Fraser Nelson’s porkies. AKA: Can we have an informed debate about the economy, please?

by Stephen Tall on January 4, 2015

Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator, is at it again. I’ve noted before his tendency to use raw figures — ignoring, say, the impact of inflation or population growth — to make specious claims.

First, Fraser attacked the Conservatives for their New Year poster, taking exception (along with a chunk of the press) for its claim that the deficit has halved under the Coalition.

The poster is correct; Fraser and his journo colleagues are wrong. To quote the OBR (as Fraser was later forced to do), “relative to GDP, the budget deficit has been halved to date” — though the reasons don’t exactly redound to the credit of the Government, as Jonathan Portes acerbically points out here.

But Fraser is nothing if not even-handed. Today he attacks Labour for its poster-claim that spending is heading back to the levels of the 1930s.

labour poster 2015

Here’s Fraser’s complaint:

… the Treasury doesn’t even have figures that go back to the 1930s. Its data starts in 1955-56 where state spending was, in today’s money, £158 billion. It is now £737 billion, almost five times higher that it was in the mid-50s, let alone the 1930s.

Because, as Fraser and everyone else knows, things cost exactly the same now as they did back then, and the UK’s population is still 40 million. Yes?

I’ll try an analogy, to see if it helps Fraser along…. Say it’s 2005 and you’re paid £50,000 a year and have minimal outgoings beyond the mortgage. But over the next decade, you have three kids. And then your parents start to need help with their round-the-clock care costs. Then let’s say that, after those 10 years, your salary stands at £53,000. According to the Fraser world-view, you have nothing to worry about: you earn £3,000 more now than you did in 2005. That’s it, end of story. You’re better off. The raw figures prove it.

Does it matter that a magazine editor so persistently gets hold of the wrong end of the economic stick and waves it about? Perhaps not so much. But — as I wrote here last July — we’re approaching an election in which all the main parties are avoiding discussing the crunchy spending decisions to come.

The Fraser Nelson school of economic reporting seeks to impress with its use of graphs and figures. But we need journalism that informs, not distracts, from the big decisions which await us.

PS: And yes, that means you, too Channel 4 News. Why the heck would you think it matters for even a mili-second whether the Conservatives’ poster art-work originated in Germany? Leave that quirky, sideways-look stuff to Buzzfeed, please.


Liberal Heroes of the Week #82: David Willetts and Douglas Carswell

by Stephen Tall on January 4, 2015

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

cf hero - david willetts

David Willetts

Conservative MP, former universities minister
Reason: for opposing his party’s plan to cut back the numbers of overseas students

So often this column is a toss-up: do I make person X a ‘Liberal Hero’ for opposing a madcap policy, or person Y a ‘Liberal Villain’ for dreaming up said madcap policy in the first place? Generally I prefer to accentuate the positive, and that’s why David Willetts is this week’s Hero, instead of Theresa May a Villain, for opposing the home secretary’s proposal to restrict the numbers of overseas students.

The Conservatives are, you may have noticed, desperate to show they have cut net immigration in an attempt to see of the electoral threat from Ukip. This has proved a bit tricky as the official statistics from the ONS show net migration at 260,000, higher than the 244,000 recorded in 2010 when the Coalition came to power.

(NB: the commitment to cut net immigration was never a Coalition target; only ever a target set by the Conservatives within the Coalition… A point emphasised by Lib Dem business secretary Vince Cable in one of my favourite quotes by him.)

So Theresa May has hit on a quick fix: requiring foreign students to leave the country at the end of their courses. Yes, that’s right: the leading candidate to be next Conservative leader wants to impose greater regulation on higher education, one of this country’s leading export industries reckoned to earn more than £10 billion for the country. How’s that for striking at the principle of free movement of goods, services and people? (Let alone the free exchange of ideas.) The party of freedom — really?

Fortunately, there are saner voices in her party. Former Conservative universities minister David Willetts — one of the last One Nation Conservatives still around, and someone who should, quite frankly, have already made it into the Liberal Hero canon before now — has made clear his contempt for Mrs May’s plan, writing in The Times of the importance to this country of overseas students:

More than four million students every year leave their home country to study: of those almost half a million come to the UK. There is a global trend for more students to study abroad. We should aim to increase our share of this growing market. But if we implement the latest idea from the Home Office for new restrictions on overseas students, we would not only miss this golden opportunity — we would be acting in a mean-spirited and inward-looking way. …

We already have a very strict regime for post-study work, so a graduate can only stay to work for up to two years if it is a “graduate job” with a licensed sponsor and paid a minimum of £20,300. This is more restrictive than our competitors. It is easier to find a job above the pay threshold in London. We should remove the incentive for overseas students to leave Manchester or Newcastle to work in London by setting lower minimum pay rates for post-study work outside London. That would follow up George Osborne’s exciting vision for a “northern powerhouse”. …

The future is more openness and more mobility. We must seize the opportunities created by the world’s appetite for British education.

