Review: The Whitehall Mandarin by Edward Wilson

by Stephen Tall on May 16, 2015

edward wilson whitehall mandarinThe Whitehall Mandarin, Edward Wilson

The comparisons to John Le Carre are inevitable: who’s the mole in MI5 passing on secrets to the Russians? But if that sounds all a bit trite-and-tested a spy formula, don’t worry: The Whitehall Mandarin is too thoughtful, clever and fast-moving to be boring.

The protagonist is William Catesby, a Cambridge-educated working-class socialist who accommodates himself to working his way up MI6. His nemesis is Jeffers Caudwell, an American double agent who isn’t all that he seems. They’re united by their separate pursuits of Lady Somers, the first female Permanent under Secretary to head up the Ministry of Defence, who has her own well-concealed secret.

Much of the book is set against the backdrop of 1960s’ London with more than a passing nod to the always-fascinating Profumo Affair, and is gripping. The pace (to my taste) slackens once the story is re-located to Vietnam — and the big finale reveal feels somewhat contrived, with scant explanation of the mole’s past life-altering decision.

But these are minor quibbles: this is a well-researched, well-told, well-I-never thriller.

LibDemVoice Fantasy Football League: how it stands after Week 36

by Stephen Tall on May 16, 2015

Congratulations to George Murray, whose Marauding Fullbacks are still in pole position in the LibDemVoice Fantasy Football League after Week 36, with 2,153 points. Sam Bowman’s Sterlingization (2,080) and Jon Featonby’s What bitey racist? (2,059) are his closest rivals.

But let’s also hear it for the three players who enjoyed the best week’s performances: Benjamin Moody’s Atletico Diabetico (102), David Roberts’ cant handle the huth (101) and James Ludley’s Ludley’s Line-up (100).


There are 163 players in total and you can still join the league by clicking here.

My must-reads this week May 15, 2015

by Stephen Tall on May 15, 2015

Here’s some of the articles that have caught my attention this week…

Why the Lib Dems should stick in the liberal centre. Not because we have to, but because we should choose to.

by Stephen Tall on May 14, 2015

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg Delivers His Keynote Speech At The Liberal Democrat Party ConferenceThe near-obliteration of Lib Dem MPs has at least resolved one strategic dilemma for my party: there’s no point pretending for the next few years that we aim to be a party of government.

At the next election we will instead revert to the tried-and-tested formula that people should vote for us because they believe in our values and like our policies. It probably won’t work — it didn’t do much for the Greens this year — but it will at least be coherent.

Which is more than can be said for the logical fallacy many of my fellow members have indulged these past five years: that the Lib Dems should aim to continue in government (last September, 69% said they wanted the party actively involved) but should also desert the liberal centre ground and stake out more radical and edgy terrain.

As I have said many, times before, ’til I’m blue in the face (or red in the face: I’m fine with political equidistance), you cannot do both at the same time:

The inescapable reality is that, for the forseeable future, there is only one way the Lib Dems will be able to put their policies into practice: in partnership with either the left-leaning Labour party, or the right-leaning Conservatives. We are pinned in the liberal centre whether we like it or not. A radical manifesto — full of civil liberties and political reform and Trident cancellation — may sound nice in theory, but that’s all it would ever be.

However, now, in one bound, we are free. The Lib Dems won’t be strong enough to be a Coalition partner for a decade or more, never mind whether its members would ever again choose to lay down our MPs’ lives for the nation’s sake. Forget about putting liberalism into practice, we can revert to dreaming about its theory. We no longer have to stick in the liberal centre because it’s the only feasible position for us to adopt if we want to have any power.

No, we don’t have to stay within the liberal centre: but we should choose to do so.

As with most political choices, I’m motivated by two reasons: principle and pragmatism.

The pragmatism is probably least contentious: elections are won from the centre and parties which forget that invariably lose. As Danny Finkelstein has noted in The Times of the voters who’ve just given David Cameron an unexpected majority:

… it is wrong to think of them as Tories. These are people who just want a moderate, competent government which keeps the economy on track. One which ensures that there are decent public services that don’t cost the earth.

