by Stephen Tall on January 6, 2016
Chris Dillow at Stumbling and Mumbling yesterday posed the blunt question: what’s the point of Labour’s right-wing?
“Labour’s right-wing” I think referred to everybody to the right of Jeremy Corbyn, a minority of Labour members but an overwhelming majority of Labour voters.
I liked Chris’s suggestions for ideas to re-invigorate the sensible rump of Labour, what he terms centre-leftism, but which at first sight appears to be a summary of the Lib Dem manifesto:
If I were [the centre-left], I’d be arguing for some of the following:
– “Make work pay”. Shift taxes from labour to land and inheritances, and defend tax credits as a better way of topping up low pay than minimum wages.
– Openness. Leaving the EU, or controlling immigration, are no solutions at all, but simply mean-spirited little Englanderism.
– Public sector investment. As Simon says, you can combine this with “fiscal responsibility” in the sense of wanting governments to run a balance on the current budget.
– Improve productivity. UK productivity lags well behind that of other countries. Policies to tackle this might include investment in early years education and freer migration (pdf).
I’m not at all sure such liberal ideas will actually appeal to Labour’s right, which is usually notable more for its centralising authoritarianism. But if they did, then perhaps there would be space for Vince Cable’s vaunted Lib-Lab cooperation.
But we have, of course, been here many times before. The intellectual appeal of such ideas appears to recede the closer we draw to an election, as tribalism reasserts itself. Much as I’d love to be proven wrong, I don’t see that changing.
by Stephen Tall on January 5, 2016
I saw very little Christmas TV so am busily batting away the January blues by catching up on what I missed.
Two highlights so far: BBC1’s And Then There Were None (I read a second-hand copy of the book with its still-non-PC-but-not-as-non-PC-as-the-original title Ten Little Indians) was the best Agatha Christie adaptation I’ve seen in a long while: genuinely suspenseful and just the right side of over-wrought.
But no denying he gives great telly — Martin Chuzzlewit and Bleak House in particular were both fantastic — and this mash-up of characters caught up in the soap opera of Jacob Marley’s murder has a brilliantly light touch. Enjoyable in its own right, while ingeniously gobbeting from the canon for those who get (pleasure from) the in-jokes.
Pauline Collins’ Mrs Gamp is delicious (though no-one will out-do Elizabeth Spriggs‘ version). But it’s another Irish actor, Stephen Rea, who gives the stand-out performance as Inspector Bucket (as he did in last year’s An Honourable Woman).
I know only two things about Rea, both politics-related. He was the BBC’s dubbed voice-over for Gerry Adams during the broadcasting ban on Sinn Féin. And he’s the son of a bus-driver, a la business secretary Saajid Javid and Labour mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan.
Anyone know a joke about waiting ages for one bus-driver’s son, but then three… Oh, please yourselves.
by Stephen Tall on January 4, 2016
One of the hangovers from my time editing Lib Dem Voice is that I have Google Alerts set up for “liberal democrat” and “lib dem” to see what news coverage the party is getting/generating. It used, back in the days when the party was a substantial force, to be a busy read.
I’ve just done a trawl of the backlog from my Christmas break — 24 alerts between 23 Dec 2015 – 3 Jan 2016:
The biggest generator of Lib Dem-related news is, unsurprisingly, Lib Dem Voice — good for the team now running it, but not so great at grabbing eyeballs beyond the party.
There were, according to my back-of-envelope five-bar gates, 33 mentions in the local press. Ie, about 3 a day. Many of these referred to defeated Lib Dem MPs in passing in their end-of-year news round-ups.
There were two mentions for the party in the Guardian and one in the Independent. Also one in the Express, noting Tim Farron would also be willing to take part in any Cameron-Corbyn televised debates, as mooted by the Labour leader.
The three BBC website mentions noted Charles Kennedy’s death, Ed Davey’s knighthood, and the return-to-work of Labour’s Thangam Debbonaire, who defeated Stephen Williams in Bristol West.
That was it.
Sure, Google news alerts don’t pick up everything, and of course the festive period is a quiet one politically anyway. But the roll-call above is not now untypical. We just don’t matter enough any more.
