My must-reads this week December 5, 2014

by Stephen Tall on December 5, 2014

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

LDVideo: Crosstalk with Jeremy Thorpe (BBC1, 24 March 1974)

by Stephen Tall on December 5, 2014

With thanks to Ed Stradling, here’s a 40 minute interview between Jeremy Thorpe and Richard Crossman, originally broadcast on BBC1 on 24th March 1974.

(This is BBC material so will be removed from YouTube in a week or so. )

You can read our coverage of Jeremy Thorpe’s death here.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

And it’s good-bye from me as LibDemVoice Co-Editor…

by Stephen Tall on December 5, 2014

Today marks the countdown to my final day as Co-Editor of LibDemVoice. I guess I could say the past seven years and seven months have flown by, but actually it seems like a long, long time since I started here. Tony Blair was prime minister, Ming Campbell was Lib Dem leader, and I was still a councillor.

I think I officially took over as Editor (from the site’s co-founder Rob Fenwick) on 31st May, 2007, though I’d started the Golden Dozen round-up of the best of the Lib Dem blogs a few months earlier.

A couple of years later, once he’d finished being employed by the party, I was joined by the site’s other co-founder Mark Pack and we shared the role of Co-Editor. And then when Mark moved on a couple of years ago, Caron Lindsay joined me. To them I want to say a special thank you, as I’ve learned an awful lot from working alongside each of them. The party is lucky to have two such hard-working and dedicated supporters, who are also such astute critical friends.

But, after 2,746 days, it’s time for me to take a step back. No big dramas why. Simply that, if all goes well, within a few weeks I’ll become a dad for the first time and I want to dedicate my spare time to that. As I put it in an email when telling the rest of the team a couple of months’ ago: “While I’m sure there’s a way of balancing that plus my commute-heavy day-job, plus co-editing LDV, I know I’d be pretty bad at getting that balance right – so something has to give…”

I’m going to fade out gradually over the next few weeks, and, in any case, am still intending to stay semi-involved with LDV by continuing the members’ surveys. And doubtless I won’t be able to resist writing here from time to time.

If you’re missing reading my views (yeah right) I’ll be writing over at my own blog – – but without feeling quite the same relentless need to keep feeding the insatiable LDV beast seven days a week. blogito ergo sum.

Its been a genuine joy and privilege to (co-)edit the site these past few years. LibDemVoice will, I’m sure, continue to go from strength to strength. It has a fantastic volunteer team which manages to produce an amazingly high-quality output, day in, day out.

We couldn’t, of course, do it without your support, particularly from those who contribute thought-provoking articles. Thank you also to those who express your appreciation for the site; we get plenty of brickbats hurled at us, which the occasional bouquet can more than make up for!

* 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.

Former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe dies

by Stephen Tall on December 4, 2014

jeremy thorpe_2The party website records the passing of former Liberal Party leader, Jeremy Thorpe, who died today aged 85:

Mr Thorpe died today (4 December) at his home in London. He had battled with Parkinson’s Disease for more than 35 years. He was elected as Liberal MP for North Devon in the 1959 General Election and held the seat for 20 years. Following the retirement of Jo Grimond, he was elected as leader of the Liberal Party in 1967. He was a fervent supporter of Britain’s membership of the the EU and played a leading role in the 1975 referendum. Mr Thorpe was defeated at the 1979 General Election and remained a committed Liberal, as the the President of the North Devon Liberal Democrats at the time of his death. He is survived by his son Rupert.

Paying tribute to Jeremy Thorpe Liberal Democrat Leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said:

“Jeremy Thorpe’s leadership and resolve were the driving force that continued the Liberal revival that began under Jo Grimond. Jeremy oversaw some of the party’s most famous by-election victories and his involvement with the anti-apartheid movement and the campaign for Britain’s membership of the common market were ahead of his time. My thoughts are with Jeremy’s family and friends as they try and come to terms with their loss.”

Sir Nick Harvey, Liberal Democrat MP for North Devon said:

“Jeremy Thorpe was a colossal figure in the revival of the Liberal cause in post-war Britain and today’s Lib Dem politicians continue to feast on his legacy. His charisma, energy and innovative campaigning lit up his generation of British politics. He was the first to embrace fully the television age, the first to hit the campaign trail in a helicopter and both the first and, rather memorably, the last to deploy a hovercraft. He would have shone in whatever walk of life he chose, but it was to the lasting benefit of Liberalism that he rejected the Conservatism of his ancestors and devoted himself to progressive causes at home and abroad. In North Devon he was a greatly loved champion of the community and is remembered with huge affection to this day. He was a towering force in shaping the political landscape of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.”

