What I wrote at Lib Dem Voice

October 30, 2009

A new home

If you've spent the last eight months wondering if this blog is dead, the answer is yes, sort of. I'm no longer blogging here, but you can find all my writings - whether from Lib Dem Voice, or elsewhere - over at my new site, stephentall.org: The Collected Stephen Tall. So go on, bookmark it: you know you want to.

February 05, 2009

Okay, okay, I admit defeat... here are my 25 random things

I've succombed to what my mum always warned me against: peer pressure. I've resisted the 25 random things meme-craze sweeping across Facebook as long as possible. I attempted to deflect it by blogging 25 random things about the Lib Dems over at Liberal Democrat Voice, but tonight I finally put egotistical finger to self-obsessed keyboard and wrote up my own, personal 25 random things...

1. I have a double-barrelled surname (the only one in my family born with it - figure that out). I never use it.

2. The first album I bought was Kylie's first eponymous one.

3. I had attended five schools by the age 8. In Epsom, Bristol, Cardiff, and Liverpool.

4. In my first live TV apearance a lady fainted: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L5bl32COCy4

5. My favourite film of all time is Love Actually, actually. I've watched it more times than is healthy.

6. My video collection treasures include Bob Monkhouse Live (x3), a 3-hour compilation of party political broadcasts (thanks Iain Dale), and The Box of Delights.

7. I had never set foot in the Oxford city council ward I was to represent for eight years until 2 months before I first stood for election.

8. I can't drive (well I guess I might be able to, but I've never had a lesson and haven't got a licence). I have, however, bought a car and sat-nav.

9. I had never been on a plane or been abroad until I was 23. (I've made up for it since).

10. I would be happy only ever dressing in frock coats. Preferably made of velvet.

11. My greatest embarrassment is that I have tried and failed to learn Spanish for the past three years (despite my girlfriend being Spanish).

12. I am currently reading four books: Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer.

13. From the age of 8 (til I was about 11) I wrote and designed my own daily newspaper, The World. I was a weird kid, tho - my favourite TV programme was Yes, Prime Minister.

14. I was the youngest deputy Lord Mayor of Oxford (probably, haven't actually checked, but I must've been).

15. I once stripped for a vlog: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WoCH2MAMtL4

16. Though I enjoy editing Lib Dem Voice - www.libdemvoice.org - I much preferred writing my own blog, A Liberal Goes A Long Way - http://oxfordliberal.blogspot.com.

17. The last three DVDs I bought were: the Complete Cadfael, Complete Skins and Victoria Wood Live (1997).

18. I was once a Fellow of an Oxford college, but have never been an academic.

19. I have always had a phobia of dogs (tho I'm more or less okay around them now).

20. My ideal meal would be roast beef with all the trimmings, washed down with a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé.

21. The last batch of CDs I bought were: The Killers, Pink, Will Young, Kaiser Chiefs, The Streets and Girld Aloud. Make of that what you will.

22. My perfect relaxation is a bath, glass of champagne, and the latest Economist.

23. I joined the Labour party, aged 16, have read all Tony Benn's Diaries, and voted for Tony Blair as leader. I resigned my membership in 1999 after Labour flunked Freedom of Information, reckoning if they couldn't get it right on such a minority-interest issue what hope was there of them getting it right on the big issues?

24. I got my first ever pet last month (thank you, Noa): a terrapin.

25. I hope that my first child will be an adoption.

June 23, 2008

One roast swan short of a Banquet

I know that citing the Google searches that resulted in people accidentally stumbling across one’s blog is a bit clichéd, but... hey, trite-and-tested is my motto. And I did like the idea of someone keying in the phrase:
Tony Blairs Lord Mayor Blanket speech
It sounds like rather a good idea: forget the white tie and tails, just bring a sleeping bag.

Because criticism should be fair and factual

That fearsome right-wing triumvirate – Robert Halfon for ConservativeHome, The Spectator’s Stephen Pollard and The Times’s Daniel Finkelstein – all repeat what they consider to be a terribly clever point about Gordon Brown’s tainting of David Cameron as a ‘shallow salesman’.

Here’s Mr Halfon:
Far from being used as a political insult in which Mr Brown can attack the Prime Minister [sic], salesmen should instead be celebrated for their hard work, entrepreneurial spirit and for providing services that many people could not do without. Mr Cameron should wear the salesmen badge with pride.
And here’s Mr Pollard:
I think it says a lot about the outlook of our wonderful PM that he should regard the word 'salesman' as an insult. … [he] appears to have an instinctive loathing of capitalism, and to regard it merely as something to be tolerated for the benefits it can bring.
(Mr Finkelstein confines himself to commending their "brilliant" insights).

