My column for ConHome: Why I loathe tribalism (even and especially when I’m guilty of it)

by Stephen Tall on April 10, 2014

con home cartoonHere’s my latest The Other Side column for ConservativeHome, published here on Tuesday. I sometimes get asked what on earth I’m doing writing for a Tory site: here’s my rationale. My thanks as ever to the site’s editors, Paul Goodman and Mark Wallace, for giving a Lib Dem space to provoke – constructively, I hope.

Commenters below-the-line sometimes ask what on earth this site is doing letting a Lib Dem loose on its pages. Here’s my favourite example: “Why do we have to keep putting up with this Haw Haw-esque propaganda on ConservativeHome?” I get occasional flak from my side, too: “I’ve asked before and I’ll ask again – why is a Liberal Democrat writing for ConservativeHome?” In true Lib Dem style, I’ve got a couple of different answers to this question, depending on my audience.

For Conservative readers, my intention is clear. To give you some sense of the Lib Dem perspective on the Coalition, and – my poorly concealed, ultimate goal – to encourage those liberal Conservatives among you (I know you’re lurking out there) to recognise you may have more in common with my lot than you do with your increasingly Ukip-leaning lot.

For Lib Dem readers, my rehearsed response is this: when out canvassing do you only ever knock on the doors of those people you already know are voting Lib Dem? Of course not. So why would you expect me only ever to write for a Lib Dem site? Besides, don’t you realise that my poorly concealed, ultimate goal is to win over some of the ‘soft Cons’ for the greater good of Lib Demmery?

Both of those answers are true. But there’s a bigger motivation, a reason why every other week I spend a couple of hours scribbling this column. It’s simply this: I loathe tribalism. Really, I do. Let me be clear here: I’m not against belonging to a political party and being proud of the fact. Generally, I think that’s healthy for democracy. No, what I detest is the ‘my party right or wrong’ style of tribalism.

That’s not to say I’m not guilty of it. I am. I’ve edited Lib Dem Voice since 2007 and I guess in that time I’ve written articles – not often, but more often than I’m comfortable counting up – traducing opponents for things I probably agree with, and also written articles hypocritically praising my party for things that deep down I’m not keen on. It’s the sort of thing most party activists end up doing at one time or another, either out of ignorance, loyalty or convenience.

I’m sometimes asked if I’d ever fancy being a Lib Dem MP (as if that’s actually a serious career option for anyone with a mortgage). A decade ago, I did in fact start filling in the candidates’ application form. But when I got to the question asking which aspects of party policy I disagreed with – and realised I was well on my way to starting my third side of A4 – I had second thoughts. After all, in 2004 what hope was there for a Lib Dem who believed in a competition-driven market economy and was pro-tuition fees? How times change. Anyway, the form was never completed, never submitted.

Few of us who are actively involved in politics (albeit in my case from the safety of the spectators’ stand, not the pitch) realise quite how freakishly odd we are.

For me it’s enough to agree broadly with 60-70 per cent of the Lib Dem manifesto and put up with the 30-40 per cent on which I may disagree. I’ve internalised the logic of this trade-off and as a result spend a decent dollop of money – and a quite ridiculous amount of my spare time – supporting my party. Small wonder, then, that having personally invested so much in them I often end up rooting for my team, almost irrespective of the situation: the very definition of tribalism.

It happened last week during the Nick v Nigel debates. I’m something of a Eurosceptic within Lib Dem ranks (needless to say that makes me a hard-core ‘EUSSRophile’ on the Ukip scale) and what I wanted to hear from my party leader was a positive but pro-reform vision for the UK staying within the European Union. Instead, when asked what he thought the EU might look like in 10 years’ time, he replied: “it will be much the same as it is now”.

So my post-debate disappointment wasn’t triggered by the insta-polls showing Farage the viewers’ winner – after all, acting the uppity outsider railing at those in power is a much easier gig – but by Clegg’s failure (at least on this occasion) to argue for a different and better EU. Does that make me any less likely to vote Lib Dem at the 22nd May European elections, though? Of course not: it’s my tribe.