That reinforces the necessity of Tim Farron’s decision to pitch for high-profile TV appearances (Have I Got News For You, Russell Howard) to increase his visibility. But it also reinforces what a hard slog the next five years will be for the Lib Dems.
Update: as I was typing this, the latest Google alert pinged into my inbox — the Evening Standard splashes with ‘Former Liberal Democrat MP Lembit Opik hopes to look like George Clooney after facial reconstruction surgery’.
by Stephen Tall on December 22, 2015
Christmas telly tends to grab the media attention — how many repeats, who’ll win the ratings war? — but for me radio matters more this time of year. It’s partly I spend longer in the kitchen, partly that there are tasks which require some simultaneous distraction to be bearable (signing Christmas cards, wrapping presents).
So while others will define the quality of telly by how good this year’s Dr Who / Downton / Sherlock special was, the first thing I do is check if BBC Radio 4 Extra is going to be repeating Crisp and Even Brightly.
Last year, it didn’t which rather spoiled things. This year, happily, it has. Starring Timothy West, it’s a sly, funny re-telling of a very familiar carol:
Was the poor man gathering fuel really poor, and was he really a man – or was she a Slavnik spy in disguise? Was Wenceslas’s tramp into the forest with his ten-year-old page carrying flesh and wine and logs just a public relations exercise? What is the true story behind the story of Good King Wenceslas?
Though it’s 28 years since it was first broadcast, the comedy holds up well, though inevitably some of the topical references have dated (the Royal Family was less popular and much more the butt of jokes then than now).
Which is more than can be said for the reputation of its writer, Alick Rowe. He was found guilty in 1999 of child indecency, imprisoned, and later died in Thailand. (Alex Foster has some background on all this here.)
I guess it’s not long, therefore, until Crisp and Even Brightly is subjected to a cultural fatwah and banned, for fear its repeats risk being regarded as a celebration of its author’s crimes.
by Stephen Tall on December 4, 2015
This is my latest weekly diary over at LibDemVoice today…
I wrote on Syria last week that I was “mystified by those who’ve already made their minds up with cast-iron certainty on either side”. That’s still the case despite, and probably because of, the eruption of passions leading up to and beyond Wednesday’s vote. The UK is, after all, already involved in military action against Isis in Iraq. Sure, extending those airstrikes to Syria represents an intensification and, like any bombing campaign, requires serious consideration. But that is a question not of basic morality (if it were there should have been an equally strenuous efforts to cease attacks in Iraq) but of likely effectiveness.
And that, of course, is the known unknown of this week’s debate. None of us truthfully knows what will be the consequences of extending the campaign to Syria; just as we don’t know what might have happened if MPs had voted against action. There is no possibility of a controlled experiment which allows us to pose the counterfactual. All we are left with is our own opinion: which of the options facing us is most likely to result in fewest deaths? Ultimately, it’s as utilitarian a decision as that.
Which is why I get fed up with simplistic shroud-wavers shouting “blood on your hands” at those who support intervention. Innocent people are dying every day in this conflict, and further deaths are plotted daily by Isis, so delaying further this supposed “rush to war” will also directly lead to fresh casualties. See, we can all indulge this moral blackmail arms-race — but it gets us nowhere. Decisions like these are shades-of-grey. I respect opinions on both sides of the divide on Syria, but most especially those honest enough to recognise they may be wrong.
The worm’s turned
Moderate, reasoned, polite discourse: that’s my kind of politics. But it’s not everyone’s, I know, so hey, let a thousand flowers bloom (as John McDonnell would say). Anger can have its place in politics. To be clear, no MP should be subjected to personal abuse, let alone intimidation or threats of violence. But I don’t like the vogue for bracketing that unacceptable nonsense with “threats of deselection”, itself an entirely legitimate form of accountability. Personally, I think those Labour members apparently wanting to get rid of Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy because she voted for action in Syria are bonkers. But it’s their perfect right to be bonkers. And the Labour moderates have scant moral authority on this one. After all, for two decades they mobilised against left-wingers, sometimes in quite shoddy fashion: Tony Blair successfully fixed Labour’s mayoral selection to deny Ken Livingstone from running on his party’s ticket; while Neil Kinnock got Coventry’s Dave Nellist expelled from the party on the flimsiest pretext. Now the shoe is on the other foot it’s not surprising if it’s still got a taste for kicking.