Quite so. The genuinely puzzling thing about Mrs May’s latest purported crackdown is that there is a far easier way to cut the number of overseas students included in the net immigration figures: stop counting them as immigrants. After all, few of the British pubic think they should be classified as immigrants. Even Ukip thinks it’s a nonsense. As British Future’s Sunder Katawala puts it:

Government policy is to attract more international students and to increase our share versus Australian and American competitors. Including something that you want to increase, in a category that you want to reduce, makes no sense. The public think so – and since UKIP, the Liberal Democrats and Labour all agree on this, it is difficult to see what is stopping the Conservatives from joining them.

It shouldn’t need Two Brains to understand this. But I’m glad he’s there pointing out the nonsensicalness of this policy to his party. Let’s hope Mrs May is listening.

cf hero - douglas carswell

Douglas Carswell

First elected Ukip MP
Reason: for telling his party it should stop its offensive dislike of foreigners and adopt a serious internationalist agenda

On the face of it, 2014 has been a staggeringly successful year for Ukip: the party won a national election (May’s low-turnout Euros), and saw its first two MPs elected at by-elections.

Yet it was also a year of failure for its leader, Nigel Farage. Instead of broadening Ukip’s national appeal, he ended up re-toxifying its brand with casually xenophobic and sexist remarks. As a result, Ukip is further away than before from achieving its goal — the UK voting to withdraw from the European Union in any future referendum — because its leader opts to preach to his 15% of zealots, rather than reach out to the majority in Middle Britain.

One man understands his leader’s strategic error better than most: recent convert, Douglas Carswell. Writing in the Daily Mail, the Clacton MP invokes a feel-good, Reagan-esque ‘Morning in Essex’ weltenschauung:

There has never been anything splendid about isolation. It was our interdependence that put the Great into Great Britain – and it is what sustains our living standards today. In such a world, a dislike of foreigners is not merely offensive, but absurd. … Far from being a party that tolerates pejorative comments about people’s heritage and background, Ukip in 2015 has to show that we have a serious internationalist agenda. We stand to realign our trade relations precisely because we wish to join in with the rest of the world. Increased interdependence is going to mean ever greater labour mobility – not just between countries but between continents.

His ‘Bright Purple’ brand of Ukipperism won’t win my vote — but it’s intellectually coherent and electorally plausible. Farage’s golf bore protest-schtick can take Ukip only so far; Carswell’s actually looking to build a majority for positively rejecting the EU. And he knows that to do so, Ukip must shed its “a bit racist” image, must engage with modern Britain as it is. Quite liberal, quite heroic. Which is why he joins David Willetts as this week’s other Liberal Hero.

* 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.

LibDemVoice Fantasy Football League: how it stands after Week 20

by Stephen Tall on January 3, 2015


We’re half-way through the season… Congratulations to George Murray, whose ‘Marauding Fullbacks’ continue to lead the LibDemVoice Fantasy Football League after Week 20, with an impressive 1,178 points. Not far behind are a hat-trick of contenders (Mark Widdop, Sam Bowman and Jon Featonby), separated by just seven points.

George wasn’t in fact the winner of either quarter of the season so far. Quarter 1 was won by Jon Featonby, and Quarter 2 by Edward Douglas; but George has been consistent across the season. So far: it can of course all change in the five months to come.


There are 157 players in total and you can still join the league by clicking here.

* 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.