For most of the public, though, my decision to nail my political colours to one mast will seem utterly perverse. Long gone are the days when the Conservatives and Labour between them hoovered up 97% of the votes cast, as they did in 1951. By 2010 they couldn’t even clear the two-thirds hurdle between them, with just 65% of voters opting either red or blue.

The post-war duopoly has been breached. New parties have burst forth in waves, as fragmentation becomes the new normal. First, the post-Orpington Liberal revival in the 1960s, then the nationalist upsurge in Scotland and Wales in the 1970s, followed by the SDP splintering of the centre-left in the 1980s. These waves have risen and fallen over the decades, but they remain ever-flowing, while a fourth wave, Ukip, is swelling.

Voters have never had so much choice. Yes, the three main parties fight on the centre ground, but that’s because they know when they stray to the fringes they’re punished by the voters. Other parties are available, however: an abundance, in fact. Whatever your viewpoint – left, right, liberal, nationalist, and all shades inbetween – there’s a political party that shares your outlook. What those people who complain “They’re all the same these days” really mean is, “No political party agrees with me as much as I’d like them to.” Fewer and fewer people are willing to make the compromises needed to belong within a tribe. I regret that. But I also understand it.

Politics is the art of persuasion. Me popping up in this space every fortnight either to tell you the Lib Dems are always right or the Conservatives are always wrong would be as tedious for you to read as for me to write. I’m not going to conclude with something as platitudinous as “We’re both sometimes right, we’re both sometimes wrong” (though it’s true), so let me try this instead…

As British politics becomes more fluid, it is becoming harder and harder for any one party to win a solid majority. Those of us who remain committed members of our respective tribes need to look at what is happening around us. Coalitions, formal or informal, are here to stay. In the circumstances, it’s not a bad idea to keep open lines of communication: to listen, to talk, to engage with each other. That, at any rate, is the real reason why this Liberal Democrat writes for ConservativeHome.

Why I’m not raising my pitch-fork in jubilant celebration at Maria Miller’s resignation

by Stephen Tall on April 9, 2014

Maria Miller has resigned as the Coalition’s culture secretary. The reaction of most people will probably be the same as Labour MP John Mann, whose complaint triggered her downfall: “about time”.

Not me.

The Independent’s John Rentoul summarised it very well in his blog-post yesterday, In Partial Defence of Maria Miller:

I think Miller probably made an honest mistake in failing to adjust her claims when her mortgage payments went down, which she compounded by her truculence when she was investigated by Kathryn Hudson, the Parliamentary Commissioner. In a sane world, a contrite apology, a repayment and an additional fine (for obstruction and to acknowledge that the error in her favour was discovered only as the result of journalists’ enquiries) would have been sufficient.

But we don’t live in a sane world. Maria Miller’s failure to fake a sincere apology, compounded by Number 10′s inept handling of the media, made her resignation sadly inevitable. They handled this whole thing badly – from the half-minute apology to her decision to out-source to her aide Mary Macleod her defence.

But the British press in full-on, mob-handed, sanctimonious blood-lust mode is a pretty revolting sight. Based on the newspapers’ coverage, most of the public will have assumed Maria Miller set out deliberately to defraud the British taxpayer for personal gain, that she is corrupt.

There’s not a shred of evidence to suggest that’s the case. But, egged-on by the press in search of a scalp, the court of public opinion had already found her guilty anyway. ‘Scuse me if I don’t raise my pitch-fork in jubilant celebration.

This episode has taken me back in time.

First, to the harsh justice meted out in 2010 to David Laws, who under-claimed his own expenses in order to hide his sexuality from the public gaze – and has ever since been lazily condemned as a ‘fraudster’ by those who can’t be bothered to check the facts.

