by Stephen Tall on May 18, 2013
Here’s the remark attributed to ‘a member of the Prime Minister’s inner circle’ according to the Telegraph:
“There’s really no problem,” the Conservative figure said about the parliamentary turmoil. “The MPs just have to do it because the associations tell them to, and the associations are all mad swivel-eyed loons.”
There is an obvious point here (and it’s the reason why whoever said it will soon be resigned): don’t diss your own supporters. ‘Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican,’ was Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment. It was as much a statement of survival as it was a declaration of loyalty.
But beyond that, the greatest sin committed here (as with any gaffe) is that it contains a substantial slab of truth. The Tory party is consumed by two issues — same-sex marriage and Europe — which matter greatly to them and much less so to most voters.
In the case of same-sex marriage, poll after poll shows most voters supportive. And in the case of Europe, where the Tories are closer to pubic opinion, the ferocity of their opposition is more likely to bemuse than inspire.
As I pointed out here, the party has spent a fortnight banging on and on about Europe at a time when the economic news is (relatively speaking) the best since the Coalition came to power. When you spend your time talking only about an issue that most voters rank low down their priorities and neglect the issue that will decide the next election… well, that’s the definition of obsession.
Many a wag on Twitter has been pointing out that all party activists are by definition “loons”. True enough. Tim Farron labelled Lib Dems “nutters” (affectionately) a few months ago: who else goes and delivers leaflets and knocks on strangers’ doors in all weather?
But there’s a more serious point where the Tories are concerned — after all, what does being a member of the Tory party actually mean? No say in policy-making, no voice at party conferences, increasingly no right to choose your own local candidate.
Whatever complaints Lib Dems may have about our internal party democracy (and yes, the leadership ignored members on secret courts), this much can be said: at least we still have the right to resign our membership in protest from the conference floor. You wouldn’t have even the chance to do that in the Tory party.
Membership is declining in all parties. As I wrote a few weeks ago:
The old political tribes are fragmenting. There are barely 350,000 card-carrying members of the main three parties today: Labour c.190,000 members, the Tories c.130,000, and the Lib Dems c.40,000. That’s one-tenth of what it was in the 1950s in the old and certain days of two-party politics. The nucleus that remain as dues-paying members today are disproportionately the most zealous, the most convinced; it’s unsurprising they’re finding it hard to come to terms with the politics of compromise, the new normal. …
Frustration: that’s what happens when ideologues bump up against the realisation their ideology doesn’t command majority support. And frustration is never a constructive catalyst. It’s usually irrational — and that’s just how the Tory party is reacting.
The less power you give party members, the more irresponsible their dwindling numbers become. As the Tory party is finding out, the hard way.
by Stephen Tall on May 17, 2013
I’ve long been a fan of the Guardian Politics Weekly podcast hosted by Tom Clark. (If, like me, you spend up to four hours a day commuting then podcasts aren’t just a nice-to-have.) So I was genuinely delighted to join the panel yesterday — alongside Melissa Kite and Randeep Ramesh — to discuss the Tories’ latest hara kiri on Europe, and Theresa May’s latest attempt to woo the right and antagonise liberals by extending Labour’s ‘life means life’ prison tariffs.
by Stephen Tall on May 16, 2013
A hung parliament against the backdrop of a teetering economy. Parties divided over Europe. The cracks in the UK fuelling separatist demands. The whips are desperately trying to maintain order.
It’s 1974 and the corridors of Westminster ring with the sound of infighting and backbiting as Britain’s political parties battle to change the future of the nation, whatever it takes. In this hung parliament, the ruling party holds on by a thread. Votes are won and lost by one, fist fights erupt in the bars, and ill MPs are hauled in to cast their votes. It’s a time when a staggering number of politicians die, and age-old traditions and allegiances are thrown aside in the struggle for power.
And the good news is that if you haven’t had chance to see it in either of its two sell-out runs in London, then you can watch it live on a screen near you today, Thursday 16th May, as part of the excellent National Theatre Live series. Here’s the trailer:
* Mild spoilers follow *
I saw it this week. The good news is that if you’re a political geek like me (glued to bank holiday election night re-runs?) you’ll love it. The further good news is that if you’re not a political geek (and fear for the sanity of those who’d spend a sunny day indoors watching a too-young-looking David Dimbleby and a cigar-chomping Robin Day) you’ll also love it.
The script is sharp, funny, intelligent, subtle (in fact, pretty much everything The Politician’s Husband wasn’t). The acting is sublime, the ’70s’ music spot-on, and the stage direction (Big Ben looming, rotating green benches, the Speaker introducing everyone by name) keeps everything ticking pacily along.
The central players — the Labour and Tory whips in the 1974-79 parliament — will be largely unknown to all but the uber-politicos: that’s good as it enables the audience to engage with characters who aren’t mere impersonations (though the cameo appearances of more well-known figures like Norman St John Stevas, Michael Heseltine and David Steel are all enjoyable). The deputies — Labour’s Walter Harrison and the Tories’ Jack Weatherill — are the real protagonists, each gradually bending towards their parties’ more classless destinies.
