Peter Kellner’s 5 reasons why the fundamentals favour the Tories in 2015

by Stephen Tall on April 14, 2014

Peter Kellner today assesses the lie of the polling land – and concludes it’s looking good for the Conservatives. This in spite of the fact they still trail Labour by around 5% in most polls. Why? He lists 5 fundamentals which favour David Cameron:

1) The economy is improving – and voters are noticing. A year ago, 74% said economy was in a bad state; just 4% said it was good. Today, just 43% say ‘bad’, while 22% say ‘good’. Add in the 32% who say ‘neither good nor bad’ (up from 19% a year ago) and 54% think Britain is no longer in the mire – a sharp contrast from 23% a year ago.
2) This time last year, the verdict on the coalition’s handling of the economy was a terrible minus 35 (28% said ‘well’, 63% ‘badly’). Now, the gap has closed to just minus six – 42% well, 48% badly.
3) A year ago, Labour and Conservative were running neck-and-neck on which of them would be better at running the economy. The Tories have now opened up an 11-point lead.
4) Although Cameron’s personal rating has slipped in the past few days, from minus nine to minus 16 (38% say he is doing well, 54% badly), he is still ahead of where he was a year ago – and well ahead of both Ed Miliband (minus 26) and Nick Clegg (minus 51).
5) Cameron also leads Miliband head-to-head when people are asked who would make the best Prime Minister; our latest figures put the Tory leader 16 points ahead, 36-20%.

These findings lead him to a stark conclusion:

I can find no example of a party losing an election when it is ahead on both leadership and economic competence. If Britain’s recovery is sustained (especially if living standards start to improve) and Cameron is able to maintain his lead over Miliband, then we are likely to see a swing back from Labour to Conservative over the next 12 months – as we have every time in the past half century that a Conservative Prime Minister has led his or her party into a general election.

At which point I wheel out my not-at-all-scientific polynomial polling trendline suggesting the Tories are on course for a 6% lead by May 2015. When I first published it last year, I said it was just a bit of fun. It’s starting to look serious…


My recommended reading for today April 13, 2014

by Stephen Tall on April 13, 2014

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

Jeremy Browne’s ‘Race Plan’. I’ve read it, so here’s my review…

by Stephen Tall on April 13, 2014

Jeremy Browne bookThree points to make right from the start about Jeremy Browne’s new book, Race Plan.

First, it’s a wholly Good Thing that a Lib Dem MP is choosing to think aloud, to set out clearly his views. Nick Clegg having decided that he did, after all, like one of the Beecroft recommendations and decided to fire-at-will his home office minister, Jeremy could have slunk away, tail between his legs, to nurse his bitterness. He’s chosen a rather more constructive outlet for his disappointment. By which I mean this book, rather than his short-lived, C.19th-throwback, gap year beard.

Secondly, there is a fundamental problem with the central conceit of this book: that Britain is in a global race, and that if we don’t get fitter, we’ll be overtaken by or competitors in the coming Asian Century, fall behind, and become poorer. This notion has been debunked by many – Ryan Bourne makes the point very well here:

A race implies having winners and losers: if China is doing better, then we must be doing worse. In trade terms this is a thoroughly mercantilist outlook, which was of course thoroughly debunked by David Hume and Adam Smith 250 years ago. They recognised, rightly, that trading through comparative advantage increases prosperity for all. If you can understand that, then it quickly follows that the rise of a large Chinese middle-class is a huge opportunity for us, not a threat. Economic evidence suggests that as people’s incomes increase, their demand for services increase much more quickly than their demand for manufactured goods. In many of these services, high-valued added manufacturing and creative industries, the UK has potential strengths.

In his (very good) LDV review here Nick Thornsby I think over-generously exculpates Jeremy of this charge, quoting one line from the Race Plan: “The comforting truth is that, just because one country gets richer, it does not follow that another country gets poorer. Global economic growth is not a zero-sum game: we can all get richer.” But this is just one line – the rest of the book is underpinned by an assumption that, in the ‘Global Race’, if Britain’s not winning then we’re losing.

Thirdly, the title’s a bad title. I don’t just mean ‘Race Plan’ (though the casual readers could be forgiven for inferring the book’s about eugenics rather than economic and political reform), I mean the sub-title: ‘An authentic liberal plan to get Britain fit for ‘The Global Race’’. It’s hard to see that word ‘authentic’ as anything other than a provocation to folk like my co-editor Caron Lindsay, as she punchily but fairly noted here: “Browne’s claim to the “authentic liberalism” mantle is a bit like sticking two fingers up to all the lefties and telling them to all bog off and join Labour if they don’t like it.”

