Confessions of a Lib Dem Eurosceptic

by Stephen Tall on February 22, 2016

By Lib Dem standards, I’m something of a Eurosceptic. That is, I accept the EU is less than perfect. A lot less than perfect.

I’m not alone. When I polled party members for LibDemVoice a couple of years ago, I was surprised to discover less than half wanted Britain to integrate further. Indeed, an estimated one-in-six Lib Dem voters will choose Leave on 23 June.

In reality, Lib Dem policy is a lot less starry-eyed than some activists. For example, the party has been campaigning for years to bring an end to the European Parliament’s monthly travel between Brussels and Strasbourg, a move – or, more accurately, non-move – that would save £150m a year (and almost 20,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions).

Vince Cable once (rightly) branded the protectionist Common Agricultural Policy “a complete disgrace”. The EU’s decision-making is as opaque as it is sclerotic, as Nick Clegg acknowledged: “When I worked in the European Union I remember it took 15 years to decide the definition of chocolate and a chocolate directive. Anything that takes a decade and a half to define what chocolate is is in need of reform”.

Yet the party is widely perceived, and I understand why, to be slavishly obeisant to the EU. Too often we have mistaken being pro-internationalist, pro-Europeans as requiring us to be overly defensive of the EU establishment. The party’s position has too often been defined by dislike of the Tory right and frothing Europhobe press than by the liberal principles we should apply: open, transparent, accountable government of the people, by the people, for the people.

The Lib Dem approach to David Cameron’s re-negotations have compounded this problem.

For years, the party opposed holding an in/out referendum altogether (unless required by treaty change), latterly simply as a bargaining chip for future coalition negotiations with the Tories. Unlike the Tory PM.

Then Mr Cameron put forward his shopping list of EU reform demands. These were either modest or irrelevant or both but they achieved their aim of showcasing his willingness to fight for national interests.

By contrast, the Lib Dems have stayed schtum. We should have been setting out our own renegotiation ideas – more democratic accountability, greater transparency, anti-tariff, etc – so that we could fight for Remain on the basis we were “in the EU to improve it”.

But because it was reckoned this might undermine Mr Cameron’s renegotiations – and they are reckoned to be the key to referendum victory – that was ruled out. Leaving the Tory PM to claim sole bragging rights and the Lib Dems left looking, again, like slavish adherents to all things Brussels.

I know many of my fellow Lib Dems are looking forward to the campaign. I’m not. I’m reminded of something I wrote two years ago about the Scottish in/out referendum, which has parallels:

If I were a Scot with a vote in September, I’m not sure which side I would favour. I see no reason why an independent Scotland wouldn’t do quite well out of new arrangements, but it would of course be a risky venture into the unknown (which is why I don’t think the SNP’s bid will succeed). As that great liberal Ludovic Kennedy once rhetorically asked, “I still believe that if Denmark can run its own affairs, why can’t Scotland?”

It is, of course, ironic that so many (Tory) unionists who argued Scotland would be dead and buried if it struck out on its own believe that the UK can and will thrive in similar circumstances.

I’m not a unionist. Nor am I a separatist. I’m a federalist (my definition: accountable power distributed locally, nationally and supranationally, operated at the lowest level possible).

I’m sure the UK would do just fine as an independent country… eventually. But, as a certain well-known Tory MP argued a couple of weeks ago – before U-turning at the weekend – I am concerned “that leaving would cause at least some business uncertainty, while embroiling the Government for several years in a fiddly process of negotiating new arrangements, so diverting energy from the real problems of this country – low skills, low social mobility, low investment etc – that have nothing to do with Europe”.

Boris was right then. He’s not right now. And ultimately, that’s the problem with Euroscepticism: the Eurosceptics. Somehow the subject brings out the worst in them, with even sober, intelligent, mild-mannered folk like Times commentator Tim Montgomerie transformed into irrational obsessives: English cybernats, nationalist Corbynistas. As JS Mill so nearly remarked, “I did not mean that Eurosceptics are generally weird; I meant, that weird persons are generally Eurosceptics”.

Considered on its own merits, Brexit isn’t such an appalling conclusion. But then you look at who that means winning. And I know I’m going to be sticking with Remain.

