Election notebook #15: Debate debased; Amber warning; polls apart; The Libconomist

by Stephen Tall on June 1, 2017

I watched the BBC’s seven-strong leaders’ debate last night, along with 3.5 million other people; half the audience Britain’s Got Talent attracted on ITV at the same time; and only 500k more than Channel 4 / Sky’s May v Corbyn head-to-head attracted on Monday.

Theresa May’s decision to stay away attracted a lot of negative publicity, further damaging her brand as a strong leader. Though, to be honest, it’s hard to say she made the wrong decision given the ensuing pile-up. The continuing squabbling, as each tried to shout over the others, gave her stand-in home secretary, Amber Rudd, an easy line: the showdown was the “chaos of coalition in action”. Fair-minded viewers, who didn’t include the whooping Corbynistas cheering his every utterance, would have concluded she had a point.

No-one really lost. No-one really won. No-one really learned anything. The problem is the format. For a start, a basic qualification for appearing on a national leaders’ debate should be that you are fighting enough seats to mean you could technically form a government. That doesn’t apply to either the SNP or Plaid. Remove them (and give them their own national leaders’ debates in Scotland and Wales) and a five-way contest would be far more manageable — as well as realistic of the choice most voters will face on polling day.

I’m still not a big fan of these set-pieces, though. The leaders all respond to questions with pre-prepared snippets from their stump speeches (I’m not blaming them; I would, too) with no chance for any probing follow-up. Leaders’ interviews and Question Time-style interaction with the public are far more effective tests of their mettle.


The most maddening part of the debate was the reaction to the news that Amber Rudd’s father died earlier this week. Cue a lot of people, including many who should know a lot better, accusing Theresa May of callous cruelty for forcing Ms Rudd to carry on regardless. The assumption that Ms Rudd has no agency of her own, that she couldn’t have made her own decision to appear, is the kind of sexist nonsense that would be rightly decried if levelled against anyone on the left. But Mrs May and Ms Rudd are Tories, so it’s fair game, it seems, to cast them respectively as a heartless witch and hapless victim.


Everyone’s getting polls-obsessed again, in spite of all their promises to kick the habit after 2015’s failure. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Here are some thoughts from a Cleggmania 2010 survivor…

My starting point is some (unoriginal) priors:

Campaigns matter at the margins, not n the fundamentals. Excitement is inverse to reality. Journalists/pundits always say “this time might be different”. Not yet, it hasn’t been.

Leadership and economic competence rule. If you’re behind on those, forget it. Labour still is.

“Look at the shares, not the gap”: the Tories are still in the mid-40%s and have a solid lock on the key 65+ age demographic.

Polling flux is a measure of propensity to vote far more than it is of switching between parties. The Tories were buoyant at the start of the campaign. Labour is now. The poll moves have reflected that.

All of which leads me to be highly sceptical of prediction models dependent on polls taken during campaigns.

What I want to see is a Nate Silver-esque model which imputes and weights a range of variables — including pre-campaign polls, ratings of who’d be best PM and is most trusted on the economy ratings, local election results, etc. — and then assigns probabilities to outcomes.

For what it’s worth, my guess is that we’ve gone from a 99% chance of a Tory majority in mid-April to to a 90% chance now. That means a hung parliament is possible; but highly unlikely. I would also estimate that the chances of a Tory landslide (100+ majority) has ticked down from say 85% to 60%. That is, I still think it more likely than not.

We’re still a long way from this kind of data journalism though. We know why: it’s a risk and expensive to do well. How do you monetise it? Lord Ashcroft is probably the only person with deep enough pockets and interest to do it (his Ashcroft Model is a step in the right direction).

Until then, the best we get is polls of polls, which aren’t much use when there’s such variance between polling companies, as they just split the difference. Oh, and endless articles with extensive caveats about potential errors which lead people to dismiss the utility of polling at all. I’d like to think we could do better than this.


I endorse The Economist’s (luewarm) endorsement of the Lib Dems at this election. It’s conclusion expresses perfectly my own feelings about this depressingly illiberal contest:

Backing the open, free-market centre is not just directed towards this election. We know that this year the Lib Dems are going nowhere. But the whirlwind unleashed by Brexit is unpredictable. Labour has been on the brink of breaking up since Mr Corbyn took over. If Mrs May polls badly or messes up Brexit, the Tories may split, too. Many moderate Conservative and Labour MPs could join a new liberal centre party—just as parts of the left and right have recently in France. So consider a vote for the Lib Dems as a down-payment for the future. Our hope is that they become one element of a party of the radical centre, essential for a thriving, prosperous Britain.

It’s a slim hope. But frankly that’s all the last few weeks has left me with.

Election notebook #14: a personal U-turn; Paxo’s stuffing; Labour’s offer; more LibDem pre mortems

by Stephen Tall on May 30, 2017

Six weeks ago, when this joyless election was called, I thought it would be good for all the main parties.

The Conservatives’ inevitable landslide would cement Theresa May’s authority. Labour’s drubbing would enable sensible, moderate Labourites to oust Jeremy Corbyn. The Lib Dems would reap the electoral dividend of a Brexit backlash. And the SNP would continue to reign supreme in Scotland.

Thankfully, I did at least add a caveat: ‘elections have a funny habit of throwing up tricky unforseens’. Because, as it stands, all my expectations look set to be overturned.

The Conservatives will, of course, win; but Mrs May’s authority has been damaged, perhaps irrevocably, by her lacklustre campaign. Labour will, of course, lose bigly; but Mr Corbyn looks set to beat Ed Miliband’s share of the vote and so claim a mandate to carry on leading his party unwinnably from the populist hard-left.