A political party which doesn’t persuade such people to vote for it — for a stronger economy, a fairer society to coin a phrase — is destined to banish itself forever to the fringes.

Now to the principle of liberal centrism. First let me pray in aid a quote from Edmund Fawcett’s brilliant book, Liberalism: The Life of an Idea:

Liberal politics aspires to openness and toleration, to settling matters by argument and compromise, to building coalitions rather than creating sects, and to recognizing the inevitable existence of factions and interests without turning them into irreconcilable foes.

As for the practice of this principle of moderation, well Lib Dems have (1) long favoured a mixed economy in which free enterprise is balanced against workers’ rights, and (2) long been open to either/both state and/or private provision of public services, rarely dogmatic, often preferring a combination if that’s what works best. I’d say that’s a pretty liberal and centrist position.

It’s true, of course, that there are issues on which the Lib Dems are by no means centrist. For example, on civil liberties, the European Union, immigration and political reform we are anything but. These are fundamental tenets to us, but are either unpopular with, or irrelevant to, large chunks of the population.

I suspect those who advocate the party ditching its liberal centrism for liberal radicalism — for example returning to “the provision of an aggressive political lead on issues of moral concern, injustice and oppression” — secretly quite like the idea of the Lib Dems banging on about topics the voters don’t much care about, and which, if they did care about, would take great care not to vote for us.

That doesn’t mean we change our views, that we reverse our positions on those fundamentals. But I do think we need to respect the voters’ wishes enough not to fixate on the radical edges they don’t share such that we purposely ignore the liberal centre they do share.

Their decision to vote for us (or not) will be based on what we have to say about the economy and about public services — on both of which issues we have good, sensible, practical things to say. Why on earth we shouldn’t tell them those things just because they place us in the liberal centre beats me.

So about that “running naked down Whitehall” pledge then….

by Stephen Tall on May 13, 2015

daily politics pledgeA little over 18 months ago, I made a pledge on the BBC’s Daily Politics (based on this post) to run naked down Whitehall if the Lib Dems were reduced to only 24 seats, as one poll had just predicted.

Today I was invited back on, alongside fellow naked Whitehall dash pledgee Dan Hodges, to come clean about it.

See what I said here:

Last Thursday, “there was a larger Lib Dem vote movement to Conservatives than to Labour”

by Stephen Tall on May 12, 2015

I noted on Friday morning, in the immediate aftermath of the Lib Dem electoral bloodbath, that the Lib Dem post mortem would prove to be “more complicated” than we expected because “we didn’t just lose votes to Labour (that had been priced in) we lost at least as many votes to the Conservatives”.

This has now been backed up with an analysis of the numbers by Michael Barone at the Washington Examiner (hat-tip Nick Thornsby):

As I have written several times, the British are experienced tactical voters. They know the balance between the parties in their constituencies and cast their votes in a way to achieve the national balance in Parliament they want. That is plain in the parties’ percentages of the vote in the Con-LD and Lab-LD seats: in the former Labour won only 11 percent of the votes and in the latter Conservatives won only 15 percent of the votes. Voters who didn’t want a Conservative government in the former or a Labour government in the latter gravitated to the Lib Dems. These were districts with Lib Dem incumbents who in most cases were running for another term; the incumbents had worked their districts hard and built up networks of Lib Dem supporters. Even so, they were massively outvoted, 41-30 in Con-LD seats, 43-27 in Lab-LD seats. After four [sic] years of supporting a Conservative-led coalition, the Lib Dems’ previous constituency was splintering. But contrary to expectations, it didn’t move largely to Labour. Instead, previous Lib Dem voters who were reasonably satisfied with the coalition record and/or appalled at the idea of a Labour government tugged left by the Scot Nats migrated into Conservative ranks.

