by Stephen Tall on November 18, 2015
I’ve written a piece for the New Statesmen on the latest instalment in the ongoing Lord Rennard saga which has been giving the Lib Dems very public grief for almost three years now.
They asked me to write it on Monday — at a time when it looked like the party was going to end up split down the middle on the issue with neither Rennard nor his opponents seemingly prepared to back down — and I wrote most of it that evening.
At that point I had no idea how to conclude the piece: if neither blinked, the party would have ended up with a very messy, expensive and damaging special conference debating a constitutional amendment to strip the Lords’ group of its seat on the party’s ruling Federal Executive. Wave good-bye to the #LibDemFightback.
Thankfully, better sense intervened. But the issue’s far from resolved, so don’t be surprised if the party ends up breaking out in hives again (for example, if Lord Rennard succesfully stand for a post elected by party members).
Anyway, you can read my piece in full over at the Staggers’ website here. Here’s how I did manage to conclude it, once the party had stepped back from the brink:
A crisis averted, then, with Farron’s leadership strengthened (albeit at the cost of further damaging his already strained relations with many of the party’s peers), as well as a sharp reminder that the Lib Dem grassroots don’t care to be trampled on.
Yet few expect this to be the end of the affair. The Rennardites feel a man who’s never been found guilty of any wrongdoing has been shabbily treated by the party that’s been his life. The Rock the Boaters feel that Rennard is symbolic of an entitled bullying culture in politics that for too long has gone unchecked. Both sides are resolute – which means resolution is a distant hope.
by Stephen Tall on November 13, 2015
This is my fourth weekly diary over at LibDemVoice today…
Status Quo’s winning record
Painful though it might be for liberals to admit the fact, Britain is a fundamentally conservative country. Opposition is more often expressed with a tut or a sceptically-arched eyebrow than a revolution. And then things generally revert to how they were before. Which is why, though I’m more careful these days about predicting what will happen next in British politics, I remain sure ‘remain’ will win the EU referendum.
A few years ago, after our AV knock-back, I looked back at the history of referendums in this country (starting with the first ever UK plebiscite, the 1973 Northern Ireland sovereignty referendum). Doing so, I formulated what I’m going to call Tall’s Law in the hope it catches on (though Tall’s Rule of Thumb would be more accurate): “the public will vote for the status quo when asked in a referendum except when the change proposed in a referendum is backed by a coalition of most/all the major parties”. Come the EU referendum, we will see the Conservatives and Labour (to one degree or another) as well as the Lib Dems united in favour of Britain’s continuing EU membership. Sure, take nothing for granted — but a defeat for ‘remain’ would be an unprecedented occurrence. And precedent is a very British custom, for better and worse.
Tom Lehrer famously quipped that the decision to award Henry Kissinger the Nobel Peace Prize “made political satire obsolete”. I was reminded of the remark by Andy Burnham’s latest U-turn. In last week’s Jottings, I noted sarkily that “for all the talk of new politics, Labour’s shadow home secretary Andy Burnham is supporting [Theresa May’s surveillance] plans — though I guess that means there’s a good chance he’ll take the opposite position by next week.” Sure enough, by Monday he’d reversed his initial warm welcome. It’s better to have a reputation to live up to, Andy, than to live down to your own parody.
I attended this week’s re-launch of CentreForum. Formerly “the liberal think-tank” it’s now re-branded as “the opportunity think-tank” headed by new executive chair, David Laws, one of last May’s many defeated Lib Dem MPs. Introducing him, its principal funder and Orange Book co-editor, Paul Marshall, recalled Winston Churchill’s famous riposte to his wife’s consoling remark (“It may well be a blessing in disguise”) after the electorate booted the Conservatives out of office in 1945: “At the moment it seems quite effectively disguised.” David in turn introduced their keynote speaker, education secretary Nicky Morgan, and gave her advance notice that CentreForum would continue to deliver both welcome and unwelcome advice to the government. “Much like our experience in Coalition,” he added.
Wry asides aside, CentreForum’s decision to focus on education, mental health and prison rehabilitation makes a lot of sense. There’s a coherent thread linking these three areas — how public policy can help those in disadvantaged circumstances make the most of their lives — and a genuine prospect of influencing government thinking. However, a bit of me is saddened that CentreForum, which was named UK Economic and Financial Think Tank of the Year in 2013, won’t be furthering the post-crash debate on what a liberal economy looks like. It also presents a challenge to the Lib Dems: where does serious, liberal policy-thinking happen beyond the party’s own much-reduced function? Hopefully the party can develop its links to think-tanks like the Social Market Foundation and Resolution Foundation for further intellectual bolstering.
Orange is not the only colour
The next night I was at my local party’s AGM. Guest speaker was some chap off social media called Dr Mark Pack and it was nice to make his acquaintance. He was asked a question about whether the Lib Dems are simply too ideologically divided between economic and social liberals to stick together under one banner. Mark made the point that the divide between, say, David Laws (on the party’s ‘right’) and Evan Harris (on its ‘left’) was much less wide than its equivalents in other parties. Think Jeremy Corbyn and Tristram Hunt, or Ken Clarke and Dan Hannan. (Though it maybe helps that our tent is smaller to start with.) He also noted that it was David, together with his fellow Orange Book-identified Lib Dem Norman Lamb, who as schools and care ministers respectively had pushed for additional national funding for policies important to them: the Pupil Premium and mental health.
It’s a fair point. There was a curious irony in the last parliament that the two most popular Lib Dem ministers on the party’s social liberal wing, Vince Cable and Steve Webb, were also responsible for the most strident market reforms pursued by the Coalition. Not only did Vince back the Browne Report on student fees, he also privatised Royal Mail, something even Michael Heseltine and Peter Mandelson didn’t dare pursue. Meanwhile, Steve abolished compulsory purchase of pension annuities (“if people do get a Lamborghini, and end up on the state pension, the state is much less concerned about that, and that is their choice”) and even defended the bedroom tax. Sometimes it’s not about what you say or even how you say it, but about who you are when you’re saying it.
