to prosper. This may all sound a bit Jeremy Browne for some tastes but Micklethwaite and Wooldridge are always worth reading whether you agree or not.

An Unexpected MP: Confessions of a Political Gossip by Jerry Hayes
If the above all sound a bit hard-going, enjoy dipping into this frothy memoir by one of those things becoming an increasing rarity: a liberal Tory MP with a social conscience. It reads like an after-dinner speech and its anecdotes sound somewhat embellished. But it’s fun stuff.

Power Trip: A Decade of Policy, Plots and Spin by Damian McBride
A fascinating insider’s account of the court of Gordon Brown as Chancellor and then PM. It’s an wholly partial viewpoint – there’s no attempt here to give a rounded picture – from the civil servant turned spin-doctor who was forced to quit in 2009. He says he still loves Gordon, though the Brown who comes across here is comically awkward.

Broke: How to Survive the Middle-Class Crisis by David Boyle
One of our most original current liberal thinkers, Boyle examines how middle-class life has been eroded over the decades such that “today’s middle classes will struggle to enjoy the same privileges of security and comfort that their grandparents did”.

The Blunders of Our Governments by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe
Why do governments of all hues make such big mistakes? It’s a basic question explored here with examples ranging from the Poll Tax to the Child Support Agency to the Millennium Dome to the NHS’s failed IT system. Winner of this year’s Practical Politics Book of the Year.

The Undercover Economist Strikes Back: How to Run or Ruin an Economy by Tim Harford
A quite brilliant economics primer, as entertaining as it is accessible – all done in the style of his essential Financial Times Q&As exploring the knottiest of issues fairly and concisely.

The Snowden Operation: Inside the West’s Greatest Intelligence Disaster (Kindle Single) by Edward Lucas
A controversial but highly persuasive account: ‘Drawing on 30 years’ experience observing the world of intelligence, Lucas depicts Edward Snowden as at best reckless and naïve, and at worst a saboteur. He stole far more secrets than were necessary to make his case and did so in a deliberately damaging matter.’ I approached this book expecting to think Snowden’s actions deserved the benefit of the doubt; that’s not how I left it.

The Cruel Victory by Paddy Ashdown
How could I not include Paddy’s new tome? I’ve not read it but Caron Lindsay has, and you can read her review here.

The ‘Too Difficult’ Box: The Big Issues Politicians Can’t Crack by Charles Clarke (ed)
27 chapters by 27 contributors looking at some of the knottiest problems we in the UK face: from our place in the world to the welfare state to public services and immigration, political reform and drugs. A range of contributors from all parties and none. One to dip into and violently (dis)agree with.

A State of Play: British Politics on Screen, Stage and Page, from Anthony Trollope to The Thick of It by Prof. Steven Fielding
How politics is portrayed doesn’t just reflect the reality, argues Fielding, it also shapes it. This is a fascinating overview which ranges well beyond the usual suspects – it starts with the BBC children’s TV show Big Barn Farm – mixing history and politics.

Roy Jenkins by John Campbell
We knew about some of his affairs, but the one with Anthony Crosland came as a bit of a surprise. One of the most important political figures of the C.20th now has a biography that explores his well-rounded life with both honesty and affection.

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark
How did the First World War start? A century on, the question still rages, with Clark arguing the blame needs to be shared around Europe’s statesmen who stumbled chaotically into the conflict.

Oh, and if you just want a good novel, here’s my suggestion:

The Goldfinch by Donna Tart
Deserved winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2014, this is one of the only books about which I can honestly use the blurb-word ‘unputdownable’. It’s a big book in every way, perfect for losing yourself in on holiday, but also immensely readable. I may even read it again myself this summer.

Those are my suggestions – what are yours?