Meanwhile the Lib Dem fightback has spluttered to a halt and the SNP, while likely to remain dominant north of the border, find themselves on the back-foot, defending their mediocre record in government and separatist obsession.

It looks like politics will continue as usual, but worse.

Commentators draw parallels with the 1983 election, but May/Corbyn, the latterday Thatcher/Foot, are pale imitations of the originals. This is the worst sequel ever.


I, along with 3 million others, watched the Sky News / Channel 4 leaders’ debate last night, with Mrs May and Mr Corbyn facing 15 minutes of questions from a studio audience and then an interrogation by Jeremy Paxman.

It was Paxo’s performance which had my Twitter timeline huffing. Yet I thought he did well, the first interviewer yet to genuinely discomfort either party leader.

To Jeremy Corbyn, he highlighted the gulf between the Labour leader’s own views and those of his party’s manifesto (which is basically a Miliband re-tread). And then, in probably the most memorable exchange of the night, he bluntly asked the Labour leader if he would order a drone strike against a terrorist plotting overseas to attack the UK. “I would want to know the circumstances,” Mr Corbyn equivocated. Well, yes, but if you’re running for Prime Minister I suggest “I’d do whatever was essential to protect the lives of our citizens” is a better response.

To Theresa May, Mr Paxman highlighted the gulf between the self-image she projects — strong and stable — and the reality of her premiership: U-turns at the first sign of serious dissent (most notably, increasing national insurance for the self-employed and the ‘dementia tax’). “What one’s bound to say is that if I was sitting in Brussels and I was looking at you as the person I had to negotiate with, I’d think: ‘She’s a blowhard who collapses at the first sign of gunfire’.” Harsh, but fair.

Yet many complained that he’d turned into a parody of himself, interrupting too often and theatrically, failing to probe effectively. I’ll be honest, Jeremy Paxman’s brusque interviewing style has long irritated me, especially as it is too often an excuse for a lack of serious homework.

Last night, though, I thought his schtick was pitched just right. After all, this May / Corbyn contest is pure pantomime.


I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. Theresa May doesn’t deserve to win this election. And Jeremy Corbyn deserves to lose this election by the heaviest possible margin. That’s a difficult circle to square, but essentially I agree with one of my Lib Dem friends who wrote, ‘The only thing worse than a Conservative victory on 8th June would be a Labour victory.’

I don’t say that lightly, as a one-time Labour member. But Labour needs to be shocked out of its current condition. It’s being lulled by gently rising poll ratings into thinking that perhaps it’s heading in the right direction: one more heave, and all that. That way lies continuing, and deserved, defeat.

“What does Labour offer,” Ed Miliband once lamented to his colleagues, “when there’s no money to spend?” It turns out Mr Corbyn has an answer to that: it keeps on spending anyway. And, what’s worse, spending on the wrong priorities: bribes to the middle-classes (such as abolishing tuition fees) rather than reversing swingeing benefits cuts to the working poor.

As for his past support for the IRA, and deceitful attempts to re-write history — as if Mr Corbyn spent the 1980s even-handedly doing his best to promote a democratic peace settlement in Northern Ireland rather than (the truth) being a full-throated supporter of those who backed armed struggle and sought for as long as possible to thwart any kind of demilitarised reconciliation — well, so much for ‘straight-talking honest politics’.

I have friends, plenty of them, who’ve reconciled themselves to voting for Labour in spite of Jeremy Corbyn. Your choice, but (and I say this lovingly) you will get the Labour party you deserve.


In a depressing-but-essential article for Prospect magazine, Peter Kellner has put forward five reasons for the Lib Dems’ continuing poll woes. They are:

‘They misjudged their ability to win over anti-Brexit voters.’ So much for the 48%: just 7% of voters who backed Remain say Brexit is the most important issue at this election.

‘The rules for broadcasters used to help the Lib Dems; now they don’t.’ In the past, we benefited from exposure as the default third party. Today we share the limelight with the SNP, Ukip, the Greens and Plaid.

‘The rating of their leader, Tim Farron, doesn’t help.’ It’s not so much that he’s doing badly, but that half the voters haven’t even formed an opinion about him yet.

‘Farron’s failure is as much about the party’s identity as his own character.’ Compromised by five years of coalition, the Lib Dems have been outflanked as anti-establishment insurgents by Corbyn’s Labour party. Are we the party for Remain-voting Tories or for anti-Tory progressives? Unsure of the answer, we’re attracting neither.

‘Tactical voting is far less likely to help the Lib Dems next week than in the past.’ Unsurprisingly, as we’re not the runners-up in half the seats (as we were in 2010), but just 70 — and in many of those, especially in the south-west, the Conservatives have a sizable Ukip vote to squeeze.

Kellner’s conclusion: ‘the party will need to search its soul more profoundly after 8th June than it did after its collapse in 2015, if it is to reclaim a distinct and significant role in British politics in the 2020’s.’ So that’s something to look forward to…

Election notebook #13: Why is Labour doing better in the polls than I expected?

by Stephen Tall on May 27, 2017

No sooner had I clicked ‘publish’ on my last notebook, cavalierly asserting I couldn’t be bothered with the polls this election ‘because the gulf between the Tories and Labour this time means that it actually is pointless’, than along comes that YouGov shocker showing the gap cut to just 5%.

I’ll eat Paddy’s hat if that’s the result, but, still, the race does appear to be tightening. And that’s upended the expectations of many, me included, who reckoned Labour would drift further down in the polls as the voters neared decision time; and that faced between the stark choice of strong-and-stable Theresa May or pro-IRA, pro-the-cause-of-the-IRA Jeremy Corbyn, there could be only one outcome.

