FAO all leadership contenders: “Clever politicians push against the grain of their own party”

by Stephen Tall on July 10, 2015

The Times’s Philip Collins writes today about the political savviness of George Osborne’s sudden conversion to a higher minimum wage than promised by Ed Miliband (£9/hour by 2020, compared with £8/hour):

There are two lessons here for Labour. The first is that how a policy sounds depends on the tone of voice of the advocate. It’s not all about press bias. If Ed Miliband suggests a profits surcharge you get the impression he wants to foreclose capitalism. It smells like the distilled essence of his politics. When George Osborne says the same thing it sounds like an exception concocted to tempt Labour voters. Clever politicians push against the grain of their own party and therefore attract new supporters. The second lesson is that a reputation for economic prudence earns a licence to act. Mr Osborne does not need to beg anyone for his credentials as a fiscal hawk, so he can be permitted his fun with wage rates.

Note that sentence in bold.

Think of leaders who’ve achieved cut-through in the past 20 years. Tony Blair achieved it, reaching well beyond Labour’s 1992 core vote. David Cameron achieved it, reaching well beyond the Tories’ 2005 core vote.

The question for the Lib Dems will be the same: who can achieve cut-through in the next five years, reaching well beyond our 2015 core vote?

Or, as I put it a few weeks ago in my “Orange Booker” endorsement of Tim Farron:

Party members have a clear choice at this election as each candidate is from a defined wing of the party. Norman Lamb is a “Cleggite”, Tim an “SLF-er”.

(The “inverted commas” are deliberate as each term is of course a broadbrush descriptor — and, as I pointed out here, this contest has not been notable for Big Policy debate.)

Whichever of them wins will then have to work hard to unite the party, to deploy the talents of their opponent and those who supported him. That means either will have to find ways of tacking “right” — in Tim’s case — or “left” — in Norman’s — to bring folk together.

The Lib Dem problem of 2015 is, of course, harder than were either Blair’s or Cameron’s when they faced them (in each case at a time when their respective parties were fed up with being out of power and desperate/receptive to new ideas to transform their fortunes).

The first order problem for the Lib Dems is to re-build the party’s core vote — and there are a number of good ideas of how to do that in David Howarth’s and Mark Pack’s new pamphlet, Building a core vote for the Lib Dems: The 20% Strategy.

But there is always a limit to a core vote strategy for any political party which wants to win well enough to be in government.

Tim, who’s banked a lot of political capital in the past five years, is the candidate in the best place to “push against the grain” of our party. He’ll have to, if he wants to achieve cut-through with the wider electorate.

My must-reads this week July 10, 2015

by Stephen Tall on July 10, 2015

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

Osborne’s budget: who reckons the Lib Dems would have cheered it if we’d still been in government?

by Stephen Tall on July 9, 2015

A couple of months ago I highlighted a potential pitfall for the Lib Dems of assuming the post-Coalition Tories would “revert to type, that their swivel-eyed, nut-job element will triumph”:

For the past five years, David Cameron has been forced to moderate his policies because of the Lib Dems. Who’s to say he won’t now choose to moderate his policies — indeed, that he won’t find it easier to be himself a moderate because it will now be Tory ministers implementing small-l liberal measures? … if Mr Cameron is able to stick to his guns, then 2020 may prove an even tougher fight for my party precisely because liberalism isn’t actually in retreat.

Item 1: George Osborne’s budget

For sure, there are Bad Things in the first Tory budget in 19 years, most notably the cuts to tax credits which will hit hard the lowest-paid workers. They will find themselves hundreds of pounds worse off in 5 years’ time than they are today. The Resolution Foundation has modelled the changes, for example:

A low earning dual-earner couple with two children both earning £9.35 an hour will be £850 a year worse off. They would need a one-off rise in earnings of 15 per cent to recover these losses, equivalent to 7 years of steady 2% pay rises or a 5 hour increase in the second earner’s weekly working time.

