Stephen Tall: thought provoking, rather than completely right

Stephen Tall on the BBC
Careful what you tweet; you might end up in the press:

There ought to be a dictionary of apparently innocent phrases that have a special meaning on Twitter. Mark Pack, a Lib Dem blogger yesterday accused Stephen Tall, a fellow Lib Dem, of writing a “thought-provoking argument … about heading for the centre ground of politics”.

Stephen Tall thought this was using “thought-provoking” in its special Twitter sense: “I disagree in too many ways to fit in one tweet.” [John Rentoul, The Independent]

Well, Stephen was right about the “too many ways to fit in one tweet”… though in fact I think there’s much both to agree with and disagree with in his piece 10 Years on from The Orange Book: What should authentic liberalism look like?

Stephen is particularly good on the point that many of the policies which party activists are most passionate about are not ones that (currently) help make for an election-winning platform:

Authentic liberalism is all very well, but we aren’t only Liberals – we are also Democrats. That means we need to recognise the majority will of the people. And if we want to move towards the Promised Land of milk and honey we may need to make do with semi-skimmed and marge from Lidl before we get there…

We have constantly to set out our liberal vision, to remind ourselves of the authentic philosophy which makes us distinctive. And then we have to work out how to translate that into practical ideas that not only get approved by our conference here, but also have a cat-in-hell’s chance of Labour or the Tories living with them too.

But why do I his piece thought-provoking rather than simply nodding in agreement? In part it’s because I don’t agree with all this 12 points. But in the main it’s because his valiant defence of positioning the party on the centre ground doesn’t convince me.

The problem is, as Stephen touches on, talk of the Liberal centre and its synonyms far too often degenerates into talk of making the other main parties a bit nicer. When the main problem that the public saw with the two traditional main parties was their extremism, a pitch of being nicer and more centrist than them could work (see previous third party heydeys, though note the absence of any subsequent ministerial posts).

Now, however, it’s not extremism in itself that’s the main problem. Labour’s unpopularity is rooted in many things, but being seen as extreme left-wingers is only a very small part of it for a tiny number of voters. For the Conservatives, it’s a little more complicated. But the heart of it is being seen as heartless, elitists and obsessed with the wrong issues. There’s a touch of extremism there, but it’s not the origin of their current political problem.

That is why talk about anchoring British politics in the centre ground has had so little mileage for the Liberal Democrats during this Parliament. It is a solution to a political problem of a different time.

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