Liberal jottings: Stephen Tall’s weekly notebook

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

“If you have nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear”. That’s been the line trotted out by authoritarian politicians down the years to justify more and more civil liberties intrusions. My response has always been: “Can I see your internet browsing history then, please?” Now, it turns out, that’s exactly the plan: ‘Police to be granted powers to view your internet history’. It’s a gift to privacy campaigners. If there’s one thing more likely to rouse our fellow citizens to righteous anger it’s the thought that every daft / paranoid / jokey / horny / fretful question we’ve ever asked Google may be stored just in case… Especially if you’re a Talk Talk customer.

Cameron’s LOLs

Kudos to Tim Farron for his debut as Lib Dem leader at Prime Minister’s Questions, pressing on the British government’s lacklustre response to the Syrian refugee crisis. A serious issue, but not even that could put David Cameron off from following through his scripted jibe that “it was good to see such a high turnout of his MPs”. How Tory MPs laughed! The best response I saw was from former Lib Dem Spad Sean Kemp, who, noting Cameron’s praise of universal infant free school meals and raising the personal allowance at PMQs, observed: “It was also good to see such a high turnout of Lib Dem policies in the PM’s answers as they’re the only popular ones he’s got.”

Hack attack

Chris Dillow asked the pertinent question this week: “Not many journalists flagged up the looming trouble over tax credits. This poses the question: why did they fail?” He was referring to the immediate aftermath of the July budget — hailed at the time as an Osborne masterstroke for stealing Labour’s “living wage” clothes — but he could equally have been referring to the general election. After all, Iain Duncan Smith was able to say just six months ago, when questioned about who would be hit by the welfare cuts: “As and when decisions are made of course we will be very open to the public.” The media paid his answer scant attention. Nor did Danny Alexander’s warning of ‘secret’ Tory plans to hit child tax credit get much exposure — though it was the trigger for David Cameron’s infamous BBC Question Time pledge that it wouldn’t be cut.

In part, the answer to Chris’s question is that the newspapers are Conservative-dominated, which means they ask fewer hard questions of the Tories; and that too much broadcast news takes its cue from those newspapers. The other answer, though, is that neither the journalists covering the election, nor the Tories themselves, actually expected the Conservatives to win a majority — so scrutiny of complicated policies like tax credits simply wasn’t worth the bother given everyone expected the welfare cuts to be up for grabs in the coalition negotiations that followed. And why was that? Well, the polls told us so.

Flagging polls

Here’s a hard one: is it the public or the polls which lie? I ask having seen Mark Pack note the claim that, according to a YouGov / Hansard Society poll, 15 per cent of adults say they watched or heard in full Jeremy Corbyn’s first PMQs. When I looked it up, the actual viewing figures across all BBC channels were just over a million — about 2.5 per cent of the electorate. Even allowing for Sky News and radio coverage, that’s an awful lot of people over-claiming; or a pollster failing to find a representative sample. Now when did that last happen?

Doing it for the Kids

“It is unbelievable that over 13 years taxpayers’ money has been given to Kids Company with little focus on what it was actually achieving for the children it was supporting.” So said Labour MP Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, this week, following revelations that the now-defunct charity received £46m from the public coffers despite officials raising serious and repeated concerns since 2002 about the charity’s activities.

But is it so very unbelievable, Meg? Here’s what acting Labour leader Harriet Harman said on 3rd July, when news of Kids Company’s collapse first broke: “They work with some of our most deprived and vulnerable children and young people. The Government made a promise to them before the election to fund them. They should keep their promise. The Government should work with Camilla Batmanghelidjh who is the founder and inspirational leader.” And of course if the roles had been reversed, and Kids Company had imploded on Labour’s watch, I’ve no doubt David Cameron would have been saying something very similar as Tory leader. Such was the success of Ms Batmanghelidh’s “loving blackmail, arm-twisting and all manner of ghetto-strategies” (as she herself put it).

For too many politicians, both Labour and Tory, it’s been far easier to write off a couple of million of public money and hope for the best it at least does some good, than to risk the negative publicity of being the bad guy asking tough questions. But let’s not just point our collective finger of blame at Whitehall and run away. Had it not been for BBC Newsnight and Buzzfeed’s rigorous investigations, a lot of people (perhaps even readers of this site) would have jumped to the easy ‘Evil Tories’ conclusion had ministers done the right thing earlier.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • Eddie Sammon 30th Oct '15 - 4:00pm

    The hypocrisy argument on the Lords is not completely without merit. Many seem to have adopted an “any means necessary” attitude to stopping the cuts and it makes some of the historic liberal mission to reduce the power of the Lords looks partly motivated by reducing the power of tories, rather than Lords.

  • Sorry not to see the tampon tax in the jottings. Many young women are furious about this and would like to see the EU reforming the situation. Perhaps that could be part of our In campaign as we are looking to lead not leave?

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