I’ve written 561 posts this year. Here are the 12 most-read of 2014…

by Stephen Tall on December 30, 2014

Q&A on the allegations against Lord Rennard. (My conclusion: it’s a mess.) – Jan 17, 2014

18 posters in which the Conservatives promise to build more houses. The last one appeared in 1979 – Feb 19, 2014

Tom Watson handily reminds me why I left Labour – Mar 20, 2014

So how’s my scenario 3 – a Tory lead of 6% by May 2015 – working out then? – Apr 2, 2014

Why I am one of the 39% of Lib Dem members who thinks Nick Clegg should stand down as leader – May 28, 2014

Why are London schools so good? Politicians have been looking in the wrong place for the answers… – Jun 23, 2014

Dear Daily Telegraph, Enough already. It’s actually okay for MPs to claim 11p for a ruler. – Jul 12, 2014

On Boris standing as an MP, and why being pro-tuition fees meant I didn’t – Aug 13, 2014

It’s 8 May 2015. Nick Clegg’s resigned. Who speaks for the Lib Dems? – Sept 9, 2014

What my Glasgow taxi-driver said about the LibDems, verbatim #ldconf – Oct 7, 2014

My “It’s 8th May 2015? scenario-question to the Lib Dem party president candidates – Sal Brinton responds – Nov 4, 2014

A fabulously passive-aggressive tweet-exchange between Jeremy Browne and Nick Clegg – Dec 1, 2014

Read all about it… my collected ‘The Underdog’ columns for Total Politics magazine

by Stephen Tall on December 29, 2014

It’s what you’ve all been waiting for, I know. I’ve been writing my monthly ‘The Underdog’ column for Total Politics magazine since October 2013, and have finally gotten round to uploading them. Two ways you can read all of them:

Click on this link (Scribd); or
Click on this link (links within this site).

Or just read on, below…

The Collected Stephen Tall's Total Politics Columns (2013-14)

My must-reads this week December 26, 2014

by Stephen Tall on December 26, 2014

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

The polls in 2014: what they show with 133 days left til 7 May 2015

by Stephen Tall on December 24, 2014

The final polls of the year have been published — getting on for 500 have been commissioned in 2014 — and their story is told in the graph below.

It shows Labour’s declining (down from c.38% to c.33%), the Tories static (at c.32%), Ukip on the rise (up from c.12% to c.16%), and the Lib Dems dipping (down from c.10% to c.8%). I’ve added trendlines to cut through the noise and give us a signal:

2014 in polls

The last month has done little to alter this overall picture.

A handful of polls in December have shown Labour opening up a wider lead over the Tories, with Ukip’s support subsiding below 15%. It’s possible this is a reaction against George Osborne’s autumn statement and his signalling the Tory determination to continue slashing public spending after May if they’re in power. (It is, by the way, a mystery how the Chancellor is considered a strategic genius: many of the Tories’ woes can be laid at his door. His gloomy cuts ‘n austerity 2009 conference speech played a big part in losing his party its majority. His U-turn heavy 2012 budget which cut the top-rate of tax sealed the impression the Tories care more for the wealthy than the oppressed.) However, the polling movements are slight, and in any case appear to show the small Labour gain is chiefly at Ukip’s expense — perhaps Nigel Farage’s teflon coating is beginning to show signs of wear and tear?

For the Lib Dems, 2014 has been a grim year. For the past three Christmases our average rating has been 10%. Many would have hoped by now we’d be getting some credit for the (wobbling) economic recovery and for our stoic perseverance in government. For the record, I didn’t — here’s what I predicted would happen in the polls a year ago:

Labour will still lead the Conservatives in the polls in a year’s time, but it will be closer than the 5% the current average of polls shows – mostly as a result of Labour declining than the Tories’ attracting more support. The polling in 2014 is likely to be quite erratic, as Ukip’s expected strong showing in the Euros will spike their vote, hitting the Tories worst but also Labour. I don’t expect to see much, if any, uplift in the Lib Dems’ flat-lining 10% polling yet (I think it will happen, but much closer to the general election). I think 2014 will mark Ukip’s high point, however: support will drift away the closer we draw to the May 2015 general election. Okay, I’ll stick my neck out… The polling averages for the parties (according to UK Polling Report at 31 Dec 2014) will be Labour 36 per cent, Conservatives 33 per cent, Ukip 14 per cent, Lib Dems 10 per cent.

Not too shabby a prediction, eh? The current polling averages are Labour 34%, Conservative 31%, Ukip 15% and Lib Dems 8%.

Lib Dem hopes will have been raised by the most recent ICM poll showing the party at 14%, level-pegging with Ukip. I’d love to believe it, but it ‘feels’ a little generous to me.

