My must-reads this week February 20, 2015

by Stephen Tall on February 20, 2015

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

No, the Lib Dems are not being “saved” by first-past-the-post

by Stephen Tall on February 19, 2015

‘The Lib Dems have admitted that they are now relying on the first-past-the-post voting system to save them from a wipeout in May.’ (The Times)

‘… the Liberal Democrats will be saved from wipe out by the first-past-the-post system.’ (The Guardian)

It’s a meme I’ve seen repeated a lot. Oh, the irony!, it goes, Those Lib Dems banged on about electoral reform all those years and now they’re going to be saved by the voting system they wanted to change. Haha!

It’s rubbish, of course.

According to UKPollingReport’s rolling poll average, the Lib Dems are currently on 7% — that’s less than one-third of the vote the party won in 2010. Most commentators reckon that’ll convert into something like 20 to 30 seats. It would be worse, but for the fact that many of our MPs are well dug-in locally.

Twenty MPs would mean the Lib Dems have 3% of the seats in the House of Commons, less than half the 7% we’re currently polling.

If we actually polled 7% at the next election, and there was a proportional voting system, the Lib Dems would have about 45 MPs.

bar chartAnd in case that’s not clear enough, in true Lib Dem fashion I’ve drawn a bar chart. I think I’ve got the scales right, yes?

What is true is that compared to previous elections, first-past-the-post is less rigged against the Lib Dems than it has historically been.

It is not small parties that first-past-the-post discriminates against — the threat the SNP poses in Scotland disproves that.

It is, however, just as rigged against parties whose support is evenly spread as it has ever been… as Ukip and the Greens will discover in a few weeks’ time.

Listen to Caron Lindsay and me debate the “Lib Dem predicament” on Radio 4’s Westminster Hour

by Stephen Tall on February 16, 2015

On last night’s BBC Radio 4 Westminster Hour, my LibDemVoice colleague Caron Lindsay and I debated the Lib Dems’ chances at the next election and looked at what the manifesto means for the party’s strategy in the event of a second hung parliament.

You can hear our full 10-minute exchange here – it starts at about 36 minutes in. And you can hear a briefer clip here:

If you want to read a little more about why I said what I said, then these are the three key posts:

>> My prediction for the 2015 election;
>> My verdict on page 1 of the manifesto; and
>> My take on the Lib Dem election strategy of fighting for the liberal centre.

LibDemVoice Fantasy Football League: how it stands after Week 25

by Stephen Tall on February 14, 2015

No change in the top 10 this week, with George Murray’s Marauding Fullbacks continuing to lead the LibDemVoice Fantasy Football League after Week 25.

But let’s also hear it for three players outside the top 10: Will Barter (Mid-Table Meanderers) had last gamesweek’s best performance, with 70 points. Honourable mentions go to Max Wilkinson (Regency Spa Town) and Richard Farrance (Wirral_Rovers), with 68 and 67 points respectively.


There are 160 players in total and you can still join the league by clicking here.

Liberal Hero of the Week #88: The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart

by Stephen Tall on February 13, 2015

cf hero jon stewart

Jon Stewart

Presenter of US Comedy Central’s satirical The Daily Show
Reason: for promoting sane political discourse.

Jon Stewart, presenter of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (he really was born to present it), this week announced his retirement after 16 years at the helm. To US liberals, he’s something of a hero; to conservatives he’d be a bête noire if they could stomach the use of the foreign label.

A Democrat sympathiser, he rose to fame during the Bush II presidency, skewering the Administration’s response to 9/11 and the conduct of the second Iraq war. But that’s not why I’m nominating him as a Liberal Hero. Rather, it’s for his consistent pleas for reasoned political debate, civilised discourse.

Most famously, he did it when he confronted CNN’s Crossfire, accusing its theatrically disputatious presenters of “political hackery” and of “hurting America” by deliberately reducing news coverage to a verbal punch-up. A decade on, his arguments still hold up. Incidentally, a few months later Crossfire was axed — it never quite recovered from his pin-sharp questioning (it really is worth watching the following exchange in full if you haven’t seen it before):

But Jon Stewart didn’t stop there. Six years later, as US politics became ever more entrenched in its self-identification as a divided “Two Americas”, he helped launch the Rally to Restore Sanity, an attempt to reassert reasonableness in the public realm, which attracted some 215,000 people.