Beyond our Ken
Is Michael Gove the new Ken Clarke? Under Margaret Thatcher, Clarke was a combative education and then health secretary who once outraged ambulance crews without training as paramedics by calling them “professional drivers”. He then re-invented himself as a loveable cigar-chomping, hush puppy-wearing, Europhile Tory moderate (assisted by the eruption of hard-right über-Thatcherism in his party which made him seem relatively much more liberal than he actually is). Michael Gove, famously shunted aside by Lynton Crosby because of his unpopularity with teachers and parents, is now a justice secretary busily executing U-turns to reverse his predecessor Chris Grayling’s appalling judgments. Gone is the ban on family and friends sending books directly to prisoners; potentially in is the idea of earned release, so that prisoners committing themselves to learn and acquire skills would be set free early. Suspend your cynicism for a while, and let’s now see if Michael Gove continues to walk the talk of ‘one nation justice’.
And speaking of unlikely liberals, I’m going to leave the last word to Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger. In an interview for L’Equipe Sport and Style (translated from French over at Arseblog), he was challenged over fans’ impatience for another Premiership title victory and Thierry Henry’s statement that Arsenal “must win this season”. This was his rather wonderful reply: ““Must” can be used for death. We must all die one day. In my life, I prefer replacing “must” with “want”. Wanting more than having to. If you tell me, you have to go out tonight, I don’t want to go out as much. If you tell me do you want to go out? Yes, I want to! That’s love for life. Must, must … I mustn’t do anything!”
by Stephen Tall on November 6, 2015
This is my third weekly diary over at LibDemVoice today…
Here’s a paradox I’ve often pondered – why are so many Lib Dems who support name-blind job applications against external assessment of children in schools? What’s the link, I hear you ask. Okay, let me explain… Lynne Featherstone did a great job over many years highlighting the need for applicants’ names not to be disclosed on job applications to avoid employers’ bias (inadvertent or otherwise) against individuals, especially those whose gender and, in particular, race is evident from their name. There’s a stack of evidence demonstrating that equally qualified candidates are less likely to get called for interview if, for example, they have a non-white-sounding name. Increasingly, companies are going further, introducing ‘CV blind’ methods so that applicants are interviewed by panels who know nothing about their educational backgrounds. Of course, none of this is a guarantee against discrimination – after all, race and gender cannot be hidden at interview – but it does get closer to eliminating bias, conscious or unconscious. A good thing, yes? Read the rest of this entry »
by Stephen Tall on November 3, 2015
This is just gobsmacking: Labour to consult Stop the War on Syria policy; an org which essentially supports Assad. https://t.co/MhN3NtNDCa
— Rob Marchant (@rob_marchant) November 3, 2015
CBI's Cridland: "We invited Corbyn to speak at conference. He’s not coming. We are disappointed. He’s too busy." https://t.co/t70nCJbMdF
— Jim Pickard (@PickardJE) November 3, 2015
by Stephen Tall on October 30, 2015
This is my second weekly diary over at LibDemVoice today…
Good Lords above
We live in a topsy turvy world. Following their defeat on tax credits, the Conservatives, who kaiboshed reform in the last parliament, are now urgently reviewing the powers of the House of Lords. Meanwhile Labour, which chose to abstain on a Lib Dem motion stopping the cuts, is promising to support the Tories if they now stop them.
Ah, but aren’t the Lib Dems at least as hypocritical? runs the argument of the unthinking right. The party wants to abolish the Lords yet our peers are “on the warpath”. Let’s leave to one side, for just a moment, that the Conservatives explicitly ruled out making these cuts before the election. Let’s also leave to one side that the Conservatives deliberately chose to avoid a vote on tax credits in the elected Commons… The simple point remains: the Lib Dems participate fully in the Lords because we work for democratic reform within the existing structures. It’s why we continue to stand for election to the Commons even though we think first-past-the-post is a rotten system. I guess it’s also why Ukip stand for election to the European Parliament even though they don’t think it should exist — though oddly you hear a lot less of this alleged hypocrisy from the unthinking right.
Careless Talk Talk
by Stephen Tall on October 27, 2015
A Very British Coup, Chris Mullin
I remember watching Channel 4’s (fabulous) adaptation of A Very British Coup in 1988. Then it seemed almost wistfully nostalgic: hard-left Bennitism was on the retreat, as Neil Kinnock modernised the Labour party. Fast-forward a quarter of a century and Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader suddenly gives the book fresh currency.
For this is the tale of a socialist, pacifist leader of the Labour party, Harry Perkins, committed to taking on the City and adopting unilateral disarmament, who suddenly finds himself propelled into Number 10 and fighting for survival — against not only the Establishment, but also his own side. As Mullin wittily asides: “One reason why the British ruling class have endured so long is that every so often it opens its ranks and absorbs a handful of its own worst enemies.”
The IMF comes knocking, a right-wing union leader sparks an energy crisis, the Americans play dirty. There’s enough of a grain of truth to keep it just about plausible — even if the overall effect is one of paranoid conspiracy thriller, a very 1980s’ trope (see also the BBC’s Edge of Darkness and David Drury’s Defence of the Realm).
It’s pacily told, with twists and turns a plenty. If the book has a problem, it’s that it fades out with a rather whimperingly downbeat ending. Actually, the TV series does the story a service, with a last-minute surprise and a deliciously enigmatic cliffhanger which leaves us guessing whether Harry Perkins triumphs or fails.