As I’ve pointed out before, ICM’s methodology tends to be most generous to the Lib Dems because they re-allocate half the current ‘Don’t Knows’ to their previous party allegiance — and Lib Dem voters often least tribal and most likely to make their minds up late (often for tactical reasons). This makes it as much a prediction as a snapshot of current opinion, which is why the polling firms’ numbers tend to converge the closer we get to polling day itself.

Still, it indicates what’s possible for the Lib Dems: 14% is by no means an impossible target. Indeed, if you feed the latest ICM figures into ElectoralCalculus, the party would retain 43 of its current 57 seats. I don’t think there’s a Lib Dem activist around who wouldn’t take that as an early Christmas present right now (even though it would also mean a hefty Labour majority of 56).

Feed in today’s YouGov figures into ElectoralCalculus, though, and you’ll get a very different picture: the Lib Dems’ 6% would see us reduced to just 14 seats. I don’t, by the way, set huge stall by the ElectoralCalculus methodology — at one point in the last parliament it showed the Lib Dems would be entirely wiped out at the May 2010 election — but it does highlight the massive range of possible outcomes for the party.

How well/badly we do and the extent of liberal influence in the next parliament depends on what happens in our key seats in the 133 days between now and 7th May.

* 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.

3 last-minute Christmas present ideas (hint: they’re books)

by Stephen Tall on December 23, 2014

Over at LibDemVoice, I’ve put forward three suggestions for last-minute pressie ideas for the politico geek (whether that’s you or someone you know)…

Liberalism: The Life of an Idea – Edmund Fawcett
There are lots of books around about liberalism as an idea: this one focuses on liberalism as reality, and how it’s decisively shaped the past 200 years of American and European history. In the wrong hands, this could be scholarly but dry, important yet dull. As it is, Fawcett’s touch is both light and incisive (eg, ‘At times the liberal state tamed the market. At others, the liberal market tamed the liberal state.’). Highly recommended.

Audible audiobooks – There are plenty of books I’d love to read, but know I won’t ever find/make the time to do so. This year I treated myself to an annual subscription to Audible: 12 audiobooks for £69.99 (that’s less than £6 a book). As a result, I’ve finally ‘read’ the latest instalment of Robert Caro’s amazingly good biography of LBJ, The Passage of Power; Roy Jenkins’ Churchill; and am mid-way through Margaret Macmillan’s The War That Ended Peace. And I still have another 9 books to download and enjoy on my daily commute.

Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box: 50 things you need to know about British elections – Philip Cowley, Robert Ford (Eds)
How do you make political geekery and electoral psephology into a page-turner? Well, identify 51 intriguing questions and ask top academics to answer them in pithy 4-page bite-size chunks. If you want to know why people lie about voting, when racism stopped being normal, and whether attractive candidates get more votes then this is most definitely the book for you.

Liberal Hero of the Week #81: Sajid Javid

by Stephen Tall on December 21, 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

sajid javid

Sajid Javid

Conservative secretary of state for culture
Reason: for his unapologetic defence of freedom of expression

Freedom of expression is a pretty fundamental tenet of liberalism, one which has been under attack throughout 2014 — from the brutal censorship and propaganda of repressive regimes like Russia and North Korea, to the unpleasant baying of the permanently outraged Twitter-mob at the latest cause célèbre du jour to have triggered their ire.

JS Mill pointed out why freedom of expression — and in particular those expressions with which we fundamentally disagree — need to be protected for all our sakes. To censor is to shut down open discussion. It is an assumption of the utmost arrogance, founded in the belief of our own infallibility, preventing ourselves and others from hearing dissenting views:

If a forbidden opinion is true, we lose the opportunity to learn of its truth. If a forbidden opinion is false, we lose the opportunity to remind ourselves why it is false. (Brendan Larvor, On Liberty of Thought and Discussion)

An open, democratic society should tolerate all kinds of views, even and especially those we ourselves find objectionable. But the tendency — true both of malign governments and benign activists — is to want to bear down on those they disagree with. Always for the greater good, of course, but always at the expense of someone else’s freedom of expression.