Still time for Tim
Tim Farron has had some stick from a few Lib Dem activists over his Syria stance. It impressed me, though. Not just his speech, praised by the Guardian as one of the ten best and credited by Newsnight’s Allegra Stratton with persuading many Labour MPs to vote to extend airstrikes, though it was certainly heartfelt and passionate. But also his evident willingness to take a decision he knew would be controversial with some of his most ardent supporters because he believed on the basis of the evidence he had seen that it was the right thing to do. There are still too many people who I think underestimate Tim, who reckon (perhaps because of his relentless chirpiness) that he lacks that certain something which denotes a leader. He’s proven some of those doubters wrong this week, for which much kudos.
* I loved the question Tim Farron was recently asked by a primary school pupil: “Have you met the Queen?” “Yes,” answers Tim. “Does she smell?” came back the supplementary. Apparently, says Tim, the only possible answer to that is “Fragrant”. That snippet from last night’s Russell Howard’s Good News (BBC3), available on iPlayer here (starts about 15:45 mins in).
What have the immigrants ever done for us?
‘Osborne reliant on rising immigration levels to achieve budget surplus’ it was revealed this week. I say revealed, but it’s long been known. In 2012, the Office for Budget Responsibility noted that ‘… if net inward migration were cut to zero over the next five decades, the scale of the public austerity facing Britain would need to be three times larger, at £46bn.’ The Tories often parade as the free market party, yet there is no surer guarantee of getting a Tory conference to cheer than to commit to state-imposed controls of the labour market. The reality is that not only do incoming migrant workers plug gaps in our own labour market, benefiting British businesses and helping offset the negative impact of the UK’s ageing population, but migrant entrepreneurs also create thousands of jobs. In short, they put in to this country far, far more than they take out.
That may be the reality, but too few voters believe it. It’s one reason I’m attracted to the idea, first proposed by the think-tank British Future, that we create an ‘Immigration Fund’, hypothecating the financial gains from increased migration to directly manage some of the pressures communities and their services face as a consequence of new arrivals. It is necessary, but not sufficient, simply to defend immigration from the scare-mongering of Ukip and the Tories. We need also to show we have fresh ideas which can respond directly to voters’ concerns.
File this under ‘surprising, not surprising’. A survey for the National Audit Office, conducted earlier this year but published this week, shows just 37 per cent of parents have heard of the Pupil Premium, the Lib Dem policy which targeted extra money to the poorest pupils to help schools close the attainment gap. I mentioned on Twitter my disappointment that a policy I view as one of the most progressive government policies in the last decade doesn’t have greater awareness, and the general response was “We’re surprised it’s that high”. A fair point, it seems. My consolation is that the Pupil Premium — which this year will provide the average primary school with an extra £91,000 and secondaries with an additional £214,000 — has been safeguarded by education secretary Nicky Morgan for this parliament. Hopefully, over the next five years we’ll see it translate into better educational prospects for disadvantaged children and young people. And if parents notice why that’s happening, that’s a bonus.
Kudos to Labour’s new MP for Oldham West, Jim McMahon, elected on an increased share of the vote. I’m not sure how much it tells us about Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, though. Especially in a week when I’ve discovered I am, after all, a Bennite.
by Stephen Tall on November 27, 2015
This is my latest weekly diary over at LibDemVoice today…
Spending Revue Reviewed
‘You make your own luck,’ goes the saying. In which case, and only in this respect, George Osborne truly has started a “march of the makers” because he’s one hell of a lucky Chancellor. Had the independent Office for Budget Responsibility not lavished on him a £27 billion fiscal (and notional) windfall, this week’s Autumn Statement would have been far more wintry. As it was, he was able to play out the role of Santa, albeit a very Tory version: snatching away fewer of the kids’ presents in order to re-gift them to their grandparents. For this was a spending review which confirmed this Government stands shoulder-to-shoulder with pensioners (who vote, in droves) while shrugging its shoulders at the plight of the younger, working poor (who often don’t vote, and if they do probably vote Labour anyway).