Photo by Hans Van der Berg

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

photo by:

My recommended reading for today July 20, 2014

by Stephen Tall on July 20, 2014

Here’s some of the articles that have caught my attention in the past couple of days…

My recommended reading for today July 18, 2014

by Stephen Tall on July 18, 2014

Here’s some of the articles that have caught my attention in the past couple of days…

ICM poll: Tories edge ahead of Labour, while Ukip collapse to 4th behind Lib Dems

by Stephen Tall on July 17, 2014

Amidst all the reshuffle excitement, I didn’t get chance to report the latest ICM poll – regarded by pundits as the ‘gold standard’ – for The Guardian, published on Tuesday. It shows the Tories a nose ahead of Labour, 34% to 33%, with Ukip slumping to fourth place (9%) behind the Lib Dems on 12%.

icm poll - july 2014

The collapse of the Ukip vote is the most dramatic story in the poll – Nigel Farage’s party topped the nationwide Euro-elections just a few weeks ago. However, the pattern is a familiar one: a spike in their support ahead of what’s seen as a low-stakes protest election, then a swift decline when voters think about the high-stakes general election to follow.

Three other points worth noting. First, the Tories and Labour between them attract just 67% of the vote. It’s hard to see a result other than a hung parliament unless and until one of them is able to hit the high-30s and/or pull ahead by at least 3% (Labour) or 5% (Tories).

Secondly, the Lib Dems’ 12% under ICM is at odds with the 6% YouGov reported the other day. If you’re wondering why, here’s the most likely explanation:

ICM, which has the best record in recent general elections, differs from many others in continuing to conduct its surveys of voting intention over the telephone as opposed to online. It also makes a distinctive adjustment to deal with voters who are happy to report how they voted last time, but are less forthcoming about what they will do in the future. It assumes that many such voters “return home” in future elections, which in the past has been a useful way to identify “shy Tories” at times when the Conservatives have been unfashionable.

In Monday’s data, however, ICM’s adjustments do not much change the relative standing of the main two parties – Labour and the Conservatives would both be on 35% without the adjustment, although the Liberal Democrats would fare worse – they stand at just 9% before the assumption about some current deserters returning to the fold is applied.

In effect, then, ICM is a combination of a snapshot poll and also a forecast. What has happened in previous elections is that pollsters begin to converge the closer it gets to polling day. Lib Dem voters who are least likely to say they are certain to vote for the party make up their minds later; and we are more likely to benefit from tactical votes in key seats. Of course, no-one knows if what’s held true in previous elections will also hold true in 2015. But for the moment at least I’d be more inclined to bet that ICM and YouGov won’t be far apart come May 2015 and that will be because YouGov has moved towards ICM rather than the reverse.

Thirdly, though politicos get excited about each and every poll movement, the polling reality is a whole lot less exciting.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

What if David Cameron had formed a minority Conservative Government in 2010?

by Stephen Tall on July 17, 2014

con home cartoonHere’s my latest The Other Side column for ConservativeHome, published here on Tuesday. “What would have happened if the Coalition hadn’t happened?” was my counter-factual starting question. My conclusions prompted one commenter to observe, “Oh, Mr Tall, so obvious your wind-up. I’m sure you think it clever to try and wind up the right on here”. I don’t know about clever, but it is fun (and, for the record, exactly what I think). My thanks as ever to the site’s editors, Paul Goodman and Mark Wallace, for giving a Lib Dem space to provoke – constructively, I hope.

Why did David Cameron do it? It’s a question that still puzzles Lib Dems. I’m talking about The Day After The Election The Night Before, 7th May 2010, when the Conservative leader made his “big open and comprehensive offer” to my party to join with his in forming a Coalition Government. Nick Clegg seized the opportunity with both hands and the rest is history.

What do we find so puzzling? Surely, Team Cameron would say, it’s all pretty obvious… The Conservatives had fallen just short of an overall majority. After 13 years of Labour mis-rule it was vital Gordon Brown & Co were ejected from government. The economy needed rescuing, our ‘broken society’ needed mending. This was no time for dallying: Britain needed a Conservative-led government and the Coalition was the means to this end.

All of which is reasonable enough. But it doesn’t answer the counter-factual: what would have happened if David Cameron hadn’t made his “big open and comprehensive offer”?

There were two other alternative histories waiting to be written. In one (the nightmare version with which Team Cameron scared Conservative backbenchers into submission in those five days in May) Labour and the Lib Dems cut a deal and thwarted the Conservatives’ quest for power. In the other (the nightmare version which still sends shivers down the spines of Lib Dems) the Conservatives struck out on their own and formed a minority government. What might have happened in either scenario?