So why was I wrong? Well, to be fair to myself, I don’t think anyone would have predicted quite how poor the Conservative campaign has been. (By which I mean the so-called ‘air-war’, fought in the media, portraying your leader and your policies in the best possible light. It’s still quite possible that in the largely invisible ‘ground game’, fought door-to-door and increasingly by direct-mail and Facebook, the Tories are still utterly trouncing Labour.)

In her determination to win a mandate for controversial reforms (‘dementia tax’) and disown the Cameron brand (ending the ‘tax lock’), Theresa May appears to have completely forgotten to put in any genuinely popular policies that people will rally to. Unless she thought ‘bring back fox hunting’ was really what the denizens of Erdington were longing to hear.

Labour, by contrast, have had absolutely no compunction about promising loadsamoney in middle-class subsidies (abolishing tuition fees) and gesture politics (re-nationalisation), right, left and centre. Or, more accurately, left, further left, and hard-left. It’s easy to promise the earth when you know there’s no way in the world you’ll win. But — surprise, surprise — it turns out populism might be a bit popular.

The fact that Labour has found no money to reverse the genuinely swingeing and cruel benefits cuts the Conservatives have committed to in the next parliament, and that their manifesto is less re-distributive than the Lib Dems’, is something their supporters appear quite happy to overlook. After all, they don’t expect Jeremy Corbyn in Number 10, either, so this is guilt-free indulgence politics.

Credit where it’s due, though, Labour’s defiantly confident campaign has rallied its core support and prevented much switching to the Lib Dems — which I’d thought would happen to some extent, with hardened progressive Remainers using this last-chance vote to try and block Brexit.

But it turns out that what we always knew to be true is true: that the voters just aren’t that animated by Europe. They weren’t in 2013 when David Cameron promised that second referendum. And they’re not now Tim Farron is promising a third referendum. They’ve always thought there are bigger issues — the economy, public services — and they’re probably right.


There was another reason I assumed Labour would have a bad campaign: the hard-right press, aka the Mail, Sun, Telegraph, the three big mid-market, tabloid and broadsheet newspapers. Their support for Theresa May has been slavish, their denigration of Jeremy Corbyn absolute, over the past year; another few weeks of such publicity and she’d triumph, he’d be buried.

daily mailHowever, what this campaign has shown (no matter what the final result) is that there is a limit to the media’s impact. No matter that the Mail praised the prime minister to the skies for her ‘utterly candid and unashamedly moral’ move on the dementia tax, the policy tanked, forcing a humiliating U-turn which has badly damaged Mrs May’s reputation for matter-of-fact competence.

This isn’t to suggest the right-wing media isn’t hugely important. It is. Brexit is evidence of the impact decades of lies and half-truths can exert on the public mood. The newspapers do, to a large extent, create the climate. But they don’t (always) make the weather.

What happened with the dementia tax, just as with the poll tax, is that the public recoiled from a basic unfairness. With the poll tax, it was the “duke and the dustman” paying the same charge. With the dementia tax, it was the health lottery of which disease (immediate, short-term or long-term) might kill you.

Not even the right-wing press could spin that one. There’s a lesson there for the liberal-left in how to persuade voters, without throwing up our hands in despair that the newspapers rule all.

Election notebook #12: Manchester silence; polls-axed; Lib Dem “bed-blockers”?

by Stephen Tall on May 25, 2017

I went to bed Monday night poised to write this latest notebook the following day. There was lots to say: about the Tories’ dementia tax U-turn, Theresa May’s interview with Andrew Neil, Labour’s polling ‘surge’.

And then an “evil loser” (only time I’ll probably quote President Trump approvingly) strode into the Manchester arena to try and kill as many children and their families enjoying a pop concert as he could.

Suddenly it all seemed so small, besides the pain and loss those closest to them are enduring. It wasn’t the first, won’t be the last, indiscriminate act of slaughter; but the targeting of kids is a cowardly new low.

Life goes on for those of us lucky enough not to be directly affected (this time). Of course it does. It has to. But write about it? Or anything else straight after? Beyond me. I’ve scrolled through Twitter and Facebook and fair do’s to those who’ve shared their emotions — anger, sadness, incomprehension, defiance — but that’s not for me. I’ve just felt numbed, anaesthetised by it.

So, sorry, no pat answers, no epigraphic wisdom, no concluding one-liner. Just the words “why?” and “kids” ceaselessly reverberating in my head.


For most of us politicos, such tragedies also provoke uncomfortable questions: what impact (if any) will this have on the election? There’s no shame in that. It is possible to hold two or more thoughts in your head simultaneously, however glib or “too soon” it may seem. More accurately, it can be impossible to avoid your mind going there.

The assassination of Labour MP Jo Cox by a far-right extremist ahead of last year’s EU referendum was reckoned at the time to be a game-changer, the moment the Leave campaign’s xenophobia (remember that Farage poster?) over-reached. We now know that whatever impact it had was not enough to alter the outcome.

By the same token, it’s unlikely the massacre in Manchester will make a difference to voters’ views. True, it abruptly halted the campaign at just the moment the Conservatives’ feet were being held to the fire, having (rather bizarrely) chosen the heat of an election campaign to launch an ill-considered reform to social care which worries their best voter demographic, the elderly. The debate has, also and inevitably, shifted back to terrorism and security, which favours Theresa May over Jeremy Corbyn.

A few tin-hatted conspiracy theorists have even joined these isolated dots, creating an elaborate picture visible only to their eyes, which just goes to show what reading The Canary can do to your mind.

But the fundamentals of this campaign will not turn on this week’s events. As Philip Collins notes in The Times today, it is ‘invariably the case that the party in the lead at the beginning of an election period is in the lead at the end … a wise campaign is not a lot more than an elaborate series of lifts to the polling station.’


