Question Time: Coventry, 9th May

The Coventry sky-line
The Coventry sky-line

As the NHS tumbles down the slope towards privatisation, Question Time ignores it completely and obsesses about Europe. Such is the unearthly power of Middle England’s xenophobe Dracula Nigel Farage.

The Place: Coventry, the West Midlands

This week: having done paradigm-shiftingly well in last week’s local government elections, UKIP and Nigel Farage were suddenly, inescapably everywhere; the government announced widely controversial plans to tackle migrants coming to the UK to use the NHS, asking doctors and nurses to blow the whistle on so-called ‘health tourists’; and David Cameron appointed Old Etonian number six to his inner circle, making Jo Johnson, brother to London’s Mayor, the head of No. 10’s policy unit. 

The Panel: David Davis, Tory MP for Haltemprice& Howen since 1987, libertarian right-winger, climate change-sceptic, death penalty supporter and anti-ID cards crusader. Born to a single mother in York, later lived on a council estate Tooting, West London. Grammar school educated, then studied business – also served in the SAS reserves. Notable feature of Tory shadow cabinets in the 2000s. Ran against David Cameron in 2006’s Tory leadership campaign but lost.  

Tristram Hunt, TV historian turned Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central (2010 – ). Privately educated then sent to Cambridge, ending up an academic. Throughout the 2000s fronted television and radio history documentaries. Controversially parachuted in as Labour’s Stoke candidate, leading the chair of the town party to stand against him as an independent in protest. Peter Mandelson fan.

Germaine Greer, Australian feminist, academic, journalist and Aborigine-rights campaigner. Most famous for writing seminal feminist text The Female Eunuch that argued men hate women and make women hate themselves. She has distinguished just attaining equality with men from women’s liberation – the latter allowing women to celebrate gender difference and choose their own values. A self-proclaimed anarchist communist, she was, as of 2012, a member of the very un-anarchist communist Lib Dems. 

Jo Swinson, Lib Dem MP for East Dunbartonshire (2005 – ). Scottish-born, state educated, LSE Management graduate. Worked in marketing and PR for a Yorkshire radio station. From 2005 to 2009 was the youngest MP in the House of Commons. One-time deputy leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats. Campaigns against the construction of new prisons, and, more uniquely, excessive Easter egg packaging.

Jerry Hayes, former Tory MP for Harlow, Essex (1983 – 1997). Unseated in Blair’s New Labour landslide and returned to work as a criminal lawyer. Unfashionably moderate for a new Tory in the 1980s. Asked why his centrism hadn’t led him to jump ship to Blair’s newly ‘modernised’ Labour Party, he succinctly responded ‘they’re too right-wing’. Notably eccentric. Mrs Thatcher disliked his beard and his yellow ties.

The Issues: UKIP. Has British politics moved permanently to the right? David Davis thinks not. This is a rejection of the metropolitan elite. UKIP highlight areas of public debate the other parties have neglected. They took votes from all parties, appealing to lots of aspiring lower middle class people who ‘want to get on’. They might look like a ‘primary colours caricature of the ‘80s Conservative Party’ but we should take them seriously. Flamboyant oddball Gerry Hayes decried them as the ‘Rampton wing’ of the Tory Party (Rampton being a secure mental hospital). UKIP had just replaced the Lib Dems as a ‘spittoon for angst’. Voting UKIP would just let socialism in by the back door, he said, presumably meaning Ed Miliband.

Hunt echoed Davis – UKIP and the grievances they represent have to be taken seriously. Immigration was too sudden when his party was in power, but leaving the EU would be economically and socially disastrous – he singled out a Stoke Michelin tyre factory he claimed might not be there it if it wasn’t for Britain’s EU membership. There was a ‘progressive Labour’ way of addressing UKIP-style grievances, tackling low wage employers that hurt both indigenous and migrant workers for one.

Germaine Greer felt that Britain had been moving steadily rightwards for decades, since ‘Thatcher realised the working class wasn’t socialist, it was Tory’. With unions ‘gone’ along with job security and manufacturing in crisis, the Right plays ‘to their fear and their loathing, and tell them it’s somebody’s fault’.

