Stephen Tall

Stephen Tall

Posted on 10 Sep 2013 06:39:44 by Stephen Tall

Stephen Tall: Seven ideas to unite liberal Conservatives and market liberals: a personal wish-list

Stephen Tall is the Co-Editor of LibDem Voice. Follow Stephen on Twitter.

Screen shot 2013-09-09 at 19.35.40The first time I wrote for ConservativeHome, in March 2012, I asked the simple question, “Why don’t people like me vote Conservative?”

"I dislike big government, and support a low-tax, free enterprise economy. I believe competition is a key driver of public service reform, and am relaxed about private sector involvement in the delivery of health and education so long as the principle of "free to all at the point of use" prevails. And I think the state has no business intruding into our private lives, whether to keep tabs on citizens or to legislate against our lifestyle choices. I should be the sort of voter a modern Conservative Party would want to appeal to. And yet to me, and to many who share the same principles, the idea of voting for the Tories is completely off-limits. Why?"

I want to return to that question. I’m an economic and social liberal. For me, the (in)famous Rose Garden press conference in May 2010 was a genuinely exciting political event. Written off today as a moment of madness, for me it showed the radical possibilities of coalition government, bringing together two different parties with enough of a shared agenda. Read the original Programme for Government and the scope of its ambition still impresses.

But we all know what happened next. Buffeted by events, not least the worst economic downturn in a century, the Coalition’s founding purpose has drifted. Activists in both parties will shed few tears if it dies a death in 2015.

Continue reading "Stephen Tall: Seven ideas to unite liberal Conservatives and market liberals: a personal wish-list" »

Posted on 27 Aug 2013 06:45:57 by Stephen Tall

Stephen Tall: Do you want to be in power? The new politics demands a Tory alliance with UKIP or the Lib Dems

Stephen Tall is the Co-Editor of LibDem Voice. Follow Stephen on Twitter.

Stephen TallBritish politics used to be pretty clear-cut. 'Every boy and every gal / That's born into the world alive / Is either a little Labour/ Or else a little Conservative!', to update WS Gilbert's famous ditty for the post-war era. In 1951, in the last great electoral contest between Churchill and Attlee, 97% of voters opted for one or t'other on a turnout of 83%.

That duopoly crumbled over the next half century, like the dry mortar of a once grand castle. At the last election, just 65% of voters picked either of Messrs Brown or Cameron on a turnout also of 65%. For a while it looked like 2010 might mark the nadir of 'Labservative' fortunes, with the Lib Dems now in government facing a vicious squeeze. The 2011 local elections saw a slight revival in two-party fortunes, to 72%. It looked like they could relax and confidently await the return of business-as-usual.

But it's not quite worked out like that. In the 2012 elections, their combined total dipped to 69%. And then came the Ukip surge. Labour and the Conservatives slumped to a paltry 54% joint share on 2nd May 2013, an historic low. The two-party grip has been fractured for good. There are still some optimists who think the Big Two can turn the clock back to those good old days of the 1950s, and re-capture the binary certainties of 'Clem v Winnie'. They are, I think, on the wrong side of history. Voters are getting more choosy, not less; becoming less tribal, not more. You may as well try squeezing toothpaste back into the tube.

You know the old joke? 'There are only 10 types of people in the world. Those that understand binary and those that don’t.' As a Lib Dem, and therefore de facto third-party fanboy, I've often criticised the media obsession of seeing all issues through a binary lens. Most people's views are more complex than the over-simplicity of 'right' and 'left'. The lefty who thinks Michael Gove's got a point. The conservative who supports EU membership. The liberal who backs Trident. They all exist, they're all real people. But they can't be neatly divvied-up, like sheep and goats, into left and right.

Yet deny it as I might, there is an essential truth underlying binaries: that people can be divided into different and opposite world-views. The best definition of what these are was offered by this site's former owner, YouGov pollster Stephan Shakespeare, in 2005:

We are either 'drawbridge up' or 'drawbridge down'. Are you someone who feels your life is being encroached upon by criminals, gypsies, spongers, asylum seekers, Brussels bureaucrats? Do you think the bad things will all go away if we lock the doors? Or do you think it's a big beautiful world out there, full of good people, if only we could all open our arms and embrace each other? Depending on which side we take, we regard 'drawbridge up' people as unpleasant, or 'drawbridge down' people as foolish.

More pejoratively still, Robin Cook labelled drawbridge up people 'chauvinists' (reactionary, isolationist, anti-European, anti-immigration, anti-asylum, pro-hanging, anti-abortion, convinced ‘prison works’, little Englander, nostalgic) and drawbridge down people 'cosmopolitans' (outward-looking, internationalist, pro-European, pro-immigration, pro-asylum, anti-hanging, pro-choice, believes in rehabilitation, multi-culturalist, progressive, forward-thinking).