Here’s how he closed it, with an appeal not so much to some kind of mushy unity, but to respecting political differences without presuming on other folks’ bad faith. He was talking about America, but it applies just as much to our (admittedly much more toned-down) political debate here in the UK:

… we can have animus and not be enemies. But unfortunately, one of the main tools in delineating the two broke. The country’s 24-hour politico-pundit-perpetual-conflictinator did not cause our problems, but its existence makes solving them that much harder. The press can hold its magnifying glass up to our problems, bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen, or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire and then perhaps host a week of shows on the sudden, unexpected flaming ant epidemic. If we amplify everything, we hear nothing. …

Where we live, our values and principles form the foundation that sustains while we get things done, not the barriers that prevent us from getting things done. Most Americans don’t live their lives solely as Democrats, Republicans, liberals, or conservatives. Americans live their lives more as people that are just a little bit late for something they have to do, often something they do not want to do. But they do it, impossible things every day that are only made possible through the little, reasonable compromises we all make.

Jon Stewart is a rare combination: an idealistic satirist, who wants to provoke politicians and the media to be better, to live up to their own intelligence, not dumb down to what they assume the public wants. I don’t think we have an equivalent in the UK, where satire equates to slagging everyone off because.

But we can hope.

* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.

My must-reads this week February 13, 2015

by Stephen Tall on February 13, 2015

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

Lib Dem manifesto launched. It’s kinda fine. But here’s what’s missing…

by Stephen Tall on February 12, 2015

lib dem manifesto 2015The Lib Dems have today proudly published page 1 of the party’s 2015 election manifesto. Serialising your own policy book is a new way to drum up interest. Though — *spoiler alert* — tomorrow’s instalment, page 2, may be less so: [This page has been intentionally left blank.]. 

As ever when a Lib Dem policy announcement is made there’s an inevitable row about the sign-off process. Did the party’s elected Federal Policy Committee approve it, etc? Though I fully recognise the importance of the party’s democratic structures — apart from anything else, they give the Lib Dem leadership much greater leverage in hung parliament negotiations (“I’d love to say yes, but I know my members won’t”) — I don’t overly care about that. To be honest, most of our messages already suffer from being too obviously written by committee.

Usually I’m all for cutting the leadership and its advisers some slack. Party activists are an uppity lot, sometimes rightly, but oftentimes keener to put the boot in than is either fair or accurate. However, reading the comments on LibDemVoice and on Twitter/Facebook the complaint against the front page’s 5 priorities — that they are, to borrow Lord Fink’s phrase, “vanilla” — seem undeniable.

Vanilla policies. I’ve always been more of a Neapolitan guy

The economy, taxes, education, health and the environment. I mean, I can hardly complain they’re not big issues: they are. And I’m sure the party’s strategy director Ryan Coetzee has tested them out with our key voting audiences and found they respond well. So what’s my problem?

These five issues are billed as our red lines for any Coalition negotiations: up without these we will not put. But let’s look at the items on the list…

Economy – “balancing the budget fairly”. The party’s decision to eliminate the deficit but allow borrowing-to-invest is sensible, certainly more so than the Tories’ theological pursuit of an absolute surplus. Essentially, the Lib Dems and Labour, though they differ on the details, are proposing the same policy here. Net: more spending.

Taxes – “raising the tax-free allowance to £12,500″. An expensive brag of a policy which will do most for the better off. If we can afford tax cuts (I’m not sure we can) we should, as I’ve said for at least two years, focus on raising the National Insurance threshold to benefit the most low-paid. Net: more spending.

Education – “guarantee education funding from nursery to 19″. Real-terms rises on a per pupil basis are more generous than the Tories’ promise of a flat cash settlement (a de facto 10.5% cut) and of Labour’s promise of real terms rise in the overall budget at a time when pupil numbers are rising (a de facto 9.5% cut). Net: more spending.

Health – “£8bn to improve our NHS”. That was the amount NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens said the health service needed (over and above inflation increases) in the next five years to meet the needs of an ageing population with  more complex physical and mental care requirements. Net: more spending.

Environment – “Protect nature and fight climate change”. To be achieved through “five laws”, details here (a mix of energy efficiency, zero waste, renewables investment, decarbonisation, clean transport). Net: more spending.

More public spending: the answer to everything

You may notice a theme there. Each one of the five highlighted areas requires more public spending.