Lord Steel of Aikwood, who succeeded Jeremy Thorpe as Liberal leader said:

“The Liberal Party will always be grateful for Jeremy Thorpe’s remarkable campaigning zest, as indeed I was during my by-election. It paid rich dividends in the uplift the Party secured in the 1974 election. He had a genuine sympathy for the underprivileged – whether in his beloved North Devon where his first campaign was for “mains, drains and a little bit of light” or in Africa where he was a resolute fighter against apartheid and became a respected friend of people like President Kaunda of Zambia.”

Here’s a round-up of some of the coverage:

Daily Telegraph:

Thorpe, at his very best on the stump, had no rival as a vote-gatherer. He could put any argument with skill and panache; his astonishing memory for faces persuaded voters that they were intimate friends; his brilliant gifts as a mimic kept the audience in stitches; his resourceful mind afforded quips and stunts for every occasion. … In the House of Commons he made an immediate impression … the young MP knew how to draw blood, as with his jibe after Harold Macmillan sacked several of his Cabinet in 1962: “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his own life.”

The Independent:

He defended the principle of collective security and of loyal membership of the Atlantic alliance. He insisted on the need for Great Britain to join the European Community. He pleaded for co-partnership in industry. He spoke out boldly for constitutional reform. He defied unpopularity over the death penalty. He denounced dictatorship. He rejected racism when Enoch Powell was winning the plaudits of more than the mob.

In short, Thorpe stood up for Liberal values and did not conform to the modish infantilisms of the day. Not that he was insensitive to new problems or to the re-emergence of old ones. He was one of the first politicians to speak often about environmental problems, deploring the demolition of good buildings and warning against pollution. He went to Northern Ireland on several occasions, the first leader of a British political party to do so since the Stormont statelet was set up in 1921.

The Times:

Thorpe reached his political apogee at the next election in February 1974. If 14 seats was a disappointing reward for an immense Liberal effort, well over six million votes, which was more than the Liberal Democrats achieved even in 1997, it seemed to carry with it the promise of an electoral breakthrough. Thorpe’s own constituency returned him with a massive majority of 11,000. It didn’t happen in the second of the two general elections in 1974, but the Liberal party still remained a force with its 13 seats and five million votes.

The Guardian:

After the October 1974 election, Thorpe became the third of the party leaders (following Heath and Wilson) to ride into the sunset, formally resigning the Liberal leadership in May 1976. His remaining three years in the Commons, until his defeat at North Devon in 1979, were poignant and painful ones, both for him and his colleagues. He had to live each day under the shadow of rumour and innuendo, and eventually (though not until 1978) under the direct threat of criminal charges arising from allegations that he had sought to silence Scott: a gunman, Andrew Newton, was hired to meet Scott in 1975, but the only resulting casualty was Scott’s great dane. The last time he displayed his old zest and exuberance publicly was when, on hearing the news of his acquittal, he exultantly threw three cushions into the air and out of the dock at the Old Bailey on 22 June 1979.

Lib Dem blogger Jonathan Fryer – In Memoriam Jeremy Thorpe

… Jeremy was bisexual, but too traditional to admit that publicly, and the lies he told to some of his parliamentary colleagues to cover up his true nature made him persona non grata with some in the Liberal Party and then the Liberal Democrats who never forgave him, though others of us remained faithful friends. … The last time I saw [Thorpe and his wife, Marion] together was at Jeremy’s 80th birthday celebrations at the National Liberal Club, when they were both in wheelchairs, and one had to get very close to Jeremy to hear what he was saying. But his brain remained razor sharp till the end.

BBC Online:

His later years saw the onset of Parkinson’s Disease. But he kept in close touch with the Westminster he loved, despite painful memories. He became the President of the North Devon Liberal Association, later Liberal Democrat Association, and received a standing ovation when he appeared at the 1997 Liberal Democrat conference. In an interview in 2009 the ailing former politician reflected on the events that had brought him down “If it happened now,” he said, ” I think the public would be kinder.”

