Liberal jottings: Stephen Tall’s weekly notebook

Heidi Hi

The maiden speech of Heidi Allen MP, Tory successor to Andrew Lansley in South Cambridgeshire, received acclaim this week for its outspoken attack on her party’s plans to slash tax credits for 13 million households. “To pull ourselves out of debt, we should not be forcing working families into it,” she told the Commons. Columnist Matthew d’Ancona lauded it as “remarkable… one of the defining texts of compassionate conservatism”, while the SNP’s working-class hero Mhairi Black congratulated her “on her honest and, if I may say so, rather courageous maiden speech”. The effect was slightly spoiled when it became clear Heidi wouldn’t actually be voting against her Government’s plans. But, still, the sentiment was doubtless appreciated by those at the sharp end… To be fair, it will have added to the pressure on George Osborne to execute if not a full U-turn, perhaps a semi J-turn.

The problem is the mitigating measures Tory MPs are putting forward – for example, further jacking up the personal allowance – benefit the middle-classes far more than those on low incomes. The blunt truth is there’s no need for these cuts to tax credits. The Tories, including Heidi Allen, promised £12bn welfare cuts at the May election assuming a second coalition with the Lib Dems would rescue them from the need to actually implement their policy. They still don’t have to go through with it, though. It is Osborne’s stupidly uber-macho decision to push further and faster than necessary to eliminate the deficit and generate a surplus this parliament which is forcing the issue. This is a Tory choice and one which apparently “delights” the Prime Minister. ‘Nuff said.


Speaking of odd Tory choices, this week’s red carpet treatment for China’s President Xi Jinping highlighted the absurdity of the Government’s failure to invest in infrastructure. As Vince Cable’s former advisor Giles Wilkes noted acerbically of the Chancellor’s trip to China last month: “Wish someone would explain why flying 15,000km to beg for Chinese cash is a better way of funding UK infrastructure than just borrowing at 3%.”

Trouble at t’Milne

Communist dependency brings me to Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to appoint The Guardian’s Seumas Milne as Labour’s director of communications and strategy. Much attention has focused on Milne’s tendency to sympathise with murderous dictatorships (Stalin, Putin, Milosovic) so long as they showed the redeeming quality of hating the West. Still, he once bought me a coffee at Guardian Towers and we had a perfectly convivial and very interesting conversation about politics, so he can’t be all bad… See, he’s not the only moral relativist.

Of more interest to the Labour party is whether he will be any good at the job. Key question: will he be able to see issues clear-sightedly from his opponents’ point of view? “Never neglect to think like a Tory,” advises John McTernan, Tony Blair’s former Director of Political Operations – a job title which guarantees his words will be dismissed by Corbynistas, whose only true experience of fighting and winning elections is against their own side. McTernan further notes: “Harold Wilson would always interrupt Bob Worcester’s polling presentations with the simple question – ‘What will the Tories do with this?’ Plans disintegrate on contact with the enemy because they have plans of their own. … do not for one moment believe in what you hope for.” Wise advice. But don’t expect it to be heeded. Labour’s ideologically hard-left leadership reminds me of Robert Rubin’s observation that “Some people are more certain of everything than I am of anything.”

McFlight of Fancy

[Insert strong segue here.] It was Back to the Future Day this week – in ‘Back to the Future, Part II’, Michael J. Fox’s Marty McFly travels to 21 October, 2015, to save his children, yet to be born in ‘Back to the Future’s’ 1985 – and NumberCrunchrPolitics reminded us of what that day’s Gallup opinion poll showed: Conservatives 32%, Labour 38%, Liberal/SDP Alliance 28%. I’m all for living in the present; but the past is sometimes tempting.

We All Love Canada

Congratulations to Justin Trudeau, who has led a fantastic Liberal fightback in Canada to oust Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. The only downside was the rather desperate search in the UK for extrapolations which fitted our own political preferences. Thus leftists claimed it as a victory for anti-austerity, while some liberals said it proved radical policies (like drugs legalisation) win elections. When I read through the Canadian Liberals’ top priorities – tax-cuts for the middle-class paid for by new wealth taxes; investment in infrastructure, especially green energy; and open and honest government, including electoral reform – it reminded me most of the Lib Dems’ 2010 manifesto. Still, at least Justin has a majority.

Justin Time

Incidentally, Justin Trudeau’s win does offer hope to any liberals who get caught on camera taking their clothes off in public. I declare an interest, obvs.

Schools Out

Term-time holidays are a classic liberal dilemma: where to draw the boundaries between parental autonomy and state intervention in children’s lives. Tim Farron has been leading the charge for change and the party’s new policy, approved at last month’s conference, calls for headteachers to have discretion to grant up to 10 days’ absence a year. That’s about 40 hours of learning. Personally, I’m with headteachers’ leader Russell Hobby: “Term time is for education. Regular absence will harm a child’s education. Common sense is also required. There are unique and infrequent family events, both joyful and tragic, that justify a short absence and will not harm an education. I just don’t think a cheaper holiday is one of them.” One thing’s for sure: I’m glad I’m not a headteacher having to try and make inherently subjective decisions while maintaining any sense of consistency.

