by Stephen Tall on June 10, 2015
Mark Pack has a typically insightful blog-post asking from when can we date the Lib Dems’ election catastrophe — from the moment the Coalition deal was signed, or as a result of specific events within the Coalition? Here’s the metaphor Mark uses:
There is a little argument to be had, with polling spreadsheets at the ready and magnifying glasses deployed, over whether Liberal Democrat support immediate fell off a cliff edge the moment the party went into coalition in 2010 or whether there was a small ledge before the party plunged off the edge a few weeks later.
The debate matters because the answer has big implications for whether the party should consider coalition again. Is there something intrinsic about being a junior party in a Westminster coalition which means you’ve lost before you’ve started? Or is your fate in your own hands — is it possible to make a success of it, if handled well?
However, I don’t think the answer’s quite that simple or binary. And I’ve taken up Mark’s magnifying-glass-polling-spreadsheet gauntlet to illustrate the point. Here are the Lib Dem ratings (as measured by ICM and ComRes) from 2010 to 2015. The spiky yellow line shows each poll; the smoother black line the 3-month rolling average; the overlying cliff-like / ledge-like red lines are my insertion.
What I think this shows is that:
1) entering into the Coalition with the Conservatives was, unsurprisingly, a toxic act for many 2010 Lib Dem voters. The party’s vote share fell off a cliff, from 23% to 13%;
2) the tuition fees U-turn coincided with this, though didn’t in itself precipitate the collapse. It did, however, do longer term reputational damage to the party (and of course its leader);
3) Lib Dem ratings then stabilised at around 13% (or a little lower) for the next year;
4) until, that is, the furore over the NHS Bill in 2012, an avoidable debacle which lost the party another chunk of support (down to 12%) — and was probably the final nail in the coffin of its progressive, liberal-left vote, many of whom were crucial tactical voters for the Lib Dems in key marginals;
5) then came the Ukip breakthrough in May 2013, when Nigel Farage’s party polled 22% in the local elections — as the Lib Dems were usurped as the third party, so our relevance declined, a vicious spiral;
6) entering 2014, the Lib Dems were level-pegging with Ukip and Nick Clegg gamely took on Farage in two debates on Europe: the second (and most-watched) he unarguably lost. The Lib Dems were almost wiped-out in the Euros. Clegg almost quit. The party ratings took another hit (down to 9-10%);
7) finally, the 2015 general election and the Lib Dem attempt to fight a first-past-the-post election on the basis of being everyone’s second favourite party, resulting in a ruthless but traditional squeeze by Labour and the Tories which left the Lib Dems on just 8%.
In short, there was, yes, a cliff which the Lib Dems fell off in May 2010. However, there were a series of ledges over the next five years which the party jumped off.
The very act of going into Coalition badly damaged the party; but it was what the Lib Dems did (or didn’t do) within the Coalition which resulted in the party losing 86% of its MPs last month.
by Stephen Tall on June 3, 2015
I properly met Charles Kennedy only once, when I interviewed him for LibDemVoice at the party’s 2007 conference. It was 18 months since he’d resigned the leadership but, with Ming Campbell visibly struggling in the role, there was still speculation he might yet return.
Among other questions, I asked him if he’d fancy another tilt. “Never say never,” he replied. “Now don’t read anything into that, it’s just a statement of fact. You never know what will happen in politics as you never know what will happen in life generally.”
I’ve a post on The Times’s Red Box blog today, looking at the race for the Lib Dem leadership. Here’s how it concludes:
On September 23, Tim Farron will give his first conference speech as party leader. He will pay tribute to his predecessors: to Clegg, for his bravery in putting national interest before the party’s own self-preservation. But also to Kennedy, prescient on Iraq and just as far-sighted in warning his colleagues not to go into coalition with the Conservatives (he was one of just three Lib Dem MPs not to vote in favour), and also an unabashed liberal-left progressive.
No prizes for guessing which leader’s ideological path he wants to follow – or whose electoral record he wants to emulate.
by Stephen Tall on June 2, 2015
Politics was his life; and yet his appeal was in particular to those who felt life wasn’t just about politics. It was a paradox he implicitly acknowledged in one of my favourite of his quotes: “Politics is much too serious to be taken too seriously; equally, there are many aspects of it so laughable as to be lamentable.”
Paddy Ashdown, who had his reservations about Charles succeeding him, said today: “On form and on song, he was the best of us by a mile.” That’s true enough. I remember the BBC1 Question Time leaders’ special in 2005, a week before the election, when, suddenly, after a stumbling campaign, it all came together for him: witty, passionate, down-to-earth, full of integrity.
Even as he led the Lib Dems to the party’s best ever election result – 62 MPs – there was a sense as a party we’d missed our moment: the combination of the Lib Dems having been right on the defining political issue of our generation (Iraq) while the other two major parties were tarnished made it seem like we (and he) had not quite reached our full potential, that we were coasting. From where the party is now, of course, it looks like a golden period.
But if Charles benefited from leading the party in a benign climate, what shouldn’t be underestimated for a single moment is his rare gift for calling the big decisions right.