I’ve tried, as far as humanly possible, in these notebooks not to indulge my fascination with opinion polls. Journalists’ obsession with sooth-saying, as opposed to investigating and explaining, is my pet peeve about the media; especially as too few care about statistical probabilities to caveat their reporting with the uncertainty which is inherent to what data can tell us.

Actually I’ve found it less of a struggle in 2017 than I did in 2015, when I endlessly refreshed Twitter in anticipation of the latest YouGov etc. Partly because they got it sufficiently wrong last time (and they’re none of them convinced they’ve yet fixed the problem) that it feels pointless. And partly because the gulf between the Tories and Labour this time means that it actually is pointless.

Still, the narrowing in the Conservative lead — from 15-20% to 10-15% — got a few folk excited last weekend, understandably so in an otherwise remorselessly inevitable campaign. The likely explanation isn’t that Labour has persuaded a load of Conservative voters to switch; but that Labour-inclined voters have upped their self-assessment of how certain they are to vote for their party.

In one sense, that should cheer Labour; Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign, aimed squarely at Labour’s core vote, is having its desired effect. However, the recent jump in support for Labour is among those groups of voters who, historically, have proved least likely to actually turn out.

Those of us who recall oh-so-clearly the deflating Cleggmania balloon of 2010 remember those voters all-too-well. And on polling day 2015, I remember reading the final poll in the London Evening Standard forecasting a hung parliament, based on a turnout estimated in excess of 80% (compared with the actual 66%).

I’ve not done a final prediction yet. But my ‘nowcast’ is sticking at a 150-170 seat majority for the Conservatives, thanks to their huge lead among older voters and the large swings we’re seeing away from Labour in Leave-voting areas, especially in the Midlands and the north of England.


Finally, the Lib Dems. Hugo Rifkind published a provocative article in Tuesday’s Times, completely over-taken by events in Manchester, accusing my party of being “bed-blockers”, preventing a centrist liberal party from emerging:

There is a centre struggling to form in British politics. It would draw George Osborne from one side, and Sadiq Khan from the other, with room for Nick Clegg, Yvette Cooper and others in between. It would cherish metropolitan Britain, and concern itself with spreading metropolitan prosperity elsewhere. In the centre they may sit, but the Lib Dems are not that party and don’t even want to be. … They are the bedblockers in the delivery ward, preventing that party from being born.

There is an undeniable kernel of truth in what he says. Our tribal political identities have marked eccentric boundaries. Though this is just as true of a Conservative party which encompasses Ken Clarke and Dan Hannan, or a Labour party of John McDonnell and Liz Kendall, as it is of the Lib Dems’ Nick Clegg and Andrew George.

I’ve long said I’m a liberal first, a Lib Dem second. I’ve welcomed the idea of a new centre-left party, splitting off from Jeremy Corbyn’s hard-left idiocy. I suspect post-8th June there will be much such navel-gazing, and not just from me.

But Hugo Rifkind misses something rather essential about the Lib Dems which I don’t imagine a new metropolitan Free Liberal party would capture: an anti-establishment suspicion of power and those who wield it. It’s core to liberal identity and unsurprising it’s long been well-represented in the non-conformist celtic fringes he disdains, even and including the south-west’s Brexitism. If you don’t get that, you don’t quite get what makes the Lib Dems tick.

Election notebook #11: more Lib Dem strategy woes; some praise for Tory pledges; & bracing myself for 9th June

by Stephen Tall on May 19, 2017

My if-you’re-a-Lib-Dem-slash-your-wrists notebook on Wednesday prompted a handful of people to get in touch privately. Their message: that, if anything, I had been too positive. Which given I suggested the Lib Dems might get entirely wiped out in three weeks’ time tells you something of the prevailing mood.

I think it’s becoming clearer by the day that while the party’s anti-Brexit crusade has been good for picking up members and picking off low-turnout by-elections, it’s melting in the spotlight of this national election. By our own admission, the Lib Dems won’t be in government, so a vote for the party won’t actually reverse Brexit. And I suspect to many folk we look like the bad losers we’d be accusing Ukip of being if the positions were reversed.

Rather than hiding behind a second referendum, I suspect we’d have been better off focusing on the single market and its economic benefits, setting tests by which to judge Theresa May’s deal. “The Tories have promised us a deal as good as we have now in the EU, so we’re going to hold them to that. Vote Lib Dem to make sure Britain’s better off.” Or something like that.


Would such a strategy work? I’m not totally convinced, to be honest. Quite apart from the comically easy ride Theresa May is being given by the press, I think a lot of the “why aren’t the Lib Dems doing better?” pre-mortems miss a pretty fundamental point: two years ago we were almost wiped out after a 5-year Coalition which utterly trashed the Lib Dems’ brand. To expect the party to bounce straight back because Brexit is simply not possible.

Partly, because the Lib Dem reputation is still too toxic among too many of the party’s potential pool of supporters. And partly, because the Coalition hollowed out local parties, with many experienced activists now gone. For sure, they’ve been replaced twice over by an influx of fresh-faced newbies — and that has many positives — but that hasn’t yet translated into community campaigning capable of winning key seats.

For those, like me, who backed the Coalition’s formation reckoning it was the best choice for the party and the country, it’s a pretty depressing thought that we may well have killed our party. Certainly it’s still in intensive care. Caitlin Moran recently tweeted, “As Labour collapses across the country, I can’t think of anything I regret more than voting Jeremy Corbyn as leader. I’m so sorry, my kids.” That goes for me and those five days in 2010, too.


