The place: Worcester, the West Midlands
This week: the UK’s economy registered a slight return to growth (0.3%); Britain fumed at the continued failure to deport murder-inciting radical Islamist Abu Qatada; and Tory Education overlord Michael Gove continued his scholastic party-pooping by calling for longer school days and shorter school holidays.
The panel: Sajid Javid, Tory MP for Bromsgrove, Worcestershire (2010 – ) and currently Economic Secretary to the Treasury. Lancashire-born son of a Pakistani bus driver. Spent his childhood in a deprived area of Bristol, attending a local comprehensive, then Exeter University. Went into investment banking after graduation. Strangely enough joined the Conservative Party at about the same time.
Luciana Berger, Labour Co-op MP for Liverpool Wavertree (2010 – ) and Shadow Minister for Climate Change. Born in Wembley. Went to Haberdasher’s Aske’s School for Girls (private, unsurprisingly) then on to the University of Birmingham. One-time director of Labour Friends of Israel. Friend of Euan Blair, son of Tony. Parachuted into safe Labour seat, disgruntling some Labourites who saw it as a Blairite conspiracy.
Simon Hughes, Lib Dem Deputy Leader and MP for Bermondsey and Old Southark (1983 – ). Born in Cheshire, privately educated in Wales, studied Law at Cambridge. Entered parliament in ’83 after a controversial by-election in which his campaign was accused of homophobia against the Labour candidate, gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell. Long-time figurehead for Lib Dem left, now seen by many as symbolising how his party have moved right in Coalition.
Nigel Farage, UKIP leader and MEP for South-East England (1999 – ). Born in Kent and sent to private Dulwich College. Straight out of school he followed his stockbroker father into City banking. Enthusiastic member of the Thatcher-era Conservatives turned UKIP founder-member after John Major signed the EU-creating Maastricht Treaty in ’92. A self-described libertarian. Says ‘we’ve got three social democratic parties in Britain – Labour, Lib Dem and Conservative’.
Natalie Bennett, Green Party leader. Born in Sydney, Australia, privately educated, then studied at various universities both at home and in the UK. Worked as a journalist in New South Wales, then Thailand. Moving to England, she joined the Green Party in 2006, working in party communications and standing unsuccessfully in several elections. After Caroline Lucas stood down as Green leader Bennett won the election that decided her successor.
The Issues: The Economy. Question Time is about political parties mangling reality into a shape that makes them look like the best prospect of power without upsetting the neoliberal apple cart. This is never clearer than when the panel talks economics, and tonight there was narrative-knitting aplenty.
Does growth mean George Osborne’s economic strategy is finally working? Osbornite Sajid Javid unsurprisingly thinks so. Out came the usual string of pro-Austerity clichés – the economy is healing, there’s a bumpy road ahead, we’re on the right track, we have to live within our means (a grossly abused phrase given Tory-style ecocidal super-capitalism) etc etc etc.
A nervous-looking Berger went for the Out-of-Touch-Tories approach, pointing to the cost of living crisis that sees 350,000 trudging into food banks every month while two million and a half remain unemployed. Right-on rhetoric slapped against underwhelmingly timid prescribed solutions – VAT cuts and taxing banker’s bonuses.
Hughes was in Coalition-justifying mode – the Lib Dems allied themselves with the Tories to ‘balance the books’, shaken out of their social democratic stupor by the gravity of the financial mess they found. But he also pushed the ‘we’re delivering in government’ line, presenting his party as a bulwark against right-wing excess and a force striving for a ‘fairer society’. And he had New Labour bang to rights when he reminded them that their thirteen years in power left the rich-poor divide ‘bigger than it had ever been’.
Nigel Farage waded in with his terrifyingly effective right-wing populist shtick – when politics obsesses over the deficit and then doesn’t cut it very well, hard-right loons sound sensible when they call for even more society-butchering austerity. The Coalition isn’t cutting, he said, because the deficit is still running at £130bn a year, and current levels of borrowing will see national debt bloom by 40% by 2015. He made an audacious grab for the man-on-the-street vote – there should be no tax on the minimum wage to boost consumer spending and rev up the economy.