But hang on a just a second. Gordon Brown didn’t condemn all salesmen. He condemned shallow salesmen, which is actually quite a big difference. Here’s a tip for Messrs Halfon, Pollard and Finkelstein: adjectives are usually quite handy clues to discerning what someone means.

I’m no apologist for the Prime Minister, as I suspect this article makes clear. But distortion for argument’s sake is just a little – how can I put it – shallow. And it’s as tedious from right-wing commentators as it is when left-wing agitators condemn money as the root of all evil (forgetting that it’s the love thereof which is responsible).

June 15, 2008

One thing I just don’t get about David Davis

I don’t doubt for one moment the sincerity of David Davis on civil liberties. He has proven himself to be an articulate, passionate, resolute opponent of Labour’s unceasing efforts to subjugate the ordinary man and woman to ever more draconian laws for the greater good.

And yet he is also an advocate of the death penalty, saying in his first interview as the Tories’ shadow home secretary back in 2003:

“There is really no doubt, if you have got DNA evidence in multiple murders there will be absolutely no doubt," he told BBC's World this Weekend. "That is one of the great concerns historically about capital punishment, that there will be doubt about it.

"Secondly, that it is obviously pre-meditated. If somebody plans to carry out a series of murders, often against children or young women, or elderly people. These people pick their victims very cynically I'm afraid. Then this is obviously an evil and pre-meditated attack and in that case, there could be there a deterrent effect. We are talking about lives here."

For many in the Tory party they will see no ideological conflict in holding such views: it is partly what separates the libertarian wing of the Tories (who are generally also on the ‘social right’ of their party) from Liberal Democrats.

Yet for true liberals there can be no more terrifying prospect than that the state should hold the power over the life or death of its citizens. It is why the declaration of war – and the knowledge that young women and men will die at the behest of the state – is something which should only ever be contemplated in the most serious circumstances, and as a last resort on the basis of unimpeachable evidence.

That the state should consider aggrandising to itself the right to extinguish the breath from one of its citizens is the height of arrogance and hubris. No-one who truly believes in the rights of the individual, and in the limits of state power, could ever condone the re-introduction of the death penalty.

David Davis has many admirable qualities: but he is not and never will be a liberal.

May 14, 2008

Local paper in earth-shattering headline bid

This was the leading headline on the Oxford Mail website this morning:
"No One Injured In Shed Fire"
A whole city breathes a collective sigh of relief.

May 09, 2008

The perils of choosing a Lib Dem Voice poll

It’s an odd experience, sometimes, editing Lib Dem Voice. Last night, we were chided – quite rightly – for keeping up on the site an out-of-date poll. So, today, as I cycled into work I resolved to stick up a new poll for readers pretty damn smart.

The question was: what to ask? I toyed with ‘How long has Gordon Brown got?’, or ‘Who do you think will succeed him as Labour leader?’ But too many other folk are asking that. Besides, the truth is the Labour party is far too servile to sack their leader just because he’s not up to the job. They’ll hang on to Gordon simply because he’s there, and they hate to challenge authority.

So I settled on a more interesting (I thought) question: what do you think will be the result of the next general election? But what answers to offer? Obviously, the four most plausible choices – outright Labour/Tory victories, or minority Labour/Tory victories – and I briefly contemplated adding a ‘Lib Dems win’ choice, too.

And then I decided not. After all, the chances of a Lib Dem victory at the next general election are Posh Spice-slim, at best. It also occurred to me that loyal Lib Dem Voice readers, bless ‘em, might feel compelled to chose the ‘Lib Dem win’ option – which would render the poll pretty nonsensical, as I was more interested in finding out what fellow Lib Dems really think is the most likely eventuality, not what they dream of happening.

A couple of commenters on the thread have expressed their disgust at the exclusion of a ‘Lib Dem win’ option. Fair enough, they’re entitled to their opinion. But what intrigues me more is this question: would it actually be a good thing for the Lib Dems if we found ourselves the elected government in two years’ time?

My answer would be: absolutely not.

The idea that the Parliamentary party could grow overnight from 63 to 330 and provide a stable, sustainable liberal government is too far-fetched for me. Even if that quintupling in numbers were to occur, I find it hard to believe the party would be ready for the challenges of government. And that’s no criticism of the party, its prospective MPs or the leadership: simply the reality that gradual growth provides a stronger basis for future success than a meteoric rise without trace.

