Question Time: London, 12th September

generic picture of london

Generic picture of London completely removed from most Londoners lives

Westminster PR men rejoice, political substance junkies despair, Question Time tragically returns for another series.

The Setting: London

The Background: Parliament voted against military action against Syria despite the apparent use of sarin gas on civilians; Russian President Vladimir Putin convinced Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to hand over his chemical weapons; the Coalition announced the privatisation of Royal Mail; a man off the telly was cleared of child sex offences; and as the economy grows faster than expected, Chancellor George Osborne trumpeted that Britain is ‘turning the corner’.

The Panel: Justine Greening, Tory MP for Putney (2005 – ), International Development Secretary since 2012. Rotherham-born and state-educated, hopped from Economics at Southampton to the London Business School, then to big business accountancy, working for Centrica, GlaxoSmithKline and others. As an equal ops box-ticker in the Cameron-era Conservative Party, used fairly prominently as a New Tory poster woman. Tonight’s dull party line-toer. 

Chuka Umunna, Labour MP for Streatham, Greater London since 2010 and Shadow Business Secretary since 2011. Born to Nigerian and Irish parents in London. St Dunstan’s (private) to Manchester University to The Bar. Initially attached to free-thinking soft left pressure group Compass and worked for Jon Cruddas’s bid to be Labour’s deputy leader. Now seen as more mainstream future leadership contender. 

Caroline Lucas, the Green Party’s first and as yet only MP (Brighton Pavilion, 2010 – ). Born to Tory parents in Worcestershire and privately educated. Studied Literature at Exeter while getting heavily involved in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Worked for Oxfam before becoming a Green MEP in 1999, and was elected the Green Party’s first sole leader in 2008. A prolific writer on trade justice, food production, animal welfare and green economics, she was recently arrested during a peaceful anti-fracking protest in Sussex. 

David Aaronovitch, columnist for The Times. Born in London to a Communist father. State educated, then Modern History at Oxford for a year until he was thrown out for failing an exam. Moved to Manchester to finish his education, eventually becoming NUS President as a Left Alliance candidate. Became a Hitchens-style apostate leftist as a journalist, passionately supporting the invasion of Iraq and liberal interventionism more generally. 

Colleen Graffy, ex-State department official under George W. Bush and (Dimbleby fails to mention) former head of Republicans Abroad, thus eye-wateringly right-wing. Now lives in the UK where she teaches law. Tonight’s ‘why the hell are you here’ panel member.

The Issues: Syria. A marathon foreign policy confab lasting half the programme. Has Britain shirked its responsibilities by rejecting military action? Professional war hawk David Aaronovitch unsurprisingly thought so. 100,000 people have died, 3 UN condemnations of Assad have been vetoed by Russia and China. Obama set a red-line over the use of chemical weapons and Assad crossed it, killing 1,500 more. Parliament should’ve ignored public opinion and authorised action.

Caroline Lucas: it’s sad that global responsibility automatically means warfare. Lobbing cruise missiles at each other isn’t the only solution. Parliament didn’t have evidence that a military response would make the situation any better. No-one could convincingly argue we could end the suffering through war. Even senior military figures warned against attacking Assad. Justine Greening put the Coalition line, slightly uncomfortably, since she missed her chance to vote in the Commons because she ‘didn’t hear the bell’. Britain couldn’t ‘turn a blind eye’ to breaches of international law.

Chuka Umunna claimed Cameron was effectively asking Parliament for a blank cheque for military action. It was an open secret that if the Commons voted yes, an attack would’ve been launched that weekend. Before taking the military route we have to go through the proper legal processes and gather evidence. Astoundingly, Graffy saw things differently. The UN is tasked with identifying threats and doing something about them. It’s good at the former and bad at the latter. Obama and Cameron have communicated ‘the message’ very badly, but their brinkmanship has forced Putin to pressure Assad into giving up his chemical arsenal. She felt that fears of Islamic extremism shouldn’t scare people off supporting the rebels. It’s possible to find the moderate rebels who want a secular state.

Lucas chipped back in – we need to be ‘straining every sinew’ diplomatically, and on aid to the displaced. The UN needs massive reform – we’re all equal, but 5 countries more equal than others. Also need consistency in international law – the US and Israel use horrific weapons like white phosphorous and depleted uranium shells. Aaronovitch didn’t like that one bit. A man in the audience who’d been in the Commons during the Syria vote claimed it was Cameron who took military action completely off the table. Anti-war MPs, Lucas included, were voting based on the evidence available on the day, not making a definitive pronouncement of intent.