* 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.

“This is not a snub. I thought it would be a nice change to get out of the Westminster bubble”: Clegg on his Autumn Statement absence

by Stephen Tall on December 4, 2014

clegg on levesonNick Clegg has taken my advice.*

Back in July, I offered the Lib Dem leader five unsolicited pieces of advice. Most he’s ridden roughshod over: Vince Cable wasn’t appointed the party’s shadow chancellor for the next election, Jo Swinson wasn’t promoted to the cabinet, and (as far as I know) Nick continues to rule out options other than a full coalition in the event of a hung parliament.

But item number 4 was this:

4. Stop going to PMQs, start touring the country

Focus groups, I’m told, show the public is baffled why Nick Clegg simply sits next to David Cameron without ever speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions. To them, he appears mute, powerless, sidelined. Nick himself is scathing of this weekly parliamentary pantomime: “It is just so stuck in the nineteenth century and it is so stuck in this adversarial, yah-boo culture. It is going to have to change at some point.” He can’t change it now, but what he can do is steer clear of it. The time spent attending PMQs could be much better used. Nick’s aides are, according to the Daily Mail, advising him to ditch his Spanish family holiday volunteer “for a ‘summer of pain’ doing ordinary jobs outside Westminster”, modelled on Paddy Ashdown’s 1993 ‘Beyond Westminster’ tour of Britain. Ignore half that, Nick: you and your family need your holiday. But getting out of Westminster every Wednesday at 12 noon seems like a sound idea.

And, lo and behold, Nick has started skipping Prime Minister’s Questions in the last few weeks. Then yesterday he was absent from the Autumn Statement, deciding instead to travel to Cornwall. As he told journalists:

“This is not a snub. I’ve spent four years dutifully sitting there on the green benches and this year I thought it would be a nice change to get out of the Westminster bubble and say what this Autumn Statement means to people, their families and businesses.”

A much better use of his time.

* Maybe. More likely, he and his advisers had decided to do this anyway. But humour me.

* 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.

Self-censorship, the virtual mob, and the enemy of nuance

by Stephen Tall on December 2, 2014

Three fantastic articles, all with a common them. Snippets below, but well worth a click on the links to read on…

Chris Rock In Conversation (Frank Rich in Vulture, 30 Nov)

… I stopped playing colleges, and the reason is because they’re way too conservative.

In their political views?

Not in their political views — not like they’re voting Republican — but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody. Kids raised on a culture of “We’re not going to keep score in the game because we don’t want anybody to lose.” Or just ignoring race to a fault. You can’t say “the black kid over there.” No, it’s “the guy with the red shoes.” You can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive. …

Does it force you into some sort of self-censorship?

It does. … It is scary, because the thing about comedians is that you’re the only ones who practice in front of a crowd. Prince doesn’t run a demo on the radio. But in stand-up, the demo gets out. There are a few guys good enough to write a perfect act and get onstage, but everybody else workshops it and workshops it, and it can get real messy. It can get downright offensive. Before everyone had a recording device and was wired like fucking Sammy the Bull, you’d say something that went too far, and you’d go, “Oh, I went too far,” and you would just brush it off. But if you think you don’t have room to make mistakes, it’s going to lead to safer, gooier stand-up. You can’t think the thoughts you want to think if you think you’re being watched.

The virtual mob that got Emily Thornberry is coming for you, too (Matthew Parris in The Spectator, 29 November)

What’s new is the way IT can now turbo-charge national hypocrisy, turning it into a ferocious force within the space of a couple of hours. Here’s a warning: a warning equally to those inclined to praise Emily Thornberry and those inclined to blame her; to those inclined to admire Mr Miliband’s prompt command and those inclined to mock it. It’s a warning to the likes of myself; and Boris, too, who will remember his run-in with Liverpool over Hillsborough and the late Ken Bigley a decade ago, and will ask himself whether in an age of Twitter he would even have survived. It’s a warning to left and right, to liberals and conservatives, to black and white, feminists and sexists, racists and multiculturalists alike. … Will mankind learn to start ignoring these storms? Or will people start going down like ninepins? Or will everybody become horribly circumspect, like Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four confiding only in old friends in safe houses? Who knows? I end, as I began, with questions.