By all means be ambitious. But also let’s be realistic: for example, by doubling our number of MPs in the next seven years, as Nick Clegg has declared to be his aim. And let’s work for the party’s long-term success, not a short-term flash-in-the-pan.

The week after the eight years before

So this is what it feels like to be a normal person again... After eight years, I am no more; I have ceased to be; I am an ex-councillor.

Chatting to two fellow councillors last week, I could sense a faint trace of pity in their looks, as if, by standing down, I was tossing away the holy grail. They asked why I was leaving, and consoled me that I could always (try and) get back on the Council soon enough.

Then conversation turned to the commitment involved: the incessant evening meetings, the weekends catching up with casework, the tensions it causes at home. My turn to give them a pitying look: “And you asked me why I’m quitting...?

I keep on waiting for an epiphany, a moment when I suddenly realise my life is my own again, and not shared with 4,000 residents. It hasn’t happened yet, and I doubt it will. Life has a habit of adjusting itself remarkably quickly to our changing rhythms.

Besides, last Saturday morning saw me cycling to the Town Hall to chair the Oxford Lib Dem group’s annual meeting, at which – I’m genuinely delighted to say – my former ward colleague, and fellow blogger, David Rundle was unanimously elected leader. He will now be the leader of the opposition to Labour’s minority administration, a task he will relish and for which he’s custom-made.

David’s already commented on the Oxford results here, and there’s little to add. For some bizarre reason, the local paper keeps referring to the party’s “miserable” election-night performance, despite the Lib Dems gaining a seat – pretty impressive for a group which has been in minority control for two years, and has had to grapple with a City Council only slowly recovering from Labour’s appalling quarter of a century running it down.

Yet there’s no denying Labour did better: they gained four seats, including one from us, bucking the dire national trend for their party. They will reap the benefits of a Council which is now on the mend and on the up. Fingers crossed they don’t screw it up... again.

For us, the results were more frustrating than anything else. The Tories trail a long way behind the Lib Dems in Oxford East – but they did just enough this time around to split the anti-Labour vote, and hand a lifeline to the Labour party. The message here is clear: vote blue, get Brown. The challenge for the Lib Dems is to make sure the public – determined to get rid of Labour at the next general election – understand the message, too.

Well, I guess I have a little more spare time now to lend a hand with that.

April 10, 2008

Is there a life after politics?

So, today marked my last Council committee. Though, a la Frank Sinatra, I will have many more such ‘farewells’ in the 21 days which remain of my life as a councillor. (Last area committee, last civic occasion, last Full Council, etc.).

I took the decision a few months ago to stand down from Oxford City Council when my third term expires but have kept schtum about it – chiefly because I hated the idea of being a lame-duck councillor whose pleas to council officers were ignored because “he won’t be around for much longer”.

There’s lots of reasons for my retirement... a new house, a new job which deserves my full daytime attention, and a partner who deserves my non-work attention, a new niece... above all, a feeling that I don’t want to turn into one of those councillors who hangs around in the hope of one day becoming Lord Mayor, rather than because they have anything fresh or energetic to offer their residents. After eight years, and three election campaigns, it’s time for me to make way for a Lib Dem campaigner with the vim and vigour to tackle the issues I have been grappling with in my ward since 2000.

There are things I will miss – my Council colleagues, and, especially, the residents I’ve got to know so well – but, if I’m honest, more that I won’t. My pet hate is meetings of Full Council: five hours of torpor in which councillors grand-stand to no purpose in the unrequited hope of being quoted in the local paper.

Its an oddity of Oxford politics that most councillors rub along together pretty well, and can find more to agree on than disagree... until they sit in the Town Hall council chamber. At which point, some form of collective guilt takes over in which councillors fear they’ve betrayed their principles by cooperating with opponents, and decide to turn into mindless, partisan morons.

Never say never and all that – and I’ve not ruled out a return to the City Council at some point – but if I never attend another meeting of Full Council, it will be too soon.

But there are things I’ve achieved, a fair number, for my residents over the years; and I will miss not being able to achieve similar such things in the future. And there are things I’ve failed to achieve, more than I’d like, for my residents over the years; and I regret I won’t be in a position to try and put that right in the years ahead.

When I finally, finally finish – on 1st May – it will be distinctly odd. The Council has been so much a part of my life for eight years that I’m curious to find out how I’ll manage without it, as I re-discover a life beyond politics. I know this is the right time to leave. But I don’t regret a moment of it. Truly, it’s been a privilege.