I was reminded of these political binaries when I saw the polling relating to the detention of David Miranda, partner of Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who broke the story of Edward Snowden's leaked revelations about the activities of the US and British intelligence services. Mr Miranda was detained under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000, which gives the police the power to hold any citizen for up to nine hours without any need for evidence or even reasonable suspicion. It's a law with majority support across voters of all parties (tough law-and-order policies generally play well). But look at the the net figures - those who back it less those who don't - broken down by party support and you see big differences emerge. By overwhelming margins, 68% of Conservative and 61% of Ukip voters back Schedule 7; in contrast, net approval is much lower for Labour (29%) and Lib Dems (17%).

It strikes me that we're starting to see the shape of the new politics. On the one side, two 'drawbridge up' conservative parties (Conservatives and Ukip). On the other, two 'drawbridge down' progressive parties (Labour and Lib Dems). Two Party Politics is dead! Long live Two-Party Party Politics. Tribal supporters of each will hate being bracketed with the other, of course, in true Monty Python style ("'Judean People's Front'. We're the People's Front of Judea!"). But their leaders are going to have to get to grips with this new reality.

The problem is especially acute for the Tories. Because while there is probably a 'drawbridge up' conservative majority to be won in the UK, it's very unlikely that the Conservative Party can deliver such a majority on its own. Tory MPs may have enjoyed a harmonious summer love-in, but the electoral maths of their own 35% strategy (about which I wrote here some weeks ago) still points to Labour becoming the single largest party in 2015, especially with Ukip's support likely to spike again at next May's Euro and local elections. The trouble for 'drawbridge up' conservatives is that the first-past-the-post electoral system means even soaring Ukip support is very unlikely to translate into House of Commons seats for Farage & Co.

The time is coming when the Conservative Party is going to have to face an (for them) unpleasant truth: they just cannot win enough votes in the country at large to win a workable majority in Westminster (by which I mean one not reliant on Peter Bone and his fellow head-bangers).

On accepting that truth, a clear choice follows. Those Tories who want to see a drawbridge up conservative majority government should back a Conservative / Ukip alliance as the best way of achieving that. (Of course that also means supporting some form of electoral reform, but I'll leave that bit of persuasion for another day.) However, those who want to see a drawbridge down conservative majority should back a continuing coalition between the Conservatives and Lib Dems - and start preparing, as Labour has begun to do, for a second hung parliament.

That's your choice. A binary choice. Which is it to be?

Posted on 26 Aug 2013 21:31:49 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Posted on 13 Aug 2013 06:34:37 by Stephen Tall

Stephen Tall: I look at your conference, where members sit passively, and wonder why you all put up with it

Stephen Tall is the Co-Editor of LibDem Voice. Follow Stephen on Twitter.

Screen shot 2013-08-12 at 17.41.49I'm a card-carrying party member. Are you? If so, then welcome to the club, along with our fellow freakish oddballs. The credit card-sized bit of laminated yellow card which I pointlessly keep in my wallet at all times marks me out as a member of a fast disappearing tribe: someone who voluntarily gives my preferred political party not only my vote at each election, but also some of my own money each year.

In the 1950s, it's reckoned there were well over four million of us eccentrics out there. Today, it's not even 400,000. At this rate of decline, we'll all be able to fit into Wembley stadium in a few short years. That would at least offer a novel experience for us Lib Dems: cheering on a national team we know has no hope of winning.

I've been enjoying ConservativeHome's campaign to persuade Grant Shapps to come clean about the party's membership figures: Why can't we be told how many members the Conservative Party has? It seems the Lib Dems are both more transparent and more organised: our membership figures are published annually in our Statement of Accounts. Ours don't make for happy reading at the moment - membership has plunged by 34 per cent to 42,500 since the Coalition was formed - which is probably why the Conservative leadership isn't rushing to "fess up" to what's happened on Prime Minister Cameron's watch. Paul Goodman estimates them to be between 100,000 and 130,000, down by at least half compared to the 253,600 members eligible to vote in the party's 2005 leadership election.

To some extent, all this is inevitable. Parties pick up members in opposition, as hope dawns afresh. Tony Blair successfully boosted Labour membership in the mid-1990s to 400,000. Nigel Farage's UIKIP is reportedly at or above the 30,000 mark, double its membership in 2010. Parties then see membership drop off in government, as reality bites. New Labour fell back to below its pre-Blair level as the sheen came off his government. (We have yet to see what would happen to UKIP in government, and my guess is we'll be waiting some time.) Despite these upwards blips, the overall trend is clear: down, down, down.