And then to the original Telegraph investigation into MPs’ expenses, in 2009. As I wrote then:

… amidst the appalling abuses, genuine scandals and likely frauds that our MPs have committed with our money, the Telegraph has also been guilty of flaky fact-checking, unfair distortions and disgraceful smears. … Too many of their expenses stories have failed to stand up to even the most basic scrutiny that I find it hard to take any at face value. … What’s worse, though, is that the Telegraph allegations have been uncritically repeated, sometimes with further unproven exaggerations, by other news media – print and broadcast – scared to be caught behind the curve, and fearful that any attempt to question the Telegraph’s reporting competence will come across as defending ‘these scrounging MPs’.

Much of the media, and too many journalists, are uninterested in facts – whether the issue is MPs’ expenses or immigration. Why are they not interested? Follow the money: we, the public, are ultimately to blame.

We not only get the politicians we deserve; we get the press we deserve, too.

The Nigel Farage Paradox: the higher his public profile, the lower is public support to leave the EU

by Stephen Tall on April 7, 2014

Nigel Farage

Here is the Nigel Farage paradox: the more that Ukip’s media profile, poll rating and party membership has grown over the last two years, the more that support for the party’s core mission – that Britain should leave the European Union – seems to have shrunk.

    Sunder Katwala, director of British Future (New Statesman, 3 April 2014)

And here are two YouGov graphs that illustrate the Nigel Farage Paradox…

As Ukip poll ratings rise, disapproval of UK’s membership of EU falls

ukip europe support

As Ukip poll ratings rise, importance of EU as issue for British voters falls

Read the rest of this entry »

UPDATED: Full list of Lib Dems standing in our held seats and top 50 targets

by Stephen Tall on April 6, 2014

We’re little more than a year from the May 2015 election so here’s my latest running check on how candidate selection is going in our held and key target seats…

Lib Dems winning hereI published a first draft of this list at the start of October, and asked readers to help me update it. Many thanks to those of you who have helped me keep it updated, including the party’s Candidates Services Office. Here’s the latest version of the list of (re-)selections in our held seats and the top 50 targets for the party.

It’s a snapshot of how the party’s doing in getting people in place in the battleground seats that will determine the extent of Lib Dem influence in the next parliament:

Held seats: 49/57 MPs re-selected or candidates selected where MPs retiring (86%); 8/57 MPs retiring (14%) – 7 successors selected.

Top targets from Tories: 19/27 candidates selected (70%).

Top targets from Labour: 12/23 candidates selected (52%). Read the rest of this entry »

My recommended reading for today April 6, 2014

by Stephen Tall on April 6, 2014

Here’s some of the articles that have caught my attention in the past couple of days…

Liberal Hero of the Week #65: Sir Samuel Brittan

by Stephen Tall on April 4, 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

cf samuel brittan

Sir Samuel Brittan

Political and economics commentator, Financial Times
Reason: for a lifetime’s contribution to serious liberal thinking.

After almost half a century’s continuous service at the Financial Times, Sir Samuel Brittan – indisputably the doyen of economic and political commentators – has finally announced he is retiring, aged 80.

There are plenty of commentators around. A few are thoughtful, but fewer as deeply. A few are well-read, but fewer as well. A few are liberal, but fewer as cogently. The combination, and certainly for how long it’s been sustained, is unique. Never satisfied with skimming a think-tank’s report to regurgitate its executive summary in order to appear clever (like most of his supposed peers – and maybe some bloggers, too), Sir Samuel ranged wide and drilled deep.