Okay, enough of the self-flagellation. I’ll move on to something uncontroversial: the curate’s egg of a Tory manifesto which is good, in parts. I’ve previously praised them for dropping their tax guarantee (an economically illiterate thing to do) and for dumping the pensions ‘triple lock’ (a generationally unfair thing to keep).

To those I can now add the means-testing of winter fuel payments. And also the substitution of (very expensive) free infants school lunches for (much cheaper) free breakfasts, a move which is justified by the evidence; it was the charity I work for which funded the research showing free universal breakfast provision boost attainment for all pupils. Cannily, it also frees up enough cash to enable the Conservatives to ensure no school loses out when it moves to a new and fairer national funding formula.

It’s hard not to be impressed by the grown-upness of these policies, each of which is likely to be unpopular with some, and especially the elderly — the one group most politicians never dare to antagonise because they bother to vote. This is the manifesto of a party which expects to be in government and is determined to win a mandate for its reforms.

Of course, like the curate’s egg, it still stinks… of divisive grammar schools and anti-business immigration drives.


The less said about the Labour manifesto, the better. Apparently the party can find £11 billion to reverse the progressive tuition fees reforms Vince Cable introduced, but cannot find any money to reverse the vicious welfare cuts the Conservatives are pledged to introduce which will have a massive impact on working families.

As Ed Conway damningly writes today, “the party should admit the truth, written in invisible ink all over its manifesto: that these days it prefers to redistribute money to wealthy parents and university students than to the poor.”


I’m mentally preparing myself for 9th June, when I wake up (if I go to sleep) to the inevitably crushing Conservative victory. Depending on how dire it is for Labour and the Lib Dems — and I think both should prepare for the worst — the moderate liberal-left will have to do some hard thinking about what happens next.

Because one thing we know is that parties which are one day seemingly invincible can and do crash and burn. Thatcher did. Blair did. May will. Will it be the Brexit deal? Will it be a faltering economy? Will it be the dementia tax? Or all three? Or something else entirely… Whatever it is, the hyperbolic acclaim for Theresa May cannot last. And when it fails, the country needs a sane opposition capable of picking up the pieces.

Election notebook #10: What’s gone wrong with the Lib Dem strategy?

by Stephen Tall on May 17, 2017

There’s been a slew of “whither the Lib Dems” articles in the past few days, with polls showing the party settling at 8-10% in the polls, little better than our 2015 nadir.

Given the Conservatives have hoovered up the Ukip vote and Theresa May’s ratings, buoyed by the fan-girling media, are stratospheric, it’s not impossible the Lib Dems could be utterly wiped out on June 8th. Which perhaps isn’t the optimistic opening some of you would have liked to read.

First, a caveat: let’s remember the Lib Dems are often slow starters in election campaigns. At every election in my living memory, there’s been a panic a week or two in, worrying about the lack of a polling surge. There rarely is one, at least until the manifesto is launched and not usually until voters start to feel the impact of the campaign, both the ‘air-war’ (media coverage) and the pavement politics (leaflets through letterboxes).

But the past is no predictor of future performance. The party flatlined during the campaign in 2015. It could well do so again in 2017.

I’ve seen some pundits blaming the Lib Dems’ stance on Brexit, arguing that by adopting an ultra-Remainer stance and promising a second referendum they’ve misread the public mood. I don’t buy that criticism.

As I’ve previously written, I have my reservations about this approach. It risks the party looking like “an anti-Brexit cult led by a milkman” in the cruel caricature of one of my Lib Dem friends (who I’ll happily credit in public if they wish).

But strategically it makes good sense. And besides, what alternative is there? Sure, the Lib Dems could (and do) advocate for a ‘soft’ Brexit, retaining the UK’s single market membership; but Theresa May has ruled that out, so the only way of rejecting any deal she brings back is by overturning last June’s plebiscite.

If the Lib Dems are guilty of anything in this election, it’s in thinking it’s about Brexit. That may be, officially, why Theresa May called it (in truth, it was to get her own mandate for her own policies; not, by the way, an unreasonable wish for an unelected prime minister). But, really, this election is, as they nearly always are, about leadership and competence. And given that contest pitches Mrs May against Jeremy Corbyn there can be only one winner, as all of us (except Momentum) know.

There is no realistic chance of the Lib Dems being in government, in spite of the Conservatives’ desperate (but probably quite successful) attempts to spook the voters with the spectre of Corbyn’s ‘coalition of chaos’. Tim Farron has explicitly ruled out a coalition, either with Labour or the Tories. And he has also pointed out that Theresa May will win the election with an outright majority.

Both statements are blindingly obvious and a necessary counter to the Tories’ spin. But they do unavoidably undermine the party’s central pitch that Brexit can be stopped by voting for the Lib Dems. How can it, after all, if we’ve promised we won’t be in government?

There are, of course, other reasons which make the Lib Dem campaign harder in 2017 than it’s been for some time. Talk of the death of two-party politics (which I’ve often indulged in) has proved to be premature. Seven years ago, the Lib Dems were in first or second place in almost half the UK’s constituencies; currently it’s just 71 seats, which will mean the party’s vote risks being squeezed as voters’ decision-time nears in our first-past-the-post system.

And while I remain a fan, it’s undeniable that Tim Farron’s campaign has become mired in the controversy about how his personal Christian beliefs can be squared with his party’s liberal policies. It began with gay sex, today it’s abortion (which a decade ago he labelled “wrong” though he’s since re-affirmed his pro-choice position).

Sure, Theresa May doesn’t get asked these questions. But, then, her views aren’t out-of-steps with her party activists’. In a campaign where he’ll get little chance to shine in front of a mass TV audence, Mr Farron can’t afford to become known as the one with some iffy views on touchstone issues for the educated, urban, secular, middle-classes who should be the party’s best demographic.