It’s perfectly possible to think that every idea in Jeremy’s book can be termed ‘liberal’ (and I do) and yet not necessarily agree with them all (and I don’t – as you’ll see below). As a classical liberal, Jeremy should be a little less monopolistic of the term; just as those who condemn his views as illiberal should aim to be a little less enslaved by conformity.

Enough of the Preamble. Race Plan itself is what I think many people who never read it assume The Orange Book was, but actually wasn’t: an unabashed prescription for free market economic liberalism in Britain.

The anti-Statist who admires the state and State of China

The first two chapters are a breathless paean to the “multi-dimensional shift in the global order” – not simply the emergence of the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) but of many other fast-rising countries in Asia and Latin America, too. He is right that the advances are staggering: “By 2060, it is estimated that 57 per cent of global GDP will be generated by countries outside the OECD.”

And Jeremy is full of admiration for the leaps and bounds China’s achieved in the last couple of decades. Not just the increased life expectancy or reduced infant mortality or the 500 million people lifted out of extreme poverty, but their vision: “… it is not just the statistics that inspire awe. Chinese airports are cathedrals of modernity. Even the train stations feel like airports.”

Not that Jeremy is blind to China’s faults, explicitly recognising its human rights abuses and undemocratic authoritarianism. Indeed, one of the book’s strongest points is the dilution of liberal, democratic values that is taking place as the West’s economic might is challenged:

The liberal values I treasure include living in a country where people are free from oppression and enforced conformity. … These values are not accepted in large parts of the world. … There are many hundreds of millions of people, right around the world, who live in fear and without freedom, and they look to us for the reassurance of knowing that they are not forgotten and are not alone.

There is, though, an odd disconnect within Race Plan. The first section of the book is a eulogy to the vision of China and its fast-paced transformation; yet, paradoxically, the rest of the book is unrepentantly state-sceptic.

Jeremy on Education: must try harder

The first topic Jeremy gets to grips with is education, or more precisely schools. His diagnosis is accurate: the schools’ budget has soared since 1997, yet our children’s attainment has flat-lined when compared internationally. But his prognosis is dubious. He starts from an assertion uncluttered by evidence: independent schools are the best in the world because wealthy parents are able to exercise choice, therefore the only way for all schools to be outstanding is to extend that choice to all parents. There’s a certain seductive logic to this claim, but its causal chain needs to be challenged.

Most independent schools are very good schools, for sure – but because they select their pupils from among the wealthy (in the main) and because those parents are highly engaged (in the main). Here’s what you find when you compare apples with apples, rather than oranges: “OECD data shows that the average achievement in private schools in the UK is the same as that in state schools, once social class is taken into account, even though the average class size is 13 in the private sector and 25 in the state sector” Yes, you did read that right. And if you don’t start from the assumption that independent schools are inherently superior because they operate within a market, the argument Jeremy makes that the only way to improve state schools is through a voucher funding system falls away.

(I’ll note in passing that I’ve no particular objection to school vouchers, nor to for-profit schools. I think Jeremy makes a fair point when he notes that “many aspects of state-funded education are already provided by suppliers that make a profit [exam boards, text book publishers, building contractors etc] … so there is no great principle at stake about profits being made when education providers are paid using public money … so long as they are delivering a high quality service free at the point of use.” But it’s not the priority for improving pupils’ outcomes, and the time and energy wasted arguing about it distracts us from the things that are far more likely to make a real difference: improving teaching and learning in the classroom.)

Hey, Big Spender!

In his chapter on ‘physical capital’ the China-loving, Victorian Age-loving, State-loving Jeremy re-emerges: a new six-runway hub airport in North Kent, HS2, new motorways, housing, flood defences, superfast broadband, nuclear power, renewable energy infrastructure. It’s a dizzying combination of state intervention requiring huge taxpayer investment, and of deregulation, relaxing restrictions put in place by the state to protect the interests of residents in affected areas.

It’s a little hard to know how to square this Big Spending Jeremy with the chapter which follows, on the economy and the budget, where he urges Britain to be cutting spending further to what he calls the “broad sweet spot for having a globally competitive economy … of between about 35 and 38 per cent of GDP”. I’m not sure quite how he’s divined this “broad sweet spot”. As I pointed out a couple of years ago, when David Laws first floated this target, the tax burden tells us very little about a country’s economic performance: there are low-taxing low-productive countries, and high-taxing high-productive countries.

