Election notebook #3: Lib Dem targets; Tory landslide upside; ‘Coalition of Chaos’

by Stephen Tall on April 22, 2017

What are the Lib Dem targets? In past elections, it’s usually been pretty obvious which seats the Lib Dems can hope to win – find which ones we came second in last time and where we’re within c.10% of whichever is the governing party.

On that basis, there are 16 seats the Lib Dems would hope to win: 9 from the Tories and 3 each from Labour and the SNP. That would take the party’s tally to 25 MPs (if we hold our gain in Richmond Park). A decent haul, though not quite the breakthrough some more excitable commentators (and activists) have been touting.

The question is: does Brexit upset that rule-of-thumb? Should the party be looking less at how we did in 2015 and more at which seats have the highest Remain vote-shares instead? In which case, suburban seats like St Albans (Tory majority 15,316) or urban seats like Vauxhall (Labour majority 12,708; 22,466 over the Lib Dems) come into genuine contention.

After all, in 2005 the Lib Dems scored some spectacular swings against Labour in seats where the Iraq war was especially unpopular (such as in my own then home of Oxford East) while our so-called decapitation strategy against top Tories with slim majorities — including one Theresa May in Maidenhead — proved an almost complete failure. (The sole exception was Tim Farron in Westmoreland.)

The truth is we just don’t know. Which is a little worrying because, before we all get too carried away by the Lib Dem resurgence, the spectre of 2010’s Cleggmania haunts us.

For a couple of weeks which now seem fantastically long ago the Lib Dems plauibly looked like they might top the poll and certainly beat Labour. Party activists got distracted, suddenly believing their patch might triumph, and our target seats suffered as a result. Though the Lib Dem vote went up our total number of MPs went down. Which is what happens when third parties take their eye off the ball in a first past the post system. There’s a risk history will repeat itself.

**

There are few upsides to the likely Tory landslide, but one might just be the axing of bonkers policies from their 2015 manifesto. Notably, the promise to protect the ‘triple lock’ — which guarantees decent increases in the state pension for all pensioners regardless of their income even as the working poor are hit by further benefits cuts — and the economically illiterate guarantee the party wouldn’t raise income tax, national insurance or VAT in the next parliament. The former was required last time to fend off Ukip’s appeal to older voters, but it’s no longer a threat. And the latter was made on the assumption that if the Tories ended up in power it would be in coalition, and they could drop it and blame the Lib Dems. With victory this time all but guaranteed, the Tories can afford the luxury of a bit more honesty. On that score, at any rate, good.

**

Can the Tory threat of a ‘coalition of chaos’ work? In 2015, fear of another hung parliament and Ed Miliband cutting a deal with the SNP was one of the key reasons Lib Dem / Conservative waverers ended up plumping for Cameron and handing him his surprise win. The Tories clearly want to try and repeat the trick, suggesting an alliance of Labour, SNP and the Lib Dems could thwart Brexit.

Conventional wisdom seems to be this won’t work in 2017, with polls pointing to a handsome Tory win. But I wonder. The Tories don’t need to convince the country as a whole that such an outcome is remotely plausible; they need persuade only the few thousand voters in those seats which might change hands, especially the Tory / Lib Dem marginals. Their friends in the right-wing media can always be called upon to help — as tonight’s risible effort from the Mail on Sunday shows: ‘Tory lead cut in half’ even as the Tories hit 50% in the polls — so don’t be so sure history can’t repeat itself.

You can imagine the direct mail: “You live in one of the 18 seats which could decide this election. Don’t take the risk of letting in Corbyn and seeing Brexit defeated: vote Conservative.” No wonder Tim Farron has moved quickly to promise the Lib Dems won’t go into coalition with either Labour or the Conservatives. Given the party wouldn’t vote for it this time anyway, best to make virtue of necessity and hope the message reaches the same voters absorbing the Tories’ campaign literature.

Review: Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

by Stephen Tall on April 21, 2017

kate atkBehind the Scenes at the Museum, Kate Atkinson

This is the thirteenth book chosen from my #40booksby40 list.