So it was refreshing this week to hear a cabinet minister put forward a passionate case for freedom of expression, without caveat or cavil. One day, I hope I’ll hear such a speech from a Lib Dem minister. But in the meantime, it’s right to acknowledge Conservative culture secretary Sajid Javid’s trenchant defence in his address to the Union of Jewish Students’ Annual Conference — here’s an excerpt:

We are British, but we express that Britishness in many different ways. And the diversity of our daily life is reflected in the diversity of our art. That’s what art is for, after all. It tells us who we are. Shows us our strengths and weaknesses. Celebrates our better natures and shines a light on the darker corners of our lives. Ultimately it’s about understanding and expressing what it means to be human. But that cannot happen if art is censored. …

Sadly, not everyone agrees. This summer, for the first time in the near 70-year history of the Edinburgh Festival, a performance was cancelled because of political pressure and threats of violence. Dozens of protesters picketed the venue where a play called The City was being staged. Witnesses spoke of demonstrators screaming abuse at children of 12 and 14. The police said they could not guarantee the safety of the performers or of the audience. The play didn’t contain offensive material. It wasn’t inciting hatred, or pushing a political agenda. It was simply an innovative musical telling an old-fashioned detective story. The protesters were demanding that it be censored for one reason and one reason only. The theatre company behind The City had received some funding from the Israeli government.

A month later the Tricycle Theatre, just a few miles from here, announced that the internationally respected UK Jewish Film Festival was no longer welcome. Why? Because the organisers had accepted a small grant – less than £1,500 – from the Israeli embassy. Neither grant came with political conditions attached. Just as when the Arts Council awards funding to UK artists, there were no attempts to dictate content or censor views. Yet the connection to Israel was enough. The protesters came out and the shutters came down.

The moment I heard about the Tricycle ban I knew I couldn’t just let it go. It’s completely unacceptable for a theatre to act in this way, and I didn’t shy away from telling its directors that. And I’m pleased to say that, after lengthy discussions, the Tricycle and the UK Jewish Film Festival have resolved their differences. This story, at least, has a happy ending.

But the problem continues elsewhere. As I’m sure you’re all aware, there’s an increasingly vocal campaign for a full-scale cultural boycott of Israel. It’s a campaign I have no time for, and there’s a very simple reason why. Last month I spoke at a conference for newspaper editors. I was talking about the various attacks on media freedom that we’ve seen recently. The so-called right to be forgotten, for example. And the use of anti-terror legislation against journalists. And I told them that I believe the free press is an absolute concept. Something you support 100 per cent or not at all. That you just can’t say “I believe in media freedom, but…”

The same is true of art and culture. It simply doesn’t make sense to say “I believe in freedom of artistic expression, but…” Yet that’s exactly what we’re hearing, including from some voices at the National Union of Students.

“I believe in artistic freedom, but only for people whose politics I agree with.”
“I believe in artistic freedom, but only if it’s not backed by Israel.”
“I believe in artistic freedom, but not for Jews.”

Let me be very clear – I don’t believe in artistic and cultural boycotts. Nor, I’m proud to say, does my party. As we have said many times, a cultural boycott would achieve nothing. It would be needlessly divisive, and would run counter to the long history of cultural freedom that this country holds dear.

Britain is currently leading the way in imposing economic sanctions on Russia over its actions in Ukraine. But that’s not a reason to stop the British Museum loaning part of the Parthenon Sculptures to a museum in St Petersburg. Because culture is bigger than politics. It should rise above what divides us, not be used to create that division. It should be used to build understanding, not incite hatred.

We don’t have to like an artist. We don’t have to support them. We even have every right to peacefully protest against them if we want to. But silencing artists, denying their freedom of expression? That is simply wrong.

It was wrong when Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s Behzti came under siege from members of the Sikh community. It was wrong when Christian groups tried to drive Jerry Springer The Musical off the stage. And it’s wrong when Jewish artists are targeted simply because of their connection to Israel. A century ago William Howard Taft called anti-Semitism a “Noxious weed”. A century later, I don’t want to see that weed taking root in any aspect of British life. …

.. by all means disagree about art and culture. I want you to debate it, discuss it, defend it and decry it. But whatever you think of an artist’s work, you must never allow them to be silenced by the politics of prejudice.

You can read his speech in full here. I think JS Mill would’ve liked it.

* 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.

LibDemVoice Fantasy Football League: how it stands after Week 16

by Stephen Tall on December 20, 2014

Congratulations to George Murray’s ‘Marauding Fullbacks’, who, with an impressive 928 points, continue to lead the LibDemVoice Fantasy Football League after Week 16. It’s tight, though: just 12 points separate the top 3.

We’re entering the festive period, a time when you’ve probably got lots of other things to do. But, beware: there’s lots of football action, so, if you take your eye off the ball, you could find yourselves plummeting.


There are 157 players in total and you can still join the league by clicking here.

* 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.

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