The implosion of the Lib Dems is plainest in the 81 marginal Con-Lab seats. Here, where there was no incentive for tactical third-party voting, the Lib Dems were reduced to an average of 4 percent of the vote, roughly comparable to the Greens. And well below the 12 percent of the vote that went to Ukip, a percentage virtually identical to the 13 percent Ukip won nationally. I speculated that the Ukip vote may have evaporated in these districts. Not so: the Lib Dem vote did. I think — and perhaps Britain’s chastened pollsters may check on this — that there was a larger Lib Dem vote movement to Conservatives than to Labour and that some Lib Dem voters whom everyone considered likely to switch to Labour voted Ukip instead. The fact that Ukip ran second in many safe Labor seats in the North of England fortifies this view: for downscale voters repelled by Conservatives but untrusting of Labour, Ukip provided a means of expressing their views. Certainly the fact that Conservatives averaged 44 percent in these 81 seats to Labour’s 36 percent, and the fact that Conservatives came out ahead 71-10 in these seats rather than the projected 44-37 behind, point to this conclusion. Conservatives, led by Australian campaign guru Lynton Crosby and assisted by 2012 Obama campaign manager Jim Messina, clearly did a brilliant job of pounding their messages home in the seats where it mattered, gearing them to local opinion or local factors when appropriate, but stressing national themes as well. It was generally agreed that Labour had more campaigners on the ground, but they relied on a single national message with no local references, and their efforts were unable to deliver the votes they needed and which the pre-election polls suggested they would have.

As I also noted on Friday morning:

For those dissident Lib Dems reaching for the easy answer that’s long been trailed – the party needs to return to its radical, centre-left roots and the progressive voters will surely return – that should be a warning. Labour has just found out to its cost that burrowing yourself further into your comfort zone doesn’t help.

PS: If you prefer your analysis less quantitative and more qualitative, then Daisy Benson’s fascinating reflections on campaigning across eight Lib Dem-held seats (seven Tory-facing, one Labour-facing) backs up the stats above. Eg:

During one particular evening canvass session slightly later on in the election campaign a middle-aged women I spoke to expressed concerns to me about the possibility of a SNP-backed government. This struck me as odd at the time: I was in Somerset and the seat was a Lib Dem – Tory marginal. …

A Lib Dem supporter [in Labour-facing Hornsey & Wood Green] told me she would normally vote for us and was a big fan of Lynne Featherstone but wasn’t going to this time as ‘Labour needs this seat to be able to form a majority government’. She was worried about the SNP too but this time Labour had put that fear in her head. This experience left me reeling – I’d never encountered a response like it before during an election campaign. I was used to campaigns being about one party’s policies vs another and one candidate’s record vs another.

So in two totally different constituencies two different political parties were campaigning against Lib Dem MPs – Labour as part of their narrow ‘35% strategy’ and Tories for their own 23 seat strategy. Politically, we were caught between a pincer movement – left and right.

These experiences shaped Daisy’s conclusion:

I found it very interesting to hear what people said about the Coalition 2010 – 2015, and coalitions more widely. Some voters I talked to saw it as a positive to see political parties working together (they may have been Lib Dem voters?). A couple of others I spoke to – one in OxWab and one in Wells said they preferred ‘strong’ government e.g. single-party government. This may or may not have been in part a response to the messages found in Tory leaflets promoting their 23 seat strategy.

Judging by our results nationally I’m willing to admit that many of those people I met who were positive about the Liberal Democrat performance in government did not go on to vote for Lib Dem candidates. But I think a fair number of them did. I recruited members during the campaign and I know from talking to other activists that people continued to join the party throughout the campaign.

For this reason I am against us ditching wholesale Lib Dem achievements of the past 5 years in government. Based on what I heard on the doorstep I think a reasonable number of people in the country at large who voted in the election did appreciate our role in government and voted for us because of it. Furthermore I think the party’s standing and Nick Clegg’s reputation will grow rather than decline as time goes on.

Lib Dem meltdown: things I got right, things I got wrong & some thoughts about where next

by Stephen Tall on May 11, 2015


It could have been worse

First, three ways in which the Lib Dems were actually quite lucky (yes, you read that right) on Thursday:

1. We were fewer than 25,000 votes away from being wiped out
24,968: that’s the combined majorities of the 8 rump Lib Dem MPs. Scary, yes?