However, I then tried to re-imagine this Tory budget as a Coalition budget. And I found there wasn’t much of an imaginative leap required. Had Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander still been sitting on the front bench yesterday, I imagine they would have supported much of what George Osborne put forward:

  • They’d have welcomed the continuing increase in the personal allowance, to £11,000 — even though this will benefit only 1% of the lowest-paid workers;
  • They’d have praised the increase in the minimum wage (and it’s sneakily inaccurate re-branding as a ‘living wage’) — at least if it hadn’t already been blocked by Vince Cable on the reasonable grounds its impact on unemployment is unknown;
  • They’d have acclaimed the slowing of public spending cuts as proof of the Lib Dems in government successfully moderating Tory excess;
  • They’d have enthused about Steve Webb’s pensions ‘triple lock’ which continues to guarantee above-inflation increases to wealthy retirees at the expense of their worse off grandkids;
  • They’d have pointed out that scrapping the automatic entitlement to housing benefit for 18-21 year olds was a hard-won compromise — originally the Tories had wanted it to apply to 18-25 year-olds;
  • They’d have highlighted the Treasury’s claim that 8 out of 10 workers will be better off as a result of the budget changes;
  • They’d have disowned Osborne’s inheritance tax cuts as a warning of the kinds of policies the Tories would unleash if unhampered by Lib Dem ministers.
  • In short, the Lib Dems would likely have hailed Osborne’s budget as a triumph of Coalition, proof of the party’s impact.

    In reality, though, both leadership contenders, Tim Farron and Norman Lamb, slammed it in damning terms.

    I’m being slightly unfair here. Doubtless the Lib Dems would have won more concessions from the Tories if the party were in government still, perhaps even have blocked the inheritance tax-cut for the wealthiest. The party would doubtless have ensured a greater emphasis on the environment. Student maintenance grants for the poorest would probably have survived. A Coalition budget would, therefore, have been more Lib Dem than was Osborne’s solo effort.

    However, the ease with which Osborne stole the policy clothes of the opposition — while continuing to exploit popular unhappiness at abuses of social security spending (no matter how rare they are in reality) — highlights the dangers for both Labour and the Lib Dems. The Chancellor’s ‘predistribution’ land-grab, promising better pay in return for lower welfare spend, has an attractive simplicity which spikes the guns of the campaigners and economists who’ll highlight its many flaws.

    Osborne’s budget wasn’t a liberal budget (no reason to expect it to be). But it was “just liberal enough”. For five years that was enough for the Lib Dems. Turning the fire on Osborne now, pretending that he’s pursuing a markedly different course to that which he embarked on in 2010, might make for a good soundbite. But the public will see through it.

    The truth is if the Lib Dems had ended up with 30+ MPs in May, we’d likely have been cheering 90% of Osborne’s budget, spinning it as a Coalition victory. Jeering it now might make us feel better, but it looks inauthentic. Probably because it is.

    Kids Company: confirmation bias, intention & charity effectiveness

    by Stephen Tall on July 8, 2015

    camila camThe charity Kids Company hit the headlines a few days ago, following a joint investigation by the BBC’s Newsnight and BuzzFeed News which revealed the Government was withholding funding from the charity unless its founding chief executive Camila Batmanghelidjh was replaced.

    Ms Batmanghelidjh didn’t take this lying down: “Some ugly games are being played. The facts are that the vulnerable children of this country remain largely unprotected. There’s no point in shooting the messenger if the message is uncomfortable. I am being silenced.”

    The Cabinet Office issued a more diplomatic statement: “Making sure that every child has the best start in life is our top priority, so we will continue to work with Kids Company to ensure its important work is sustained.”

    Instantly my Twitter/Facebook timeline divided in two.

    For the Camila-ites, this was a clear case of the Tory government pursuing a cuts agenda and stifling dissenting voices. Inevitably this view was soon echoed over at the Guardian’s click-bait trove, Comment is Free.