My must-reads this week February 19, 2016

by Stephen Tall on February 19, 2016

You can read all the articles that have caught my attention this week here: https://delicious.com/stephentall Below are a selection…

In praise of Peter Tatchell (but not of identity politics)

by Stephen Tall on February 16, 2016

I suspect if Peter Tatchell and I ever sat down to talk about the economy we’d be poles apart. He’s a far-lefty, I’m not.

But he happens also to be one of my political heroes, a fearless champion of equality, whose bravery in standing up for the human rights of the oppressed around the world is an inspiration. He was my 50th Liberal Hero in my series for CentreForum for supporting free speech and its positive use.

To the NUS’s Fran Cowling, though, he’s a racist and a transphobe (or at the very least an ally of those who are). Plenty of people have already taken down the absurdity of this gross distortion. But it was a paragraph in Brendan O’Neill’s scathing Spectator article that had me nodding most:

The turn against Tatchell speaks to a worrying trend among today’s young radicals: fury with the very people who fought to make their lives freer and easier. … They have disappeared so far up the fundament of identity politics that they bristle at any argument that smacks of universalism, which emphasises the sameness and the shared capacity for autonomy of all human beings.

It’s that divisive aspect of identity politics – the deliberate segregation of society into homogenised groups and sub-groups – which turns me off.

I fully recognise (who couldn’t?) that there are categories of people who have been discriminated against, and too often still are, on the basis of their gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, caste, age, etc. Much has been done to break down these barriers, to move society forward. Much more still needs to be done. I hope an awareness of how this may have impacted on those from such groups is imprinted on all our minds.

But it is an inherently backward-looking and reductive approach. Yes, we’re shaped by our histories. We don’t have to be defined by them, though. Let me put it this way: whose shoes would you prefer to walk in – those of a child from a poor, disadvantaged background with loving and supportive parents; or of a child from a rich, privileged background whose parents neglected and abused them?

Group identities matter, but they aren’t everything. We are individuals with our own unique life experiences, good and bad, which have made us what we are today. And we are individuals with agency, able to re-make our own futures.

The moment we start looking at a person and see only our perception of their group identity, rather than who they are as an individual, we make a hell of an assumption – and lose a bit of our humanity.

Who will speak for England? Turns out, it’s David Cameron

by Stephen Tall on February 4, 2016

mail england

Much deserved mockery greeted the Daily Mail’s portentous front page plea for a plucky patriot to take up cudgels on behalf of Brexit:

Today the Mail asks a question of profound significance to our destiny as a sovereign nation and the fate of our children and grandchildren. Who will speak for England?

To which there is only one answer, and it’s an answer as uncomfortable to the right-wing Mail as it is to the right-on Twitter crowd: David Cameron speaks for England. And I say that as someone who views his re-negotiations as, largely, a sham.

Like most of the rest of the voting public I’ve been quite busy with Real Life this week, and so haven’t followed the ins and outs of the Prime Minister’s deal. I’ve heard snippets about “red card vetoes” and “emergency brakes”. My basic impression is that he’s not got an awful lot out of it, but probably got as good as he was going to.

And I suspect that’s how it’ll end up being viewed by most of the British public, too.

(As an immigration-lover I deprecate his efforts to strike a tough pose on an issue like migrant benefits he knows is a near-irrelevance; after all, immigrants pay in to this country far, far in excess of what they take out. But I understand I’m in a small minority of voters who thinks like this, and so I also understand why Mr Cameron did it.)

The closest Gordon Brown ever got to defining his Britishness in a way that wasn’t cringey was in his his first speech as Prime Minister when he quoted, with endearing awkwardness, his school motto, ‘I will try my utmost’. What it lacked in inspiration it made up for in genuineness.

We like our leaders to try their best, be seen to try their best. Their actual achievements are pretty secondary as long they’re basically competent and the economy’s ticking along.

Mr Cameron’s decaffeinated negotiations are, it feels, an insipid, British version of what Greece’s Alexis Tsipras attempted last year: issue an ultimatum to try and bluff your opponents into thinking you might actually dare to torpedo the entire Euro project in the hope they might concede more than they otherwise would. And then sell that deal, no matter how far short it falls, as the best possible.