Let’s imagine, then swiftly despatch, the notion Labour and the Lib Dems could have got it on together. Despite the attempted revisionism of Lord (Andrew) Adonis in his account, there was zero chance of this occurring. Between them, Labour and the Lib Dems could muster 315 seats, 11 short of a majority. Add to that the vocal opposition of Labour bigwigs like David Blunkett and John Reid and it’s a wonder the Lib Dems managed to maintain (for the sake of negotiating leverage) even a semblance of pretence a Lib/Lab pact was possible. Had by some miracle the deal been done, it would have unravelled as Alistair Darling’s prophesied “cuts worse than Thatcher’s” moved from tough-sounding rhetoric to rough reality. A coalition cobbled together on so flimsy a basis would quickly have collapsed.

A minority Conservative government, though: that would have been a different proposition. Here’s how David Cameron could have played it… He would still have made what he would have termed a “big open and comprehensive offer” to the Lib Dems. But it would have been such a limited offer – two cabinet posts, including the poisoned chalice of home secretary for Nick Clegg, and no movement on electoral reform – he would have known neither Clegg nor his party could possibly accept it. He would then have pinned the blame on the Lib Dems for the collapse of the talks: “The Lib Dems have, I’m sorry to say, shown they place party interest ahead of the national interest. We gave them a chance but it appears they are simply not ready to be a serious party of government. Their actions have confirmed what many of us have long suspected: a vote for the Lib Dems is a wasted vote. However, those voters who did place their trust in the Lib Dems can rest assured that I will lead a government of compassionate – and, yes, liberal – Conservatism.” His charge-sheet against Lib Dem triviality would have been cheerfully amplified by the media.

The Conservatives would have enjoyed a honeymoon, as most new governments do: the Coalition’s net approval rating stood at +13% when freshly minted (it’s currently -21%). The financial markets would have rallied behind Cameron and Osborne, offering a sheen of economic credibility. The Chancellor’s emergency budget would have laid responsibility for the “regrettable but necessary” austerity cuts squarely at the door of the previous Labour Government (notwithstanding the fact that Osborne had, just a couple of years earlier, pledged to follow its spending plans). Meanwhile, Labour – deprived of the unifying rallying-point of hating the Lib Dems – would have faced a much bloodier leadership election.

If Cameron were to be lucky in his enemies, the Lib Dems and Labour would have joined forces to vote down Osborne’s budget, thereby giving the Prime Minister exactly the pretext he needed to call a second election. “Only one party is prepared to face up to the task facing this nation,” Cameron would solemnly have intoned. “Labour and the Lib Dems believe they can wish away the economic crisis. A Conservative majority is now the only way we can provide the strong government so urgently needed.”

If, however, the Lib Dems had abstained on the budget then they would have proven Cameron’s charge they had nothing positive to offer. And if the Lib Dems had voted in favour of the Conservative budget they would have left the public scratching its head as to why the party had not joined the Conservatives in coalition and exerted far more influence on the government from within. A victory in the budget vote would, in any case, have deferred a second election only temporarily: Cameron would soon enough have found an alternative pretext (on welfare reform or immigration or Europe) for going to the polls in the autumn.

And at that election I have little doubt the Conservatives would have increased their tally of MPs enough to win an overall majority: they would have needed to win only 10 more seats from the ranks of the cash-strapped and demoralised Labour and Lib Dems. Who would have bet against them doing so? In which case, the Conservatives would probably have now been gearing up for an autumn 2014 election on the back of a recovering economy, proudly – and solely – able to claim the credit for it. A second term of Conservative majority rule would beckon.

So why didn’t David Cameron do it? There are two explanations, I think. First, we shouldn’t under-estimate quite how much in May 2010 Cameron wanted to be Prime Minister – he saw his chance, and didn’t want to risk Labour and the Lib Dems ganging up to rob him of the job he wanted “because I think I’ll be good at it”.

And secondly, there was Cameron’s wish to avoid a repeat of John Major’s torrid time as a small-majority Prime Minister held to ransom by his truculent right-wing backbenchers. At least in the 1990s the John Redwoods, Bill Cashes and Teresa Gormans were a minority: these days the Philip Hollobones, Douglas Carswells and Peter Bones are well and truly in the ascendant, having captured the Conservative Party. How much more attractive to Cameron must have been the thought of the 80-plus majority the Coalition can muster? It also gave him the opportunity to ditch some of the more eccentric Conservative policies (inheritance tax cuts for millionaires are less popular now than they were in 2007) and blame the pesky Lib Dems for it all.