A little more authentic liberalism, please

What struck me most about Jeremy’s budgetary proposals is how conventional they are: cut the deficit by cutting social security; boost growth by lowering the top-rate of tax. There was little here that read as authentically liberal: in fact, it reads very on-Coalition-message.

There is no mention of switching from taxing earned income to taxing unearned wealth, for example, whether through a Land Value Tax or any other mechanism. The only mention of devolution is to recommend the four separate departments for local government, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland be merged to save money – and though there is one paragraph on decentralising services, on the potential for greater local power to boost growth (for example, as argued by Kirsty Williams in ‘Grassroots Economics’ here) Jeremy is silent.

If you read nothing else, read this

The best chapter by far is on international relations: no matter what you think of Jeremy Browne’s views on domestic policy, ‘Race Plan’ is worth reading for this. He makes a persuasive case of how limited Britain’s global outlook is: “Draw a line from London to Moscow, down to Kabul, across to Rabat in Morocco, and back to London. Apart from an obsession with America (sometimes justifiably, sometimes not), the overwhelming majority of Britain’s foreign policy is within the parameters of this box. … It is concerned with perhaps 15 per cent of the world’s population.” And an equally powerful argument for Britain continuing to be a world power:

In my direct experience as a Minister, what was remarkable was not how much Britain’s global influence has declined but how little. We are a treasured ally and an unwanted foe, not primarily because of the threat we carry, but because of the example we set. We are widely regarded as fair-minded, rigorous, aware of our obligations, non-duplicitous and guided by consistent principles.

We need as a nation, he says, to be more internationally engaged (citing South Korea or Mexico as future reliable allies), not less. That includes being more respectful of other countries: British politicians should not, for instance, always “seek out the most destitute Indian slum for the main photo opportunity”, any more than we Brits would appreciate foreign leaders making straight for our most deprived estates.

He defends Britain’s membership of the European Union, but on a staunchly pragmatic (and conditional) basis: it gives us “collective muscle, in trade negotiations for example, or at climate change summits, that individual member states, even big ones like Britain, would not otherwise possess”. And he is a vigorous advocate for the Government’s decision in 2004 to allow people from the new EU states in eastern Europe, including Poland, to work in Britain:

Britain held the line against the Soviet Union in the Cold War because we believed all people should benefit from liberal freedoms and be spared from communist oppression. That we were able to achieve that objective and share our success with people in countries like Poland is a genuine historical achievement. We did not tear down the Berlin Wall only to erect a new barrier between the people of Western and Eastern Europe.

This is the chapter which convinces me Nick Clegg was wrong about dismissing Jeremy Browne: not so much from the Home Office, but from the Foreign Office, his first ministerial post, and for which he was clearly very well-suited.

I get the ‘Race Plan’. Now show me the electoral plan, Jeremy

I don’t always agree with the policy solutions Jeremy Browne proposes in ‘Race Plan’, but his liberalism shines through. He believes in freedom, he believes in fairness. He thinks both these virtues are best promoted within a low-tax free market nation open to the world, and is prepared to argue for it.

There’s a missing chapter, though. It’s this. How does Jeremy propose to translate this classical liberal vision into a vibrant political party that attracts members, activists, and the public?

It’s often said there’s a liberal diaspora, encompassing members from elements of all three political parties: the Lib Dem Orange Bookers, the Tory Cameroons, and the New Labour Blairites. Yet the best known example of a party standing on this platform is Germany’s FDP, eliminated from the German parliament last year and still struggling to reach 5 per cent in the polls. Let’s assume Jeremy Browne persuades Lib Dems that ‘Race Plan’ is the authentic liberal manifesto (judging from our recent comment threads he’s got a job on his hands, but let’s assume for the sake of argument): how will he turn that into a vote-winning mandate?

Jeremy was quoted in The Times yesterday saying “Some argue that the Lib Dems should promote socialism plus civil liberties, but that isn’t liberalism.” He’s right. But liberalism isn’t Thatcherism plus internationalism, either.

* 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 Jeremy Browne did – and DIDN’T – tell The Times about the Lib Dems

by Stephen Tall on April 12, 2014

the times browne pointlessLib Dems ‘are pointless’ – that’s today’s Times front page lead, reporting an interview it carries with Lib Dem MP Jeremy Browne.

You might imagine, therefore, that Jeremy Browne had at some point in his interview said the Lib Dems “are pointless”. But if you read the article you’ll be disappointed. He doesn’t say it. That a newspaper with the reputation of The Times should put in quotation marks made-up quotes is quite something.