    For the Camila-sceptics, it seemed more the case the charity had grown too big to manage itself well — pointing to troubling and well-sourced articles in The Spectator, The Sunday Times, Buzzfeed News, and the Osca blog — and that the Government had tired of caving into its repeated demands for public money to plug budget holes.

    I don’t know whose side you take in this. Or, perhaps, you take the reasonable view that few of us looking in from the outside have enough facts to judge (if so, don’t try and pitch that to Comment is Free). Either way, three brief thoughts from me:

    1. We are all of us guilty of confirmation bias, viewing news stories through our own lens, interpreting the facts to fit our own pre-existing views. That’s how the Kids Company story quickly became a cipher for the usual ‘Evil Tories’ rhetoric, complete with Harriet Harman press release.

    2. We need to separate charitable intentions from charitable effectiveness. I’ve no doubt Camila Batmanghelidjh wants to do good, that she has devoted her life to helping the vulnerable inner-city children, young people and families which inspired her to found Kids Company. But that does not mean she, or any other charity, should be immune from challenge.

    3. Charities need to get better, much better, at evidencing both their effectiveness and cost-effectiveness. That means being open to independent evaluation and to being able to attribute causal impact to what you do. It also means recognising that being asked how much what you do costs is a reasonable (in fact, essential) question, given we all operate within scarce resources. ‘Would the public money given to Kids Company have been better spent by another charity?’ is the kind of question I expect any government to ask.

    Review: Ripley Under Ground by Patricia Highsmith

    by Stephen Tall on July 8, 2015

    ripley under ground#Ripley Under Ground, Patricia Highsmith

    I loved the chutzpah of Matt Damon’s Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr Ripley (1999) so was curious to see how it translated into this follow-up, the second in Patricia Highsmith’s ‘Ripliad’ quintet. Ripley has gotten himself involved in an art scam and faces ruin when an American collector threatens to expose it.

    There are moments of excitement, yet there’s something missing in this sequel. Maybe it’s that Ripley has made it — he’s no longer a thrusting young man sharp-elbowedly trying to make his way in the world, but a wealthy husband keen to protect his sedately comfortable life, dabbling at painting, gardening and learning French, never happier than when changing into his pyjamas. Bluntly, he’s just not that much fun second time around.

    There are elements of implausibility, too: impersonating Derwatt, the dead painter whose art the Buckmaster Gallery is faking, Ripley holds a press conference and allows photographers to snap away: an absurd and unnecessary risk quite at odds with the other precautions he takes — which again include murder, of course.

    In essence: interesting, but not enough to inspire me to plough through the rest of the series: if I read another Ripley novel, I’ll probably go back to the beginning.

    National Audit Office verdict on Pupil Premium: “potential to bring about a significant improvement in outcomes for disadvantaged pupils”

    by Stephen Tall on June 30, 2015

    school 11

    Six months ago I wrote:

    I think [the Pupil Premium is] one of this Coalition’s most progressive policies. But expecting its impact to be sudden and dramatic is to over-hype it. What I suspect it has done is focus schools’ attention on the attainment gap and to address it in ways that go beyond, and do not depend on, the value of the Pupil Premium itself.

    Today sees the publication of an important report from the National Audit Office, Funding for disadvantaged pupils, which highlights both these points.

    First, that any impact of the Pupil Premium will, inevitably, take time to feed into better outcomes for disadvantaged pupils:

    The attainment gap has narrowed slowly since 2011 but the gap remains wide and it will take time for the Pupil Premium’s impact to become clear. Success in some schools indicates that the Pupil Premium has promise. However, the Department does not expect the full impact of funding to be felt until 2018 for primary schools and 2023 for secondary schools – the years, respectively, when eligible pupils will have been funded for their entire education. Changing exam standards make analysing the attainment gap difficult at this early stage. Between 2011 and 2014 the gap reduced by 4.7 percentage points in primary schools. In secondary schools, it reduced by 1.6 percentage points, although exam standards were measured differently in 2014. A clear trend has not yet been established and the gap remains wide – in 2014 some 63.5% of disadvantaged pupils failed to achieve five good GCSEs including English and Maths, compared with 36% of their peers