Enough with the encomia, though. Much better to fillet a few of his columns from the last decade to show why Sir Samuel Brittan is this week’s Liberal Hero…

The awful lure of the grassroots
25th May 2003

I do not know what to say about Liberal Democrats. The party is almost defined in terms of its grassroots. Indeed it started to recover its electoral prospects by embracing “pavement politics”, which were an extreme concentration on local issues which should have been the concern of municipal bodies. Yet it is the descendant of the 19th century Liberal Party, whose intellectual leaders, such as John Stuart Mill, were not only contemptuous of grassroots, but were very cautious about extending the franchise too rapidly to people who would not know how to use it. …

Let us examine a topical test case. What do you think would obtain a more considered result in a referendum on British euro membership? A franchise confined to party activists, a secret poll among the senior civil service, a free and secret vote of the House of Commons or the envisaged referendum?. Surely the real choice is only between the last two.

On J.S. Mill, liberty and choice
7th April, 2006

It is, in my view, presumptuous of legislators or social scientists to tell us how to promote our happiness. Their objective should be to promote conditions in which people have the maximum of options. What they make of these opportunities is their business; and whether they then fill in questionnaires saying that they are happier or not is interesting, but not the final criterion.

It is necessary to go even further. The bedrock value on which classical liberals ought to rest is freedom. Someone who attaches importance to freedom is committed to attaching importance to choice, but it does not necessarily work the other way round. You can have a lot of choice but be fundamentally unfree. What matters is freedom of action and speech among consenting adults. A society is unfree if your income has increased but you can be put in jail for expressing beliefs contrary to the prevailing political or religious ideology. It is also unfree if you are prevented from travelling abroad either by edict or by an exiguous official travel allowance. Choice among hospitals, or even among varieties of cereals, may not have the same importance, but it is still part of a free society.

Summon the ghost of Lloyd George
20th July, 2007

… carefully designed fiscal redistribution remains a better response to globalisation than the protectionist threats with which the US Congress, for example, so loves to play. If you are looking for a tax to provide the wherewithal that has little or no disincentive effect you need look no further than that old favourite, a tax on land not on development but on pure space. The case for it was eloquently expounded before the first world war by those two great non-socialists, Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George. Plans were well advanced for introducing it when the war came about and diverted these two statesmen to supposedly higher things. We need to summon up their ghosts.

A fresh look at liberalism
8th January, 2010

… here are three examples that starkly expose anti-liberal ways of thinking. Some people advocate compulsory national service, not necessarily military, as a way of improving the character of young people. The late James Tobin – he of the Tobin tax – favoured the US draft as an egalitarian ideal and even suggested setting soldiers’ pay well below what they could earn elsewhere so as to rule out a volunteer army. Whatever his other qualities, he was an arch anti-liberal.

Consider, too, the rigid exchange restrictions that have at times been imposed on foreign travel to conserve official holdings of foreign currency. When these were imposed by Harold Wilson’s UK Labour government for three years there was hardly a word of protest from Labour’s supposedly enlightened intellectual camp followers.

A final example is the smoking ban in public places – and I speak as lifelong non-smoker. So long as there are designated areas to ensure non-smokers are protected from smoke pollution, what is the harm in providing a room where people can smoke at their own risk? Why is this worse than making smokers stand outside in the cold?

However difficult it is to define a liberal, it is not hard to spot anti-liberals.

Capitalism still has no rivals
13th January, 2012
There is no need to pretend that market rewards reflect personal merit. As Lord Melbourne said in another context “There is no damn’d merit about it”. Redistribution is best carried out by a (preferably unified) tax and social security system and not by interfering with prices and wages. How far should redistribution go? Up to the point where it ceases to benefit both the poor and the mass of the population. Jealousy and envy of the better off may be part of human nature. But it is no part of the business of either moral philosophy or political economy to pander to them. Nor should any defender of capitalism rely on the shabby argument that excessive redistribution will lead to an emigration of talent. This surrenders the moral high ground and depends on the division of the world by frontiers and the difficulties of international cooperation.