#CameronMustGo: Step away from Twitter and close down your laptop — a hashtag will not win the next General Election (James Bloodworth in The Independent, 1 Dec)

Social media is the enemy of nuance and political activists despise compromise. The splintering of the political system into smaller and smaller fragments is at least partly related to the fact that shrill and self-righteous certainty suits the internet age better than calm and reasoned argument. We are right and you are wrong. If the BBC doesn’t report what I say then it’s a sign of unforgiveable and sinister bias. My political party must embrace the full shopping list of my views or I’m taking my vote elsewhere. #CameronMustGo because me and my activist buddies say so.

Welcome to the brave new world of hashtags and online mob rule. The mistake is to equate this shrill and often deafening white noise with democratic will. Step away from Tweetdeck, close down your laptop and believe it or not everything carries on just as it was before.

The graph which shows why the Lib Dem policy of raising the personal allowance is the wrong priority

by Stephen Tall on December 2, 2014

Here’s a graph which should make Lib Dems who continue to advocate increasing the personal allowance as an effective way to help low- and middle-income earners sit up and pay attention.

It’s from the Resolution Foundation’s report, Missing the target: tax cuts and low to middle income Britain, published yesterday.

What it shows is which households gain from the party’s policy to increase the threshold at which income tax is payable to £12,500 over the course of the next parliament. As you can see, those households which benefit most are at the wealthier end of the spectrum; the poorest 20% benefit least.

res fdn tax cuts lib dem graph 1

The Lib Dem policy is estimated to cost some £5 billion. Very little of this cash will actually benefit the least well-off. The Resolution Foundation calculates that, for every £1 spent on raising the personal allowance, just 25p will benefit the bottom 50%. The wealthiest 20% will do better: they’ll get the equivalent of 31p of each £1 spent.

As our modelling (Figure 3) shows, the cash gains from the Liberal Democrat proposal are concentrated in the top half of the income distribution (the biggest proportional gains come in the seventh decile). As we will see in relation to all the parties’ plans, those already below the personal allowance (including those taken out of income tax over the course of the current parliament) don’t gain at all.

Similarly, those set to be taken out of income tax over the course of the next parliament by the above inflation increases in the allowance only receive part of the tax cut. Again a common distributional issue faced by all the parties is that, at a household level, two earner families tend to be richer and gain twice over from income tax cuts, while single earners – regardless of family size – gain only once.

So what should we as Lib Dems be making a priority if we want to cut taxes in a way which is progressive?

Well, the answer is very straightforward. As I first wrote here in February 2013: Focus next on National Insurance Contributions (NICs) – NOT the income tax threshold.

An estimated 1.2 million workers will be paying employee NI from April 2015 (expected to start at just over £8,000) but will be earning too little to pay income tax. Before further increases to the personal allowance, we should be ensuring we take that group out of personal tax altogether.

To be fair, the Lib Dem leadership has partially recognised the issue. In the summer, Danny Alexander announced that, once the £12,500 personal allowance threshold was reached, the party would then look to raise the NI threshold too, and align them.

But there’s two problems with this approach.

First, it’s the wrong way around. As the Resolution Foundation neatly puts it, ‘The logic of this tax-cut sequencing can be questioned. It seems to be to reduce taxes for everyone in the country earning between £10,500 and £121,000 before, at some later date, turning to help those earning as little as £8,000.’

Secondly, it’s completely unaffordable. Raising the personal allowance (£5bn) is going to be challenging enough given the financial constraints that any government will face in the next parliament. To pretend we could then afford a further £9bn (the estimated cost of increasing the NI threshold) is either delusional or dishonest. Frankly, neither’s a good look.

PS: I spoke yesterday (alongside The Times’s Tim Montgomerie and The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee) at the Resolution Foundation event, Tax cuts in tough times, which launched their publication. You can read what I had to say over at my blog here.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

‘Tax cuts in tough times’ – what I said at the Resolution Foundation

by Stephen Tall on December 2, 2014

stephen tall res fdnI spoke yesterday (alongside The Times’s Tim Montgomerie and The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee) at the Resolution Foundation event, Tax cuts in tough times.

This marked the publication of their new paper, Missing the target: tax cuts and low to middle income Britain - I’ve written about that over at LibDemVoice here. They’re highly critical — rightly — of all the parties for proposing tax-cuts which don’t do very much for the least well-off but do a whole lot more for the better-off.

