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Stephen Tall’s diary: liberal jottings on the week’s big events

Honest doubt

I wrote on Syria last week that I was “mystified by those who’ve already made their minds up with cast-iron certainty on either side”. That’s still the case despite, and probably because of, the eruption of passions leading up to and beyond Wednesday’s vote. The UK is, after all, already involved in military action against Isis in Iraq. Sure, extending those airstrikes to Syria represents an intensification and, like any bombing campaign, requires serious consideration. But that is a question not of basic morality (if it were there should have been an equally strenuous efforts to cease attacks in Iraq) but of likely effectiveness.

And that, of course, is the known unknown of this week’s debate. None of us truthfully knows what will be the consequences of extending the campaign to Syria; just as we don’t know what might have happened if MPs had voted against action. There is no possibility of a controlled experiment which allows us to pose the counterfactual. All we are left with is our own opinion: which of the options facing us is most likely to result in fewest deaths? Ultimately, it’s as utilitarian a decision as that.

Which is why I get fed up with simplistic shroud-wavers shouting “blood on your hands” at those who support intervention. Innocent people are dying every day in this conflict, and further deaths are plotted daily by Isis, so delaying further this supposed “rush to war” will also directly lead to fresh casualties. See, we can all indulge this moral blackmail arms-race — but it gets us nowhere. Decisions like these are shades-of-grey. I respect opinions on both sides of the divide on Syria, but most especially those honest enough to recognise they may be wrong.

The worm’s turned

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Stephen Tall’s Diary: liberal jottings on the week’s big events

Spending Revue Reviewed

‘You make your own luck,’ goes the saying. In which case, and only in this respect, George Osborne truly has started a “march of the makers” because he’s one hell of a lucky Chancellor. Had the independent Office for Budget Responsibility not lavished on him a £27 billion fiscal (and notional) windfall, this week’s Autumn Statement would have been far more wintry. As it was, he was able to play out the role of Santa, albeit a very Tory version: snatching away fewer of the kids’ presents in order to re-gift them to their grandparents. For this was a spending review which confirmed this Government stands shoulder-to-shoulder with pensioners (who vote, in droves) while shrugging its shoulders at the plight of the younger, working poor (who often don’t vote, and if they do probably vote Labour anyway).

Yes, the tax credit cuts were jettisoned for now — take a bow all those who’ve campaigned against them because it took concerted action to persuade the House of Lords and a few Tory MPs with a social conscience to stand up to this government — but, really, they’ve just been deferred. Once universal credit has been implemented (assuming that Godot-like day ever arises) the Resolution Foundation calculates eligible working families with children will be £1,300 a year worse off (even taking into account the so-called ‘national living wage’ and planned increases in the tax-threshold). Which might sound bad, but that average actually conceals far worse news for some. For instance, a single mum working part-time on the minimum wage will receive £2,800 a year less by 2020 under the Tories’ plans, while a working couple on the minimum wage with three kids will lose out to the tune of £3,060. Meanwhile the pensions ‘triple lock’ (of which Lib Dems have often boasted) will guarantee that pensioner benefits grow to more than half of all welfare spending.

Gone are the days when the Lib Dems could require a distributional analysis to ensure the pain of cuts was shared around to ensure that, as far as possible, Britain was all in it together. It’s George’s Show now. It’s just a shame some of his luck won’t rub off on those “hard-working families” he’s soon going to clobber.

Rational actors

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Stephen Tall’s Diary: liberal jottings on the week’s big events

Labour pains

“Ten-word answers can kill you in political campaigns.” So said every liberal’s fantasy US president, Jed Bartlett – surely someone in Team Corbyn is a West Wing fan? Clearly not, or they might have advised the Labour leader not to think-out-loud in TV interviews this past week, especially when the thoughts which frothed forth were so, well, thoughtless. Of course it would have been “far better” if Mohammed Emwazi (“Jihadi John”) had been tried in a court of law. It’s just that the absence of an extradition treaty with Isis makes that a bit of a challenge (unless Jezza’s up for a bit of cheeky rendition). And of course no-one is “happy” with the idea of a shoot-to-kill policy being operated by the UK police or security services — but, then, that isn’t the actual policy.

What the last week has revealed is that Corbyn is incapable of moving beyond the glib agitprop sloganeering of hard-left oppositionalism. That’s probably not surprising after 32 years as a backbencher never having (or wanting) to take responsibility for a tough decision. But it remains disastrous for the Labour party, which needs a plausible prime minister as its leader, and disastrous for the country, which needs a plausible alternative government. I’ll confess a sliver of me is enjoying the schadenfreude of watching Labour self-immolate as a result of the self-indulgent stupidity of its membership in handing the leadership to someone painfully obviously unfit for the office. But the responsible part of me knows that, for all our sakes, Labour needs to get real again, and quickly.

Time for Tim

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Liberal jottings: Stephen Tall’s weekly notebook

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.

Burnham down

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Liberal jottings: Stephen Tall’s weekly notebook

Blind chance

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?

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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

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