Natalie Bennett’s vault-the-desk-and-throttle-you-with-pure-enthusiasm rhetorical style is certainly an acquired taste, but she was definitely tonight’s consensus-busting hero. She punctured UKIP – leaving the EU was Farage’s hopelessly simplistic ‘magic recipe’ for solving practically every problem. Instead she focused on scandalous wealth inequality, the richest 10% having seen their earnings go up 11% on the Coalition’s watch. The minimum wage should be a Living Wage tied to living costs, food production and manufacturing should be brought back to provide ‘jobs you can build a life on’.
Human Rights/Abu Qatada. Should we suspend human rights values to deport one man? For Farage the question was irrelevant – we’re locked into EU human rights legislation and Cameron has no intention of unshackling us from it. Hughes was unsurprisingly the most openly pro-Europe. It would be ridiculous to pull out of the European Convention on Human Rights over one case. We can’t just withdraw when we don’t always get our own way. Qatada is a ‘vile individual’, Bennett declared, so why hasn’t he been trialled here where his safety can be guaranteed? Because information that the security services desperately want to keep a lid on would come out, she argued. Javid was non-committal – Qatada still being here was ‘very frustrating’, and he should be on a plane to Jordan ‘right now’.
Immigration. Should we be able to ‘stem the flow’ of the obsessed-over immigrant flood that might or might not arrive from Romania and Bulgaria? Javid was menacingly vague – ‘we should be able to make it less attractive for them’. Benefit rights shouldn’t kick in unless you’re in and have a job.
Bennett objected, saying that these rules exist already and proceeded to put the boot in to the growing anti-foreigner political consensus. The Big Three parties have fallen under UKIP’s pernicious spell, she said, and migrants who teach, drive buses, work in the NHS and care sectors etc give much more to the UK than they take away. If New Labour had invested in houses and jobs then immigration wouldn’t have caused this level of social tension.
Hughes proclaimed himself ‘a life-long liberal’ and objected to being thrown in with the likes Farage. Nigel himself, meanwhile, was pioneering a curious new political creed – xenophobic humanitarianism. Recent visits to Bulgaria and Romania had opened his eyes to miserable poverty in Eastern Europe, he said. ‘You can’t blame them’ for wanting to come here. But they can’t be allowed, Farage explained. Mass immigration has already driven down wages for both skilled and unskilled workers since 2004 (uncomfortably true). London is already in the grim of a Romanian crime epidemic that would only worsen if more came over (breath-takingly racist).
Education. Longer school days/shorter holidays? Gove a ‘terrible meanie’ quoth Farage. Schooling not about quantity but quality. For a second he teetered on the edge of saying something progressive – the gap between the privately-educated 7% and state schooled 93% is wider than it has been for a century, he observed. Dimbleby darted in – was Red Nigel in favour of abolishing private education? No – instead he was for the resurrection of grammar schools.
Bennett duly stressed that kids have to be allowed to live. Britain already subjects its children to three more days a year than the OECD average, while Gove presides over growing class sizes. Simon Hughes pointed out that many schools offer longer hours already, with breakfast clubs and after school homework classes occupying kids from 8 – 6.
Berger attacked the hobby horse-style policy-making at the department of education, as Gove bats aside pesky distractions like evidence and teacher’s professional opinions to push his own skewed vision. Javid followed Farage into a progressive switcheroo – sounding strikingly leftist as he hit out at enduring social inequality that meant he was the only member of a panel of five that was state educated, then crashing back down to earth by saying what state schools need is to be allowed to do all the wonderful things private schools do.
Conclusion: Farage is flight remains chilling to behold. Where the mainstreamers dodge and weave and waffle emptily, he says table-thumping substantial things that sound gloriously bullshit free by comparison. Noxious content is horribly well-delivered.