Here, then, is the irony for David Cameron as he approaches the May 2015 election. On even his most optimistic days, he can imagine only the Conservatives narrowly edging an overall majority next time. For sure, he wants an election victory to burnish his leadership CV. But his best hope now is what four-and-a-bit years ago was the nightmare he tried so desperately to dodge – a second term as Prime Minister pretending to lead a party which has long since set its own independent and ever more rightward direction.

Michael Gove: The Case for the Defence. And also the Case for the Prosecution.

by Stephen Tall on July 16, 2014

Michael GoveUnlike most Lib Dems, I am not a Gove-hater. But nor do I share the adulation those one on the Right bestow upon him. The man we must now call the former Education secretary was more complex than his critics allowed and more flawed than his fans admitted.

No-one should doubt Michael Gove’s passion for schools reform, nor his sincerity. For him it is much more than political: it is also personal. Two men have shaped much of the education agenda in the last 15 years: Gove and Labour’s Andrew Adonis, the father of the academies programme. Both were adopted at birth; both feel education gave them everything they have; both are driven, restless individuals.

Here is my case in defence of Michael Gove, one I think Lib Dems should think twice about before jerking their knee to kick it into touch.

First, he was a passionate advocate for social mobility, believing there was nothing about a child’s background that meant it was impossible for them to achieve in life what they wanted – if they were given the right opportunities. To that end, he urged a relentless focus on standards and a more academic curriculum so that not only the brightest (who are disproportionately form wealthier backgrounds) would get the grades they need for whatever they want to achieve in later life, whether in work or further study. He was, in my view, right to do so (even if, like most Tories, he under-estimates the need to achieve broader social equality for those opportunities to become the norm). But equally he was wrong to urge the resuscitation of O-levels – dividing children aged 14 into the academic and non-academic – a reform which flew in the face of the educational equality he so often espoused. It’s just that kind of schizophrenic approach to policy-making which was leaped on by critics as proof of his baleful influence on schools.

Secondly, his was the government department which, above all others, has stressed the importance of evidence in formulating policy. It was Gove, after all, who (at the urging of his special adviser Dominic Cummings) brought in Bad Science writer and academic Ben Goldacre to head up a major report on how the Department for Education could help make teaching a truly evidence-based profession. Critics will say this evidence didn’t always inform the policies Gove pursued – true enough in some cases – but the legacy of the Goldacre report will live on and has already inspired grassroots teaching movements such as ResearchED to organise themselves as professionals, rather than rely on the Department for Education. That’s the kind of development liberals should welcome, and in doing so recognise Gove’s contribution to the environment in which it has happened.

Thirdly, Gove has, almost single-handedly, cured the Conservatives of their obsession with grammar schools (and to a lesser extent private schools), those enemies of educational equality. Let’s remember why he was appointed to the role of shadow education secretary in the first place in 2007 – David Cameron was forced to shuffle David Willetts out because Willetts (himself the product of a grammar school) had made a speech strongly defending the Conservative policy of not re-introducing grammar schools. The Tory grassroots exploded, roared on by the Telegraph and Mail. Yet when was the last time you heard a senior Conservative assert that more and new grammar schools are in any way an answer to social mobility? Whatever you think about his free schools – which have their Lib Dem champions such as David Boyle – Gove has rescued their Tories from their hopeless 1950s’ nostalgia. As the Labour-supporting teacher-blogger Andrew Old puts it:

The one place where Gove may have made permanent change is in the Conservative Party. There used to be little interest in state education there, beyond ideas about increasing selection, rooting out leftist influence and reducing the power of local authorities. Gove has made it possible for a Conservative politician to espouse the comprehensive principle and argue over the education of the worst off.

There rests the case for the defence.

There is also, of course, a strong case to be made for the prosecution. I’ll make it briefly here; others will, I have no doubt, add to it in the comments below-the-line.

