by Stephen Tall on November 3, 2015
This is just gobsmacking: Labour to consult Stop the War on Syria policy; an org which essentially supports Assad. https://t.co/MhN3NtNDCa
— Rob Marchant (@rob_marchant) November 3, 2015
CBI's Cridland: "We invited Corbyn to speak at conference. He’s not coming. We are disappointed. He’s too busy." https://t.co/t70nCJbMdF
— Jim Pickard (@PickardJE) November 3, 2015
by Stephen Tall on October 30, 2015
This is my second weekly diary over at LibDemVoice today…
Good Lords above
We live in a topsy turvy world. Following their defeat on tax credits, the Conservatives, who kaiboshed reform in the last parliament, are now urgently reviewing the powers of the House of Lords. Meanwhile Labour, which chose to abstain on a Lib Dem motion stopping the cuts, is promising to support the Tories if they now stop them.
Ah, but aren’t the Lib Dems at least as hypocritical? runs the argument of the unthinking right. The party wants to abolish the Lords yet our peers are “on the warpath”. Let’s leave to one side, for just a moment, that the Conservatives explicitly ruled out making these cuts before the election. Let’s also leave to one side that the Conservatives deliberately chose to avoid a vote on tax credits in the elected Commons… The simple point remains: the Lib Dems participate fully in the Lords because we work for democratic reform within the existing structures. It’s why we continue to stand for election to the Commons even though we think first-past-the-post is a rotten system. I guess it’s also why Ukip stand for election to the European Parliament even though they don’t think it should exist — though oddly you hear a lot less of this alleged hypocrisy from the unthinking right.
Careless Talk Talk
by Stephen Tall on October 27, 2015
A Very British Coup, Chris Mullin
I remember watching Channel 4’s (fabulous) adaptation of A Very British Coup in 1988. Then it seemed almost wistfully nostalgic: hard-left Bennitism was on the retreat, as Neil Kinnock modernised the Labour party. Fast-forward a quarter of a century and Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader suddenly gives the book fresh currency.
For this is the tale of a socialist, pacifist leader of the Labour party, Harry Perkins, committed to taking on the City and adopting unilateral disarmament, who suddenly finds himself propelled into Number 10 and fighting for survival — against not only the Establishment, but also his own side. As Mullin wittily asides: “One reason why the British ruling class have endured so long is that every so often it opens its ranks and absorbs a handful of its own worst enemies.”
The IMF comes knocking, a right-wing union leader sparks an energy crisis, the Americans play dirty. There’s enough of a grain of truth to keep it just about plausible — even if the overall effect is one of paranoid conspiracy thriller, a very 1980s’ trope (see also the BBC’s Edge of Darkness and David Drury’s Defence of the Realm).
It’s pacily told, with twists and turns a plenty. If the book has a problem, it’s that it fades out with a rather whimperingly downbeat ending. Actually, the TV series does the story a service, with a last-minute surprise and a deliciously enigmatic cliffhanger which leaves us guessing whether Harry Perkins triumphs or fails.
by Stephen Tall on October 25, 2015
I’m late to the party on this, but what a fascinating memoir. Frank Skinner made the point in his own (brilliant) autobiography that you usually spend the first few chapters as a reader thinking to yourself “Hurry up and get famous”. Yet what’s gripping here is Alan Johnson’s unsparing and unsentimental recollection of growing up in grinding poverty in 1950-60s’ London.
“You may be poor, but don’t show poor.” That was the philosophy taught to Young Alan by a West London Mod. Observe the pin-smart Johnson today – crisp collars and double-cuffs – and you see the archetypal and authentic working-class pride which spurred him onto holding five cabinet posts. He had the John Major-esque back-story many politicians today would kill for. And that first-hand experience of the realities of squalid housing and hand-to-mouth living made Johnson a far more pragmatic politician than today’s ideologically zealous Corbynite Labour party allows.
The book has two heroes: his mother, Lily, plagued by chronic ill-health made worse by her working all hours to feed and clothe her family; and his sister, Linda, forced into premature grown-upness by the responsibility of looking after young Alan. There are also potential villains, notably Steve, Alan’s feckless father, who eventually deserts his family for another woman. Yet it’s a mark of the man and his writing that he seeks and finds (some) redemptive qualities even here.
It’s a story which cold easily have lapsed into Monty Pythonesque ‘Four Yorkshireman’ cliche (“we were happy in those days, though we were poor. / Aye. BECAUSE we were poor”). But it doesn’t: instead, its humanity, humility, perceptiveness and reflectiveness shine through.
by Stephen Tall on October 24, 2015
Here’s my post, published on The Times’s Red Box blog yesterday, on the Tories’ plans to cut tax credits – and how the Lib Dems are opposing them.