However, the headline isn’t based on nothing, even if one of the words attributed to Jeremy Browne is an invention. So here is what Jeremy did say to trigger it in his full interview with Rachel Sylvester:

He supported Nick Clegg for the leadership and thinks he was brave to take the Lib Dems into coalition, but he is disappointed by the direction in which Mr Clegg is taking the party now. “He thinks he has to meet his detractors halfway in political no man’s land. As a result of that, he has less clarity and definition as a liberal politician than I think he would otherwise have had, and I think we as a party have less clarity and definition as well. A lot of people who might quite like the Lib Dems they see in their locality have a difficulty getting what the Lib Dems stand for and why they are relevant.”

It’s not enough, in his view, to position the Lib Dems as a moderating influence on the Conservatives and Labour, as the deputy prime minister has tried to do. “Every political party and every politician has to be able to answer the question, ‘If you didn’t exist why would it be necessary to invent you?’ I’m not sure it would be necessary to invent an ill-defined moderating centrist party that believed that its primary purpose was to dilute the policies of other political parties, whereas I do think it would be necessary to invent a bold, ambitious liberal party. Liberalism is emphatically not the equidistant point between conservatism and socialism, it’s an ideology in its own right.”

This is a familiar criticism – that the party’s appeal to centrist voters is a betrayal of its radical liberal roots – albeit one less often advanced from the economic liberal (‘right’) of the Lib Dems, much more often by the social liberal (‘left’).

I’m not unsympathetic to this criticism. But it doesn’t alter the simple fact that the Lib Dems have no choice but to fight the 2015 election as a party of the centre. As I wrote last July:

From that day on, 11 May 2010, the Lib Dem strategy for 2015 was defined. It wasn’t defined by us: it was defined by our situation. We became, instantly, a party of the centre. It’s a phrase few of my fellow Lib Dems like. For years we’ve railed against it, pointing out (justifiably) that liberalism is neither left nor right, but is its own distinct and radical philosophy. To many activists being in ‘the centre’ suggests we’ve become a party that’s content with wishy-washy, please-all-the-people, split-the-difference mushiness.

Yet the reality is it’s precisely because we are perceived to be moderate centrists that many of the electorate vote for us. And if we are to continue as a party of government – which almost three-quarters of Lib Dem members would like us to do – then we will have to do a deal next time with either the right-leaning Tories or left-leaning Labour. We may not place ourselves in the centre, but our circumstances do. We need to make the best of it. …

By default, therefore, the Lib Dem strategy for the next election is already in place. It was put in place the moment we decided to join the Coalition. We’ll fight 2015 from the centre because there’s no other position from which we can credibly fight it.

None of that means we can’t put forward radical, liberal policies in our manifesto – it’s just that it’s very unlikely if they’re that radical or that liberal they’ll get very far in a coalition agreement (or if they do it will be in exchange for something that we Lib Dems find Highly Objectionable).

That’s what makes the next manifesto especially hard for the party. In the past, our manifestos have been almost an intellectual exercise – “imagine if the Lib Dems formed the next government…” – without any of us really expecting that fantasy would come to pass. This time, we know there’s a pretty reasonable chance we might form the next government, but it won’t be in the Dream World where every Lib Dem manifesto idea makes it into legislation. This is how I described the circle the party is trying to square in LDV’s ‘Lessons of Coalition’ series last summer:

Not only do we need the fully worked through policies which give our manifesto credibility and enthuse party activists, we need also to work up the bite-size policies achievable within the compromise of Coalition that will nevertheless move us in a liberal direction. Because if we don’t claim that space, as we so effectively have on taxation but have generally failed to do on public services, we can be sure the other party we’re in Coalition will do it for us, whether Tory or Labour.

And that’s still the dilemma.

* 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.

Stephen among top 10 names for probability of getting to Oxford

by Stephen Tall on April 11, 2014

The BBC reports some unsurprising but fascinating research on the vexed question, Does a baby’s name affect its chances in life?:

For the main part the effect of a name on its bearer rarely amounts to more than the effect of being raised by parents who would choose such a name.

names oxford university

A similar conclusion is reached by Gregory Clark, the economist behind the book The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility. Although the main focus of his research is family names, Clark has looked at first names too – specifically, the names of 14,449 freshmen students attending the elite University of Oxford between 2008-2013. By contrasting the incidence of first names in the Oxford sample with their incidence among the general population (of the same age), he calculated the probability, relative to average, that a person given a particular name would go to Oxford. (For the purposes of his research he excluded students with non-English or Welsh surnames.)