EVEL doings

I don’t have many problems with the Tory’s English-votes-for-English-laws (EVEL) proposals. Even that atrocious apology for a cabinet minister Chris Grayling can be right sometimes: “When health policy in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is made in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, MPs from those countries should not be able to be part of imposing health policy on England against the wishes of its MPs.” What I do have a problem with is the Barnett Formula, that 1970s’ patching job designed to buy off the SNP and prop up the Callaghan government, which David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband signed up to as part of their last-ditch ‘Vow’ to the Scottish people last year. Poorer parts of England, as well as Wales, suffer as a direct result.

Here’s a radical policy: public funding should be allocated to areas according to citizens’ relative needs, not a block grant based on where they live. I proposed this at an event at Lib Dem conference. A lady at the back piped up, “That’s all very well but can you wait until after the 2016 Scottish elections.” An updated version, I guess, of Augustine’s famous prayer, “Lord, make me pure – but not yet.”

* 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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  • Arthur snell 23rd Oct '15 - 8:27am

    I can’t figure out whether “[Insert strong segue here.]” is clever pi-mo or terrible editing.

  • segue?

  • The effect was slightly spoiled when it became clear Heidi wouldn’t actually be voting against her Government’s plans. But, still, the sentiment was doubtless appreciated by those at the sharp end…

    Slightly spoiled??????????? A perfect example of hypocrisy …..When dealing with her constituents she can direct them to her ‘caring’ speech; when action was needed she voted for it!
    When this sort of behaviour is lauded on LDV I just give up!

  • “[Insert strong segue here.]”

    Crypto-Corbynist/Luddite-Autocue-Abuser entryist alert!

  • Matt (Bristol) 23rd Oct '15 - 1:02pm

    I have to say in semi-defence of Heidi Allen, her speech was the only Tory one I heard where she explicitly criticised Osbrone’s decision to run a surplus as the cause for the cuts and the speed of the cuts. So she is clearer thinking about causes of the cuts than many and is not just calling for things to be ‘nicer’ but being vague about how; she was (in at least one speech) clear that it is not inherently necessary to run a surplus, that this was an (unnecessary) political decision. Nice to have a Tory say this.

    I also liked the bit where she used the Prime Minister’s language and known policy preferences to attack the Chancellor’s policy.

    But yes, if that is what she feels at core, then why she voted for the Queen’s Speech and the Budget (let alone the Welfare Bill or the Labour motion) is beyond me — apart, of course, from the fact that she’d be de-selected and defenestrated as quickly as George’s friends could arrange.

  • Richard Underhill 23rd Oct '15 - 2:02pm

    The Canadian Tories were obviously ‘fin de siecle’ so rival parties campaigned fron ‘change’. The voters chose.
    We should remember that this is a first-past-the-post election, which tends to produce landslides for the party with the largest vote.Partial public reimbursement of election expenses makes the money differences fairer than the UK.
    We should not try to continually narrow political party definitions , Tim Farron wants a larger party and so shoul;d we.
    Remember also the UK election results for 1992, two of Dr Owen’s supporters were defeated and he did not even stand.
    In those days the Canadian Tory leader modelled herself on Margaret Thatcher. Gender balance was achieved, one male and one female MP were elected, not including the leader, using first-past-the-post.
    The Daily Politics on 23/10/2015 discussed the good looks of the Canadian Liberal leader and compared him with several other good-looking politicians from around the world and their guest of the day. They completely ignored the energetic and good-looking young leader we had in 1992, which may mean short memories or political bias. According to Des Wilson, the general election campaign manager, the only advantage showing in the party’s opinion polls was the looks of our leader, so there were lots of photos of him, sometimes with street signs of his name.

  • “Slightly spoiled??????????? A perfect example of hypocrisy …..When dealing with her constituents she can direct them to her ‘caring’ speech; when action was needed she voted for it!
    When this sort of behaviour is lauded on LDV I just give up!”

    That’s because the Lib Dems understand realpolitik. And they could hardly criticise Heidi when they spent five years voting for Tory policies.

  • Have I mentioned how much we love Stephen Tall?

  • George Kendall 24th Oct '15 - 1:25pm

    “They still don’t have to go through with it, though. It is Osborne’s stupidly uber-macho decision to push further and faster than necessary to eliminate the deficit and generate a surplus this parliament which is forcing the issue”

    I think we underestimate Osborne. He knows there are four and a half years to the next election, and he needs to get the unpopular decisions out of the way early. By 2020, voters will be confused about who did the cut to tax credits – was it while the Lib Dems were still in the government or after? And by 2020 they’ll have started bringing in all sorts of pre-election sweeteners, along with the message – we took tough decisions, and that now means we can enjoy the rewards.

    It’ll also be some years before Osborne has to stand for the leadership against May, Johnson and any other candidates. Again, he wants to get the really nasty cuts out of the way now.

    Of course, just after 2020 they’ll suddenly discover “some global crisis” that means they have to take some more really tough decisions early … early enough for the electorate to forget about them in the 2025 election.

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