I absolutely loved her later historical books Life After Life and its sort-of-sequel A God in Ruins, so I was curious to read her debut, breakthrough novel, which beat Salman Rushdie and Roy Jenkins to the 1996 Whitbread prize — a literary shock which provoked much sexist comment, as Hilary Mantel noted in her LRB review.

It’s not quite as good as those, but then that’s a very, very high bar. Behind the Scenes tells the first-person story of Ruby Lennox, from the moment of her birth (“I exist!”) in a exhuberantly jaunty and omniscient tone, revealing much of what’s going to happen, such as her sister Gillian’s death, while simultaneously suppressing some major surprises.

But this book is about more than just Ruby, with capsuled footnotes gradually unveiling five generations of Ruby’s family history. These vignettes are gorgeous stories in their own right, though not as compelling as Ruby’s own, so they do disrupt the narrative a little. However, they accrete to form a complete account of the Lennoxes, a melancholy family saga of guilty secrets (especially disappearing/abandoned children) and guiltier love.

Election notebook #2: The article on the Lib Dems’ EU strategy I didn’t write. Until now

by Stephen Tall on April 20, 2017

A couple of weeks’ back, Mark Pack asked me if I’d write a piece for the next issue of his Lib Dem Newswire (required reading, btw). “Perhaps something on ‘what the Lib Dems are currently getting wrong’?” he suggested, knowing I have my reservations about the party’s ultra-Remain stance. I demurred a bit, I’ll explain why below, and in any case it’s been rather taken over by this week’s events. So here’s more or less what I would (probably) have written…

I don’t think Tim Farron has put a foot wrong as Lib Dem leader since at least 23 June, despite the repeated sneers of SW1-fixated journos who think gravitas = smooth, middle-class Oxbridge clone. (For what it’s worth, I positively drip gravitas.)

His instinctual response to Brexit — that passionate, rejectionist speech delivered the morning after at the same time as Jeremy Corbyn was demanding the Prime Minister immediately trigger Article 50 — has rescued the Lib Dems from seeming oblivion, given the party new-found purpose. And, by the by, delivered thousands of new members inspired by his leadership. Meanwhile, his one-time rival for the job, Norman Lamb, abstained on the A50 vote; an understandable decision for an MP representing a 59% Leave constituency, but imagine how disastrous it would have been for the party if he’d done that as leader.

Tim Farron’s decision wasn’t just emotionally intelligent. It is also the right choice politically and tactically. Politically because it is absolutely right that the 48% who voted Remain (or whatever substantial minority they now are) are represented in parliament. The risible mess that is Corbyn’s Labour party can’t do it, so it’s a good job the Lib Dems are there, punching well above the weight of their nine MPs. Especially as Theresa May appears determined to fight this election refusing to provide any detail about what she considers a good Brexit deal to be. And tactically because it has given the party a USP, a reason for being, at a time when it risked drifting into decades’ worth of happy irrelevance urging fanciful radicalism and constitutional utopianism.

So, to Mark Pack’s point, I don’t actually think the Lib Dems have got the strategy wrong currently. I think they’ve got it bang on. And yet…

And yet, I also can’t but help asking myself two hypothetical questions:

1) What if we were in government right now, dealing with the aftermath of the Brexit referendum?

What would the party being doing differently? I suppose we’d be aiming for some form of EEA+ outcome, a Swiss/Norway kinda deal which retains our membership of the single market while allowing some form of immigration controls. Well, it’s possible — though I’m not sure it’ll help answer the electorate’s concerns about loss of sovereignty or high immigration, however mis-judged they are. And it’s what I assumed Theresa May would go for when she became PM. But, as I wrote here, I don’t find her decision to opt for a hard Brexit that surprising:

Of course I think it’s the wrong choice. And yes, I think Vote Leave was deliberately disingenuous in the referendum campaign in eliding single market membership/access. It’s also quite possible that a referendum specifically on membership of the single market might have produced a different result. But we are where we are. I think it’s at the very least arguable that Theresa May’s decision to choose a swift exit may prove less economically harmful than protracted fudge-and-mudge. It is, it’s true, a huge risk. But that’s what the country voted for. To take a leap in the dark.