He notes that there are more than three times as many Eleanors at Oxford than we might expect, given the frequency of that first name among girls in the general population, and Peters, Simons and Annas are not far behind. Conversely, there is less than a 30th of the expected number of Jades and an even smaller proportion of Paiges and Shannons. An Eleanor is 100 times more likely to go to Oxford than a Jade.

However, there is no evidence that it’s the names causing such a marked discrepancy, rather than other factors they represent, Clark says. Different names are popular among different social classes, and these groups have different opportunities and goals.

If I’d known about this nominative determinism a few years back, I’d have worked less hard for my A-levels.

Liberal Hero of the Week #66: Brexit Prize-winning Iain Mansfield

by Stephen Tall on April 11, 2014

Liberal Hero of the Week (and occasional Villains) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and Research Associate at CentreForum

cf hero iain mansfield

Iain Mansfield

Winner of the IEA’s Brexit Prize 2014 (and Director of Trade and Investment at the UK’s embassy in the Philippines)

I approached Iain Mansfield’s essay outlining a blueprint for ‘Britain after the EU’ with some trepidation. I half-expected a Ukip-style turn-the-clocks-back digression into right-wing isolationism. I was wrong.

Iain’s 20,000-word essay, A Blueprint for Britain: Openness not Isolation, sticks to the brief set by the Institute of Economic Affairs: to outline, in the event of a the British people voting to leave the European Union, the measures the Government of the day would need “to take in the following two years, domestically (within the UK), vis-a-vis the remaining EU and internationally, in order to promote a free and prosperous economy”.

Those last seven words are the key. Because what Iain’s essay focuses on is how Britain would continue to promote a free and prosperous economy from outside the EU. That, he makes clear, depends on securing free trade agreements between Britain and its European neighbours (probably through joining the European Free Trade Area, like Switzerland) and with as many other trading partners as possible.

I’ve tended to be suspicious of the Swiss option – all the benefits of the EU’s negotiating power and of free trade within the EU, few of the disbenefits – but Iain is more optimistic:

… the advantages of being unconstrained by the concerns of more protectionist EU Member States and of a streamlined negotiating process should more than outweigh the disadvantages of reduced bargaining power. The UK could therefore enjoy a more favourable position than it enjoys within the EU, which to date has FTAs with not one of the BRIC countries.

But that doesn’t mean there are no risks, not least in assuming that our European neighbours will happily agree the same terms we already enjoy:

… whilst it is in no-one’s rational economic interests to erect trade barriers, the EU could afford a trade war far better than the UK could. Some EU nations would see leaving as a betrayal of the European project and may wish to ensure that a sufficient example is made of the UK to deter others; others will not want to ‘reward’ leaving. … Throughout the negotiations it must be remembered that the UK is in the weaker position: in the case of no agreement, the UK would face the full trade barriers that any external nation does.

The only way that will be achieved is through an extensive commitment of time and energy: of British officials, but also of Government ministers and the Prime Minister. In effect, they would be able to do little else for the two years of re-negotiation. And they will need to make concessions along the way, such as tapering off budget contributions to the EU rather than immediately ending them, retaining some EU regulations to ensure continuing access to markets.

Iain Mansfield’s essay sets out three scenarios – best, most likely, and worst – for a British exit from the EU. Here’s the middle option:

Domestically, one would expect to see a nation of less and simpler regulation and a lower budget deficit, but that remained a beacon for foreign investment, albeit with rather more investors from North America and Asia and rather less from Western Europe. Its character, that of a global nation open to the world, would be unchanged. Overall, the UK would probably be neither significantly richer nor poorer: there is no recorded correlation between EU membership and GDP growth. The fundamental assets of the country, its population, global connections, infrastructure and knowledge base mean that the long-term growth, balance of trade and economic outlook should remain strong.

It all sounds like an awful lot of effort to achieve very little: “the UK would probably be neither significantly richer nor poorer”. This has been challenged by John McDermott in the Financial Times:

I am not a trade economist but I worry that by comparing an abstract future with a concrete present, Mansfield underestimates the strength of the ties between the EU and the UK – and therefore he underestimates the costs of exit. There is no magic number for the economic benefits to the EU but repeated studies show that the single market has brought net gains to the UK – and further service liberalisation within the EU could bring much more.

