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Question Time 23-06-11

In BBC Question Time, Ideology on June 24, 2011 at 8:46 pm

Part of a Question Time column

David Weber

Another week, another Question Time (and yes, I am aware that the last time I blogged about this was nearly a year ago).

Normally I only write about this show if a particular question, response or comment sparks a chain of thought, and this week is no exception. The comment, or rather comments in question came during the midst of a rather philosophical debate about the nature of U-turns and, if you accept my extrapolations, could be quite illuminating about the reasons for the proliferation of “big government”, and popular support for it.

The Philosophy started predictably enough. David Mitchell came out in favour of a Burkean view of democracy, with MPs and ministers elected to serve with principle, politely ignoring all populist indulgences and doing the best job they can until the next election. The slight flaw that comes with his argument, that it assumes that all U-turns are made on the basis of populism alone, rather than suddenly realising you’re about to make a rather serious error, wasn’t highlighted in Norman Baker’s opposing view, but it was the basic gist of it. However, more surprisingly, it was a point rather quickly lost on the audience.

Often in Question Time some form of consensus begins to emerge about half way through the time spent debating a certain question. What happened here followed this pattern, with three opinions in quick succession expressing a very similar view: 1 U-turn is careless, 2 unfortunate, and 3 either incompetent or unprincipled.

This is the kind of view that, in the exact spirit of such incompetence, manages to be both excessively cynical and naive. Not everyone realises that cynicism and naivity can go hand in hand, and are not mutually exclusive, but it is often the case. Cynics are often so obsessed with finding negative reasons for mistakes that they make naive assumptions. This is such a case, because in assuming that the only reason for constant U-turns is populism, these cynics assume that the MPs and ministers who rule their affairs are near deities in terms of their inability to make unintentional mistakes.

Whatever your view of democracy and meritocracy, any basic critique of government has to start from the assumption that the people inside it are hardly less incompetent or mistake-prone than ourselves. Or, if you really have a more optimistic view than I do, look at it in a more irrefutable way: 100,000 people collectively are no less likely to make a mistake, than 60 million people individually*, if both have the necessary information at their disposal.

Now, many people assume that the only rationale for government is that situations exist where a specific collection of 100,000 people are less likely to make a mistake than 60 million people individually. This isn’t actually true. The qualifier I added — “if both have the necessary information” — makes all the difference. Most areas of government are there because 60 million people have neither the time nor the patience to make decisions based on the necessary information during their own free time, so they employ others to do it. There are also areas where it has been decided, for better or for worse, that 60 million people should not have all the information to begin with, such as defence and policing.

But in most areas of government policy, people can get the necessary information if they motivate themselves enough, or at least something approaching it. So it is often for this reason that governments make U-turns when a public campaign reaches a certain level of intensity, because the collective wisdom of the public has outweighed the limited wisdom of the government. This does not deny the existence of cynical, populist U-turns — I would myself cite the abandoned Forestry privatisation as an example of one. An intense public campaign does not imply an educated public. But it can do.

Now this is why I fear that this combination of public cynicism and naivety is no certain good thing. For it involves the public not just elevating its politicians’, but also its own abilities. And if, despite their regular contempt for the motives of politicians, the public secretly believe them to be superior and wiser beings, then it is not surprising that big government prolongs itself, despite public dissatisfaction. It is this type of mentality that only opposes government for doing the wrong things, or doing things the wrong way, rather than questioning the need for it to do things to begin with. It can be summed up thus: “the world would be a far better place, if only politicians were less corrupt and did X, Y and Z instead of A, B and C”. This is not just a reason for the proliferation of big government, but it is also a reason for the proliferation of incompetent government, and arrogant government.; as governments which don’t admit mistakes are always the former and quickly become the latter. I don’t doubt that some of the blame lies with politicians — pride is a basic human weakness, after all — but I would suggest that if such a public attitude could be overcome, government might be a lot better for it, not to mention more democratic. (I lean towards the Norman Baker, rather than the David Mitchell, vision of democracy.) Like many problems, many of the reasons for big government start with and must be fixed by the public.

And, almost as if to reinforce my suspicions about big government and the public, the last question was about whether to ban live animals in circuses, and not one person who spoke, from the panel or the audience, questioned the need for a full ban. It’s not that I necessarily oppose a full ban, or support the use of live animals in circuses. I’m not exactly sure where I stand. But it would have been nice to have had the facts debated: I might have learned something, and begun to form an opinion. Instead, a politician proposes something which sounds principled, and no-one felt willing to explain their support for this proposal in any detail. Was this to avoid looking heartless on television? Maybe now I am being too cynical and naive.

*Estimations may not be 100% accurate. I’m no more a model of competence than any politician.

Ed, show us the alternative

In BBC Question Time, Government Spotlight, Home Affairs, Ideology, Party politics on April 6, 2011 at 7:21 pm

By James Bartholomeusz

Audience responses on the BBC’s Question Time usually range from the mildly interesting to the banal, providing little more than an identification of which panel member the viewer most aligns with. However, once in a while, someone says something so original and yet so obvious that it merits serious consideration. Such a thing was said on last Thursday’s episode: a woman, chosen by David Dimbleby to speak, asked why Labour, if it’s so committed to the alternative, doesn’t pen a Shadow Budget to lay out their alternative deficit reduction plan.