Here’s the notes I spoke from…

First, many thanks to the Resolution Foundation for inviting me along, to put the Lib Dem perspective. I’m making the most of these gigs before the election.

I’ll start by defending the Lib Dems’ tax policy… to a point. Raising the personal allowance is at least a better focus than the old penny off income tax card the parties used to play. That we’re here talking about the impact of tax-cuts on the poorest is testament to the welcome shift in how we talk about tax-cuts.

However, I think my party has now got stuck in a rut. I think it’s understandable we’re there. The Lib Dems pushed a policy – raising the threshold – which, to begin with at any rate, was largely progressive. It also had the added advantage of simplicity – something which couldn’t be said for tax-credits, introduced with best of intentions, but which one-third of beneficiaries didn’t take up.

There’s a further principled reason I’ll add. I do think it is quite wrong to tax people working at or below the minimum wage. It also strikes me as utterly inefficient, taking tax from some of the poorest in our society with one hand, giving it back in benefits with the other: Robbing Peter to pay Peter (minus an overhead charge to Paul), a boondoggle state redistribution.

So there were good reasons for the policy. It’s one the Lib Dems have been very protective of, especially as the Tories try to claim it as their own. That’s probably part of the reason my party’s decided to go still further in its next manifesto and up it to £12.5k, in line with the minimum wage. To double down on the deal, to try and nail it as a Lib Dem tax-cut.

But the Resolution Foundation is right to focus on the distributional impact – we should be looking at how we can best benefit the least well-off.

Resolution has deliberately stuck to personal taxation in their report but I’m sorry they didn’t find space to include the most progressive tax-cut of all – at least according to a former Treasury official, one Damien McBride, who said pushed a policy which, he said, “Compared to other options, [has] a hugely disproportionate benefit for pensioners and low-income families with kids”. The policy? Cutting the VAT on pet food to 5 per cent. He records that his then-fellow advisers Eds Balls and Miliband “looked at me as if I was an idiot”. They didn’t take his advice. I’ve no idea how it would have played with White Van Dan.

Back to Resolution’s recommendations. I applaud their focus on raising the National Insurance threshold. During the party’s manifesto-making process I and others pushed this idea as a better option than raising the income tax allowance. In fact the last time I spoke alongside Gavin Kelly was at a Lib Dem conference fringe meeting. I asked the audience the question: “wouldn’t it be better first to raise the level at which workers start to pay national insurance contributions, currently just under £8k?” and got a spontaneous round of applause from the audience (I don’t get many so it stuck in my mind).

The party leadership half-listened and a few months ago Danny Alexander announced it as a further tax-cutting aim… once the personal allowance had reached £12.5k.
Which is fine, except we know the public finances just won’t allow for an additional £9bn largesse. Both policies are laudable but the priorities are entirely the wrong way round. As Resolution pithily puts it: “[Lib Dem policy] seems to be to reduce taxes for everyone in the country earning between £10,500 and £121,000 before, at some later date, turning to help those earning as little as £8,000.”

I also welcome the clarity Resolution are bringing to the discussion of the interaction between tax-cuts and Universal Credit. One of the other arguments the Lib Dems have pushed, which has always had merit in my eyes, is that raising the personal allowance does boost work incentives: those who take on extra low-paid work get to keep it all. The fact they’ll instead, according to this research, be subject to a marginal tax-rate of 65% blows that argument out of the water. And speaking of water, even Myleene Klasse might accept that’s less fair than an annual levy on owners of £2m properties.

Resolution’s proposals of revenue-neutral increases in work allowances under Universal Credit and the National Insurance allowance is one I welcome. But as they admit there will be losers: better-off losers. Here’s a question, then: are the political parties ready to make that case? And are we, the electorate, ready for them to make it?

The evidence suggests not. Why do I say that? Well, here’s two reasons…

Politicians protect the interests of those who’ll vote: One group which has definitely gained over the last five years and will continue to gain is the retired. Spending on the state pension – as a result of the triple lock – will have increased by nearly 20% in real terms between 2010–11 and 2017–18. That’s even more expensive when you consider there will be two million more pensioners at the end of this decade than the start. So, on one level, the Tories are right: welfare spending is going up. The impact of the current cuts is to redistribute on a large scale to pensioners from some of the most vulnerable young people who rely on benefits. Is that right?