2. Caroline Lucas wasn’t leader of the Greens
A plausible, likeable, articulate Green party leader would have inflicted much greater damage on the Lib Dems, maybe even pushing the party into fifth place in the popular vote.

3. After boundary reforms, our notional number of seats is just 4
The Tories will soon move to overhaul constituency boundaries (actually a long-overdue reform the Lib Dems blocked in 2012 after the Tories kaiboshed House of Lords reform)) and, as Anthony Wells has estimated, that may well reduce the number of Lib Dem MPs to just four.

Things I got wrong

1. My prediction
I got bits right. I was confident the Tories would come first in both seats and vote-share, though like almost everyone else I thought they’d fall short of a majority. But I was way out in my optimism the Lib Dems would retain 32 MPs. In fairness, I was in good company (Peter Kellner’s prediction was 31), and not even the Tories thought they’d do as well as they did. But, still, I got it wrong, badly.

As for my pledge to “run naked down Whitehall” if we were reduced to 24 seats — well, I stand willing to honour that if someone can sort out the logistics of me avoiding a public order offence.

2. “5 reasons why the Lib Dems won’t suffer an FDP wipeout”
Here’s a post I wrote in 2013 which has not aged well: 5 reasons not to assume the FDP wipeout in the German elections will happen here in the UK. True, we weren’t quite wiped out. But I argued “the Lib Dems are very unlikely to lose two-thirds of our vote”, and also dismissed the likelihood of the party losing votes to the Conservatives. It pains me to say it, but the gloomy warnings of Southport MP John Pugh and, yes, Lord (Matthew) Oakeshott proved to be far more accurate.

3. Coalition could be the making of the Lib Dems
That’s what I thought and, in some ways, this has happened. The party moved from being a think-tank with bright ideas to having to work through the hard grind of implementing policies in government. But I also thought being in government could boost the party’s popularity: that the ‘wasted vote’ argument would melt away, that perceptions of our competence would rise. Instead, we were subject to five years’ ridicule by the media and Labour and the Tories which destroyed our reputation, and we then faced a very traditional third party squeeze with disastrous electoral consequences.

Things I got right

1. Tuition fees
I’ve long supported tuition fees — the only fair, sustainable way of expanding good quality higher education — and my opposition to the party’s policy was one big reason I didn’t try and stand for parliament under the Lib Dem banner. As I wrote in 2011:

… to me, the NUS pledge was symptomatic of the party’s occasionally opportunistic oppositional mindset — we never expected to have power, and so we didn’t behave as if we ever would.

True, our manifesto was fully-costed, in the limited sense that we had allowed enough tax rises to offset the abolition of tuition fees over six years. But we had identified only 25% of the public spending cuts needed to cut the deficit; better than any other party, yet still nowhere near enough to balance the nation’s budget. Weighed against that priority, eradicating tuition fees was always an unaffordable luxury — and we knew that well enough before the election.

Well, now we’re paying the price of not really expecting we’d find ourselves in power. Perhaps the events of the past two months will be largely forgotten in five years’ time… If they’re not forgotten, well, we’ve only ourselves to blame for putting party priorities ahead of the public’s priorities. That’s what happens when parties bend to their activists and stop listening to the public.

2. Nick Clegg should have quit in 2014
A year ago, in the original almost-wipeout election of the Euros, I called on Nick Clegg to quit. I thought it would be better for him, better for the party:

I have enormous respect for Nick and like him personally. I am sure he’s entirely honourable in wanting to stay on as leader to contest the 2015 general election. If, as seems likely, he chooses to stay I will support him and the party.

However, I think he’s going to find it tough to turn things round. The media, mostly unfairly, has given him a pounding over the past four years. The relentless hostility has taken its toll on his reputation with the public. I seriously doubt that damage can be restored in the next 11 months.

Would it have made much difference? Hard to say — but it surely had to be worth a go. As I said then, it was our last roll of the dice.

3. The liberal centre
As I wrote in February:

… our slogan, ‘Stronger economy, fairer society: opportunity for everyone’, is a winning one. Or, at least, it would be if it were used by one of the two parties which has a hope of winning this election outright.