2) What if we are in government later? What will our policy be then?

I guess there will always be a market for ultra-Remain voters wanting to turn back the clock to 22 June. But the Lib Dems can’t be a mainstream political force by appealing only to A.C. Grayling. At some point, assuming Brexit does actually happen, we will have to accept it however much it pains us. And given the UK’s only way back into the EU will (probably) be accepting full membership, without the opt-outs and rebates and concessions our neighbours have conceded to keep us inside the tent, do we honestly think re-joining the EU is either a realistic or desirable goal?

It is conceivable our exit terms will be so appalling, and the damage they wreak so economically disastrous, that the country rises up to reject the deal (or no deal) Theresa May comes back with. However, while I think Brexit will be damaging (indeed, is already) I suspect it won’t be so bad that enough voters are going to be willing to admit they were sold a pup. Especially once the right-wing media points the finger of blame at those dastardly foreigners for refusing to give us all the perks of membership even after we’ve cancelled our subscription and set fire to the clubhouse.

So my discomfort with the current Lib Dem strategy is that it’s fully focused on disputing the referendum outcome, not on dealing with where we are now. However, I also accept that’s probably the most profitable electoral strategy, at least for the moment.

And as I remarked to Mark, that’s probably far too much of a hand-wringing conclusion to make a good article.

Election notebook #1: TV debates, Farron’s liberalism, Labour woes, Ukip who?, Naked run 2.0

by Stephen Tall on April 19, 2017

TV debates… I guess it was inevitable Theresa May would try and un-invent them. After all, what’s in it for her? There’s no reward, only risk. Tim Farron would relish the spotlight, and as the Lib Dems are the only actual threat to Tory seats it’s only rational for her to avoid sharing the stage. Heck, even Jeremy Corbyn might out-shine her; he’s a lot more experience of hustings than she has. The truth is that while Theresa May is a serious politician with plenty of strengths, she’s actually not very good unscripted. Even semi-scripted occasions (aka PMQs) she struggles with. She looks and sounds nervy, uncertain, unconvincing. By contrast her one-on-one interviews are blandly innocuous, and her set-piece speeches usually pretty good. So she’ll stick to her trite-and-tested ways.

I’m not so sorry. It’s a shame for Mr Farron — he’d be darned good — but the TV debates are tedious, unenlightening theatre. Sure, they draw in millions of viewers, and maybe, perhaps, some of those might even be tempted to vote as a result. However, I won’t miss the media’s self-obsessed build-ups and post-match commentary. And, in particular, I’ll be glad to say good-bye to the “who was the winner?” insta-polls which dominates the coverage to the exclusion of any serious analysis of what was actually said.

Tim Farron… I didn’t see his Channel 4 News interview which got Twitter all in a lather last night, but the clips I saw suggest it was nothing new. Mr Farron was asked “Do you think gay sex is a sin?” and he replied he was a strong supporter of equal rights but wasn’t going to get into theological discussions. From which folk who should (and probably do) know better decided to infer he is an illiberal homophobe. This in spite of his voting record — strongly for same-sex marriage — and his many public statements pushing for LGBT+ rights. Anyway, I’m not going to rake over it all again, especially as Jennie Rigg has already said it here, rather brilliantly.

The reaction was interesting. Folk who I guess would call themselves liberals lambasted Tim Farron not for the way he’d voted when the issue was before parliament, but for not necessarily holding the same set of beliefs as they do. (Ironically I’m sure they also would have been among the first to take umbrage at the Daily Mail’s OTT front page – Crush the Saboteurs – with its proto-fascist demand that parliament should fall in line behind Theresa May on Brexit.) Tim Stanley, a leader writer for the Telegraph with whom I don’t ordinarily agree, put it best: ‘There’s Liberalism as a philosophy & liberalism as cultural identity. Farron eloquently represents the first; his critics embody the latter.’ Quite. In fact, I’d argue that voting against your personal beliefs in order to give others the right to live their lives as they choose (rather than as you would choose) is about the biggest statement of liberalism you can make.