In fact, Mr Cameron has triangulated himself into the ideal position. As he very smartly remarked after the televised Clegg-Farage Euro debate in March 2014: “Nick thinks there’s nothing wrong with Europe and we shouldn’t have a referendum, and Nigel thinks there’s nothing right with Europe and we should just get out and leave. They’re both wrong.”

Cameron’s the leader who’s gone out and batted for Britain. He might not have scored a century but it was a useful knock. Like it or not, those of us who support ‘Bremain’ are lucky he’s on our team.

The chap did what he could, tried his damnedest. And you can’t get more British – sorry, Daily Mail: English – than that.

Brexit, Animal Farm, and political fanatics

by Stephen Tall on February 3, 2016

Can’t think what it was about Tim Montgomerie’s tweet, below, which put me in mind of this quote* from George Orwell’s Animal Farm:

“The creatures outside looked from Brexiter to Cybernat, and from Corbynista to Brexiter, and from Brexiter to Cybernat again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

tim tweet

As Bertrand Russell more or less said:

“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.”

* ish.

5 thoughts on that statue at Oriel #RhodesMustFall

by Stephen Tall on January 29, 2016

rhodes oriel

‘Cecil Rhodes statue to be kept by Oxford University college’, the BBC notes. Here’s my hot take…

1. I’m glad I’m not working in the alumni office at Oriel College – having been an Oxford fundraiser for 13 years, I can only begin to imagine the correspondence they’ve been dealing with since this storm erupted. Oriel says its decision to rescind its earlier decision and to let Rhodes statue stand has had nothing to do with the response of its old members. Yeah, right! I’ve no idea if the £100m threatened cost in lost donations and legacies is at all likely, but – let’s remember – Oriel was the last college in Oxford to agree to admit women (1986): there will be little sympathy with tearing down its heritage.

2. I find myself quite conflicted on the Rhodes Must Fall campaign. I go to Spain regularly (my partner is Spanish and our son has dual nationality), and to see the fascist dictator Franco publicly commemorated to this day, most notably with his tomb at Valle de los Caídos (The Valley of the Fallen), is jarring. Why haven’t the Spanish torn down these monuments, as Iraqis famously did when the statute of Saddam Hussein was toppled? Because both right and left made a conscious decision in 1975 to avoid any form of truth and reconciliation and instead to commit to el pacto del olvido (‘The Pact of Forgetting’) — which is easier said than done for those whose lives were torn apart by its brutal civil war.

3. Oliver Moody in The Times wrote the best defence of the Rhodes memorial I’ve read:

If the Rhodes statue must be a symbol, then let it be a symbol of our freedom to demur without hating; to criticise without silencing; to live in civil disagreement with our own history. It seems a bit thick that a boring effigy of a man you could very reasonably call a complete tool should become a monument to the established British tradition of not being a complete tool. But so be it. Rhodes must stand.

While Ian Dunt rightly reminded us not to conflate this latest student furore – an entirely legitimate debate about how we come to terms with our dubious past – with pathetic, infantilising attempts by student unions to close down debate through no-platforming controversial speakers:

The Cecil Rhodes statue does not have a voice. It is not talking. It cannot shut up any more than it already is. The petition calling for its removal does not demand that those who hold racist views or believe in colonialism should be censored. It is, admittedly, full of the usual rhetorical devices of the student censorship movement, including the insistence that the university is a “home” rather than a place of learning and a systematic misuse of the word “violence”. But the issue itself, whether the statue should be removed, is not a free speech issue. The only free speech issue which would arise is if those supporting “Rhodes Must Fall” are silenced from what is a perfectly valid debate.

4. Of course if Rhodes is pulled down, clean-up efforts won’t stop there. Just as US students at Princeton have turned their attention to the segregationist views of Woodrow Wilson, why wouldn’t British students question Winston Churchill’s racist attitudes and culpability for the Bengal famine? Once we put history in the dock, we won’t be short of blokes with dodgy pasts to put on trial.

5. My personal view is that there are far more important, useful ways of trying to make amends for our past than to debate bits of carved masonry. But, I’m aware (and many opposing Rhodes Must Fall would do well to imagine themselves into the protesters’ shoes for a moment) that is easy for me to say.