To lead the Lib Dems in voting against the Iraq war was a huge political risk, vindicated only with hindsight. To stand up amid the angry, braying shouts of ‘Traitor’ and ‘Quisling’ from the Labour and Tory benches took very real courage.
And he was the lone MP who voted against the Coalition, a view I (like many others) disregarded as a short-sighted, anti-Tory knee-jerk that would condemn the party to years in the wilderness. It wouldn’t have been risk-free — some voters might well have turned away thinking we’d flunked our big opportunity — but it’s hard to claim the party, liberalism, wouldn’t now be in a stronger position had we followed Charles’s lead.
Flawed, yes — and we shouldn’t lose sight of those flaws even at this sad time because his evident, self-confessed, all-too-human vulnerability was a major part of his popular appeal — but also a supreme talent whose very under-statedness inspired so many within and beyond the party he loved.
by Stephen Tall on May 30, 2015
Today marks the traditional climax to the English football season, the FA Cup Final. It also brings to a close this season’s LibDemVoice Fantasy Football League.
Congratulations to George Murray, whose Marauding Fullbacks have taken the trophy, accumulating an impressive 2,242 points, enough to place him in 3,763rd place in the global league of more than 3.5 million players. Kudos.
Runners-up were two Sams: Massingham’s Handforth Orient FC (2,175) and Bowman’s Sterlingization (2,161). You can see the full Top 10 below.
Congratulations, too, to Kye Dorricott, whose Chip Bang Utd topped the league in the first and final quarters of the season; and Edward Douglas’s Use Your Ed who did so in the second quarter. (George did so in the third quarter.)
And an honorary mention for the best week’s performance: Ian Whittleworth’s Eastlands AFC with 62 points.
Finally, let’s remember it’s not all about the winning — we are Lib Dems, after all — so thanks to all 166 players who took part in the 2014-15 tournament.
How I did:
For the record, I finished in a pretty woeful 60th position.
You can see my initial team here. Not a single player made it into my final line-up (right, click to enlarge). Had I stuck with it, I’d have won a pitiful 1,101 points.
As it was, my season tally of 1,853 points saw me finish in 826,392th place in the global league (60th in the LDV league).
The only way is up, amiright?
by Stephen Tall on May 28, 2015
The Collini Case, Ferdinand von Schirach (trans. Anthea Bell)
Not many novels are cited by a government-appointed committee to reappraise the mark left on the German ministry of justice by its Nazi past.
What is as remarkable is that, for all its serious purpose, The Collini Case is also a gripping, taut whydunnit, an historian’s Columbo in which the murder is committed within the first three pages but its suspense is maintained for a further 186 as the horrifying motive is uncovered.
Why did Fabrizio Collini kill Hans Mayer? That’s the question newly qualified defence lawyer, Caspar Leinen, must try and find out, as he finds himself pitted against a supremely wily opponent, Richard Mattinger, who realises his youthful juridical radicalism has somehow lapsed as his career has soared.
Their legal skirmishes are, though, simply the frame through which we view a far more important debate: to what extent should we judge the past by current standards; is there a point when it is better to draw a line under crimes committed long, long ago; is it possible to feel sympathy for both a killer and his victims; what in war-time counts as proportionate killing?
If that all seems a bit heavy for a crime novel, don’t worry: such questions are asked deftly. But they are asked; and we are offered, I can find, no easy answers.
by Stephen Tall on May 27, 2015
The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters
Sarah Waters is my favourite British novelist, even if (maybe because) she’s never quite pulled off the trick of convincing the Lit-Crit Establishment that there’s a whole lot more to her than accomplished Victorian (or in this case Edwardian) pastiche.
Her books are compelling page-turners; not so much for the plot — which, despite its dramatic sensationalism, is almost besides the point in The Paying Guests — but for the detailed rendering of the inextricably intertwined character and place.
Frances and her mother, Mrs Wray, are forced by their genteel penury to take in aspirant ‘clerk class’ lodgers, Lilian and Leonard Barber, to assure their home and pay the bills. As their two worlds collide (or, more accurately, result in awkward, chance encounters on the landing) Frances and Lilian find themselves both pulled together and driven apart.
At heart (and there’s lots of heart, and more besides) this is a story of forbidden and thwarted love. Yet, for all its claustrophobic domesticity, there are far bigger themes foreshadowed here, such as the confident assertion of female equality and the disruptive emergence of the nascent middle class.
All of this against the looming, devastating backdrop of the Great War, which finds allegorical echoes here as a bloodily gruesome tragedy taints all touched by it, leaving little but an empty, lingering mutual suspicion incapable of resolution.
by Stephen Tall on May 22, 2015
The first time I voted was in Labour’s 1994 leadership contest: I chose Blair and Prescott as my dream ticket, and so did my then party. I think that’s when I peaked, at least in terms of choosing winners.
The next time I had a leadership vote, in 1999, I was a Lib Dem: I voted for David Rendel (on the naive grounds he did best at the hustings I attended). Seven years later, I chose Ming Campbell (I think I realised my mistake almost as soon as he did). And the last time, in 2007, I opted for Chris Huhne (because it was about time the Lib Dems had a bit of a bastard at the top). If, knowing these facts, you think still my views are worth bearing in mind, then read on… at your own risk.
