Question Time: Eastleigh, 28th February

Angela Eagle and Claire Perry in Eastleigh

Angela Eagle and Claire Perry in Eastleigh

Having roundly battered Question Time the other week when launching its reluctant bid to cover it now and again to keep up with the political mainstream, the Bemolution found the first episode it watched in ages reasonably interesting.

The Setting: Eastleigh, Hampshire, unsurprisingly, on the day of the obsessed over by-election to replace newly-disgraced Lib Dem Chris Huhne. Mostly leafy and affluent, it tends to bounce between the Tories and the Liberals.

The Background: Huhne, narrowly beaten by Nick Clegg to the Liberal leadership in 2007 and until very recently one of the party’s highest fliers, pled guilty to perverting the course of justice earlier this month. Years previously, he’d made his ex-wife take the legal flak for speeding offences he had committed himself to protect his political career. He consistently denied the allegations for months but eventually came clean, resigning as both Coalition energy and climate change secretary and Eastleigh MP.

The Panel: For Labour, Angela Eagle, MP for Wallasey in Merseyside since 1992, junior minister under Blair, Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury under Ed Miliband. Print-worker’s daughter, ex-child chess champion, Britain’s first openly lesbian MP and twin sister of fellow Shadow Cabinet member Maria. Cites Barbara Castle as a political inspiration and says ‘New Labour accommodated the Thatcher-Reagan consensus a bit too much’. 

For the Lib Dems, Jeremy Browne, MP for Taunton Deane in the Bemolution’s own Somersetian backyard since 2005 and now a junior minister in the Clegg-Cameron Coalition. Impeccable elite credentials – Islington-born son-of-a-diplomat, politics graduate, ex-PR man and financial consultant turned political researcher. Lib Dem rightist, self-proclaimed ‘Orange Booker’. Conservative Chairman Grant Shapps tellingly jokes that Browne is too right-wing to be a Tory.

For the Conservatives, Claire Perry, MP for Devizes, Wiltshire since 2010 and one of David Cameron’s sparkly new Tory-Party-stereotype-busters. Bounced from private school to Oxford to banking, only joining the Conservatives in 2006. Within a year she was an adviser to Chancellor George Osborne. Outspoken – frustrated at not being called to speak in the Commons, she wondered aloud whether she had to give the Speaker a blow job first. 

For UKIP, disgraced ex-Tory MP turned televisual oddity Neil Hamilton. From 1983 to 1997, Hamilton represented Tatton in Cheshire. He was unseated by anti-corruption campaigner Martin Bell after being accused of taking bribes to ask parliamentary questions. Elected to UKIP’s national executive in 2011 after a political hiatus. Favours outright bans on immigration, trade unions and child benefit, as well as the complete privatisation of schools and the NHS.

And this week’s standard Question Time wild-card option, ‘radical left-wing film-maker’ (Dimbleby) Ken Loach. Noted for producing grittily naturalistic portrayals of working life often using untested actors. A long-term member of the Labour Party until the mid-90s – for a committed socialist, New Labour was a bridge too far. A major player in establishing the left-wing RESPECT party, now largely dominated by its sole MP George Galloway. Recently released The Spirit of ’45, exploring the construction of welfare state in the aftermath of World War 2. 

What happened

The by-election was unsurprisingly the first thing asked about, and equally unsurprisingly went on to dominate the whole programme. Result-rumours trickled in – looked like the Liberals had clung onto the seat, UKIP second, the Tories third.

The panel took turns spinning their particular party line, downplaying the significance of their likely defeat, trying to be cautiously confident without seeming smug if it looked like they’d done well and stressing how disastrous the results were looking for everyone else.

Not being offensively smug was probably quite an effort for Neil Hamilton. The lesson of the campaign, in his view, was that UKIP is here to stay. His party had cracked open the local Tory-Liberal duopoly and made Eastleigh an all-to-play for three way marginal. That celebrated, he switched to bludgeoningly simplistic (yet terrifyingly effective) UKIP default: the big three parties are all led by Euro fanatics, Hamilton brayed, committed to an EU that ‘stops us from doing so much that we would otherwise like to do’- including vanquishing those twin evils, ‘open-door immigration and green taxes’.

‘Falklands War’ 

Claire Perry, a kind of posh educated Sarah Palin, clearly sensed the Tories had done badly. Instead of musing on her party being eclipsed by UKIP, she fell back on being chummily anti-political. Issuing a folksy apology to the people of Eastleigh for weeks of badgering by the political class, she hit out at a self-absorbed Westminster elite, arguing that Eastleigh showed politicians needed to reconnect with bread-and-petrol-prices real-world politics. When pushed, she executed the classic done-badly-in-a-by-election manoeuvre – bang on about how meaningless they are. ‘The last time the governing party won a by-election was during the Falklands War’, she said, before quickly deflecting attention to the fact both she and Tory candidate Maria Hutchings come from ‘outside of politics’. Came from outside of politics then uncritically signed up to the mainstream Westminster agenda, a cynic might add.

‘very worried indeed’ 

Angela Eagle, meanwhile, was tasked with papering over the fact that even for an affluent rural constituency they were never going to take, Labour’s Eastleigh performance had been disappointing. In TV comedy writer John O’ Farrell they had a popular, likable candidate, but one that was shunted aside by UKIP’s surge to second place. Still, fourth place for Labour is nowhere near as bad as third place for the Tories in Eastleigh, ‘16th on the Conservative Party’s list of Lib Dem target seats’ Eagle helpfully added ‘It’s 258th on ours. If UKIP come second and the Tories come third, they have a right to be very worried indeed.’