    And secondly, that the Pupil Premium is only part of the picture — after all, it’s estimated that core funding local authorities allocate to schools on the
    basis of deprivation totalled £2.4 billion in 2014-15 (that’s completely separate from the £2.5 billion of Pupil Premium schools received direct). What matters at least as much, then, is how schools prioritise the specific aim of the Pupil Premium — raising the attainment of disadvantaged pupils — as core to their work. Here the NAO report is clearer about the policy’s impact:

    Introducing the Pupil Premium has increased school leaders’ focus on improving outcomes for disadvantaged children. Of school leaders, 57% said they targeted support at disadvantaged pupils before the creation of the Pupil Premium, compared with 94% now

    Here’s the report’s key (and measured) conclusion on the impact of the Pupil Premium:

    It will take time for the full impact of the Pupil Premium to be known. While the attainment gap has narrowed since 2011, it remains wide and, at this stage, the significance of the improvements is unclear. More time and further evaluation will be needed to establish whether the Department has achieved its goals. However, the early signs are that many schools, supported by the Department’s investment in the EEF [Education Endowment Foundation], are using the Pupil Premium to help disadvantaged pupils in useful ways. If these schools’ early performance can be sustained and built upon, the Pupil Premium has the potential to bring about a significant improvement in outcomes for disadvantaged pupils and the value for money of school spending.

    Full disclosure: I work for the Education Endowment Foundation, referenced throughout the National Audit Office’s report, and was one of those interviewed as part of the NAO’s evidence-gathering audit.

    photo by:

    Olly Grender & me on BBC Radio 4: Who will be the next Lib Dem leader?

    by Stephen Tall on June 30, 2015

    BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour took a look at the Lib Dem leadership contest this week. You can listen to the 9 minute discussion between Olly Grender (Team Norman Lamb) and me (Team Tim Farron) here:

    Secret ballot? Whatevs.

    by Stephen Tall on June 29, 2015


    The “Orange Booker” case for supporting Tim Farron

    by Stephen Tall on June 26, 2015

    orange bookYes, you read that headline right.

    I’ve already said why I’m supporting Tim Farron as next Lib Dem leader.

    This is a brief coda addressed specifically to those party members, like me, who are quite happy still to be regarded by the divisive label “Orange Bookers” — which I’ve previously defined as being “at ease with the role of a competitive market and who believes also in social justice”.

    Party members have a clear choice at this election as each candidate is from a defined wing of the party. Norman Lamb is a “Cleggite”, Tim an “SLF-er”.

    (The “inverted commas” are deliberate as each term is of course a broadbrush descriptor — and, as I pointed out here, this contest has not been notable for Big Policy debate.)

    Whichever of them wins will then have to work hard to unite the party, to deploy the talents of their opponent and those who supported him. That means either will have to find ways of tacking “right” — in Tim’s case — or “left” — in Norman’s — to bring folk together.

    (Again the “inverted commas” are deliberate. Let me put it this way: Tim will need to show he understands solving social problems needs more than just more public money; while Norman will need to show that personal freedoms mean less to those living lives in or near poverty.)

    So the small policy differences between them will likely become smaller still whichever is elected. Especially as the loser will, I assume, be given a plum role by the winner — for example, shadow chancellor and/or heading up the party manifesto-writing group.

    In that situation, then, I think the ability to be a distinctive, passionate campaigner ranks higher up my priority list of what I want from the next leader.

    That’s the basis on which I, as an “Orange Booker”, will be supporting Tim, while fully recognising that he’s further to the “left” than I am — and that there will almost certainly be times when we’re on opposite sides in specific policy debates.

    My must-reads this week June 26, 2015

    by Stephen Tall on June 26, 2015

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

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