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Posted on 13 Aug 2013 06:34:49 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Posted on 30 Jul 2013 06:54:08 by Stephen Tall

Stephen Tall: We LibDems haven't chosen our strategy. The voters have chosen it for us.

Stephen Tall is the Co-Editor of LibDem Voice. Follow Stephen on Twitter.

Screen shot 2013-07-30 at 06.53.13The night the Coalition was formed I was sat in a hot, airless BBC studio in Oxford taking part in a live Radio 4 discussion about what it all meant. I was on my own, with the presenter and other guests at Westminster, which meant they often left me out of the discussion. This can happen if you’re ‘down-the-line’. Or a Lib Dem. The combination is a double-whammy. Eventually, after 20 minutes of being ignored I phoned the producer to find out if they still needed me. “Oh, are you still there?” came the half-apologetic reply.

Anyway, as a result of being deprived of watching the rolling news coverage – Gordon Brown resigning, David Cameron becoming Prime Minister – I was totally reliant on my phone for updates. One text from a non-political friend asked, “What do you reckon being in coalition means for the Lib Dems?” My reply was earthier than my norm: “It’s s**t or bust.” Or, to put it more delicately: “We need to do this thing right or it's going to be a disaster.”

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Posted on 30 Jul 2013 06:54:28 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Posted on 16 Jul 2013 07:00:27 by Stephen Tall

Stephen Tall: A question for those Conservatives desperate to avoid a second Coalition – what's your Plan B?

STStephen Tall is the Co-Editor of LibDem Voice. Follow Stephen on Twitter.

What's the Coalition's most popular policy?

No, it's not the £26,000 benefits cap. That's popular, it's true - almost three-quarters of the public support it in principle, despite the lack of evidence that an out-of-work family is ever better off than an in-work family.

But it is not the Coalition's most popular policy. That accolade belongs to the increase in the income tax threshold. In Labour's last year in office, you started paying income tax once you earned a penny more than £6,475. You now have to earn more than £9,440 before you start handing your money over to the Treasury. For the low-paid and 'squeezed middle', in particular, it's a massive tax-cut, one that's worth £700 to each and every one of the 24.5 million working people across the UK. Not surprisingly, almost nine-in-ten (89 per cent) of the public approve of it.

Its very popularity has sparked a battle between the two Coalition parties: which of us gets to own the Government's most successful policy? The Conservatives claim it for themselves: "Help for hardworking people", shout the campaign posters. This is an understandably cheeky piece of chutzpah. Raising the personal allowance to lift the low-paid out of income tax didn't rate a mention in their 2010 manifesto. It was even dismissed out-of-hand by David Cameron in the first leaders’ debate: "I would love to take everyone out of their first £10,000 of income tax, Nick...We cannot afford it". My party hasn't taken this piece of policy poaching lying down: "Cutting taxes for working people is our number one priority. It is so important to Liberal Democrats that we put it on the front page of our manifesto, argued for it in the coalition negotiations and are delivering it in government."

Such squabbles are the stuff of Coalition politics. My fear has long been that, no matter that the Lib Dems authored these tax-cuts, the Conservatives will bank the electoral dividend (at least in those areas where the Lib Dems don't have an active campaigning presence). Brands are built over decades, not in years: most of the public will assume a tax-cut that takes place on a Tory Chancellor's watch is thanks to the Tories.

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Posted on 16 Jul 2013 07:00:27 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Posted on 2 Jul 2013 06:55:15 by Stephen Tall

Stephen Tall: Why the yellow and blue pact of mutually assured deferral continues

Stephen Tall is the Co-Editor of LibDem Voice

Screen shot 2013-07-01 at 22.03.21The Coalition was never supposed to last this long. Not according to the British public, that is. Three years ago, YouGov asked voters how long they thought the Lib/Con alliance could survive. Almost half (47 per cent) reckoned the two parties would by now have gone their separate ways. Only one-in-seven voters thought it would last more than four years. Voters aren't always right.

Last week's Comprehensive Spending Review showed the Coalition will, almost certainly, endure until May 2015. (And if that fact makes ConservativeHome readers grimace, be assured it will pain a fair few Lib Dems too.) The heady 'Dave hearts Nick' Rose Garden days are, of course, a distant memory. Remember the early talk of joint Coalition 'coupon' candidates? In reality, any remote possibility of a more permanent Lib/Con alignment was killed the moment George Osborne issued the command for the No2AV campaign to target Nick Clegg.

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Posted on 2 Jul 2013 07:03:39 | Permalink | Comments (0)