The themes are timeless and timely… How much (if any) compromise can be justified, not least to yourself? How far does, and should, party loyalty hold sway? To what lengths would you go in pursuit of victory? Is it right to make friends with your enemy’s enemies? And can you survive the machinations, intrigue and skulduggery necessary to succeed and still remember the ideals that motivated you in the first place?
James Graham lets no-one off the hook, including the electorate (one of the flaws of much modern political drama/satire is its cowardly refusal to hold a mirror up to the audience). Yet even the most stereotypical, played-for-laughs characters are permitted some redemptive reflection. And the ending, when Walter and Jack arrive at a selfless stand-off, has a crisp, unashamed nobility to it.
Politics is little different from most careers, much of life: flawed humans, mostly trying to do good, sometimes succeeding, and sometimes failing. That’s the reality This House is unafraid to show: the funny mess that is politics is the human condition played out on the theatrical stage of Parliament.
by Stephen Tall on May 16, 2013
116 Tory MPs last night backed an amendment to the Queen’s Speech and called for an EU referendum bill. Here’s six thoughts from me on what it all means…
This wasn’t about Europe (much): this was about Cameron’s leadership
The Tory outers/Eurosceptics had already won: David Cameron capitulated in January, conceding an in/out referendum he’d tried hard to dodge. But that wasn’t enough for them. So they forced the Tory leader to capitulate again this week, forcing him to rush out a draft Bill legislating for just such a referendum and saying he’d love to pass if it weren’t for those pesky Lib Dems. But that still wasn’t enough to appease the head-banging contingent, so he was forced to re-capitulate by offering a free vote on the not-so-rebel Baron/Bone amendment regretting the failure of the Government’s own Queen’s Speech to call for a referendum right now.
This wasn’t about a European referendum, not really. This was about Tory backbenchers rubbing the Prime Minister’s nose in it, showing him who’s boss. For all that it’s three years since the Coalition was formed, those five days in May still frame most of today’s arguments.
Tory backbenchers remain irritated that David Cameron failed to win the May 2010 election. But more than that (much more) they are irritated that he then chose to form a Coalition with the Lib Dems. The tactically shrewd thing to do, they say — and on this they’re undoubtedly right — would have been to offer a Coalition, then make conditions the Lib Dems couldn’t accept, rule for a few months as a minority government by proposing some populist Tory measures on immigration and welfare which would have been voted down, then call a second election in October 2010, and win an outright majority. The further into this parliament we get the more astounding it is that Mr Cameron didn’t go down this path.
Of course, Mr Cameron would say he was doing the right thing for the nation. Maybe. I suspect a personal desperation to get into Downing Street counted for quite a lot too. Whatever the motivation, though, the effect is the same. Right-wing Tories are blocked from pursuing the agenda they want to — and they don’t like it.
Last year, their frustration bubbled over because of Lords reform (promised in their last three manifestos as well as the Coalition Agreement, but no matter). This year it’s Europe. But ultimately it’s all about David Cameron’s two big failures: not beating Gordon Brown outright and not holding his nerve by pursuing a minority government. Too many Tories just can’t forgive him for those errors, especially now they see Ukip profiting from them.
The Conservative Party is losing its fitness to govern
It was assumed the Lib Dems would be the flaky ones in the Coalition. Far from it. The party dipped its collective hand in the blood when sealing the Coalition Agreement and there has been no attempt since then to go back on the deal. Tensions, yes. Withdrawal, never. The only serious threat to the future of the Coalition has been the result of the Tories failing to keep their side of the bargain (Lords reform), and now with their MPs beating up on their own leader.
The Tory backbenchers are unruly, which makes it difficult for the Tories to rule. Those Tory backbenchers wondering why David Cameron was so desperate to avoid leading a minority government (followed by possible a too-close-for-comfort majority after a hypothetical October 2010 election) need only look in the mirror.
Only David Cameron can win a referendum
This is the other part of the explanation for Tory MPs’ nervousness about the Prime Minister’s intentions. David Cameron has said, quite explicitly, that he wants to re-negotiate the UK’s terms and then lead a ‘Yes to the EU’ campaign. Not surprisingly, Tory ‘outers’ don’t relish that prospect.
And here’s the uncomfortable truth for those of us in the better-off-in camp: Mr Cameron is our best hope. As I’ve pointed out before, logically there is only one way to vote in 2015 if you want to be sure the UK stays in the EU: vote Tory.
The Tories’ EU obsessiveness is drowning out the relatively better economic news
This week’s news agenda has been crowded out by Tory divisions over Europe. The relatively good economic news has, as a result, received barely a hearing. Hardly a mention of recovering consumer confidence in the state of the economy. Easy to ignore the Bank of England’s revised forecast for stronger growth than previously expected. Not even time for any passing, tasteless schadenfreude that Socialist-led France has returned to recession. The Tories were just too, too busy banging on about Europe.