Politicians are desperate to avoid levelling with the public: To quote the IFS: “None of the parties has so far identified more than a fraction of the measures they would use to hit their deficit targets.” When I read that recent statement, it gave me a sense of deja vu. In April 2010, the IFS published its Election Briefing, highlighting that no party had yet set out anything like enough public spending cuts to meet their objectives of cutting the deficit. The Lib Dems had produced the most detailed measures, yet these totalled only 25 per cent of the cuts needed; the Tories had identified 17 per cent, and Labour just 13 per cent. The finding attracted little scrutiny, with the media fixated instead on the personality-fest of the televised leaders’ debates.

Does anyone honestly think it’ll be that much different in 2015? Who will ask the parties to spell out the impact of their spending plans on public services so voters can come to an informed decision? Journalists like their politics bite-size and entertaining: hard facts are a turn-off.

It is, in any case, a bit too easy to blame the media or MPs: we voters have to take our share of responsibility. We say we want honest politicians, folk who’ll tell us straight how it is. Yet we don’t often reward such honesty. If we did there would be a few more MPs queuing up to tell us that

(1) we need young, skilled, productive immigrants to staff key services like the NHS as well as to offset the financial burden of our ageing population, and

(2) running the nation’s finances is nothing like running a household budget, so eliminating the deficit within an artificial timescale like a five-year parliament is a pointless brag.

Truth is, there aren’t many options available. After 2015 one of four things will have to happen. Either (1) big, additional cuts to spending on public services; (2) big cuts to social security; (3) delaying deficit reduction to postpone the problem; or (4) raising taxes – and not just on the rich because there simply aren’t enough of them. Most likely it’ll be a pick ‘n mix of all four. I think we should level with the voters about what that means. But which party’s prepared to go first?

I am aware, though, it’s easy for me – unelected, not standing for election – to pontificate that “we should level with the voters”. To give Nick Clegg his due, he did just that in his conference media interviews. Cue newspaper headlines such as “Clegg will send taxes soaring should Lib Dems be elected”. Compare that with the eulogistic coverage Cameron’s fantasy finance tax-cuts attracted and it’s hard to see where the incentive is for politicians looking to get elected to level with the voters.

“We need politicians who’ll actually listen to us,” goes up the popular cry. But we already have them. At the next election, every prospective MP – whether their rosette is blue, gold, red or purple – will happily talk about their plans to improve services while cutting taxes for people just like you. They’ll tell you that because it’s what you want to hear. Caveat emptor. Then, after the election, whoever finds themselves in power will have to get real. That, it seems, is how we like to do politics. Blame the politicians if you like, but the cliché is true: we get the politicians we deserve.

PS: if any of the above sounds familiar, bits of it are borrowed from these three posts, the first two by me…

How should we share the gain and the pain in the next Parliament? (October 16, 2014)

Austerity and honesty. Will any of the parties level with the voters about what the post-2015 cuts will look like? (July 30, 2014)

Balancing the books: some unpalatable choices by the IFS’s Paul Johnson on LibDemVoice (October 6, 2014)

A fabulously passive-aggressive tweet-exchange between Jeremy Browne and Nick Clegg

by Stephen Tall on December 1, 2014

Relations between Jeremy Browne and Nick Clegg have not been happy since the Lib Dem leader removed him from his ministerial post. A few weeks ago he announced he was quitting parliament at the next election. When David Cameron paid tribute to him at a recent PMQs, Jeremy tweeted, a touch plaintively:

And it doesn’t look like Jeremy was too chuffed today to have once again been overlooked by Nick. Here’s his fabulously passive-aggressive reply to an announcement by the Deputy Prime Minister: jeremy browne tweet

I suspect the Lib Dem press office got the message. Their tweet was more generous:

All snark aside, it’s all a bit of a sorry ending for Jeremy, who’s been a stalwart Lib Dem for the past two decades, as Ed Fordham pointed out on LibDemVoice here.