Some of these are justified. I think it’s right, for instance, that we borrow-to-invest (Gordon Brown’s Golden Rule was a good one even if it’s become subsequently tarnished). I’d like to see the Lib Dem Pupil Premium, currently £2.5bn per annum, continued to support schools help the most disadvantaged pupils. And in healthcare, I think there’s little alternative but to combine investment and reform to give the NHS a chance in the next five years.

One is spectacularly unjustified: tax-cuts.

Taken as a whole, it’s hard to know how we will square the circle of promising both to balance the books and spend lots and lots more money.

Housing, immigration. We’re liberals: we can’t ignore these issues

But it’s not the SPEND MOAR nature of these five policies which bothers me as much as their mushy indistinguishability. We’ll spend more on infrastructure, on schools and on hospitals and on renewables. I’m not saying any of these are bad things; they’re probably mostly good things. Even raising the personal allowance to the level of the minimum wage is a good idea in principle (just not a priority now).

But I’m not sure how these set us apart from Labour, or indeed the Greens. I don’t like the idea of political success being measured by financial inputs (money’s usually a necessary but not sufficient condition of success).

And I don’t see enough to rebuild our support among the part of the electorate most likely to vote for us: young people. A clear commitment to increase house-building — as the party’s begun to set out here — would have helped.

So, too, would accepting immigration’s a top issue, whether we want it to be or not. Being the party that’s not afraid to stand up to Ukip on this — being clear the system can be improved so that (exaggerated) abuses are curtailed but the UK continues to be welcoming to those who come here to build their lives — would allow us to develop our brand as a genuinely liberal party that’s not afraid to stick up for policies that help those who need most help.

My ConHome column: Lib Dems have ticked Coalition off the bucket list. Do we really want to do it again?

by Stephen Tall on February 12, 2015

con home cartoonHere’s my latest The Other Side column for ConservativeHome, published here on Tuesday. 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.

“I’m afraid to say, I think this is about as good as it gets.” That was the fatalistic verdict of one long-standing Lib Dem friend on whether he thought the Coalition had been worth it in the end.

I knew what he meant. I guess even the more realistic of us had hoped our first taste of government would turn out better, easier. We’d get some of our policies agreed (check), we’d stop some of their policies with which we disagreed (check), and we’d make coalition government work (check). Simple! Then all we had to do was reform the voting system and await our reward from a grateful electorate. After all, hadn’t the voters always said they liked the idea of parties working together in the national interest, compromising where necessary? There’s a harsh lesson learned: never trust the public. They’re deeply unreliable.

It all sounds pretty naïve now. Which, of course, was my fatalistic friend’s point… The junior partner in a two-party electoral system is almost certain to be screwed over. In the circs, then, we’ve not done such a bad job with the cards we were dealt in May 2010; but it was never a winning hand. Yet there are those in my party — perhaps the majority — who dismiss this line of argument as too deterministic, who say that it absolves the party leadership of blame for the mistakes (tuition fees, NHS reforms, bedroom tax) undoubtedly made.

Working our way backwards through the grief cycle

I’m told there are usually five stages in grief. I think  Lib Dems have been working our way backwards through them. We began, in May 2010, with acceptance: the pain that ‘Cleggmania’ had won us more votes yet lost us seats was eased by the enjoyable novelty of being in government for the first time in living memory. Then came depression, brought on by that U-turn and the AV referendum defeat and the continuing recession and the hemorrhaging of membership and the rejection of Lords reform. We tried to regain control as we moved into bargaining: we vetoed the re-drawing of constituency boundaries and began stridently differentiating ourselves from our coalition partners. When still the polls didn’t improve, and we saw yet more councillors scythed down and 90% of our MEPs vanquished, anger asserted itself: briefly, last summer, it seemed Nick Clegg might be forced out. But that moment passed.

What does that leave us with? Oh yes, the first stage of grief: denial. Maybe you think I mean denial of the result that awaits us? Actually, no. I think most Lib Dems are straightforwardly stoic, expecting us to make heavy losses. My own guesstimate that we will win 32 seats is roughly mid-way between the pessimists (c.20) and the optimists (c.40). No, the denial I’m talking about is the notion, popular on both the left-leaning Social Liberal and right-leaning Orange Book wings of the party, that we should shun the liberal centre in favour of a radical agenda which will, they are convinced, win back the voters who have deserted us.