Left vs Right – still a bogus dilemma
13th April, 2012

I once wrote a book entitled Left or Right, the Bogus Dilemma, which was quite widely discussed but not much read. … The left-right classification did not really take root in Britain until after World War One. In the 1923 General Election, which brought the first Labour government to office, the main issue was the defence of Free Trade on which Labour sided with the Liberals. And the old associations did not die completely. The association of the left with personal and political freedom, anti-militarism, religious tolerance and general civilised values helps explain why as late as the 1940′s and 50′s there were merchant bankers in London and Paris who preferred not to regard themselves as on the right. …

A Libertarian political philosopher, JC Lester, has suggested supplementing the left-right spectrum with two axes based on attitudes to “personal choice” and “property choice”, together with a questionnaire to determine one’s position. I came out well on the libertarian side on personal choice, but highly interventionist on “property choice”. This might surprise many of many of my colleagues who regard me as well on the free market side of most non-financial issues. This is because I hesitate to advocate the end of all taxation, the abolition of the state’s monopoly of law, leaving environmental problems entirely to the market or the abolition of all state welfare.

Nevertheless I become infuriated when those who take a more laissez faire attitude to these questions are described as “to the right of Genghis Khan”, a Mongol emperor whose campaigns are said to have resulted in the deaths of 40 million people. And my main grouse against the US “Republican right” is that they give competitive capitalism a bad name by associating it with religious intolerance, a chauvinistic foreign policy and a generally punitive attitude. And to come back to the UK: I am not going to abate my opposition to the so-called independent nuclear weapon for fear of being thought on the left any more than abate my support for markets and prices for fear of being thought on the right.

The Lib Dems need to be more liberal
14th September, 2012

All libertarians believe that human beings have basic rights to live their life in their own way and to engage in economic activity. Right libertarians stop there. They might be thought of as conservative except that they have no necessary belief in nationalism, tradition and authority displayed by many rightwing parties.

Left libertarians accept these basic rights, but go on to assert that individuals have another right to an equal share in natural resources, defined very broadly to include land, mineral rights and even the atmosphere. They differ from socialists in not caring much about income equality so long as equal rights to natural resources can be established. I am not fond of the word equality, but ownership of natural resources is now so heavily concentrated that we need not argue about how far corrections should go.

[Professor Hillel Steiner of Manchester] helpfully lists four broad policy tendencies that characterise left libertarianism. He identifies first, extensive privatisation and deregulation in the economy and social rules; second, an increasing proportion of state revenue derived from land tax and inheritance tax; third, a shift from conditional welfare benefits towards unconditional basic income or basic capital state entitlement; and fourth, free trade, free immigration and (hopefully) international pooling of land tax revenues.

Mr Steiner doubts if any contemporary political figure would endorse all these lines of thought, but his best guess is Vince Cable. Clearly I would not expect the UK business secretary, or any other practical politician, to sign up to any complete academic scheme. But if the Lib Dems want to move beyond pavement politics and opportunist gestures, left libertarianism seems to me the right way to go. It is better than acting like a Labour colony in a Conservative administration.

A liberal case for scepticism of the EU
28th September, 2012

Since anything that can be mis­understood will be misunderstood, I must start with some disclaimers. I am not urging the EU should end. Like the Holy Roman Empire, it may spend many years in gentle decline doing little good and little harm. Nor am I urging that the UK or any other member state should leave the EU. What I am saying is that the EU no longer deserves the devotion of practical idealists. When voices in Paris or Berlin say the answer to any problem is “more Europe”, by which they mean more centralised power to EU institutions, we should turn a deaf ear. And when some leaders say that “without the euro there is no Europe” we should shrug our shoulders and look at an atlas to reassure ourselves.

Chart of the day: how spending on day-to-day public services will have been cut by 37% by 2018-19

by Stephen Tall on April 4, 2014

It is simply not true – as our critics on the left pretend – that we are slashing and burning the state. By the end of this Parliament, public spending will still be 42% of GDP. That’s higher than at any time between 1995 and when the banks crashed, in 2008.

    Nick Clegg, 10th March 2013

It’s a soothing line from Nick Clegg, designed to reassure Lib Dems that the Coalition’s austerity programme is simply curbing the spending excess of the Blair/Brown years.