That LibDemVoice survey on the party presidency (which, ahem, called it wrong): 8 thoughts from me

by Stephen Tall on November 30, 2014

What happened there, then? I refer to the LibDemVoice survey of party members reported here on Wednesday which showed Daisy Cooper with a clear lead over Sal Brinton in the contest for party president; when actual votes were counted the result was reversed. Is this moment to the LDV surveys what the 1992 election was to the pollsters? In haste, here are a few initial thoughts from me…

1. The sample itself is drawn from the 1,500+ current Lib Dems signed up to our members-only forum. This is therefore self-selecting; as is who chooses to respond. It isn’t the random sampling adjusted to be demographically representative that professional pollsters would use. But, then, nor do we claim it to be: each and every survey post makes clear where our sample is drawn from and states “we make no claims that the survey is fully representative of the Lib Dem membership as a whole”.

2. We have very few occasions to test the LibDemVoice survey sample against actual votes or elections. There have been only three previous examples: the 2008 and 2010 elections for party president, and the 2010 special conference to approve the formation of the Coalition. In each of these, the survey results accurately predicted the winner (if not always the margin). But past success is, as we can see, no guarantee of future performance!

3. The reliability or otherwise of the surveys has often been contested, though. Mark Pack produced a handy FAQs here, while, from an external perspective, YouGov’s Anthony Wells offered a fair assessment of their strengths and weaknesses here.

4. Here’s a quote from Anthony’s verdict that bears repeating today: “I do also worry about whether polls that are essentially recruited through online party-political websites or supporter networks get too many activists and not enough of the armchair members, or less political party members … All that said, while they aren’t perfect and Mark and Stephen never claim they are, I think they are a decent good straw in the wind and worth paying attention to, especially given the verification of whether respondents are party members.” Which I think remains fair comment.

5. We know and publicly state the LibDemVoice sample of party members is skewed towards activists (and male activists at that). This hasn’t mattered in the past (see point 2). Clearly it did this time – as I highlighted might be the case in my heavily caveatted write-up of the results. Actually I was relieved to re-read my post again last night. Why? Because I wouldn’t change a word of it with hindsight: “our results below need to be taken with a pinch of salt … in an internal election where personality is a key factor I can’t be confident that our surveys are necessarily reliable measures … Congratulations to [Daisy] on this strong showing. However, I stress the caveat already inserted that our surveys are skewed towards activist members who may well not be representative of the wider ‘armchair’ membership.”

6. I’ve had a quick dig into the results. There’s nothing obviously different about the data compared to previous surveys. Men out-number women 4:1, which is nothing like the party membership mix but is (unfortunately) standard in our surveys. We do much better on the mix of ages (55% over 50, 45% under) and geographies (though we’re under-weight in the south-west). However, one stat may be key: almost half those who respond are conference representatives (and of course the other half are keen enough party members to have registered with our members-only forum).

7. My best guess of what happened, then, is that the survey reasonably accurately estimated Daisy’s support among party activists. However, the sample was clearly under-weight in non-activist (‘armchair’ members) and on this occasion that made a big difference. Especially relevant to this, I suspect, was the impact of high-profile endorsements for Sal Brinton from Paddy Ashdown and Shirley Williams, probably the two most popular and influential figures in the party, in the leaflets / emails sent to all members. Given none of the three candidates was a household name current MP, the recommendation of those two will likely have made a major impact on those members least likely to complete an LDV survey.

8. Because the survey got this one wrong, does that mean there’s no purpose to LDV’s surveys in the future? Well, I’m biased clearly — so feel free to ignore / dispute my views on this! — but I don’t think so. That doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons to be learned (there are, but that’s for another post, another day). But here are three reasons I think the surveys continue to be a worthwhile part of what this site does.

  • First, because previous surveys have produced accurate (or, at any rate, accurate enough) results. Just as past success doesn’t guarantee future success, neither does one failure mean all future surveys are flawed either.
  • Secondly, even if the survey results aren’t necessarily representative of the wider Lib Dem membership, I think they are reasonably representative of activist members. The fact that up to 400 conference representatives complete each survey — not far short of the number who take part in key policy votes at the party conferences — says something.
  • Thirdly, if LibDemVoice doesn’t survey party members about current issues who, independently of the party, can or will? They may be imperfect, but absent anything better they do give more than 1,500 of us the chance to make our voices heard on a range of issues on a regular basis.
  • Just make sure you keep that pinch of salt handy…

    * 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.

    You might also likeclose
    Plugin from the creators of Brindes :: More at Plulz Wordpress Plugins