My must-reads this week January 29, 2016

by Stephen Tall on January 29, 2016

You can read all the articles that have caught my attention this week here: https://delicious.com/stephentall Below are a selection…

My must-reads this week January 22, 2016

by Stephen Tall on January 22, 2016

You can read all the articles that have caught my attention this week here: https://delicious.com/stephentall Below are a selection…

Decline and Fall: how Coalition killed the Lib Dems (almost)

by Stephen Tall on January 20, 2016

ashdwon hat

The release yesterday by Labour of Margaret Beckett’s report into her party’s election defeat reminds me to post here my article – published in the Journal of Liberal History’s special autumn issue, Coalition and the Liberal Democrats – looking at my party’s experiences.

At 10pm on 7 May, 2015, Lib Dems experienced our very own ‘JFK moment’ – we all remember where we were – when the BBC exit poll was released showing the party scythed down from 57 to just 10 MPs.

Some, like our campaign chair Paddy Ashdown, refused to admit the possibility, famously promising David Dimblelby that, if it were accurate, “I will publicly eat my hat on your programme”. Many more of us had an instant sinking feeling in our guts, recalling how accurately the 2010 poll had predicted the Lib Dems were destined to lose more seats than at any election since 1970.

If anything, the psephologists were over-optimistic this time: in forecasting the party would reach double figures, they inflated our result by 25 per cent.

No-one – not even the most pessimistic, coalition-hating, Clegg-allergic, Orange Book-phobic Lib Dem – had thought it would be that bad. The rout of all but one of our Scottish MPs by the SNP wasn’t entirely unexpected. Nor was the loss of our urban English seats where Labour was the challenger.

What was quite stunning – utterly, compellingly, breathtakingly unforeseen – was the scale of our defeat at the hands of our Conservative coalition partners in the suburbs and rural areas we had thought were our fortresses. None of us had seen that coming.

Thinking I could detect some kind of 1992-style Tory bounce-back in the final few days of the campaign, I got in touch with a top Lib Dem strategist to ask, “should we be worried that Cameron’s schedule is targeting so many Lib Dem-held seats? Do they actually sniff 300+ seats?” No, I was assured, the Conservatives were “wasting their time in Twickenham and Yeovil”. Tell that to Vince Cable and David Laws.

In one top Lib Dem target, where the party ended up finishing third, I was told by a highly experienced activist that “our canvassing goes back years. I thought it was robust. I still do. There were absolutely no signs of this, not even on the ground today.”

So how did it happen? What caused the most disastrous election result for the Lib Dems since… well, pretty much since records began?

**

The answer is almost too obvious: our decision to enter into a coalition government with the Conservatives during the most severe economic downturn in a century.

However, it’s worth taking a step back to make another obvious point, but one which is now often forgotten: the Lib Dems hadn’t expected to be in government in 2010.

The widespread assumption had been (from the moment Gordon Brown flunked ‘the election that never was’ in October 2007) that David Cameron’s Conservatives would triumph. In April 2010, the Independent on Sunday asked eight pollsters to predict the result: all eight forecast an overall Conservative majority. The Lib Dems were widely seen to be on the defensive against this blue tide; after all, the Tories were the nearest challengers in most of the party’s held seats.

Then, two things happened. First, the global financial crisis rocked the domestic political scene. Cameron’s flimsy platform of compassionate Conservatism – that through “sharing the proceeds of future growth” it was possible both to cut taxes and protect public services – collapsed, and his party retreated to its right-wing, austerity comfort zone. The public looked on, nervously, at the thought of the untested Cameron and his even younger shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, taking the helm at this moment of crisis. The Tories’ poll lead narrowed.

And secondly, the first ever televised leaders’ debate between the three main party leaders took place, with the fresh-faced Clegg besting both Cameron and Gordon Brown. The Lib Dem poll surge it sparked proved to be phosphorescently flashy and brief. But even the small ratings boost probably helped deprive the Conservatives of the majority they had expected to be theirs, as well as saving a clutch of Lib Dem seats – eight MPs won with majorities of less than 5 per cent over their Tory challenger – that might otherwise have been lost.

It’s intriguing to pose the counter-factual: what if the Conservatives had edged a victory in May 2010 and the Coalition had never been formed?