So first question: why is a stout defender of Lib Dem centrism who’ll still happily bandy about the term Orange Book liberalism (ie, me) supporting the candidate who most readily identifies with left-liberalism (ie, Tim Farron)?
My first answer, and this matters, is that I like him. He’s an honest, heart-on-his-sleeve, lifelong liberal, who lives and breathes my party’s philosophy, and has done since he was 16. I’ve heard him speak a few times, and have always felt lifted, energised, inspired. That’s a rare gift. When someone has it, you can do worse than elect them your leader.
That doesn’t mean I agree with Tim all the time. I don’t and I won’t. He’s more of a tax-and-spender than I’d be. For example, he supports the 50p top-rate of income tax whereas I think it’s an inconsequential economic irrelevance — a symbolic totem that raises very little revenue but limits the political space to tackle unearned wealth.
Tim also has a touching faith in glitzy, expensive, state-sponsored infrastructure projects (ironically something which unites him with Jeremy Browne on the party’s other wing) remarking at last year’s party conference that “we should be planning not just HS2, but HS3, 4 and 5 too!” Whereas I think the massive price-tag is a huge opportunity cost, and we’d be much better off spending half the money on upgrading the current rail system.
So, in voting for Tim, I’m under no illusion I will always like the direction of party policy under his leadership.
But he is exactly what the party needs right now. Lib Dems have suspended our disbelief at the election result. It was so crushingly bad it’s knocked all the stuffing out of the party. Sure, we’ve got an extra 13,000 members — that’s terrific and a warm welcome to them — but (no offence intended) I’d swap them for 13 extra MPs.
The plain fact is the party has now to begin a long, slow, painful climb back. Absent some John Major-eque collapse by the Tories (which can’t of course be ruled out) c.20 MPs is the summit of our hopes at the 2020 election. Given the boundary changes to come, we may be doing well simply to hold on to the eight seats we’ve got.
We certainly won’t be in a position to go into coalition government again in the forseeable, even if the party were willing to vote for it (very unlikely). But, then, that also means I don’t need to worry about disagreeing with Tim on our tax-and-spending policies too much.
Tim’s drive, determination and campaigning nous are going to prove essential to breathe new life back into the party. “We should be encouraged by the fightbacks of the past but nothing is inevitable. We might fail,” notes one senior Lib Dem. This is true and a valuable warning.
In the past, the Lib Dem vote has been swollen by protest voters wanting to give Labour and the Tories a kick in the shins. The public now has many other anti-establishment parties to turn to, all of them less contaminated by a recent spell in government, and with more strikingly populist messages: Ukip’s anti-immigration dog-whistle, the SNP’s pro-nationalism placebo, the Greens’ anti-austerity posturing.
We need a leader who doesn’t look like the latest Westminster SpAd-turned-MP to trundle off the conveyor belt, who has the authenticity to connect with voters, who can speak-from-the-hip and sum up Lib Dem values simply and compellingly. That Tim can do by the bucket-load.
What I’ve written above may, I realise, run the risk of suggesting I think Tim’s wrong on everything, but sod it, vote for him anyway because he’s the Lib Dems’ best/last/only hope of electoral recovery. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t an atom, a grain, a soupçon of truth in that. And, as it happens, I think that’s a valid consideration if, like me, you think liberalism needs a successful political party to make its case to the public. However, it’s by no means my overwhelming consideration in being happy to endorse Tim.
Tim is a gut-instinct liberal: how can the individual best be empowered? is the question that drives him. It was summed up by his comments on last night’s BBC1 Question Time, passionately defending the principle (though not always the practise) of trade unions: “There is not a free market if you have big employers against atomised employees.” Collective bargaining is the personal pooling of individual sovereignty: it evens up the power imbalance, makes negotiations fairer. There is a parallel here, of course, with the UK’s membership of the European Union (the popular defence of which will be a crucial role for the next Lib Dem leader): we are stronger together than when trying to plough our own lonely furrow.
His liberalism isn’t always popular within the party — three years ago, I stuck up for Tim when he spoke out against the Advertising Standards Authority (for banning an advert by the Healing On The Streets ministry in Bath) on free speech grounds. He’s come under similar fire for having expressed concerns that the same-sex marriage legislation did not take sufficient account of conscience clauses.
I think the liberal arguments on these issues are more finely balanced than some of his critics allow: I think the state is right to outlaw discrimination in the public sphere; but not to try and outlaw bigotry in people’s private lives. I’d much rather know who the sexists and homophobes and transphobes are so that they can be persuaded to change their minds, and boycotted if they don’t, than have them forced by law to suppress their beliefs. In any event, nothing of what I’ve seen, read or heard from Tim suggests to me he will be anything other than a principled champion of liberal causes.
And there are going to be a lot of those liberal causes needing championing in the next few years: pro-immigration, anti-welfare cuts, pro-internationalism, pro- a reformed-more-democratic EU, pro-housing, pro-human rights, pro-drugs reform etc etc. Tim is, without doubt in my mind, the best person to lead our campaigning on all these issues and more. I hope he wins.