And then there’s Labour. As I (and others) have argued before, the Lib Dems do best — think 1997 or even 2010 — when voters aren’t scared by the prospect of a Labour government. Loose talk of a progressive alliance now (by people who should know better: yes, I’m talking about you, Vince) is almost certain to backfire.

In short, it’s all rather depressing. Just as well we’re liberals, really.

Election notebook #9: Regressive Alliance; 2 policies I like (and 1 I don’t); & my letter to Mrs Thatcher

by Stephen Tall on May 10, 2017

What to make of the much-mooted ‘Progressive Alliance’, with some on the liberal-left urging their parties to gang up on the Conservatives? In 1997, anti-Tory tactical voting delivered a body blow to the Major government, halving its number of MPs overnight. Yet in both 1992 and 2015, the prospect of a Labour prime minister in a hung parliament spooked the electorate into holding onto nurse for fear of something worse. So which scenario might it be in 2017?

It’s no surprise it’s come up now. Last week’s local election results, with the dramatic collapse of Ukip whose vote was largely swallowed up by the Conservatives, means the right-wing is again united (more or less) under Theresa May. But the opposition is split. Worse, it’s split between three weak parties: Labour because of its disastrous leader; the Lib Dems because of its disastrous result last time; and the Greens because the disastrous decade of austerity has squeezed its political space.

The question is: could the sum of their parts help reduce the inevitable Tory landslide? I’m mostly sceptical, both on principle and in practice. The principle is an obvious one: it’s the voters who deserve a proper choice and it’s not up to parties to do deals to limit their choice. I know how cross I’d be if I lived somewhere the Lib Dems decided not to stand.

In practice, I’m not sure it’ll work. In 1997, there was a real desire among many voters to punish the Conservative party for its arrogant and incompetent fourth term in government. I don’t detect that mood now, or anything like it. There’s no guarantee at all that Lib Dem-inclined voters will automatically line up behind the anti-Tory just because the local party says they should. In 1983, contrary to Labour folklore, the SDP did not guarantee Margaret Thatcher’s victory; if the SDP hadn’t existed, a clear majority of its voters would have voted Tory while wearing a nose-peg, and Labour’s margin of defeat would have been greater than it was.

This perennial has sprung to life again because Sir Vince Cable was recorded saying he would likely vote for Labour’s Rupa Huq, a centre-left Remainer, in Ealing Central and Acton, where she is defending a wafer-thin 274 vote majority against a Conservative Brexiteer. In doing so, he committed the sin of being completely honest during an election campaign. What Vince said will now be used against Lib Dems up and down the country, with the Tories (and their client press) claiming this shows the Lib Dems will prop up Jeremy Corbyn — even though (1) Labour will be in no position to do deals, and (2) even if they were, Tim Farron has emphatically ruled out any kind of coalition (with Labour or the Tories). If you want to know why politicians often avoid answering questions directly, the way in which Vince’s words have been twisted is why.


I get the occasional pang that I’ve never stood for parliament. But one of the advantages is that at least I don’t have to worry when I criticise my party. Its decision to protect pension ‘triple lock’ — that pensions must rise by each year by the inflation rate, average earnings or 2.5%, whichever is the highest — is quite wrong, as the IFS has previously set out.

Of course we should tackle pensioner poverty, but there are much more effective ways of doing so; and which can then free up resources to reduce the coming benefits cuts to working households. I suspect the Lib Dems are standing by it mainly because it’s one of the few Lib Dem achievements from the Coalition which still stands. It was bad policy then; it’s bad policy now.


Right, having got that out of my system, here’s a couple of Lib Dem policy announcements I did like.

First, on schools funding, the pledge to protect per pupil funding in real terms is welcome and right. The Conservatives always use the line (they do for the NHS, too) that as a country we’re spending more than ever on education (and health). True enough: population growth and inflation make that pretty much inevitable. However, with pupil numbers rising sharply schools are going to find the next five years tough if the Conservatives stick to their plans of cash-only increases in per pupil funding (ie, no protection from inflation).

And secondly, on energy price caps — the breathtakingly populist U-turn by Theresa May to adopt the Labour policy they savaged when Ed Miliband proposed them four years ago — it was good to hear Sir Ed Davey maintain the Lib Dems’ opposition to random government intervention in the market: “It is never a good idea to copy the economic strategy of Ed Miliband. As the Conservatives pointed out at the time, this will damage investment in energy when it is needed more than ever”.


Tim Farron has confessed to having had a poster of Margaret Thatcher on his bedroom wall as a kid (along with other assorted political icons). Though I was a youthful political nerd as well, I don’t think I can match that: it was all pretty much all Everton memorabilia.

However, I did write to Mrs Thatcher once, in 1985, when I was eight years old, urging her to drop the government’s injunction against former MI5 officer Peter Wright seeking to prevent publication in Australia of his service memoir Spycatcher. Well, what can I say — all the kids were doing it back then. I got an acknowledgement and Wright won his case. Post hoc ergo propter hoc, surely.

Election notebook #8: May oui; la Liberal diffusion; & Macron’s cheers

by Stephen Tall on May 8, 2017

Other than finding out I’d finished last in the seat I was standing in, I did notice a handful of other things about the local elections while on holiday…

Obviously it was the Conservatives who had the best night of it, by far. Their 39% projected share of the vote would convert into a healthy-enough 48 seat majority if repeated on 8th June. But they’ll easily do better than that when national issues are to the fore. The last 10 polls have them between 44-48%.