Yes, the tax credit cuts were jettisoned for now — take a bow all those who’ve campaigned against them because it took concerted action to persuade the House of Lords and a few Tory MPs with a social conscience to stand up to this government — but, really, they’ve just been deferred. Once universal credit has been implemented (assuming that Godot-like day ever arises) the Resolution Foundation calculates eligible working families with children will be £1,300 a year worse off (even taking into account the so-called ‘national living wage’ and planned increases in the tax-threshold). Which might sound bad, but that average actually conceals far worse news for some. For instance, a single mum working part-time on the minimum wage will receive £2,800 a year less by 2020 under the Tories’ plans, while a working couple on the minimum wage with three kids will lose out to the tune of £3,060. Meanwhile the pensions ‘triple lock’ (of which Lib Dems have often boasted) will guarantee that pensioner benefits grow to more than half of all welfare spending.
Gone are the days when the Lib Dems could require a distributional analysis to ensure the pain of cuts was shared around to ensure that, as far as possible, Britain was all in it together. It’s George’s Show now. It’s just a shame some of his luck won’t rub off on those “hard-working families” he’s soon going to clobber.
There was much talk before the election of a thing called ‘the candour deficit’, the unwillingness of politicians, especially (though not only) the Conservatives, to level with the voters about what their policies would mean for their living standards. “We may, we may not, decide that it’s relevant to put something out there about some of those changes,” said Iain Duncan Smith in March, airily dismissing the notion that those who’d lose out from the Tories’ planned £12 billion cuts to social security should understand this before they voted. I suspect one of the lessons politicians will draw from the OBR’s major revisions will be further to entrench this candour deficit. After all, why risk antagonising a whole load of voters weeks before they cast their ballot by spelling out the consequences of cuts you think might be necessary if it’s quite possible a later change to economic modelling will give you all the wiggle room you need? The rational politician will put off making their final decision until the last possible moment in the hope that something might just turn up. It’s worked for George. This time.
Enough incredulous bafflement has already been expressed at Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s excruciating decision to stand at the despatch box in his spending review response and shout “Let’s quote Mao” before flinging his own copy of the Little Red Book at Osborne. Some things cannot be un-seen and some tracts cannot be retracted. It doesn’t, of course, make McDonnell a Chinese Communist; but it does make him a fool. (What is it with the Bennite Left? They’ve had more than three decades to prepare for this moment and now they look like they’ll be un-done through their utter incompetence rather than their ideological idiocy.) The figures you pray in aid in such situations should be those your opponent will find embarrassing, not you. Thus McDonnell could have laid into the Tories’ decision to give millionaires an inheritance tax cut by invoking free market hero Adam Smith, a powerful opponent of the inequality of inherited wealth: “A power to dispose of estates for ever is manifestly absurd. The earth and the fulness of it belongs to every generation, and the preceding one can have no right to bind it up from posterity. Such extension of property is quite unnatural.”
Should the UK join the bombing raids on Syria to counter the threat from Isis? It’s a dilemma I’m still wrestling with (and am mystified by those who’ve already made their minds up with cast-iron certainty on either side). No perfect outcome currently appears possible either way: both action and inaction will result in death and destruction to many innocent people. The principled, moral case for intervention is clear to me: as per last week’s UN resolution we should be “determined to combat by all means this unprecedented threat to international peace and security”. What’s a lot less clear, even after David Cameron’s Commons’ statement yesterday, is what will happen after the bombing (hopefully) weakens Isis’s grip on its Raqqa stronghold. While it’s hard to believe things can get much worse for the region than they already are, no-one can be sure. Yet I also know it’s wholly unrealistic to expect a perfect exit strategy that pretends everything will be happy ever after. Bismarck said politics is the art of the possible. Put another way, it’s about choosing between the least worst reality.