The Labour train wreck… It’s pitiful, really, what’s happened to this party. In 2015, I assumed Labour members would see sense and elect Yvette Cooper, the candidate her opponents least wanted (and her spiky performance at PMQs today showed why). Instead, they indulged themselves, and in doing so helped hand victory to the Brexiteers and the next 15 years in government to the Tories. Now they face a snap election and reality is, belatedly, dawning. I don’t feel sorry for the Corbynites, whether soft or hard left: they voted for this crushing inevitability. I do feel sorry for (what’s left of) the moderate, sane progressives, caught between wanting the defeat to be just bad enough Jeremy Corbyn has no choice but to go, but not so bad the next leader (Yvette Cooper?) is doomed from the start.

Whatever happened to Ukip…? It’s early says, I realise, but at the moment they’re the mad dogs not barking. Unless you count Arron Banks, who is.

Good news… It’s good to see Nick Boles given the cancer all-clear and able to stand again for parliament. And a last (?) hurrah for Ken Clarke, too. Great that Jo Swinson is standing again in what is the Lib Dems’ top target seat in Scotland. And, while I did everything I could for a decade to unseat him in Oxford East — and despite his pivotal role in getting Mr Corbyn on the Labour leadership ballot paper — my best wishes to Andrew Smith for his retirement. After very narrowly holding on in 2005, he turned the constituency into a Labour fortress with the highest canvassing rate in the country. Which, I hope he appreciates the irony, is one of the best illustrations of the transformative power of market competitiveness.

And finally… Sorry, but I couldn’t resist:

Election 2017: actually, this is good for all parties

by Stephen Tall on April 18, 2017

Well, who saw that coming? Not me. But Theresa May’s decision to call a ‘snap’ election actually suits all parties pretty well.

First, the Tories will win, and will win big. Two recent polls suggest leads over Labour topping 20%, and that’s before Lynton Crosby gets to work on Jeremy Corbyn’s policies and record. Assuming the Tories win back a chunk of Ukip support, dozens of Labour seats will tumble even if there’s no Labour-to-Tory swing. And there will be a Labour-to-Tory swing. The only real question is whether the Tory majority can be restricted to double-figures.

But there is an upside for Labour: a crushing defeat will at least trigger the ending of Mr Corbyn’s leadership. Who knows who’ll follow him (Yvette Cooper, Clive Lewis, Keir Starmer?), but they won’t – just can’t – be any worse. Labour will recover and have in place, at last, a leader capable of holding Theresa May to account. Which isn’t anywhere near as difficult as Mr Corbyn has made it appear.

For the Lib Dems, the timing is pretty much ideal. Anger among Remainers, still very real among a very significant minority of the electorate, has had no electoral outlet. And Tim Farron’s the only leader with a clear position, to reverse Article 50. The Lib Dems can (and will) benefit from Brexit backlash. The party can also hope to get a boost from this May’s local elections. And then there’s the still-to-be-seen impact of the as yet largely unknown-to-the-public Mr Farron in the TV debates (if, big if, they happen).

And of course the SNP can hope/expect to keep most of their MPs, while being able to frighten Scots voters into turning to independence in order to escape Tory rule for the foreseeable.

So, all parties are winners, Mrs May most of all, yes?

Well, maybe. She will have a bigger majority, an election victory in her own right. And that may be the only metric for measuring success. But elections have a funny habit of throwing up tricky unforseens – David Cameron’s catastrophic downfall was the result of his winning outright in 2015 – which is why most leaders avoid them unless forced.

How smart will Mrs May’s decision appear in 2019 if… there’s still no good deal with the EU in sight and British manufacturers and consumers are facing up to the no-longer-hypothetical-but-real economic impact of Brexit… if Labour is once again breathing down the Tories’ necks, led by a sensible, plausible PM-in-waiting… if the Lib Dems have regained a parliamentary toe-hold in former Tory seats… if Scotland has voted for independence and she’s the Prime Minister who ‘loses the union’?