A little over two years ago, ratings like that would have seemed impossible. The Tory brand was still toxic to many: to progressive moderates, who disliked the glee with which George Osborne embraced austerity; and to hard-right nationalists, who despised David Cameron’s weak attempts to find an accommodation between his party and Europe.

Brexit has changed all that. What was once reckoned to be an extremist position obsessively held by an ill-assorted mix of “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” turned out to be the will of the majority. The mainstream has shifted. Leaving the EU is a question of how, not if. This was something Theresa May quickly grasped: her tilt from lukewarm Remainer to ardent Brexiteer has captured a mood — ‘If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well. It were done quickly’ — egged on by our xenophobic press.

It’s earned her a hearing. And she’s used that chance brilliantly, adroitly interleaving her own fortunes with those of Britain: a vote for Theresa is a vote for a better Brexit. No party has yet worked out how to respond to that pitch; I’m not sure it’s possible, not this side of the reality hitting home. Theresa’s real test isn’t this election, it’s what’ll come after. When she tries to reconcile the fantastical promises made by the Leavers with the realisation of quite what a bumpy ride we’ve let ourselves in for.


For the Lib Dems, it was a night of frustration. The party’s vote share, at 18%, was the highest since the Coalition was formed; but with the Tories snaffling most of Ukip’s vote, hopes of momentum-inspiring gains melted away. In the end, we made a net loss of 42 councillors. It’s all-too-easy to see this pattern repeating itself in a month’s time: vote share up, seats down.

True, we topped the polls in Cheltenham, St Albans, Cambridge, North East Fife, Cardiff Central, Bath, Edinburgh West, Eastleigh, Oxford West & Abingdon, Watford, and Eastbourne. By no means all of those votes, though, will convert straight across from the local to national elections.

We start too far behind. But, more than that, we’ve yet to persuade Conservative Remainers that we’re a punt worth taking; for the moment, they’re standing four-square behind Mrs May. (Labour Remainers we’re having greater success with; but mostly in urban seats where we have little chance of success, at least this time around.) It’s a very traditional third-party problem in a first-past-the-post system: 1-in-5 people might be voting for us again, but that’s not much help if they’re thinly spread.


Emmanuel Macron’s landslide win was just the tonic most of us needed after the confirmation the Tories are on course for their own landslide. For sure, it’s worrying that over 10 million people just across the channel are willing to vote for a fascist. But France has a liberal, moderate head of state voted for by over 20 million: je suis ravi.

It’s a truly astounding achievement from a standing start (his party, En Marche!, didn’t even exist 13 months ago). When the French TV series Les Hommes de l’ombre (aka Spin) imagined a third-party candidate standing for the presidency, it was reckoned it would be too unbelievable if she won. President Macron has written a new script.

A tweet from writer Ian Leslie got me pondering last night, ‘Now’s he won can we just admit the way he met his wife is creepy and wrong?’ (She is 25 years his senior and was his drama teacher when they first met, when he was 15.) It’s certainly unusual and therefore something of an object of curiosity. And if the roles were reversed, and it was he who’d been her teacher, I suspect the press (at least in this country: France is notably more permissive) would have been a lot harsher.

However, I’m not inclined to Ian’s judginess on this one. For a start, the relationship has endured for a quarter of a century which must, surely, count in its favour. And secondly, there doesn’t seem to be any obvious power imbalance, which, understandably, is the usual concern in relationships which begin as pupil-teacher. When they married 10 years ago, Mr Macron thanked those who attended the ceremony for accepting them as they are: “That is to say, maybe something not quite common, a couple not quite normal – not that I like this adjective very much – but a couple that exists.”

C’est la vie.

Election notebook #7: New Forest, New Labour; & Mrs May goes to war

by Stephen Tall on May 6, 2017

I’ve spent the past 5 days in the New Forest. Back when I was a mustard-keen young political activist, I used to look askance at party members who took holidays during election season (where was their dedication?). In fact, I booked it months ago not giving a second’s thought to the significance of 4th May. Does that make it better or worse?

It means I’ve been partially insulated from the past week’s events. I even ended up googling myself on Friday evening to find out my own election result (in a liberal-free area of Crawley, where I finished last, even trailing the Greens by 3 votes. We, rightly, stood to fly the Lib Dem flag there, but didn’t work it at all. I’m happy to say that my home patch of Horsham Hurst, where I’ve done my bit, remained Lib Dem).


We left for our brief sojourn on 1st May, the 20th anniversary of New Labour’s huge landslide victory. It seems so long ago. I was a student at the time. And so convinced a Labour member that I requested a postal ballot to cast my vote in my home seat of Bootle, in Merseyside, then the safest Labour seat in the country.

Why? Because I couldn’t bring myself to vote Lib Dem in Oxford West and Abingdon, even though I knew it was the tactically smart way to defeat the Tories, but knew that voting Labour was a silly way of splitting the anti-Tory vote. Well, it made sense to me (at the time). Like I say: a long time ago.

I also recall winning the college’s sweep-stake. From memory, I predicted a Labour landslide with a 150-seat majority, in reality a significant under-estimate, but no-one else believed the opinion polls. Not after after the 1992 debacle. That doesn’t seem quite so long ago.


Next time I looked at the news, I found that Theresa May had declared war on Europe. This, in retaliation for European commission president Jean-Claude Juncker’s gossipy leaking to a German newspaper scorning the Government’s approach to Brexit negotiations.

All too silly. Mrs May is known for her hatred of being briefed against. Mr Juncker is not known for his sober discretion. A grown up really needs to take both of them in hand: “Jean-Claude, stop telling tales on Theresa. You know she hates it. Theresa, don’t retaliate. You’re supposed to set an example.” So much for strong and stable.