(To be clear: the UK’s economic growth is still likely to be anaemic. That the news is hailed as good says more about how low our expectations now are. However, the plain political fact remains the Government will now claim credit for an economy fumbling its way towards growth.)
The Lib Dem position is consistent and right (doesn’t make it easy to defend)
The Lib Dems have stuck to our guns: an in/out referendum the next time there’s a major treaty. That was the party’s view five years ago when Lisbon was being debated. It was the party’s manifesto commitment in 2010. And it is now Coalition Government policy.
None of which makes it easy to defend, though. The Tories say we should ask the people now: and we’re saying not yet. Tough sell. But when politicians avoid the easy choice (in this case conceding a referendum) it’s actually worth asking why. The answer’s clear: we don’t yet know what shape or form the EU will take once the Eurozone crisis is resolved (which may happen peaceably or messily). Ask the question now and you may end up having to ask it again in three years’ time.
Credit to Ed Miliband: he’s got this big call right (but will he stick to it?)
Ed Miliband could’ve done a John Smith this week: used clever, lawyerly parliamentary tactics to cause maximum mayhem for the Government. He didn’t. Critics will say it’s because Labour’s unsure what its policy should be on a referendum. There’s clearly an element of truth in that. But the bigger truth, I suspect, is that Mr Miliband knows for sure what he wants to avoid: saddling himself with the promise of a referendum which could tie any future Labour government up in knots on an issue they don’t care that much about.
Commit to an in/out referendum now, and if he wins in 2015 the Labour leader will have to invest huge political capital fighting for UK membership of the EU against a hostile right-wing press and a new Tory leader who will, almost certainly, be an ‘outer’. Chances are he’d lose. Ed Miliband can see that unalluring prospect and is desperate to avoid it, rightly. Whether he can withstand the pressure to cave between now and the next election is another matter though.
by Stephen Tall on May 15, 2013
Caron’s already given you the 70 minute warning that Nick Clegg is standing in for David Cameron at PMQs today at 12 noon. The Mail’s Matt Chorley has a suggestion for his best approach to the head-banging wing of the Tory party:
The best way for Nick Clegg to deal with Tory Eurosceptics at PMQs today is to answer all their questions in Dutch
— Matt Chorley (@MattChorley) May 15, 2013
The Lib Dem press office took him at his word:
.@mattchorley Doe niet zo gek, zeg: we houden het sportief vandaag!
— Lib Dem Press Office (@LibDemPress) May 15, 2013
Go on, Nick: dare you…
Lib Dem attitudes to poverty and welfare: 3 interesting findings from today’s Joseph Rowntree Foundation report
by Stephen Tall on May 14, 2013
Three interesting findings from today’s report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) — Public attitudes to poverty and welfare 1983-2011 — carried out by NatCen Social Research, exploring public attitudes to poverty and welfare over the past three decades.
1) Interestingly… Lib Dem supporters are less likely than Labour supporters to believe that people live in need because of laziness or a lack of willpower.
… the individualistic viewpoint, that people live in need because of laziness or a lack of willpower, gained favour among supporters of all three main political parties between 1994 and 2003, a period which covered much of the Labour Party’s first two terms in office. However, whilst by 2010, this belief among Conservative and Liberal Democrat supporters had fallen back to the levels measured in 1986, among Labour supporters the increase in this view has been sustained (13% held this view in 1986 compared with 22% in 2010).
2) Interestingly… there seems to have been a sharp up-tick in Lib Dem supporters supporting increased spending on welfare benefits since the Coalition began — a finding at odds with the common perception that the party’s supporters must now be more ‘right-leaning’ since 2010.
we see that Labour Party supporters have always been the most likely to agree that the government should spend more on welfare benefits for the poor, but that their support for this proposition has declined more than any other group over time. In 1987, 73% of Labour Party supporters agreed that the government should spend more on welfare benefits for the poor, compared with 36% now (a decline of 36 percentage points). The support of Conservative Party and Liberal Democrat supporters for extra spending in this area declined by 21 and 28 percentage points respectively during the same period. As show in Figure 9, this decline occurred throughout both the Conservative and Labour terms in office, though we cannot yet be confident that it is continuing into the Coalition term.
3) Interestingly… the proportion of Lib Dems agreeing welfare recipients do not deserve help has fallen since the formation of the Coalition.
Figure 5 reveals that, nevertheless, the attitudes of supporters of different political parties have behaved in far from consistent ways. Among Labour supporters, the proportion holding a negative view increased by 10 percentage points between 1987 and 2011 (and by 14 percentage points when it had reached its high point in 2005), with the bulk of this increase occurring during the period in which Labour were in power. This endorses the view, reported elsewhere, that during this period, the views of Labour supporters followed the policy directions adopted by their party (Curtice, 2010). Over the entire period, the proportion of supporters of other parties who agreed with this view, despite some fluctuations, remained relatively stable.