The academisation of schools has torn asunder local education authorities – some of which were very good, some not, and many inbetween – with nothing to put in their place. No local accountability, nothing standing between thousands of schools and the Men in the Ministry. Mass centralisation combined with 24,000 atomised schools are not strong foundations on which to build a successful system.

Add to that the skewed funding arrangements for free schools at a time when the education budget is under strain; the odd belief that teachers shouldn’t be professionally qualified; his mis-judged over-reaction (and worrying politicisation of Ofsted) over the so-called Trojan Horse affair; his tendency to lump together and rub up the wrong way even his constructive critics; and the charge-sheet starts to add up.

Michael Gove’s record is a mixed one: some genuine achievements mixed with some major errors. His fans see only the former, his critics only the latter. There should be space to acknowledge both.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

Reshuffle: One Nation Toryism has gone to meet its maker

by Stephen Tall on July 15, 2014

David Cameron - Some rights reserved by The Prime Minister's OfficeDavid Cameron’s extensive reshuffle of the Tory ministerial ranks will continue today. Last night we learned of the casualties; today will be dedicated to the winners. But there’s no doubt at all about the biggest casualty: moderate, One Nation Toryism.

Ken Clarke, famously dubbed the sixth Lib Dem cabinet member, has gone. Too sensible to be left in charge of the Justice ministry he was exiled to the Cabinet’s fringes in 2012; now he has been retired completely. William Hague – transformed from a right-wing Tory leader who scaremongered about Britain becoming a ‘foreign land’ into a pragmatic Foreign Secretary willing to champion causes such as war rape ahead of EU renegotiation – has taken voluntary redundancy.

Clarke and Hague are the household names. At least as missed will be those few have heard of, such as Dominic Grieve, the Attorney General. He’s no-one’s idea of a pinko-liberal, but he did appreciate and understand the importance of international law and human rights. Science and Universities minister David Willetts – the original Tory moderniser and one of the most intellectually curious politicians around – has been despatched. So, too, have moderate Tories such as Greg Barker (a Tory who believes in climate change) and Damian Green (a Tory whose pro-immigration sympathies has already seen Cameron sideline him).

True, Cameron has also shunted Environment Secretary Owen Paterson – once tipped as a likely future leader by Tory right-wingers – out of the cabinet; though the IQ gain from his departure will be offset by the call-back for fellow right-winger Liam Fox, forced to resign in 2011 for allowing an advisor to abuse his access to the then defence secretary. (I think, though, Tim Montgomerie is right to suggest Cameron may come to regret Paterson’s despatch: a potent right-wing rival, lacking until now, has the freedom of the backbenches to make his pitch.)

And yes, there will be newer, fresher Tory moderates who today are favoured by Cameron – perhaps Anna Soubry or Gavin Barwell or Robert Buckland or Jane Ellison. It won’t all be one-way traffic in the right’s favour.

But the direction of travel is clear. And despite the claims of some like Lord Ashcroft that this reshuffle is about the optics not the politics, I’m afraid I just don’t buy it. Hague’s replacement as Foreign Secretary looks set to be Philip Hammond, who last year said he would vote for the UK to leave the European Union if a vote were held now. And Grieve’s exit is a clear signal – you might call it a dog-whistle – that the Tories will make withdrawal from the European Court of Human Rights a manifesto pledge. This is a rightward tilt for the Tories, a statement of intent from Cameron that liberal Conservatism is dead.

Nick Clegg has wisely eschewed the chance of combining his reshuffle of the Lib Dem ranks with that of Cameron’s: any changes made, such as the promotion of Jo Swinson, would have disappeared without trace given the scale of the Tory overhaul.

In one sense the reshuffle is helpful for the Lib Dems – Cameron’s done more to differentiate us from the Tories than we could have hoped.

In another sense, it’s less hopeful. My view remains that the Tories will emerge from the next election the single largest party. If that happens, it’s hard to see any possible Lib Dem accommodation with Cameron’s party in which case the Lib Dems will have to do what we can to thwart the Tories from the opposition benches. While that my keep our liberal hands cleaner, it’s likely to mean more authoritarian government policy enacted.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

UPDATED: Sarah Yong stands down as Lib Dem candidate for marginal seat of Somerton and Frome

by Stephen Tall on July 14, 2014

20140201-202125.jpg Sarah YongIt’s six months since Sarah Yong was selected as the Lib Dem candidate for Somerton and Frome, held by David Heath since 1997. Today she’s announced her decision to stand down. Here’s the letter she’s sent to her local paper, announcing the news:

Dear Editor,

I just wanted to let you know that it is with great regret that I’ve decided to stand down from my role as Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Somerton and Frome. I have made this decision for personal reasons and as a result of changes in personal circumstances.