And indeed Iain Mansfield himself notes that economics are only one part of the decision-making process: “Ultimately, whether or not the UK exits from the EU is a political, not an economic decision.”

In that spirit, it’s worth noting that Lib Dem MP Jeremy Browne has also written about Britain’s membership of the EU in his book, Race Plan, published this week. The strongest chapter in it focuses on international relations, in which he vigorously defends the Government’s decision in 2004 to allow people from the new EU states in eastern Europe, including Poland, to work in Britain:

Britain held the line against the Soviet Union in the Cold War because we believed all people should benefit from liberal freedoms and be spared from communist oppression. That we were able to achieve that objective and share our success with people in countries like Poland is a genuine historical achievement. We did not tear down the Berlin Wall only to erect a new barrier between the people of Western and Eastern Europe.

Why do I think Iain Mansfield deserves to be a Liberal Hero this week? Three reasons:

1) Too many of those who are anti-EU fail to acknowledge the complexity of a Brexit. It is not simply a case that Britain can simultaneously leave the EU but demand to retain all the things we like and discard all the things we don’t. That’s not a serious proposition. For a grounded, realistic assessment of the benefits and costs of exiting the EU Iain Mansfield deserves recognition.

2) The debate has become charged and polarised. This isn’t surprising. When you have Ukip pushing the isolationist anti-EU agenda, it’s small wonder that internationalist pro-Europeans like Nick Clegg take umbrage. But this leaves those of us who recognise there are both positives and negatives that come with EU membership with no natural home. Iain Mansfield’s rigorous analysis might just create space for a more nuanced debate.

3) Too many liberals seem to see Britain’s membership of the EU as an end in itself. It is not. It’s a means to an end: that Britain should be an outward, open, ambitious, entrepreneurial, democratic, trading nation state that can lead internationally by domestic example. Iain Mansfield’s contribution to the debate brings us back to the core principles of those outcomes.

* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) series 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 recommended reading for today April 11, 2014

by Stephen Tall on April 11, 2014

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

Tuition fees: still a good policy

by Stephen Tall on April 10, 2014

It’s a little over 9 years since I first wrote about tuition fees and specifically the Lib Dems’ then commitment to abolishing them. I criticised the party’s anti-fees policy as “seriously flawed, and risks condemning British universities and students to an increasingly mediocre future.”

It’s a little under three years since I praised the Coalition’s fees reforms package for successfully achieving two seemingly impossible goals: lowering the amount that students re-pay in loans while simultaneously increasing the amount that universities can spend.

The Coalition’s reforms have come under assault in the last month.

“But it costs more”

First came the headlines that the student fees policy is ‘likely to cost more than the system it replaced’. This was widely anticipated (at any rate, it was in my piece of 3 years ago). What that headline misses are two key facts:

HE income england1) Higher education budgets would not have been immune from the government’s austerity programme had they remained funded by taxes alone. As it is, funding for universities has continued to rise and is forecast to continue to do so, as the graph shows.

(Graph source: The Funding Challenge for Universities, 2013.)

2) A key driver of the reforms was that universities would be accountable to students not to the Treasury – indeed, those who believe in independent universities should welcome this. As I wrote in 2011:

Rather than the government advocating the abolition of so-called ‘Mickey Mouse degrees’ (the ‘golf course management’ type degrees the Daily Mail loves to hate), it will be left to universities to prove they are of worth to those who’ll foot most of the bill: the students. The fate of universities themselves will no longer be a matter for the government: it will be for universities to demonstrate through their own ability to attract students that they are successful.

“But students pay back for ages”

Today’s headlines are different: ‘Students could be paying loans into their 50s’ according to an IFS report. This is undeniably the case. Of course, if fees were abolished and replaced with a graduate tax I could equally well write, ‘Students could be paying grad tax until the day they die’. A contributory system, whether funded by loans or taxes, has to be re-paid by someone. As Emran Mian, now at the Social Market Foundation but previously a civil servant leading on the Browne Review, pithily noted:

The primary reason to reject a graduate tax is that it replaces the finite and time-limited “‘debt burden” of tuition fee loans with a tax burden that is unlimited both in terms of the total amount due and the period over which it is to be paid. I have always struggled to understand why this would be better for students. Wouldn’t most graduates prefer a time-limited repayment of a fixed amount?

Two problems remain, though

Overall, then, the tuition fees package still ranks as a success. More students – and more students from disadvantaged backgrounds – are entering higher education. More money is going into universities than would have been the case without reform. No students pay anything up-front, and then only when they’re earning more than £21k – the lowest third of graduate-earners will pay less than they used to.