They’re each honourable positions. The problem with both of them, though, is that they rely on the Lib Dems being able to defy electoral gravity, leaping in one bound into a government in which we set the agenda. But that just ain’t going to happen. The Lib Dems’ only route into government for the forseeable future is in coalition with either of the two main parties. That necessarily means compromise, pegging the Lib Dems as the party of moderate, fair-minded pragmatism. Clegg’s embrace of the ‘liberal centre’ isn’t even a choice: it’s an inevitability which the party has either to follow willingly or unwillingly.

There is, of course, an alternative (pace Mrs T, there always is and, realist that she was, she often pursued it). To serve in government only on our own terms; almost certainly, this means no formal coalition, though it probably leaves space for more ad hoc arrangements which keep the government going while keeping it in check.

Power at any price? No, thanks

I was struck — gob-smacked would be nearer the mark — by a tweet from the Financial Times’s Janan Ganesh last week: ‘Even if Lib Dems fall to 1% in the polls, it was worth it. The point of politics is power. The alternative was cruising at 25% to no end.’ I’ll put temporarily to one side my objection to the idea that power is an end in itself, when it is, or should be, solely a means; though I found his remark unintentionally revealing of a certain type of entitled conservative mindset.

But Ganesh’s view is even more revealing of a Westminster-centric view of politics which needs challenging. Prior to May 2010, the Lib Dems had helped run national governments in Scotland and Wales — that future prospect now seems remote and distant; we had almost 4,000 pavement-pounding councillors slogging their guts out for their local communities — their number has been almost halved; and we had 11 MEPs fighting the British liberal corner in the European parliament — today we have just one lone representative. Much of the Lib Dem power-base built up while ‘cruising at 25%’ has been lost since the Coalition was formed.

To be clear, I’m not arguing my party made the wrong choice when, five years’ ago, we decided to throw our lot in with your lot: we had to give coalition a go, suck it and see. We can now say we’ve ticked it off our bucket list. But if, as my fatalistic friend says (and I think he’s right) this really is “about as good as it gets”, is a ‘Liberal-Conservative Coalition 2.0′ worth the repeat fees?

Until recently, I would probably have said yes on the utilitarian grounds that (here my defeated councillor friends should avert their eyes) a miserly sliver of national power is better than a generous slice of local power. What’s changing my mind is the increasing sense I have that Conservative MPs are getting pretty comfortable with the idea of extending the contract. Why? Because they realise things have mostly (though by no means wholly) gone their way so far; and they reason that, as the Lib Dems will be in a weaker position after May, things will be even more likely to go further the Conservative way in the next five years. Just as that logic reassures them, it worries me. I don’t believe in power at any price.

Do I want a Coalition Second Coming?

So what would I like to see happen if the Conservatives are in a position to form another coalition with my party? Well, we should certainly sit down and talk. To be a liberal is to be a pluralist, to recognise that two heads are usually better than one — so long as you don’t lose your own in the process.

Conservatives might think the EU in/out referendum will be a show-stopper. It won’t. The main reason the Lib Dems aren’t already offering it in this May’s manifesto is to retain it as a bargaining chip for future negotiations (to be honest, it’s hard for the party with Democrat in its name to be against giving the voters a say).

Harder to resolve will be two fundamental issues on which the parties now have starkly divergent attitudes. First, the economy: Lib Dems are fully signed-up to bringing the deficit down while borrowing to invest in infrastructure; the Conservatives to generating an absolute budget surplus. And, secondly, welfare: the Conservatives will need to cut this budget harder and faster (except for pensioners, obvs) if they’re to have a hope of funding their promised higher-rate tax-cuts. Perhaps there’s a way of squaring this circle. There always is with enough political will.

Ironically, a deal would be likelier if Tim Farron were leading the party than with Nick Clegg at its head. Farron, the social liberal leader-in-waiting who’s spent four years touring the country cheering up the troops, has much more political capital to spend. Clegg, by contrast, will have a tough, tough job selling to party members a deal many will believe involves selling their souls.

How would I vote if a Coalition proposal were on the table? It would, of course, depend on what it says (will it create “a stronger economy in a fairer society, enabling everyone to get on in life” blah blah). Over and above that, I would want to know the answer to one question. I’m not a deeply tribal person, but this would be key: How would the Coalition’s Second Coming re-build the Liberal Democrats’ strength across the country? Because we cannot grow liberalism by retreating to three dozen fortresses. And if that’s as good as it gets, then I’m afraid that’s not good enough for me.