It’s a decision I’ve not taken lightly, and it’s one I take with a heavy heart. I would have loved to have followed in David Heath’s footsteps as the MP for Somerton and Frome.

Feel free to quote any of this email in a news story you may wish to write.

With very best wishes,


In an email to LibDemVoice, Sarah added:

I’m sure you’ll all know how difficult a decision this has been for me. But sometimes things don’t always work out in the way you planned.

I would like to thank everyone for their support over the past 6 months, and in particular David Heath with whom it has been a privilege to work and who is an outstanding public servant and MP for the people of Somerton and Frome.

It is difficult single out individuals for the kindness and support that they have shown me, but I would also like to thank Paddy Ashdown for his personal encouragement and the faith he has shown in me.

I wish the new PPC for Somerton and Frome well.

That goes for us as well – and in return may we wish Sarah the very best for whatever comes next. Being a candidate, especially for the Lib Dems, is a tough task — as my 2008 series, ‘The PPC Files’, made all too clear.

Somerton and Frome has remained a Lib Dem seat these past 17 years in large measure thanks to David Heath’s unstinting dedication. Holding it will be a tough battle. Holding it with a candidate with just months to bed into the constituency before the next election tougher still. Good luck to the local party and whoever they select.

UPDATE Tuesday 8:40 am

Paddy Ashdown has commented on Sarah’s decision:

Sarah is a considerable political talent, and I’m sure we’ll see her in Westminster in the future. She is a close personal friend and I’m sad she hasn’t been able to stand on this occasion. I have no doubt, this isn’t the last we’ve heard of her.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

Laws: “99% of schools now have a plan in place to deliver universal free school meals in September”

by Stephen Tall on July 14, 2014

school mealsI’ll be honest. If I had the choice over where to direct £500 million a year of taxpayers’ money, universal free school meals for infants would not be top of my priority list.

That said, the sheer desperation of right-wing newspapers like the Daily Mail for the policy to fail just to spite Nick Clegg strikes me as far more mean-spirited. It’s a policy which is highly popular with headteachers, and will be with parents too. Perhaps more surprisingly, it’s possibly the only Lib Dem policy ever to attract the support of Paul Staines (aka blogger Guido Fawkes):

I have been worried about the messaging coming from the Lib Dems, though. Under-promise and over-deliver is usually the best plan in politics. I remember Ken Livingstone being interviewed on the morning the congestion charge system kicked in admitting to an interviewer, “I’m just waiting for something to go wrong.” That struck the right note, especially when it all went off without a hitch.

So I was mostly reassured this week by a speech from Lib Dem schools minister David Laws that “based on evidence from local authorities, schools and the support service, over 99% of schools now have a plan in place to deliver universal free school meals in September”.

This won’t always be a hot school meal cooked on the premises, it’s true (the original Clegg aim). To begin with at least, many schools will rely either on delivered hot meals or cold packed lunches. However, the meal will still be a nutritious one — currently, fewer than 1% of packed lunches meet the school food standards.

But there will of course be complaints: in the schools which haven’t managed to meet the Government’s timetable and doubtless from parents unhappy about some aspect of their child’s lunch. Lib Dems should be fully prepared for the media to focus on those exceptions: negativity is what most news reporters are paid to engage in.

David Laws speaking at Lib Dem Spring conference, Liverpool 2008And here, for those wanting to be reminded of the reasons why the Lib Dems have pushed this policy, is an excerpt from David Laws’ speech this week

Take up of free and paid for meals increased dramatically during the Second World War – from just 3% at its outset, to over 30% at its conclusion.

Come 1946, the day of our now much loved ‘dinner lady’ dawned: popularity of school meals had grown so much that paid assistants were introduced to supervise children as they ate their lunch.