However, as Steven Toft (AKA Orwell Prize-winning blogger, Flip Chart Rick) highlights here, the reality isn’t quite as soothing. The reality is that spending on day-to-day public services is being cut by a quite massive amount.

The reasons are partly demographic (an ageing population is putting a lot more strain on pensions, benefits and spending on health and social care) and partly economic (the weak labour market means lower tax revenues and higher social security payments): “The result of this increased pressure on public finances is a shift in state spending away from public services and towards welfare and debt repayments.”

And here’s what it means for day-to-day spending on public services:


According to the government’s plans, then, while overall public spending reduces by 3.9 percent between 2010-11 and 2018-19, per capita day-to-day spending on public services falls by around 28 percent over the same period. Economic and demographic pressures on public finances translate what looks like a relatively modest cut into a very big one. …

It is unlikely that health or education spending will reduce significantly, given the pressures on both. The IFS reckons that the NHS needs a real-terms increase on 1.2 percent per year just to keep pace with demographic change. Even with its protected budget, therefore, the service is beginning to struggle.

The result of all this is some pretty big cuts to most other departments. According to the IFS, the implication of protecting health and education is that cuts to other areas of spending will need to average 36.6 percent. This will hit local government particularly hard.

It will need someone with more time than me to dig out the data and work out when a government last spent as little as £3,899 per head, at today’s prices, on day-to-day public services. My guess, just looking at the IFS graphs, is that it must have been some time in the 1990s, when we had a much younger society placing less demand on services like health and social care.

It’s well worth reading Steven Toft’s post – Is the state shrinking? – in full.

And for Lib Dems then to reflect whether pledging to increase the personal allowance threshold to £12,500 at an estimated cost of £5 billion per year in 2014–15 prices is a responsible manifesto pledge for a progressive party.

* 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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My recommended reading for today April 4, 2014

by Stephen Tall on April 4, 2014

Here’s some of the articles that have caught my attention in the past couple of days…

The Swiss Wheeze: the Better Off Out argument that’s full of holes

by Stephen Tall on April 3, 2014

Swiss CheeseIf only we were Switzerland, eh? That’s the dream of the Better Off Out brigade, who long for its freedom as part of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). And it’s a tempting offer: all the benefits of free trade with EU member states, and (if you believe Nigel Farage, Dan Hannan et al) none of the risks.

Except it’s not quite that easy, as The Economist highlighted when it investigated Britain’s options.

Here are 5 reasons to be sceptical of the Sceptics’ alpine panacea…

Britain would be a smaller, more isolated country.

“Britain would have less diplomatic and military clout, too. For the Americans, a Britain that is disengaged from the rest of Europe would be a much less useful and influential ally. For NATO, a Britain that is semi-detached from Europe would weaken the ties that bind the continent and its defence to the United States at a time when those ties are already under strain because of slashed defence budgets and America’s strategic “rebalancing” towards Asia. Another likely casualty would be the budding Anglo-French defence treaty, seen by both countries as a way to help themselves continue to punch above their weight.”

This, of course, suits the isolationist Ukip very well. But for those of us who are internationalists becoming an irrelevance on the world-stage isn’t an attractive option.

It took the Swiss a decade to negotiate the trade treaties we already enjoy.

“The British would doubtless try to negotiate a special deal with their former partners, using the argument that trade benefits both sides and that Britain is itself a large market for many. But the process could take many years (it took a decade for the much smaller Switzerland).”

Sure, it would probably take the much larger Britain less time. But that’s a long period of instability tied-up doing little else but try to get back to where we were.

And those deals Switzerland does negotiate tend to be less good – say the Swiss.

“The EFTA countries tend to rush in behind the EU, though in some cases—South Korea, for example—they go first. But the bigger club can win slightly better terms. “The EU is more powerful than we are,” says Didier Chambovey of Switzerland’s state secretariat for foreign affairs.”