Taunton-hailing Jeremy Browne could be reasonably confident his party had won by this point in the evening, but dodged Dimbleby’s ‘have you won?’ question with a banality smokescreen: ‘I hope we have … in government at a difficult time … had the best candidate’ etc. That said, he quite bravely alluded to the Lord Rennard scandal – the Lib Dem peer this week accused of sexually harassing party workers – before anyone else brought it up.

kick them in the teeth’

In a novel twist, Ken Loach used his turn to speak to launch his latest bid at a viable, united left-of-New Labour political party. After dismissing the ‘Westminster tittle-tattle that we’re hearing here’ – earning himself the loudest clap cacophony of the evening – Loach outlined what he saw as a politically disenfranchised chunk of the population who hate the break-up of the NHS, privatisation, mass unemployment and the destruction of the environment but who have no-one to vote for. 

If there was a Green Party rep on the panel they’d probably be loudly and pointedly clearing their throat at that stage, but in their absence Loach continued: ‘We need a broad movement on the Left. UKIP have done it for the Right. The unions should stop paying money to a party that is going to kick them in the teeth. Labour is a market economy party’.

‘love-in’ 

Hamilton, Mr Market Economy, chipped back in, hailing an unholy left-right ‘love-in between Ken and I.’ He and Loach could hardly differ more strongly on economics, or social policy for that matter – both, though, could agree that ‘the vast majority of people have lost faith in our political system’, and that careerism had poisoned politics, attracting a stiflingly narrow managerial elite detached from the lives of the majority. ‘You don’t have the trade unionists in parliament, you don’t have the small businessmen. Not as we used to’.

Other issues discussed #1: the economy. ‘Should we step back from austerity?’ someone asked. Claire Perry unsurprisingly didn’t think so, taking umbrage at Loach’s description of a Britain blighted by mass employment. ‘Ken, we love you and you’re a national treasure’ spake she in a tone even the most passionate Loach-haters would find unbearably condescending ‘but unemployment is falling’.

‘flatlining’

We’re in the middle of a ‘borrowing crisis’, she continued, and we need to ‘stop spending money on things that don’t bring value’ (presumably she thinks the NHS is a rip-off). She then claimed the Coalition was spending half a billion on rail links to the South West and creating half a million jobs through investment. 

She was interrupted throughout by Labour’s heckler in acid green, Angela Eagle, who persistently asserted her belief that austerity ‘isn’t working’ and that ‘growth is flatlining’. Loach inserted a succinct leftist objection: ‘under a market economic system you’ll never see full employment again’.

‘liberal instincts’ 

#2: women in politics, in the light of the Rennard allegations. Responses were light on substance all round. Jeremy Browne: ‘I joined the Lib Dems when I was 18 because I believed in the values of the party … if women have felt like they couldn’t pursue their liberal instincts [and join] that is wrong.’

Angela Eagle argued that ‘too many places in society are male dominated’. This creates a culture where men can behave inappropriately towards women and get away with it, because ‘women can be pressurised into not saying anything’. Neil Hamilton uttered the most eye-catching line of the night: ‘I’m the only person on the panel to have been accused of rape’ but went on to broadly endorse what everyone else said.

‘performance-related pay’

#3: EU vs The City of London. ‘Is it right for Brussels to cap banker’s bonuses?’ came the question, referring to EU proposals to limit financier’s bonuses to no more than their annual salary without their shareholder’s say-so. 

Hamilton nobly stepped in to bash Johnny Foreigner with one hand and defend the honour of investment banking with the other: ‘This is the reality of the EU … the government has concentrated very hard [on getting the UK out of the bonus cap] and got nowhere’. Bonuses are good because they are performance-based pay, he argued, and because they’re taxed the Treasury is the biggest beneficiary.

Jeremy Browne went for the standard anti-tax argument – bonus caps would risk ‘forcing away wealth-creators’. Angela Eagle: RBS lost £5 billion and still gave away £600 million in bonuses – ‘a funny definition of performance-related pay … it shouldn’t have taken the EU to sort this out’.

Perry got Eagle bang to rights, though, when she professed herself ‘absolutely gobsmacked … bonuses tripled under your government. I worked in the financial sector, and never has so much been paid for doing so little on your watch’. Still, she fell back on good ol’ reliable jingoism in the end, suggesting that the EU was motivated by jealousy: ‘Brussels doesn’t have a financial services industry’.

Loach: ‘Isn’t is surprising how the rich have to tempted to work with salaries of millions while the poor have to be driven to work for nothing unless their benefits are cut … I think the banks should be taken into public ownership.’

Conclusion: not quite as painful a watch as feared. Not in the least bit neutral, the Bemolution agreed with practically everything Ken Loach said, finding him at the all-too desolate crossroads where being radically Left meets vague pragmatism and the ability to communicate clearly. Him and Hamilton showed how the left and right ends of the spectrum have been chopped off, leaving a stagnant and managerial mainstream.

Eagle was inoffensive – trying to shift a mite left, rhetorically at least? But ever-undermined by Labour’s abysmal conduct in power. Browne was a non-entity, but showed his rightist colours when it came to the City of London. Claire Perry is, yes, a woman and yes, not a career politician, but still a white privileged Oxford-educated liberal elite and not the popular hero she seems determined to paint herself as. Thankfully, the end.