Damned lies, and “1 in 5” statistics
Much controversy this week, after The Sun splashed with the misleading headline ‘1 in 5 Brit Muslims’ sympathy for jihadis’, prompting the pollster they paid, Survation, to disown the tabloid’s distortion. Another ‘1 in 5’ poll result caught my eye this week – that’s the proportion of Lib Dems who trust Jeremy Corbyn to make the right decisions in regard of Syria and Isis. Which is better than he scores among Labour MPs.
‘It may just be, with all that happened, that we were simply fucked anyway’ was the rather brilliant last line of Nick Harvey’s verdict in Liberator on the Lib Dems’ election catastrophe. However, the rest of his article strains to identify “a better strategy” which could have saved the day. For example, Nick suggests the party should have tried “to scare the nation witless about what a majority Tory Government would be like” — nice idea, but with not a single poll suggesting that was a remote possibility, we’d have got short shrift. And I couldn’t help but remember Nick’s interview with the Huffington Post two years ago when he declared with near-certainty, “Labour is on course to win the next election.” He also added he was confident the party’s 56 MPs “will survive largely intact”.
As you know, not all my election predictions worked out well, either. But I’m going to claim a little credit for this one: ‘So how’s my scenario 3 – a Tory lead of 6% by May 2015 – working out then?’ Especially as, dear reader, many of you were pretty scornful when I first suggested it.
“No one can do a sex scandal like Tories can,” claims David Aaronovitch, prompted by the revelations surrounding top Tory Mark Clarke. How soon we Lib Dems are forgotten.
by Stephen Tall on November 23, 2015
What are 6 of the biggest challenges facing schools today? I’ve set out my list today, drawn from our ‘really difficult box’, in a blog-post with my Education Endowment Foundation work-hat on — together with some thoughts on how we aim to support schools in tackling them. Here’s point 2:
2. Fragmentation of the schools system
Over the past five years, what’s billed as an “autonomous school-led system” has been gradually replacing the previous local authority-run model. Almost 60% of state-funded secondary schools are academies, up from 6% at the start of 2010.
As the EEF’s chief executive Sir Kevan Collins has noted, this can be a double-edged sword. Positively, “it can drive innovation and enable schools to respond to the precise needs of its students and their families”, but, he cautions, “the dividing line between an autonomous school and an isolated one can be fine.” Where does the school which is struggling turn; where does it access the capacity to self-improve?
There’s no simple or easy solution. But we think one part of the answer is giving schools ready access to high-quality evidence of the most effective teaching and learning strategies – which is exactly what our Toolkit does, alongside its Early Years companion. If schools use evidence to inform their school improvement then autonomy can help achieve the goal of consistent excellence.
by Stephen Tall on November 20, 2015
This is my fifth weekly diary over at LibDemVoice today…
“Ten-word answers can kill you in political campaigns.” So said every liberal’s fantasy US president, Jed Bartlett – surely someone in Team Corbyn is a West Wing fan? Clearly not, or they might have advised the Labour leader not to think-out-loud in TV interviews this past week, especially when the thoughts which frothed forth were so, well, thoughtless. Of course it would have been “far better” if Mohammed Emwazi (“Jihadi John”) had been tried in a court of law. It’s just that the absence of an extradition treaty with Isis makes that a bit of a challenge (unless Jezza’s up for a bit of cheeky rendition). And of course no-one is “happy” with the idea of a shoot-to-kill policy being operated by the UK police or security services — but, then, that isn’t the actual policy.
What the last week has revealed is that Corbyn is incapable of moving beyond the glib agitprop sloganeering of hard-left oppositionalism. That’s probably not surprising after 32 years as a backbencher never having (or wanting) to take responsibility for a tough decision. But it remains disastrous for the Labour party, which needs a plausible prime minister as its leader, and disastrous for the country, which needs a plausible alternative government. I’ll confess a sliver of me is enjoying the schadenfreude of watching Labour self-immolate as a result of the self-indulgent stupidity of its membership in handing the leadership to someone painfully obviously unfit for the office. But the responsible part of me knows that, for all our sakes, Labour needs to get real again, and quickly.