“We don’t support them. We don’t support them in the future.” So protested an angry George Osborne in April when his deputy at the Treasury, Lib Dem Danny Alexander, claimed the Conservatives had secret plans for welfare cuts, including slashing child tax credits.
This Mr Osborne was, presumably, entirely unrelated to the Chancellor who this week told the Treasury select committee that voters knew full well what the Tories would do: “it was signalled in the general election campaign and, I seem to remember, heavily debated”.
But it wasn’t just Mr Osborne who refused to notice his own signalling. So, too, did last week’s BBC Question Time audience sensation Michelle Dorrell, the Conservative voter who cried “Shame on you” at a government minister as she realised how she’d been duped. Presumably new Conservative MP Heidi Allen, who used her maiden speech in the Commons this week to attack her own government’s policy (“To pull ourselves out of debt, we should not be forcing those working families into it”), also failed to get his memo. As must Mr Osborne’s boss, David Cameron, who replied simply, “No, I don’t want to do that”, when asked during the election if the Tories had plans to cut tax credits.
Nick Clegg could be forgiven for reflecting on the rank unfairness of politics. He was vilified for U-turning on a pledge which, with just 9 per cent of MPs, he had no possibility of delivering. Yet the Conservative leader and his heir apparent, with an absolute Commons majority, are brazenly pretending white is black as they proclaim themselves “delighted” and “comfortable” with cuts they concealed from the voters which will see three million families lose an average of £1,000 a year.
For five years within government, the Lib Dems fought against these kinds of regressive Conservative plans. The party has no intention of giving up now it finds itself outside government. Though reduced to a rump in the Commons, the Lib Dems are strong in the House of Lords, with more than a hundred peers. Zahida Manzoor, the party’s Work and Pensions spokesperson, has tabled what’s known as a ‘fatal motion’ designed to torpedo the planned cuts. If passed, the Government will have to come up with a revised version of its proposals.
This has prompted vague talk among Conservatives that they may suspend the Lords or flood it with new Tory peers to ensure the cuts are passed. That would, indeed, be a Yes, Minister-esque brave and courageous decision, further undermining the legitimacy of the unelected House in order to force through a measure which penalises working families.
The only question still to be answered is whether the tax credits cuts will be the Tories’ poll tax revisited, or their version of Gordon Brown’s 10p tax fiasco. Whichever, it obliterates the claim some Conservatives were seeking to make on the title, the Workers’ Party. It’s the hard-working strivers – “the shift-worker, leaving home in the dark hours of the early morning,” as George Osborne once lauded them – who he is about to hit where it hurts.
Under normal conditions, this decision to needlessly inflict such pain on these voters would be political suicide. Except, of course, Labour has elected a leader chronically incapable of posing any kind of threat. The Tories have a wafer-thin majority masquerading as a landslide thanks to the reckless self-indulgence of Labour’s decision to abdicate its role as a credible party of government for as long as the Bennite Left is in charge. The gap between Cameron’s rhetoric and Conservative reality would be exploited by Her Majesty’s Opposition if it were itself in touch with reality. Both Conservative and Labour voters are being badly let down by their parties.
by Stephen Tall on October 23, 2015
This is my first weekly diary over at LibDemVoice today…
The maiden speech of Heidi Allen MP, Tory successor to Andrew Lansley in South Cambridgeshire, received acclaim this week for its outspoken attack on her party’s plans to slash tax credits for 13 million households. “To pull ourselves out of debt, we should not be forcing working families into it,” she told the Commons. Columnist Matthew d’Ancona lauded it as “remarkable… one of the defining texts of compassionate conservatism”, while the SNP’s working-class hero Mhairi Black congratulated her “on her honest and, if I may say so, rather courageous maiden speech”. The effect was slightly spoiled when it became clear Heidi wouldn’t actually be voting against her Government’s plans. But, still, the sentiment was doubtless appreciated by those at the sharp end… To be fair, it will have added to the pressure on George Osborne to execute if not a full U-turn, perhaps a semi J-turn.
The problem is the mitigating measures Tory MPs are putting forward – for example, further jacking up the personal allowance – benefit the middle-classes far more than those on low incomes. The blunt truth is there’s no need for these cuts to tax credits. The Tories, including Heidi Allen, promised £12bn welfare cuts at the May election assuming a second coalition with the Lib Dems would rescue them from the need to actually implement their policy. They still don’t have to go through with it, though. It is Osborne’s stupidly uber-macho decision to push further and faster than necessary to eliminate the deficit and generate a surplus this parliament which is forcing the issue. This is a Tory choice and one which apparently “delights” the Prime Minister. ‘Nuff said.