April 07, 2008

This is how far A Liberal has gone

“It’s a funny old world,” said a former PM. She was right. In my day job – the one that pays my mortgage, and keeps me well away from politics – I am responsible for fundraising for the University of Oxford’s libraries, including the Bodleian. Within which is located the Conservative Party Archive. For which I am now actively seeking money. Oh, the irony.

For the record (and in case my employers are watching) I should stress I have absolutely no philosophical problems with any of this. The Archive is an historical record, and a fascinating one at that. One part of it has made a splash today, with the online release of the Tory Party’s posters – the Daily Mail carried a dozen of the best in a double-page spread here.

But you don’t need to patronise the Mail’s website to enjoy a saunter through political advertising history. You can access the whole archive at the Bodleian’s website here. Which means you can also search the Archive by category, date, description or keyword. I typed in the search term ‘liberal’, which gave me the five posters, below. (Click on image to enlarge).

Interestingly - though I guess unsurprisingly - the Liberal party was deemed not to be worthy of an attack-by-name ad for three decades, between 1929 and 1959. And nothing since 1983 either. But, then, I suppose Tories are all liberal Conservatives now, aren't they?

(Posters 1929-10 and 1929-23)

(Poster 1959-03)

(Poster 1964-12)

(Poster 1983-12)

Should Chris Huhne really be leader?

That’s the allegation by the Indy’s political editor, Jane Merrick:
According to one authoritative account of the leadership contest last December, Chris Huhne would be Lib Dem chief were it not for hundreds of ballot papers being held up by the Christmas post. Mr Clegg beat his rival by just 511 votes out of more than 41,000 party members in one of the closest-run races in political history.

Yet as many as 1,300 postal votes arrived after the deadline of 15 December – and an unofficial check of the papers showed that Mr Huhne had enough of a majority among them to hand him victory. The extraordinary claim could spark demands for a rerun from Mr Huhne's supporters.
I’ve not come across Jane Merrick’s journalism before, so I’ll take it on trust that she does bother to check her sources, even if she doesn’t feel the need to cite them. But I find the story barely plausible.

For sure, the gap between Nick and Chris was a wafer-thin 511. But for the result to have been overturned by ballot papers received after the closing date would mean that Chris would have had to have picked up 70% to Nick’s 30% of the final 1,300 ballot papers. Given how close both candidates were running throughout the contest, this stretches credulity.

Not impossible, then. But highly, highly unlikely. And you might have hoped the Indy would reflect this in its coverage. Hoped, but not expected. For British political journalism is rarely troubled by the need for facts to substantiate a story – just throw together a load of allegations, and see what sticks.

March 27, 2008

Dave, you're fired

It's a delight to welcome back The Apprentice into my living room each week. Such a shame that David Cameron looky likey, Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, should be first man overboard. Still, I bet Dave would know you can't get lobster for £4.90 a throw.

March 13, 2008

Ed Balls-up: crisis, what crisis?

Back in June 2007, when Ed Balls was appointed secretary of state for Children, Schools and Families, I did suggest he might come a cropper some day:
I’ll be interested to see how long it is before Balls’ tone-deaf touch lands the Government in hot water.
That day came on Wednesday, with his heckling of David Cameron’s budget response, when it is alleged he shouted “So what?” when the Tory leader argued this country’s tax burden has never been higher.

Such tone-deafness would be enormously embarrassing for Labour. Indeed, PoliticalBetting.com’s Mike Smithson today argued it might lose the party the next election.

But fortunately for Mr Balls, anarcho-blogger Guido Fawkes has proven himself to be Mr Balls' true friend, coming to his rescue by uploading to YouTube the House of Commons exchange.

Watch carefully – and impartially – and it can clearly be seen that M Balls does not bawl out, “So what?”. In fact what he says is just as is recorded in Hansard:
Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): ..As this country enters troubled times, it could hardly be worse prepared. We have the highest tax burden in our history.
The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): So weak!
Mr. Cameron: “So what?” says the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. I know he wants to be Chancellor so badly it hurts. I have to tell him that another Budget like the one we have just heard and he will not have to wait very long.”
But the damage is done for Mr Balls – and personally I’m with Lynne Featherstone: serves him right for indulging in such boorish behaviour in the first place.

Rather like Jim Callaghan – who famously never said, “Crisis? What crisis?” (it was The Sun’s paraphrasing) – or Peter Mandelson – who never mistook mushy peas for guacamole – or Gordon Brown – who never said he liked waking up to the Arctic Monkeys - I suspect “So what?” is a legendary remark which will stick to Mr Balls like dirt to a shoe.