But, of course, the right-wing press lapped it up. Here was the British Prime Minister sticking it to the foreigners, a brazen display of last-refuge patriotism which does nothing at all to help the national interest, but so much more to advance the Conservative self-interest. More fool Mr Juncker for giving her the opportunity. More fool any of us Brits who reckon that this is the way we’ll get a good deal from our biggest trading market.

Election notebook #6: The silent Brexit election; polls-axed; emergency Ward

by Stephen Tall on April 27, 2017

In one sense, the big news today was Angela Merkel’s speech to the Bundestag warning Brits not be under no illusion that exiting the EU means the UK will no longer enjoy the same benefits of membership as it does now:

“A third-party state cannot enjoy the same advantages or be better positioned than an EU member state. I have the feeling that some people in Britain maintain illusions in this regard. They’re wasting their time.”

Perhaps the German chancellor had in mind Brexit secretary David Davis who told parliament he was aiming for “a comprehensive free trade agreement and a comprehensive customs agreement that will deliver the exact same benefits as we have”.

I say Ms Merkel’s speech was big news, but it’s not, not really. What she’s set out is what has been clear since very shortly after 23 June, a point David Allen Green has been expanding on this week in the Financial Times. He makes the point, persuasively, that it is the EU which has set the terms of debate and stuck to them: no negotiation without triggering Article 50; an orderly exit; no access to the single market without acceptance of the four freedoms (including freedom of movement); and the 27 remaining members of the EU to act in unison.

This position, he notes, was in place even before Theresa May had become prime minister. It’s just that the British government appears to think the EU is bluffing and doesn’t quite mean what it says — over-estimating (as we Brits usually do) our own importance to the rest of Europe.

You’d think all this would be the subject of vigorous political debate. That the media would closely question the Government’s strategy and expect clear answers as to what Theresa May defines as the best deal possible. But that’s not what’s happening.

Instead the Prime Minister has been allowed by the media (let’s not even bother to mention the Labour ‘opposition’) to make the patriotic pitch that every vote for the Tory party is a vote to strengthen her negotiating hand — as if the size of the Tory majority is of anything other than passing interest to the EU.

This is the so-called ‘Brexit election’, yet it’s unlikely the issues will be explored in any depth. There will be no TV debates. Theresa May is making occasional, tightly controlled, public speeches. The aim is to avoid any risks and let Labour’s hopelessness make its own case for the Tories. This is ‘submarine’ campaigning, rarely surfacing and instead focused on torpedoing the opposition by staying well out of sight.

And let’s be clear: it will work. There’s scarily plausible analysis in the Guardian today suggesting the Lib Dems could make net losses, down to just six seats, while Labour would be scythed to 150 seats — meanwhile the Conservatives would win a 190+ majority, with over 420 MPs. This shouldn’t really surprise us. Mrs May’s party is currently riding high at 45%+ in the polls. Even with the Lib Dems improving our position a bit since 2015, that still represents a national Lib Dem -> Conservative swing, so talk of 20+ seats seems far-fetched unless and until the Tories’ ratings subside.

I’ve attached a chunk of blame to the media here and I make no apologies for that. The BBC does its best, but the broadcasters all too often follow where the right-wing press (which is the vast majority of it) leads.

However, I don’t believe in blaming products for what the consumer demands. There’s little sign, yet, that the British public wants another chance to have its say on Europe. It seems, rather, to be quite content to leave the difficult Brexit stuff to its elites. And as Mrs May appears currently to be the only ‘grown-up’ around she’s the one who’s going to get the job by popular acclaim. Vox Populi, Vox Dei.


In lieu of any serious debate, polling is once again dominating the media’s coverage of this campaign — despite the promises of journalists after the 2015 debacle that they’d learned their lesson, and despite the warnings of the pollsters that they’re not sure they’ve yet worked out how to put right what went wrong last time.

We’re yet again seeing even quite respectable journalists make silly over-claims for poll movements which are likely just statistical noise. I’m not a fan of banning things generally, and I know there are all sorts of problems with banning polls during election campaigns. But, nonetheless, I do wonder if, sans surveys, the media might actually try filling the vacuum with some serious analysis of what the different parties’ policies would mean for the country? A naive fantasy, I realise.


Tim Farron has been getting more stick this week. Having put his troubles with gay sex to bed (so to speak), he was then hit by the news that the Bradford East local party had re-selected David Ward as its parliamentary candidate.

He it was who, as an MP, caused huge offence by casually referring to “the Jews … inflicting atrocities on Palestinians”. Though he (eventually) admitted fault then, he’s continued to post inflammatory remarks, including, following the Westminster terror attack last month, that “all terrorist attacks in UK stem from our foreign policy”.

The announcement appeared to catch the Lib Dem leader on the hop. He initially pointed out to the media (quite correctly) that he has absolutely no power over the (re-)selection of candidates. The Lib Dems’ attachment to internal party democracy never ceases to non-plus journalists who are so used to the Conservatives’ and Labour’s command-and-control structures. As the Chris Rennard scandal showed, the power of the leader to hire-and-fire at will is limited to the front bench.

So how did Tim Farron manage to announce within a matter of hours that he’d sacked David Ward, after all? The credit must go to some cunning member of the party’s ruling federal board, which delegated to the leader during the election campaign the power to re-instigate disciplinary procedures against previously suspended members. He did so in the case of Mr Ward, thus rendering him automatically ineligible to stand on the Lib Dem ticket.

While some in the media still criticised Mr Farron for taking a few hours to take action, those of us in the party were left pretty amazed that the leader was able to deal with the matter with due process in anything less than 18 months. Believe me, that’s almost unheard of.