Cameron would have had to have tried to keep his rebellious backbenchers in check without the assistance of the hefty majority the Lib Dem bloc of MPs afforded him. Chances are he would have struggled at least as badly as his predecessor Tory PM, John Major. Meanwhile Labour, denuded of the instant unity conferred by its misplaced outrage at the ‘ConDem’ coalition, might well have descended into Miliband v Miliband civil war. It would have been an ideal scenario for the Lib Dems, the perfect launch-pad for further gains from both parties.

True, an alternative reality based on nothing more than idle speculation – but the tantalising glimpse of what might have been is worth bearing in mind, not least because it’s what the Lib Dem leadership had planned for. One of Nick Clegg’s first decisions as party leader at the start of 2008 was to commission what became known as The Bones Report (after its author, Professor Chris Bones, a Lib Dem activist and management expert) “into how the Liberal Democrats’ internal organisation could be built upon to double our number of MPs over the next two general elections”. The implicit assumption was that the party would grow, rapidly but incrementally, for a further decade in opposition.

**

As it was, the party was faced on 7 May, 2010, with the Hobson’s choice of doing a deal with the Tories. This was the only option available for which the numbers added up to more than the 323 MPs required for a bare majority, and so offered a period of stable government. The alternative, most of us assumed (I still think correctly), was a minority Tory administration forcing a second cut-and-run election within months and a resulting vicious squeeze on the Lib Dems.

However, few of us were under any illusions quite how dangerous a Lib/Con pact might be to the party’s electoral fortunes. As I wrote on the LibDemVoice website on the Saturday morning after the election:

“… many of our members, and even more of our supporters, would identify themselves as ‘progressives’, a vague term which can be reasonably translated as ‘anti-Tory’. There is a very real risk that by throwing in our lot with Cameron, or even just appearing to, those progressive voters will desert the Lib Dems in favour of Labour, and that may threaten many of the 57 Lib Dem seats we now hold.”

Despite these fears, though, it was a collective, almost unanimous, decision. No official count was taken at the special Birmingham conference on 16 May, 2010, which sealed the deal, but estimates in the hall, where some 1,500 Lib Dem members debated the formation of the Coalition, suggested only about 50 conference representatives voted against the motion endorsing the agreement: the rest of the hundreds eligible to vote were all in favour.

Initial enthusiasm was understandable. The Lib Dems had been out of government for close on a century, and the prospect of our policies, approved by our conference, being implemented in government by our ministers was a glistening one.

What is perhaps more remarkable is that even with the benefit of hindsight, it appears most of us would do it again. When LibDemVoice asked party members in May 2015, “Knowing all you know now, would you have still gone in to a coalition with the Conservatives back in 2010?”, 74 per cent said yes.

**

At first glance that enthusiasm appears odd, given we can date the Lib Dems’ election catastrophe to that point-of-no-return decision. For many members, though, it wasn’t the signing of the Coalition deal which signed the party’s death warrant; it was our actions within the Coalition.

This debate matters because it has big implications for whether the party should consider coalition again. Is there something intrinsic about being a junior party in a Westminster coalition which means you’ve lost before you’ve started? Or is your fate in your own hands – is it possible to make a success of it, if handled well?

The biggest single plummet in Lib Dem vote share occurred in those first six months. Entering into the Coalition with the Conservatives was a toxic act for many 2010 Lib Dem voters, and our rating plunged from 23 per cent in May, to 13 per cent by the end of the year. The tuition fees U-turn coincided with this, though didn’t in itself precipitate the collapse. It did, however, do longer term reputational damage to the party (and, of course, to Nick Clegg, whose infamous 2010 pledge to the NUS to oppose any increase spectacularly backfired).

What followed was a long-drawn-out decline. This was the period in which the party found itself out-numbered by the Conservatives in government, out-oppositioned by Labour on the centre-left, and out-flanked by anti-establishment parties untainted by government office with more strikingly populist messages: Ukip’s anti-immigration dog-whistle, the SNP’s pro-nationalism placebo, the Greens’ anti-austerity posturing.

Quite simply, we disappeared from view, becoming seen as an irrelevance as our support dwindled: a vicious spiral. By the time of the 2015 general election, and our doomed attempt to fight a first-past-the-post election on the basis of being everyone’s second favourite party, we had been ruthlessly squeezed down to just eight per cent.

**

Was it worth it? Let’s look at the profit-and-loss account, the debits and credits of our record in government.