In-or-Out EU referendum. Clearly none of the mainstream parties (Tory right-wingers don’t count) want an EU referendum, because it’s very likely a majority would vote to leave. Such is the Europhobic mood of the moment, though, that all of them want to sound pro it in principle. Labour is ‘very happy to have that referendum’, Hunt says – but not now. It would be irresponsible to start ‘5 year conversation about Europe’ in the middle of an economic crisis. But if you ‘care about jobs’ you have to try and reform the EU, not leave it.

David Davis was more straightforwardly pro – there’s been too many broken promises about referendums and public trust is at an all-time low. People need a say now because the EU is ‘a process, not an institution’.

Jo Swinson was this week’s line-toeing party centrist. It’s already written into law, she said, that a referendum would have to be held before the UK ceded any more powers to Brussels. She also had a bit of a go at her coalition parties, attacking Tory ‘navel-gazing’ over Europe. Ex-Conservative Jerry Hayes was typically dismissive, if constitutionally spot-on – ‘the Amish wing of the Tory Party’ can angst about Europe all it likes, but no parliament can force its will on a future one so referendum pledges are meaningless in the long term.

‘Health Tourism’. Is it right to make NHS staff act as border agents to prevent health tourism? Germaine Greer feistily opened up – of course not. Thousands of Central and Eastern Europeans come here to do poorly paid jobs no-one else wants to do and deserve free healthcare as much as anyone else.

Jerry Hayes: yes and no. Everyone should get free treatment in emergencies, but foreigners shouldn’t get ‘a free ride’. If they’re after treatment they don’t urgently need they should get it at home. Jo Swinson issued another burst of content-free PR speak: we need to be ‘intolerant of abuses of the system’. Tristram Hunt made a surprise appearance as the voice of reason – the system Hayes described is already the law, and it’s UKIP’s nefarious influence that’s making people angst about problems that don’t exist.

High-profile sex-offenders. Should the accused have their identities kept secret? Barrister Hayes said they should in rape and sex offence cases unless the judge felt releasing the name would help the case. He subsequently went off on one about the criminal justice system being imminently taken over by G4S.

Greer felt that the accuser shouldn’t be anonymous, let alone the accused. Rape accusations are serious, and the accuser should look the accused in the eye. ‘Rape’ is a medieval hangover. It stems from a time when women were seen as the property of their husbands, and rape was essentially theft of that property. ‘Rapes’ should be prosecuted as sexual assaults.

Jo Swinson highlighted cases where serial offenders were only caught because their identity was made public. She also criticised media reporting of sexual assault cases, the media all too often presenting the accused as guilty from the off. Davis hates the idea of ‘secret trials’ but says there’s a balance to be had. He is ‘frankly disgusted’ at the number of cases where the police have clearly tipped of the press, and the paparazzi arrive at the accused’s house at the same time as the arresting officer’s squad car.

Elitism in government. Does Cameron have to jettison his Old Etonians to win the next election? Unceremoniously stuffed into the last five minutes of the programme, the issue received accordingly light-weight treatment. David Davis probably made the most substantial point – it’s not really about one school, but widespread public disgust at the whole political class. Jo Swinson said the PM was free to choose his own advisers, before launching into a nauseatingly Blue Peter appeal to the folks at home – there’s not enough diversity in politics, so if you’re watching and interested, ‘get involved!!!!!!’.

Tristram Hunt made a largely irrelevant fluffy ‘I’m-a-historian’ comment about Abraham Lincoln bringing his opponents into his cabinet, while ever-populist Jerry Hayes trumpeted that ‘I don’t care where they come from, as long as they’re good at their job’. Impeccable anarcho-communist Greer defended Eton as ‘multicultural’ and ‘a very good school … I want every school in the country to be as good as Eton’.

Conclusion: a particularly uninspiring hour’s watching, not helped by the lack of a clear-cut Consensus Busting hero. Greer was predictably good on the madcap archaism of rape laws, Tristram Hunt wasn’t all that bad for a New Labourer talking left in Opposition and Jerry Hayes dazzled with his anarchic rhetorical weirdness. Depressingly, though, the mainstream agenda is still being dictated by one Nigel Farage.