A large part of Theresa May’s popularity has been built on being boringly safe. Voters, tired of the raging arguments unleashed by the referendum, have felt reassured by her stolidity. Today, she’s done something exciting, unpredictable, risky. Let’s see how that lands.

A new Centre Party? Here’s my take…

by Stephen Tall on March 31, 2017

ns oppostnThe New Statesman’s striking cover story this week — “Wanted! An Opposition” — is well worth a read.

In one article, George Eaton reports the musings (they don’t seem to be much stronger than that) that a new centrist party might emerge, uniting Labour and Conservative moderates left homeless by their parties’ lurches to the left and right. Conservative backbencher Anna Soubry’s quote is the most enthusiastic:

“If it could somehow be the voice of a moderate, sensible, forward-thinking, visionary middle way, with open minds – actually things which I’ve believed in all my life – better get on with it.”

Better get on with it. Hmm. But that doesn’t look likely, does it?

Which prompted me to tweet a THREAD on the train home from work late last night:

Article 50 and the Great Brexit Opportunity Cost

by Stephen Tall on March 29, 2017

Brexit could be okay. It might happen.

Maybe it will be possible for the UK to negotiate constructively with the other EU states an exit which respects the rights of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU, maintains good trading relationships, doesn’t jeopardise Northern Ireland’s fragile peace, and ensures continued cooperation to defeat security threats within and beyond our continent’s borders.

There is no rational reason why either our Prime Minister or the other 27 heads of government in the EU should want anything other than that to happen. Of course, the opportunity costs of this process are immense. The UK has committed itself to the biggest ever political and legal process any peace-time government has undertaken in order to try and retain what we already have.

David Davis has promised the Government will deliver the “exact same benefits” as we have now. It is almost impossible to see how it can make good on that pledge. The Prime Minister has notably avoided offering such a hostage to fortune.

We will, as a nation and as individuals, end up worse off as a result of Brexit. How much poorer is open to debate. Hopefully the economy will keep growing, albeit most likely at a slower pace than it would have otherwise done, and therefore the financial sacrifice will be invisible. A sacrifice, we shouldn’t forget, that has been imposed on those who work (who voted Remain) by those who don’t (who voted Leave).

For all that the British economy has proved itself more resilient than expected since 24 June — propped up by the Bank of England’s swift actions — the bounce from a Remain win, and the avoidance of sterling’s collapse, would have meant the UK today would have been better off than in fact we are. That’s another opportunity cost.

But the biggest opportunity cost is that Brexit will dominate our political lives for the next five years (at least) when there are much bigger issues to worry about. “Terrible infrastucture, v low productivity, political instability, low wages, economic polarisation. UK goes into Brexit in really bad way,” as the Economist’s Jeremy Cliffe gloomily but accurately remarked.

Instead of focusing on fixing the problems we have — and which are the actual root causes of the reasons for Brexit, such as the skills shortage in our workforce and under-pressure public services, especially health-care — we’ve chosen as a nation to create a whole heap of new ones. Brexit will push out all else.

Nothing is inevitable. Brexit may defy expectations. The UK could emerge from the Article 50 process in two years’ time domestically intact and ready to try and work out its post-EU role in the world. I hope so, genuinely.

But even if that happens, don’t believe for a moment it has been a cost-free exercise. Those opportunity costs are already being racked up.

Review: The Trial by Franz Kafka

by Stephen Tall on March 16, 2017

kafka trialThe Trial, Franz Kafka


This is the twelfth book chosen from my #40booksby40 list. It’s the one which surprised me most so far.

I guess, because I already knew the basic plot — Josef K. is charged with a crime but is never told what he is accused of or how he can defend himself — I’d assumed The Trial would be quite a serious, righteous, outraged novel. And on one level it is; but it’s style is far more comic absurdism, as K. embarks on the uncompletable task of trying to prove his innocence.