Time for Tim
“Lib Dem Tim Farron’s first ‘big speech’ on Thurs. By default he’s becoming leader of the Opposition” – so said The Sun’s (yes, really) Steve Hawkes this week. It’s a mystery to me why Corbyn hasn’t tried to map out his policy agenda in any set-piece speeches yet, and has instead left a void which the Tory press has gleefully filled — has Labour learned nothing from Ed Miliband’s early failure to define himself as leader? But that’s not our problem, and Tim did a good job of setting out liberal economic principles: invest now in infrastructure, back enterprise, and take the long view. Now that’s how you do ten-word answers. There was little that was new, but that’s not a criticism — one of Tim’s strengths is talking up what the Lib Dems argued for in coalition in a way which puts the party at ease. As Edward Docx notes for The Guardian, “There were two oppositions in the last parliament. Now we don’t have any.”
Best line of Tim’s speech? Denouncing George Osborne’s dogmatic obsession with generating a surplus within the next five years: “… the fiscal charter is nothing to do with eliminating the deficit – it goes well beyond that. The fiscal charter is simply a trap for the Labour party. And you really don’t have to set Labour traps these days.”
We don’t need no education?
There was, however, one notable omission in Tim Farron’s speech. It’s one I’ve highlighted before and will continue to nag on about: what does the party have to say about education? For years, the Lib Dems defined ourselves as the party of learning. And yes, I know, “but tuition fees” blah-blah, etc. But, at some point — I’d say now — we need to get beyond torturing ourselves about that cock-up. For a start, the Lib Dems have a record worth defending: the under-appreciated Pupil Premium was one of the most progressive policies implemented in the last decade. Secondly, I’d be amazed if education didn’t shoot up the political agenda over the next five years. Schools are facing real-term funding cuts of eight per cent; we’re going to have to find ways to cope with an extra 630,000 pupils; and schools are struggling to recruit, following a 17% drop in teacher training entries over the past five years. Lib Dems should be ahead of the game in developing a programme to tackle these issues. There are no quick fixes or easy solutions — we will need to take the long view — but we won’t reach the liberal nirvana of opportunity for all, let alone create a growing economy, unless we put education at the heart of our policy development.
Beyond my Ken
It was odd watching Ken Livingstone’s lacklustre interview on Channel 4 News in which he tetchily and vainly (in every sense) defended his stigmatising jibes against Labour MP Kevan Jones, who’d accused him of lacking the experience to co-chair Labour’s Trident policy review. Here was a man who as Mayor of London in 2005 earned deserved plaudits for his astute and defiant response to the 7th July terrorist atrocities. Yet instead he waved the credentials of “my five years as GLC leader responsible for civil defence”. It was almost as if he was air-brushing from his own history his two terms operating as a pragmatic, reformist politician in favour of the impetuous, confrontational radicalism of his past. As I say, curious.
Lib Dem boat rocked
On Monday, the New Statesman got in touch to ask me to contribute a piece “on the special conference on Rennard that has just been triggered”. My heart sank a little. At the time it felt like the party was about to tear itself apart in public on an issue on which closure is impossible. I started writing it that evening, but couldn’t think how to end it. The only conclusion I could come to was that “no-one knows how this ends, except badly”. Thankfully, the following morning some common sense re-asserted itself: Chris Rennard resigned from the Federal Executive and the crisis was averted. The conclusion I did end up with in the published piece was little more optimistic, though: “Rennardites feel a man who’s never been found guilty of any wrongdoing has been shabbily treated by the party that’s been his life. The Rock the Boaters feel that Rennard is symbolic of an entitled bullying culture in politics that for too long has gone unchecked. Both sides are resolute – which means resolution is a distant hope.” I hope I can be proven wrong.
I didn’t shed a tear at the news this week that lad-mags FHM and Zoo are gone to join Nuts and Loaded on the top-shelf in the sky. On the occasions I read them (at the barbers, to be clear) I was faintly embarrassed to realise their staple of tits-and-bantz was targeted at blokes like me. Or, more accurately, blokes nothing like me. But then I find most gender-defined magazines pretty baffling. What is it about what I have in my pants which supposedly defines my preferences? My ideal read would, I guess, be a mix of The Economist, Radio Times, Private Eye, Heat, Four Four Two, History Today, the LRB, BBC Good Food, and Homes and Gardens. In short: a weekend newspaper.