And in June 1949, the number of school dinners reached nearly 3 million, over half of the total school population.

Take up reached a high water mark in 1974, when 70% of pupils ate school meals.

But one thing is clear: since that peak in the 1970s, the number of children receiving school meals has been in steady decline.

In the 1980s, the then government cut back on free school meal entitlement, and removed some of the standards designed to ensure healthy meals.

Take up of meals, and the quality of much food, went into steep decline – with a fall in the proportion of children taking school meals from roughly 7 in 10 to just 4 in 10.

That has been bad for attainment in schools. It has been bad for children’s health and concentration. It has undermined the socialisation which comes from children sitting down together each day and eating together.

And the removal of free meals has been an extra pressure on family budgets which has particularly hit low income families who take the initiative to get into work, but who then find that they lose their entitlement to free meals which can be worth almost £1,500 per year for a family with 3 children.

Free school meals are sometimes regarded as an aspiration and idea from the political left.

But I regard this as a common sense policy for the mainstream majority.

I happen to have the old-fashioned view that given that these children are the responsibility of the school and the state for around 7 hours a day, the least we can do is ensure that they eat healthily.

Many of our minds are now on this September, when infants will have a new entitlement to a healthy meal at school.

This policy is the latest milestone in the long history of school meals.

And it is one of the most important.

It is the biggest expansion of free school meals in over 65 years.

1.5 million additional pupils will become entitled to a free meal.

Now every step forward in the last 100 years has had its critics.

But remember that the work you do has a proud and long-standing heritage. You are part of a progressive movement that has always had one overriding priority: to improve school food. …

The plan also recommended that the government should offer free school meals for all children in primary schools.

This was a big and radical idea; but it wasn’t a new one.

Durham and Newham and other parts of the country had already piloted universal free school meals.

The results were clear.

Good, healthy school food, combined with universal provision, had a positive effect on all pupils, but particularly on those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.

Universal provision increased take-up among the disadvantaged who are eligible for meals, but don’t always take them up.

They removed the stigma of ‘being a free meals kid’.

They meant that the 1 in 4 children from working families, but who nevertheless live in poverty, got a meal for the first time.

When I visited a school recently in south London, I was moved when the headteacher told me about 1 parent who currently just misses out on free school meals, because she is in a low income job, being in tears after being told of the new entitlement, because of the positive impact it would have on her family’s budget.

Some people in the media seem to think our country is made up of very poor people on benefits who are the only ones needing financial help, and then the so called ‘middle classes’, who they view as all earning £100,000 or more each year.

But most people aren’t very poor or very rich. They are getting by. On £15,000, or £20,000, or £25,000. As a teacher in that London school said to me last week, ‘If you are a parent in London on £18,000 with 3 children, you don’t feel rich.’

This policy will make a huge difference to family budgets in these hard times. And do not worry about whether we are wasting money on families who can afford the meals – we are not paying for free meals in Eton, Westminster or Rugby private schools.

The pilots also showed that when universal free school meals were implemented, children were less likely to eat crisps and unhealthy packed lunches during the school day, and more likely to eat healthy food instead.

And, most importantly, there was a positive impact on children’s levels of literacy and numeracy.

Crucially, the pilots showed that to achieve the benefits of the policy it has to be a universal offer – to all children.

The pilots in which entitlement was only extended modestly to low income working families did not see the attainment and other benefits which we want to secure.

So this is a universal entitlement which we’re introducing not just because it’s popular with parents, though it most certainly is, but because the evidence shows that this is the right thing to do – the only way to secure the improved outcomes we want to see.

There are some who are against this policy as a point of principle. They don’t think it is the job of government to make sure all children get a healthy lunch.

Like those who blocked the first moves to provide healthy meals to school children 100 years ago, they argue it is too expensive; too radical; too difficult.

Government does not share that position.

We cannot allow some siren voices to undermine a policy that will save ordinary parents money and improve children’s education and health.

Left to their own devices, those who want to undermine this policy would take us back in time, unwinding over 100 years of progress on school food.

Government will not allow that to happen.

And that is why it is so important that we work together to make this policy a stunning success in September.

If we get this right, no one will be able to take it away – because it will be so popular with parents that no politician would dare.

That is the prize we are all working for.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

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