But there are two groups who deserve more attention: part-time student applications to university have fallen sharply, as have applications from mature students. Some of this may be a rational decision: adults deciding a university course isn’t worth to them the money they’d have to pay. But it does concern me that many adults who would be better-off – personally and as contributors to society – by going to university are now being put off.

Clearly the system isn’t perfect. But let’s focus on solving the problems it’s thrown up, not invent problems that don’t.

My column for ConHome: Why I loathe tribalism (even and especially when I’m guilty of it)

by Stephen Tall on April 10, 2014

con home cartoonHere’s my latest The Other Side column for ConservativeHome, published here on Tuesday. I sometimes get asked what on earth I’m doing writing for a Tory site: here’s my rationale. 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.

Commenters below-the-line sometimes ask what on earth this site is doing letting a Lib Dem loose on its pages. Here’s my favourite example: “Why do we have to keep putting up with this Haw Haw-esque propaganda on ConservativeHome?” I get occasional flak from my side, too: “I’ve asked before and I’ll ask again – why is a Liberal Democrat writing for ConservativeHome?” In true Lib Dem style, I’ve got a couple of different answers to this question, depending on my audience.

For Conservative readers, my intention is clear. To give you some sense of the Lib Dem perspective on the Coalition, and – my poorly concealed, ultimate goal – to encourage those liberal Conservatives among you (I know you’re lurking out there) to recognise you may have more in common with my lot than you do with your increasingly Ukip-leaning lot.

For Lib Dem readers, my rehearsed response is this: when out canvassing do you only ever knock on the doors of those people you already know are voting Lib Dem? Of course not. So why would you expect me only ever to write for a Lib Dem site? Besides, don’t you realise that my poorly concealed, ultimate goal is to win over some of the ‘soft Cons’ for the greater good of Lib Demmery?

Both of those answers are true. But there’s a bigger motivation, a reason why every other week I spend a couple of hours scribbling this column. It’s simply this: I loathe tribalism. Really, I do. Let me be clear here: I’m not against belonging to a political party and being proud of the fact. Generally, I think that’s healthy for democracy. No, what I detest is the ‘my party right or wrong’ style of tribalism.

That’s not to say I’m not guilty of it. I am. I’ve edited Lib Dem Voice since 2007 and I guess in that time I’ve written articles – not often, but more often than I’m comfortable counting up – traducing opponents for things I probably agree with, and also written articles hypocritically praising my party for things that deep down I’m not keen on. It’s the sort of thing most party activists end up doing at one time or another, either out of ignorance, loyalty or convenience.

I’m sometimes asked if I’d ever fancy being a Lib Dem MP (as if that’s actually a serious career option for anyone with a mortgage). A decade ago, I did in fact start filling in the candidates’ application form. But when I got to the question asking which aspects of party policy I disagreed with – and realised I was well on my way to starting my third side of A4 – I had second thoughts. After all, in 2004 what hope was there for a Lib Dem who believed in a competition-driven market economy and was pro-tuition fees? How times change. Anyway, the form was never completed, never submitted.

Few of us who are actively involved in politics (albeit in my case from the safety of the spectators’ stand, not the pitch) realise quite how freakishly odd we are.

For me it’s enough to agree broadly with 60-70 per cent of the Lib Dem manifesto and put up with the 30-40 per cent on which I may disagree. I’ve internalised the logic of this trade-off and as a result spend a decent dollop of money – and a quite ridiculous amount of my spare time – supporting my party. Small wonder, then, that having personally invested so much in them I often end up rooting for my team, almost irrespective of the situation: the very definition of tribalism.

It happened last week during the Nick v Nigel debates. I’m something of a Eurosceptic within Lib Dem ranks (needless to say that makes me a hard-core ‘EUSSRophile’ on the Ukip scale) and what I wanted to hear from my party leader was a positive but pro-reform vision for the UK staying within the European Union. Instead, when asked what he thought the EU might look like in 10 years’ time, he replied: “it will be much the same as it is now”.

So my post-debate disappointment wasn’t triggered by the insta-polls showing Farage the viewers’ winner – after all, acting the uppity outsider railing at those in power is a much easier gig – but by Clegg’s failure (at least on this occasion) to argue for a different and better EU. Does that make me any less likely to vote Lib Dem at the 22nd May European elections, though? Of course not: it’s my tribe.