Hardly surprising: if you’re part of the world’s biggest economy, as the UK within the EU is, then you get a better deal.

The British would get less generous treatment than the Swiss.

“There is little chance that Britain, a far bigger country with a history of being difficult, would be allowed to squeeze in alongside Switzerland. … The halfway options of Norway and Switzerland were offered largely in hopes of tempting both to become full members one day. Britain would be travelling in the opposite direction, without a map. In this, as in so many other ways, leaving the EU would be a colossal gamble.”

There’s every incentive for the EU to woo a country it hopes will become a member. There’s very little incentive to treat a country well that has walked out on it.

The Swiss have less power outside the EU than the British have in the EU.

“[Switzerland] is not beyond the reach of Brussels. The Swiss are currently exercised over several European directives, including those covering finance, chemical factories and the movement of labour. Switzerland is hampered by the lack of an accord with the EU on financial services and by its lack of representation in Brussels. In the broader fight against protectionism and financial over-regulation in Europe, it relies on an informal alliance with another country that also has a big financial-services industry, as well as a valuable seat at the negotiating table: Britain.”

If Britain leaves the EU, paradoxically the Swiss option becomes far less attractive.

* 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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Filter Forge

Nick v Nigel: the polls call it for Farage. Disappointing, but don’t panic! Here’s 3 reasons why you shouldn’t…

by Stephen Tall on April 2, 2014

Farage cleggLast week we had one post-debate poll. It showed Farage won overall, but the split was more interesting: Labour and Lib Dem voters went for Nick, Tory and Ukippers for Nigel. As you’d probably expect.

This week we had two post-debate polls, and their results are remarkably similar. ICM says Clegg was reckoned to have won by 31% of viewers, Farage by 69%. YouGov says 27% preferred Clegg, 68% Farage.

ICM has released the breakdown of its poll. This week, Labour voters split (narrowly) in Farage’s favour, by 57% to 43%, which means only Lib Dem voters reckoned Clegg won (by 58% to 42%).

It’s fair to say, the polls have called it for Farage. And, as I blogged earlier, I’d broadly agree.

But, and it’s a big but, does that mean Nick Clegg’s gamble of laying down the gauntlet to Nigel Farage has failed? I don’t think so. Here’s three reasons why…

Nick Clegg has galvanised Lib Dem supporters.

That matters for two reasons. First, in a low-turnout election, as the 22 May Euro elections will be, getting your base to turn out matters. And secondly, that base is also far more motivated now to get out the vote – in that sense, Ukip is a useful enemy for the Lib Dems. As anyone who was at the York spring conference will testify, it was easily the most cheerful party event since 2010 – and the decision to fight a focused pro-European campaign and to take on Ukip is a big reason why.

A boost for Ukip hurts the Tories and Labour more than the Lib Dems.

There’s no denying that Nigel Farage and Ukip have emerged well from these debates, especially tonight’s. Their populist, insurgent message – that all the nation’s ills are the fault of foreigners, Westminster and big business – clearly resonates. But it will resonate least well with Lib Dem voters, and best with Tory and Labour voters. A polling spike for Ukip will probably be at their expense, not ours. Though that’s a slightly depressing thought – I’d rather people voted Labour or Tory than for Farage’s isolationism – it’s far less of an electoral worry for the Lib Dems.

Pro-Europeanism appeals to moderate, centrist voters.

Recent polls show the British public pretty split on whether the UK should remain within the EU, but tilting towards staying in. The Lib Dems’ internal polling suggests that, among the one-quarter of the public who’ll consider voting for the party, pro-Europeanism plays pretty well. My main frustration of tonight’s debate was that Nick Clegg failed to advance the pro-reform case for staying within the EU as well as he’s done in the past – but there will be many more times and places for him to make that point in the next seven weeks. Overall, clear defining the party as being pro-European is more likely to win the Lib Dems the votes the party needs to win, both in 2014 as well as 2015.

* 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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