Speaking of odd Tory choices, this week’s red carpet treatment for China’s President Xi Jinping highlighted the absurdity of the Government’s failure to invest in infrastructure. As Vince Cable’s former advisor Giles Wilkes noted acerbically of the Chancellor’s trip to China last month: “Wish someone would explain why flying 15,000km to beg for Chinese cash is a better way of funding UK infrastructure than just borrowing at 3%.”
Trouble at t’Milne
Communist dependency brings me to Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to appoint The Guardian’s Seumas Milne as Labour’s director of communications and strategy. Much attention has focused on Milne’s tendency to sympathise with murderous dictatorships (Stalin, Putin, Milosovic) so long as they showed the redeeming quality of hating the West. Still, he once bought me a coffee at Guardian Towers and we had a perfectly convivial and very interesting conversation about politics, so he can’t be all bad… See, he’s not the only moral relativist.
Of more interest to the Labour party is whether he will be any good at the job. Key question: will he be able to see issues clear-sightedly from his opponents’ point of view? “Never neglect to think like a Tory,” advises John McTernan, Tony Blair’s former Director of Political Operations – a job title which guarantees his words will be dismissed by Corbynistas, whose only true experience of fighting and winning elections is against their own side. McTernan further notes: “Harold Wilson would always interrupt Bob Worcester’s polling presentations with the simple question – ‘What will the Tories do with this?’ Plans disintegrate on contact with the enemy because they have plans of their own. … do not for one moment believe in what you hope for.” Wise advice. But don’t expect it to be heeded. Labour’s ideologically hard-left leadership reminds me of Robert Rubin’s observation that “Some people are more certain of everything than I am of anything.”
McFlight of Fancy
[Insert strong segue here.] It was Back to the Future Day this week – in ‘Back to the Future, Part II’, Michael J. Fox’s Marty McFly travels to 21 October, 2015, to save his children, yet to be born in ‘Back to the Future’s’ 1985 – and NumberCrunchrPolitics reminded us of what that day’s Gallup opinion poll showed: Conservatives 32%, Labour 38%, Liberal/SDP Alliance 28%. I’m all for living in the present; but the past is sometimes tempting.
We All Love Canada
Congratulations to Justin Trudeau, who has led a fantastic Liberal fightback in Canada to oust Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. The only downside was the rather desperate search in the UK for extrapolations which fitted our own political preferences. Thus leftists claimed it as a victory for anti-austerity, while some liberals said it proved radical policies (like drugs legalisation) win elections. When I read through the Canadian Liberals’ top priorities – tax-cuts for the middle-class paid for by new wealth taxes; investment in infrastructure, especially green energy; and open and honest government, including electoral reform – it reminded me most of the Lib Dems’ 2010 manifesto. Still, at least Justin has a majority.
Term-time holidays are a classic liberal dilemma: where to draw the boundaries between parental autonomy and state intervention in children’s lives. Tim Farron has been leading the charge for change and the party’s new policy, approved at last month’s conference, calls for headteachers to have discretion to grant up to 10 days’ absence a year. That’s about 40 hours of learning. Personally, I’m with headteachers’ leader Russell Hobby: “Term time is for education. Regular absence will harm a child’s education. Common sense is also required. There are unique and infrequent family events, both joyful and tragic, that justify a short absence and will not harm an education. I just don’t think a cheaper holiday is one of them.” One thing’s for sure: I’m glad I’m not a headteacher having to try and make inherently subjective decisions while maintaining any sense of consistency.
I don’t have many problems with the Tory’s English-votes-for-English-laws (EVEL) proposals. Even that atrocious apology for a cabinet minister Chris Grayling can be right sometimes: “When health policy in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is made in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, MPs from those countries should not be able to be part of imposing health policy on England against the wishes of its MPs.” What I do have a problem with is the Barnett Formula, that 1970s’ patching job designed to buy off the SNP and prop up the Callaghan government, which David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband signed up to as part of their last-ditch ‘Vow’ to the Scottish people last year. Poorer parts of England, as well as Wales, suffer as a direct result.
Here’s a radical policy: public funding should be allocated to areas according to citizens’ relative needs, not a block grant based on where they live. I proposed this at an event at Lib Dem conference. A lady at the back piped up, “That’s all very well but can you wait until after the 2016 Scottish elections.” An updated version, I guess, of Augustine’s famous prayer, “Lord, make me pure – but not yet.”
by Stephen Tall on October 15, 2015
In case you’re one of the three people I know who hasn’t yet seen it, I was on the BBC’s Daily Politics programme yesterday, when they showed this 2-minute film:
It was enough to persuade former Sun editor Kelvin McKenzie to come good with his £5k cheque – which I mailed to Médecins Sans Frontières (UK) yesterday afternoon:
Kudos to him. And special thanks, too, to the 175 folk who’ve also contributed here: www.justgiving.com/stephentall. In total, almost £9.5k raised, so well worth it.