The Lib Dems were not short of achievements. There wasn’t a senior Lib Dem who’s wasn’t able to rehearse, when challenged “But what have you done?”, the line that the our three of our top four 2010 priorities – tax-cuts for low-earners, the Pupil Premium, the Green Investment Bank – had been delivered.

Or who wouldn’t point to other policies – like infant free school meals, or same-sex marriage, or more apprenticeships – which were successfully pushed by the Lib Dems in office.

Or who wouldn’t highlight Conservative policies, such as hire-and-fire at will or repeal of the Human Rights Act or the proposed “snoopers’ charter”, which the Lib Dems had vetoed.

It is a creditable litany, especially for a party with just nine per cent of MPs.

The trouble was, the public didn’t notice.

At least they were even-handed, ignoring not only our triumphs but also our disasters and treating both those imposters just the same. As the British Election Study, which has been examining how and why the public votes as they do in every election since 1964, noted:

“The Lib Dems did not do so badly because they were blamed for the failings of the Coalition; rather, the majority of voters simply seem to have felt that they were an irrelevant component of the last government.”

Two examples suffice. Among the 44 per cent of voters who though the economy was getting better, just 19 per cent credited the Lib Dems compared to 73 per cent who thought it was thanks to the Conservatives. Meanwhile, of the two-thirds of voters who thought the NHS had got worse under the Coalition, just 19 per cent held the Lib Dems responsible while 69 per cent pinned the blame on the Tories.

Unfair? Mostly, yes. But like sailors complaining about the sea, it’s pointless to wag our finger at the voters.

Moreover, I don’t think I was the only Lib Dem who, as the Coalition drew to a close, felt a nagging worry that while our party’s successes were things which the Conservatives had little trouble with, the Conservatives’ successes (too-tight-too-soon austerity, over-harsh crackdowns on social security like the ‘bedroom tax’, Andrew Lansley’s pointlessly expensive health reforms) were things we should have had no truck with.

Sure, our ministers did their best, and yes, the Coalition was markedly less right-wing, and in some areas even quite liberal, compared to full-blown Tory rule. But – let us ask ourselves honestly – did we truly succeed in moving the country in a sufficiently liberal direction for enough people during our five years in government given the price we ended up paying?

Because it wasn’t just in May 2015 that the Lib Dems were wiped out. That was simply the culmination of five years of humiliating defeats at every level of representative government.

In the European parliament, 11 of our 12 MEPs were defeated. In Scotland, we lost 12 of the 17 seats we were defending. (Wales, where we lost only one of our previous six AMs, was a relative success.) Our local government base was hacked down year after year, from 3,944 councillors in 2010 to just 1,801 in 2015. Today we control six councils, down from 25 in 2010. Only in the unelected House of Lords has Lib Dem representation grown.

For five years of restraining the Conservatives at Westminster, plus a handful of policy advances, the Lib Dems sacrificed decades of hard-won gains across the country. The opportunity cost of lost liberal influence has been huge.

**

Was there anything the party could have done to staunch the losses we suffered in May 2015? I’m doubtful. We were, I believe, destined for heavy defeat the moment we joined the coalition.

Too Tory for our progressive voters, not Tory enough for our small-c conservative voters. The voters who remained – pragmatic, rational liberals (many of whom have since swelled the ranks of the party as new members) – are too thinly-spread to win us many seats.

Maybe it would be different under proportional representation (our eight per cent of the vote would yield us around 50 MPs), but first-past-the-post is what the voters chose in 2011. And for as long as we have it, a third party looking to be the moderating force will get flattened by the inevitable pincer movement. Even our MPs’ much-vaunted local incumbency isn’t, it turns out, a magic wand.

The party’s campaign itself has been much-criticised, in particular for Nick Clegg’s mantra that the purpose of the Lib Dems was to “bring a heart to a Conservative government and a brain to a Labour one”.

This kind of split-the-difference positioning was unloved by activists – who labelled it defensive and unambitious – yet it was the only realistic option available. I call it an option, but it wasn’t, not really. It was thrust on us by the voters when they popped the ‘Cleggmania’ balloon in May 2010 and then torpedoed electoral reform by rejecting the Alternative Vote a year later.