He makes impassioned speeches to the court — the kind we all fantasise we’d be capable of — but then realises it’s inconsequential; he randomly finds men being flogged in the store room of the bank where he’s a clerk; he starts an affair with his lawyer’s nurse, almost literally under his nose, while supposed to be discussing his case; he discovers the man who knows most about proceedings is a court painter, Titorelli, who advises him that his only options amount to the same thing — to live in the continual shadow of his assumed guilt.

The book is episodic, disjointed, unfinished. The character of K. is by no means wholly sympathetic — he is, by turns, rude and exploitative — even if his situation is. Somehow, though, none of that matters; it’s a compelling read because the issue it raises — how state oppression of the individual can become commonplace — is timeless.

Review: The Siege by Helen Dunmore

by Stephen Tall on February 23, 2017

dunmore siegeThe Siege, Helen Dunmore

This is the eleventh book chosen from my #40booksby40 list. The question ‘The Siege’ asks is blunt and raw: what happens when you starve a city for 2½ years? Leningrad found out, from 1941 to 1944 — an astonishing 872 days — when the Germans laid siege to it.

We see what happens through the eyes of one disjointed family, the Levins: Anna, the nursery worker, and sister/mother to 5 year-old Kolya; their father, Mikhail, a writer dangerously unable and unwilling to toe the Stalinist line; and Marina Petrovna, an old flame of Mikhail’s impelled by necessity into the family bosom.

And we witness their gradual, inevitable, harrowing descent into bare survival, as the vicious pincer of Hitler and a long winter makes their lives unimaginably unendurable. What stands out most are the domestic details: the cups of tea made out of plain water with a dash of salt or sugar; cooking Kolya’s papier-mache fort to release a few essential calories; those who freeze to death waiting in the bread-queue.

If it sounds grim, it is. It was. Yet there is, of course, hope. Anna finds love. She also discovers unknown resilience and how mis-shapen families bind each other together. Gripping, in every sense.

Review: Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

by Stephen Tall on February 22, 2017

Penelope-Lively-Moon-TigerMoon Tiger, Penelope Lively

This is the tenth book chosen from my #40booksby40 list. It is — let me cut to the chase — superb. I have long loved Penelope Lively’s writing, and this was one of those rainy day books, long-owned but put aside because I knew I’d want to relish it, which prompted me to write my list and get on with actually reading it.

If Lively were a bloke — say, one named Martin or Julian or Kazuo — she’d be fêted as one of the greatest British novelists of the last half-century. As it is, she’s acknowledged (this book did, after all, win the 1987 Booker Prize) yet rarely acclaimed. She’s held to be just a little too middle-brow, too ‘housewifey’, too Radio 4 to be that good. But she is. She really is.

The book is centred on Claudia Hampton, a clever, caustic, glamorous, wilful septuagenarian historian. When we first meet her, she is dying of cancer. Hers, though, has been a life lived to the max.

From her intense (and, it transpires, incestuous) relationship with her brother, Gordon; to her one true love, Tom, whose death in war-torn Egypt robs her of so much of what-might-have-been (and whose anti-mosquito device gives rise to the book’s title: as it burns, it turns to ash: as we live, we fade); to her on-off fling with Jasper that brings her a daughter she has little time for (in stark contrast to her ‘adopted’ son, Laszlo).

She could be a deeply unsympathetic character; yet, in Lively’s hands, she is too vivid to be anything other than magnetically, magestically interesting.

We flit through time. We see Claudia’s story told from multiple perspectives. But it’s not Lively’s writing style which transfixes (though it is brilliantly done), but the ideas and observations which fizz. Here’s my favourite passage (among many):

‘We open our mouths and out flow words whose ancestries we do not even know. We are walking lexicons. In a single sentence of idle chatter we preserve Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norse; we carry a museum inside our heads, each day we commemorate peoples of whom we have never heard. More than that, we speak volumes. Our language is the language of everything we have not read. Shakespeare and the Authorised Version surface in supermarkets, on buses, chatter on radio and television. I find this miraculous.’

Sublime.



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