The Gist: the three right-wingers stuck firmly to the ‘war at any cost’ option. Lucas took the sensible line – diplomacy and aid the top priority, no military action without proof it wouldn’t make things worse – and Umunna trotted along with her.

Royal Mail. Should it be privatised? Umunna argued it shouldn’t. Royal Mail currently makes £400m in profit. The government has also taken responsibility for making future pension payments for Royal Mail employees. If the sale goes ahead, they’ll have essentially privatised the profit and nationalised the risk. A private RM could sell off its favourably-located post offices for profit and move out of towns. He dodged whether a Labour government would buy the service back, though, since they wouldn’t know how much it would cost to do so. He attacked gov’t rhetoric that seemed to imply privatisation equalled democratisation – one Royal Mail share would cost £750, far out of the reach of most people.

Conservative Party politician Greening fairly shamelessly darted in to claim Umunna had a million pound house, which brought to mind a certain saying about glass houses and throwing stones. She added that RM needs freedom to modernise, innovate. Successful businesses need to meet customers’ needs. Labour wanted to sell it off too. Umunna countered – they never would’ve placed a majority stake in private hands. The Coalition is just doing so to plug a hole in the public finances left embarrassingly unfilled by the lack of economic growth.

Graffy, as a neoliberal hack who served the most disastrously right-wing President in US history, obviously supports privatisation. Aaronovitch didn’t really care either way.

The Gist: Standard neoliberal assumptions on show here – ‘capital’ and ‘investment’ can only come from the private sector, state ownership stifles innovation, and selling off publicly owned services to profit-chasing minority interests always improves services. Rather than taking something owned in common and given over to a tiny self-interested elite, privatisation is painted as some great emancipatory act because a small number of very rich people can buy shares.

Sex offences: Should the accused get the same anonymity as their accusers? Aaronovitch didn’t think so. Serial rapists get caught out when their name is released and other victims come forward, preventing a his-word-against-hers deadlock. Graffy basically agreed. Greening thinks that we need to put more emphasis on innocent until proven guilty for the sake of the accused. Lucas expressed concern –it’s hard to enough to get convictions from rape cases anyway, and we have to avoid anything that would further discourage women from coming forward. She also hit out at the media, and the kind of Trial by the Daily Mail that accused people are subjected to.

The Gist: Everyone was singing from the same thankfully sensible hymn sheet.

The Economy. Has George Obsorne won the economic argument? Graffy was straight in – the Tories were right, Labour was wrong and the ‘signs are very good’ for future recovery. Umunna had his ‘let’s be serious’ face on – it’s not about Osborne or Balls or individual careers, it’s not a game, it’s about people’s lives. The data is encouraging, but still a mixed picture. Long-term unemployment has increased fivefold since 2010 and this mild upturn only comes after three years of flat-lining economy.

Greening, running on austerity-justifying default: Labour ‘spend spend spend’. British people have made ‘huge sacrifices’, government made ‘tough choices’, deficit reduced by a third. At this point a public sector trade unionist made a timely intervention, bursting Greening’s hubristic bubble – in his London council 630 people had been made redundant, his own real income has gone down by 15%. The Coalition was overseeing an ‘upward redistribution of wealth’.

Aaronovitch: the statistics don’t vindicate Osborne’s strategy. Mild recovery is inevitable after a crash. The policy difference between Labour and the Tories is very small – who knows what that difference would make to recovery in practise. Most people don’t know what to think. Lucas: the government has suppressed recovery for years with its draconian measures. The poorest people are paying the price for their ‘recovery’, and now we’re supposed to be ‘grateful’ to Osborne. Food banks, zero hours contracts, people can’t afford to send their kids to school in uniform – this government has made a crisis caused by international banking ten times worse.

The Gist: George Osborne gets a beyond-the-grave endorsement from the Bush administration. Something to hang up in the downstairs toilet. Labour and the Tories, meanwhile, are still grappling in the austerity dojo. The Tories continue to try and affect a hide-saving double-whammy – covering up the fact the crisis was caused by the elite-serving high-risk economics they’ve championed for decades, and instead blaming it on the poor, the public sector, government spending and everything and everyone else that inconveniences the rich and self-interested. Labour chides them for not bringing about growth more quickly and attacks their callousness towards the vulnerable, but the essential message is still ‘our austerity is a bit nicer than yours’. Aaranovitch hit the nail neatly on the head – even post-Blair, the economic differences between the two parties are negligible. Caroline Lucas duly hammered home the real source of the crisis: the banks, and the consensus that indulged them.

Conclusion: Draining. Thank god for Caroline Lucas.