Those who denounced the strategy of liberal centrism were hiding from the truth that the party’s only route into government was in coalition with one of the two main parties, either the right-leaning Tories or left-leaning Labour.

That inevitably meant compromise, pegging the Lib Dems as the party of moderate, fair-minded pragmatism. We may not have wanted to place ourselves in the centre, but that’s precisely where our circumstances put us. We had no choice but to make a virtue from necessity.

An appeal to radical liberalism – land value tax, proportional representation, a Citizen’s Income! – would merely have invited derision given our necessarily constrained record in Coalition, and that we would have been unable to explain how such manifesto promises could plausibly be delivered.

Ultimately, the 2015 general election simply wasn’t about us. It was not a change election, but a fear election. The spectre of Prime Minister Miliband in hock to the SNP appears to have spooked enough voters into putting to one side their doubts about the Conservatives, to hold onto nurse for fear of something worse.

Former Lib Dem MP Jeremy Browne was surely right when he said: “If the Coalition was on the ballot paper, it would win in May”. But it wasn’t, so the only logical choice for those voters anxious to avoid a change of government was to vote Conservative.

**

On completing the coalition negotiations in 2010, William Hague is said to have told his wife, Ffion: “I think I’ve just killed the Liberal Democrats.”

Well, perhaps. After all, we were just 24,968 votes – the combined majorities of the eight rump Lib Dem MPs – away from being wiped out. And, assuming the Tories now move to implement the long-overdue constituency boundary reforms (blocked by the Lib Dems in 2012 in retaliation for the Tories kaiboshing House of Lords reform), our notional number of seats is a mere four.

Just because we feel we’ve hit rock bottom doesn’t automatically guarantee things will now get better.

But we have 18,000 new party members and we have a new leader, Tim Farron. Which other political force in the next five years will be making the case for being pro-immigration and pro-Europe, for reforming our drugs laws and our political system, for championing civil liberties and the environment, and for opposing inheritance-tax cuts which benefit only the wealthiest and tax-credits cuts which hurt the working poor?

For five years the Lib Dems were the opposition to the Conservatives within the Coalition. Now that’s done, and with Labour clueless about how to respond to their defeat, it looks like the Lib Dems will be the only effective national opposition to the Conservatives in this parliament as well.

We’re not dead yet.

Five days into semi-quitting Twitter, here’s how it’s going…

by Stephen Tall on January 15, 2016

wpid-screenshot_2016-01-10-19-11-40.pngLast Sunday, I did something drastic: I deleted Twitter from my phone.

I’d been half-intending to do it for a couple of weeks, putting it off because I didn’t want it to seem like a New Year’s resolution (which, actually, it was) as I don’t make New Year’s resolutions (I do, really).

Next day, I did something else. I added a website-blocker extension to the Chrome browser on my work computer to stop myself reading Twitter there.

I targeted Twitter as it’s the website I can most easily accidentally spend too long grazing on when I should and could be doing more useful things.

I still have Twitter on my tablet and home laptop. And I can still post to Twitter from my phone and work PC (either from Buffer or Instagram) if I want to. But it now has to be a conscious decision to log-in and scroll down and check my notifications and start sparring.

Five days in, the cold turkey’s less bad than I thought it might be. True, I’m missing out on the shiny-shiny of the latest LOLtastic memes on my daily commute and at lunch-time.

But I’m reading more articles via Feedly and Pocket. I’m tucking into my weekly Economist magazine. Occasionally I manage to read a book. I’m catching up on lots of good TV (War and Peace, Deutschland 83, Dickensian).

More importantly, I’m getting a bit of perspective when Twitter goes silly.

Like when the Corbynistas went beserk at Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s political editor, for getting Stephen Doughty to resign live on air. Or like yesterday when the humourless on Twitter weirdly decided that Charlie Hebdo was racist for publishing a savage but bang-on cartoon satirising nationalists’ stereotyping of immigrants.

Previously, I’d probably have ended up descending into the Twitter-mire, wasting time and energy duelling with people I’ll never even meet. Or else, I’d have kept my head down, reckoning it wasn’t worth the hassle getting involved. And then getting frustrated with myself at such cowardice.

Instead, when I did read about the furore I just thought “Tsk, don’t folk on Twitter get upset easily.”



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