Economic competence and social justice is what the voters want. If the Coalition had been on the ballot paper last Thursday, its victory would have been far more convincing than was David Cameron’s. Part of the reason we lost — only part, I accept, but an important part — is that voters were worried the Lib Dems would jettison the Lib/Con Coalition and instead put Ed Miliband in Downing Street, propped up by Alex Salmond and the SNP.

There will be a real temptation for the Lib Dems to repudiate the whole of the last five years after last Thursday’s trauma. I think that would be a mistake, and a mis-reading of an election in which we lost at least as many previous Lib Dem votes to the Conservatives as we did to Labour.

It may well be my party now makes the mistake that Labour made in 2010 in thinking they just weren’t Labour enough. “If only we’d been more Lib Dem!” will go up the cry, and, with relief, our activists will withdraw to the comfort zone of Lib Demmery (civil liberties, constitutional reform, higher spending on public services, and endless debates about Trident). And then in five years’ time, we’ll wonder why the voters didn’t follow us to where we wanted them to go.

Rule 101 of electoral politics: you start with where the voters are. As Tony Blair said yesterday:

the centre is not where you split the difference between progressive and conservative politics. It is where progressive politics gets the breadth of territory to allow it to own the future.

Where should we go next?

1) We need to unite
There will be a temptation for civil war. Those who disliked the Coalition, those who disliked Nick Clegg, and who have felt thwarted and frustrated for five years will be keen to shout “We told you so”. Fair enough, though as I’ve already written I think the damage was done the moment we as a party overwhelmingly signed up to the Coalition; once that act was committed in 2010, I’m not sure there was any way in which last Thursday would have ended less messily. But the blunt truth is the party is too small now to bisect itself even further. Social liberals and economic liberals need to unite and recognise that what we agree on matters far more than what we disagree on.

2) We need to build on our brand
Our brand is weak but not entirely trashed. Lib Dems are seen as promoting fairness, pro-European and internationalist, comfortable with immigration, believers in education. We are also seen as moderate, reasonable, grown-up — I’m sure a lot of the reason for our membership surge since Friday (7,000+ and counting) is voters wanting to reward us for having done the right thing over the past five years and getting shafted for our troubles.

3) We need to campaign smartly
An immediate priority will be campaigning against the Tories’ £12bn welfare cuts as well as the snoopers’ charter and the abolition of the Human Rights Act. And of course we will campaign to stay within the EU once the referendum comes along. But we need to campaign for things, as well — for example, for more house-building (resisting the temptation to run local NIMBY campaigns as a short-cut to local popularity) and for small/medium-sized businesses (ensuring they can compete on a genuinely level-playing field).

And finally…

I’ll be supporting Tim Farron for leader
I have enormous respect for both Tim Farron and Norman Lamb: exceptional campaigners, great communicators. But the party needs to feel good about itself right now, to be re-motivated. Sure, we have 7,000+ new members and there is talk of a fightback. But it’s going to be a long, hard slog over the next 5 years — and beyond. We need someone with energy, enthusiasm and charisma. Tim has those three qualities in abundance.

The morning after the Lib Dem nightmare before…. My first thoughts.

by Stephen Tall on May 8, 2015

Lib Dems winning hereI wrote this for The Times’s Red Box blog this morning. It was published under the heading ‘Lib Dems died the moment they joined the coalition’ – not quite what I wrote, but not so far off the mark…

Numbed disbelief. That’s how Lib Dems have been feeling ever since 10pm when the official exit poll first revealed how bad a night it was going to be for my party. 10 seats? That couldn’t be right, we thought. And it turns out it wasn’t. We did worse: 8 MPs. Not even the most pessimistic, Coalition-hating, Clegg-allergic, Orange Book-phobic Lib Dem thought it could ever get that bad. But it has.

The rout of all but one of our Scottish MPs by the SNP wasn’t entirely unexpected. Nor was the loss of our urban English seats where Labour were the challengers. What is quite stunning – utterly, compellingly, breathtakingly unpredicted – is the scale of our defeat at the hands of our Conservative coalition partners. Across the south and south-west of England and suburban London, they have wiped us off the map. None of us foresaw that, and that makes it far, far worse.