For most of the public, though, my decision to nail my political colours to one mast will seem utterly perverse. Long gone are the days when the Conservatives and Labour between them hoovered up 97% of the votes cast, as they did in 1951. By 2010 they couldn’t even clear the two-thirds hurdle between them, with just 65% of voters opting either red or blue.

The post-war duopoly has been breached. New parties have burst forth in waves, as fragmentation becomes the new normal. First, the post-Orpington Liberal revival in the 1960s, then the nationalist upsurge in Scotland and Wales in the 1970s, followed by the SDP splintering of the centre-left in the 1980s. These waves have risen and fallen over the decades, but they remain ever-flowing, while a fourth wave, Ukip, is swelling.

Voters have never had so much choice. Yes, the three main parties fight on the centre ground, but that’s because they know when they stray to the fringes they’re punished by the voters. Other parties are available, however: an abundance, in fact. Whatever your viewpoint – left, right, liberal, nationalist, and all shades inbetween – there’s a political party that shares your outlook. What those people who complain “They’re all the same these days” really mean is, “No political party agrees with me as much as I’d like them to.” Fewer and fewer people are willing to make the compromises needed to belong within a tribe. I regret that. But I also understand it.

Politics is the art of persuasion. Me popping up in this space every fortnight either to tell you the Lib Dems are always right or the Conservatives are always wrong would be as tedious for you to read as for me to write. I’m not going to conclude with something as platitudinous as “We’re both sometimes right, we’re both sometimes wrong” (though it’s true), so let me try this instead…

As British politics becomes more fluid, it is becoming harder and harder for any one party to win a solid majority. Those of us who remain committed members of our respective tribes need to look at what is happening around us. Coalitions, formal or informal, are here to stay. In the circumstances, it’s not a bad idea to keep open lines of communication: to listen, to talk, to engage with each other. That, at any rate, is the real reason why this Liberal Democrat writes for ConservativeHome.

Why I’m not raising my pitch-fork in jubilant celebration at Maria Miller’s resignation

by Stephen Tall on April 9, 2014

Maria Miller has resigned as the Coalition’s culture secretary. The reaction of most people will probably be the same as Labour MP John Mann, whose complaint triggered her downfall: “about time”.

Not me.

The Independent’s John Rentoul summarised it very well in his blog-post yesterday, In Partial Defence of Maria Miller:

I think Miller probably made an honest mistake in failing to adjust her claims when her mortgage payments went down, which she compounded by her truculence when she was investigated by Kathryn Hudson, the Parliamentary Commissioner. In a sane world, a contrite apology, a repayment and an additional fine (for obstruction and to acknowledge that the error in her favour was discovered only as the result of journalists’ enquiries) would have been sufficient.

But we don’t live in a sane world. Maria Miller’s failure to fake a sincere apology, compounded by Number 10′s inept handling of the media, made her resignation sadly inevitable. They handled this whole thing badly – from the half-minute apology to her decision to out-source to her aide Mary Macleod her defence.

But the British press in full-on, mob-handed, sanctimonious blood-lust mode is a pretty revolting sight. Based on the newspapers’ coverage, most of the public will have assumed Maria Miller set out deliberately to defraud the British taxpayer for personal gain, that she is corrupt.

There’s not a shred of evidence to suggest that’s the case. But, egged-on by the press in search of a scalp, the court of public opinion had already found her guilty anyway. ‘Scuse me if I don’t raise my pitch-fork in jubilant celebration.

This episode has taken me back in time.

First, to the harsh justice meted out in 2010 to David Laws, who under-claimed his own expenses in order to hide his sexuality from the public gaze – and has ever since been lazily condemned as a ‘fraudster’ by those who can’t be bothered to check the facts.

And then to the original Telegraph investigation into MPs’ expenses, in 2009. As I wrote then:

… amidst the appalling abuses, genuine scandals and likely frauds that our MPs have committed with our money, the Telegraph has also been guilty of flaky fact-checking, unfair distortions and disgraceful smears. … Too many of their expenses stories have failed to stand up to even the most basic scrutiny that I find it hard to take any at face value. … What’s worse, though, is that the Telegraph allegations have been uncritically repeated, sometimes with further unproven exaggerations, by other news media – print and broadcast – scared to be caught behind the curve, and fearful that any attempt to question the Telegraph’s reporting competence will come across as defending ‘these scrounging MPs’.

Much of the media, and too many journalists, are uninterested in facts – whether the issue is MPs’ expenses or immigration. Why are they not interested? Follow the money: we, the public, are ultimately to blame.

We not only get the politicians we deserve; we get the press we deserve, too.

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