PS: I ran out of space to ask the question, ‘For Nick Clegg to stay, the Lib Dems need to “confound expectations” – what does that mean?’. So I wrote about it here.

PPS: Over at LibDemVoice, James King has written a good, pithy case against Coalition 2.0 here.

For Nick Clegg to stay, the Lib Dems need to “confound expectations”. What does that mean?

by Stephen Tall on February 10, 2015

Nick-CleggWhat is the ‘Clegg threshold’? That’s a question I intended to touch on in my ConHome column today – looking at the prospect of a Lib-Con Coalition 2.0 – but didn’t manage to fit it in.

Though I think it’s likely Nick Clegg will depart soon after the 7th May election, it’s by no means certain.

Assuming he holds his Sheffield Hallam seat (and I still do make that assumption) and assuming he still has the appetite (and I’m told he does) then it will hinge on whether the Lib Dem result “confounds expectations”. But what does that mean?

Expectations among Lib Dems have taken a nose-dive since the Coalition was formed. Once, dipping below 50 seats would have been seen as disastrous. Today, it would seem a bloody miracle if it were that good.

This can be seen in the Coalition Tracker questions I’ve asked in LibDemVoice’s members’ surveys:

>> In July 2010, 23% thought the Coalition would be “good for the Lib Dems’ electoral prospects at the next general election” – 17% thought it would make no difference. Less than half, 43%, said it would be bad.
>> Even in March 2013, when I first asked “How many Lib Dem MPs do you think will be elected at the next general election (expected in May 2015)?”, 28% of Lib Dem members reckoned the party would retain at least 50 MPs. Just 13% thought the party would dip below 30. This was, of course, in the immediate afterglow of the Eastliegh by-election victory.
>> Last time I asked that question, in November 2014, just 3% of party members expected Lib Dems to top 50 seats; 37% reckoned we’d collapse below 30. (The plurality, 43%, estimated 30-40 seats, which remains my prediction.)

Indeed, so low have expectations now sunk, at least among the commentariat, that an argument could be made they’ve been confounded if the Lib Dems keep our heads above the 30-seat mark. My gut instinct suggests the following thresholds:

Below 30 seats – Nick Clegg would quit (probably immediately, though he may hold on long enough for the party to sort out a mechanism for replacing him as leader).
Above 45 seats – this would be seen as a vindication of his leadership and Nick would almost certainly stay on.

However, that leaves a wide grey area – 30-45 seats – where things are less certain. And of course even that grey area is even more blurred at the edges… 30 MPs is psychologically preferable to 29, but almost as disastrous; and 44 seats would be almost as colossal a relief as 45.

Another factor would be the performance of the other parties. If the Lib Dems finish on 32 MPs and the numbers for another coalition, whether with Tories or Labour, just don’t stack up, it’s hard to see Nick staying on as leader of the third(?) party in opposition.

One final factor… Tim Farron is the undoubted favourite to succeed Nick as leader. But other MPs (most likely Norman Lamb, possibly Ed Davey or Alistair Carmichael) who fancy a tilt will want to have some time to be able to mount an effective challenge, and will want Nick to delay stepping down as long as possible.

My fellow Lib Dem blogger Mark Pack is fond of highlighting the fact that ‘Leaderless parties don’t make for good partners in hung Parliaments’:

If any party wants to make a deal with another but also insists on the leader of that other party going, they’ll have ended up defeating themselves – because without the other party having a leader, there won’t be a deal.

He’s absolutely right. But the extension of his logic points to another, very different, conclusion: there also won’t be a deal if there’s internal uncertainty about the party leader’s future. After all, if I were in Labour/Tory shoes, I would want to make sure I was signing a deal with the decision-maker who can make the coalition stick, not with a “here today and, if I may say so, gone tomorrow” leader.

That could leave the Lib Dems with a tricky ‘hung parliament’ dilemma after May if we end up in the grey area.

“You are using a rose tinted brain”. My reply to an unsolicited correspondent.

by Stephen Tall on February 7, 2015

Here’s a cheery email I received this week in response to my latest column at Total Politics, ‘We Lib Dems are stuck between being ignored and unpopular’ — a title which I’d have thought suggested realism but which my correspondent thinks suggests otherwise…

(Click on the image to enlarge.)

total politics comment

Here, for the record, is my reply. I kept it brief…

total politics comment - reply


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