In one top Lib Dem target, where the party ended up finishing third, I was told “Our canvassing goes back years. I thought it was robust. I still do. There were absolutely no signs of this, not even on the ground today.”

Thinking I detected some kind of 1992-style Tory bounce-back a couple of days ago, I got in touch with a senior Lib Dem to ask, “Should we be worried that Cameron’s schedule is targeting so many LibDem-held seats? Do they actually sniff 300+ seats?” No, I was told, they were “wasting their time in Twickenham and Yeovil”. Tell that today to Vince Cable and David Laws.

The Tory advance also makes the Lib Dem post mortem more complicated. We didn’t just lose votes to Labour (that had been priced in) we lost at least as many votes to the Conservatives. For those dissident Lib Dems reaching for the easy answer that’s long been trailed – the party needs to return to its radical, centre-left roots and the progressive voters will surely return – that should be a warning. Labour has just found out to its cost that burrowing yourself further into your comfort zone doesn’t help.

So what does explain the calamitous result? Sure, policy blunders like the tuition fees U-turn played their part, sapping both Lib Dem support and morale. But the real truth is, I think, simpler. We were dead the moment we joined the Coalition. Too Tory for our progressive voters, not Tory enough for our small-c conservative voters – and the voters who remained, the pragmatic, liberal centrists, just aren’t enough to win us many seats.

Maybe it would be different under PR (our 8% of the vote would yield us around 50 MPs) but first-past-the-post is what the voters chose in 2011. And for as long as we have it, a third party looking to be the moderating force will get flattened in the inevitable pincer movement. Incumbency isn’t, it turns out, a magic wand.

When the Coalition was formed in 2010, many of its supporters, including me, pointed out the alternative scenario: the Conservatives calling a second general election later that year on the back of an emergency austerity budget and some populist policies, and winning a convincing mandate with the Lib Dems squeezed out of the picture. That’s indeed what has happened. I guess at least we got five years’ governing under our belts in the interim. That seems like scant consolation this morning.

My must-reads this week May 8, 2015

by Stephen Tall on May 8, 2015

Here’s some of the articles that have caught my attention this week…

Updating my working… My revised 7th May, 2015, general election predictions

by Stephen Tall on May 6, 2015

Polling_station_6_may_2010It’s almost four months since I nailed my colours to the mast and predicted a hung parliament, with the Tories as the single largest party — but with no two-party coalition possible. And I’m sticking by that.

However, there are a couple of parts of my prediction I think need updating.

First, my estimate of the number of SNP MPs. My January prediction of 22 (at the time reckoned by some to be quite high!) was made before any of the Ashcroft polls of Scottish seats had been published — and as the facts have changed, so I’m changing my mind.

The political scientists’ consensus is they’ll win at least 50 of the 59 seats they’re contesting. Under an electoral system as disproportionate as first-past-the-post that’s by no means impossible. It may yet happen. But I don’t think it will. I think Labour will retain up to a dozen Scottish seats and the Lib Dems a handful, which means I’m pegging the SNP back to 43.

Secondly, my estimate of the number of Ukip MPs. My January prediction of 3 (at the time reckoned by some to be quite low!) appears to be the ceiling of Ukip ambitions. I now think that other than the shoo-in of Douglas Carswell in Clacton, Ukip may win one other seat — either Farage in Thanet South or Tim Aker in Thurrock — which means I’m pegging back Ukip to just two.

These adjustments mean my final forecast for how the UK will vote tomorrow is:

Conservatives 287 seats
Lab 263
LibDems 32
Ukip 2
Green 1
SNP 43
Plaid Cymru 3
Others 19

In terms of the popular share of the vote I’m going to guess something like:

Conservatives 35%
Labour 32%
Lib Dems 11%
Ukip 9%
Greens 3%
Others 10%

If that happens — a big if in so many ways! — I think David Cameron will have a chance to form a government and will remain as Prime Minister, initially at least. What happens after that is, at this stage, anyone’s guess.

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