The panelists response to this was painfully predictable. Diane Abbott, as the Labour representative, spluttered something about it being nonsensical four years before an election, whilst Mark Serwotka, the head of the PCS union, repeated his tenuous claim that there is no necessity for any spending cuts whatsoever. And yet this idea of a Shadow Budget, levelled by someone so lowly as to not be a professional economist or politician, is one that, I think, should be adopted by the Labour Party without hesitation.

The current debate on the economy, both national and global, has lined up between the two foremost schools of economic thought: neo-classicalism and Keynesianism. The neo-classicalists, inspired primarily by the 19th Century economist David Ricardo, see budget deficits as dangerous and immoral: according the Ricardian equivalency, any national deficit between income and spending (the UK’s being approximately 10% of GDP) is just taxation deferred for future generations. By radically cutting public spending to balance the deficit (‘expansionary fiscal contraction’, or, in Cameron’s terminology, ”rolling back the boundaries of the state”) neo-classicalists believe that the private sector will be freed from taxation and competition with the public sector to drive the economy back to prosperity. Keynesian thought, meanwhile, led the original response to the financial crisis, bailing out the banks and implementing fiscal stimuli to drive the economy quickly out of the recession. Now out of the immediate danger zone, Keynesians, such as Robert Skidelsky and Joseph Stiglitz, do not dispute the need for eventual deficit reduction, but are concerned that a premature fiscal contraction underestimates how much the private sector relies on the public sector, and so will drop the UK economy back into recession. Instead, Keynesians argue for fiscal policy based on growth and investment to stably harbour the economy, whilst slowly but steadily cutting the deficit.

This is the debate which, since the initial crisis response, has been mapped on to British party politics. Last May, both the Labour manifesto was based on the Keynesian response, whilst the Conservative one was neo-classicalist, and the Lib Dems in between but Keynesian-leaning. At least partially on these grounds, the majority of commentators predicted, before the election, a Lib-Lab coalition in the event of a hung parliament. And a hung parliament we had, except that the Lib Dem high command, vested with the choice of how to form the next British government, elevated David Cameron’s Tories over Gordon Brown’s Labour. Now in government, Clegg and his allies have apparently been won over to the neo-classicalist, and by extension George Osborne’s, fiscal plan: to entirely eliminate the deficit by the end of the parliament through a 73:27 ratio of spending cuts to tax rises.

All the evidence suggests that Osborne’s economic management so far has ranged from lacklustre to abysmal. The Office of Budget Responsibility, set up by the current government, has downgraded its growth forecasts from 3-3.5% to 2.6%. Unemployment is still rising, now at a 17-year high, with one-fifth of all young people unable to find a job. Inflation is at 4%, the highest in 20 years. The Consumer Confidence Index was last measured at -29, the biggest drop since 1994. Even the mainstream centre-Right newspapers, which had previously praised the Chancellor’s conviction, have now turned their attention more to the human costs of deficit reduction than the stability it will ostensibly bring. Osborne’s attempt to blame poor economic performance on heavy snowfall over December fooled no one: the US, German, French and even Spanish economies grew by over 0.5% in the last quarter of 2010, whilst ours shrunk by more than 0.5%. The problem is, what is the alternative?

Ed Miliband’s Labour, having dithered in the autumn months, has now settled on maintaining Alastair Darling’s plan of halving the deficit in a single parliament. With Ed Balls as Shadow Chancellor, this position has now been confirmed. Labour has since busied itself with rebuking the Tory-led government on its choices for deficit reduction: the VAT rise to 20% (predicted to cost families with children £450 extra in 2011), the rise in higher education fees, and front-line cuts to public services have been particular targets of the Shadow Cabinet. But Labour has yet to commit to what it would cut, or which taxes it would rise, were it currently in government. Although exactly how much would have to be cut under Labour’s plan is unclear, Miliband and his colleagues have so far sidestepped the sticky issue of what their ‘alternative’ would actually entail. It is this, more than any other factor, which will cost them electoral support.

I marched, carrying a Labour Party banner, alongside up to half-a-million others in London two weeks ago. And yet, will Labour’s reticence to commit to a specific deficit reduction plan, I am losing faith that there is a credible alternative to the government’s plan, however badly executed. A YouGov poll conducted on the same day found that the majority of the population, 52%, now supports the campaign against public sector spending cuts. But Labour should not fool itself that, just because it happens to be in opposition to an unpopular government, it will automatically gain the support of the electorate. This was the mistake made, in the last two decades, by both Kinnock and Cameron; 1992 resulting in a narrow Tory victory, and 2010 in a hung parliament. Labour should pen a Shadow Budget, laying out exactly which cuts and tax rises it would make. Ed Miliband has rightly sounded the death knell of New Labour and embarked on a holistic policy review, refusing to make manifesto commitments before the cuts have really started to affect the nation. But reconstructing its economic credibility needs to be the party’s top priority, and Miliband cannot afford to be haunted by the ghost of Gordon Brown any longer.

If I were a Labour leadership candidate…

In BBC Question Time on September 22, 2010 at 11:35 am

Part of a Question Time column

David Weber

Not that it’s likely, but for what it’s worth, this is how I would respond to their recent Question Time…

1. Is Tony Blair right that the Labour party lost the election because it abandoned “New Labour”?

A) It depends entirely on what “New Labour” is. Cheat answer, but There You Go. Blair and comrades (sorry; “friends”) have always been notoriously unclear upon this point. If pressed, I would be tempted to answer yes, for the cheeky reason that I don’t think New Labour, at its most successful, was much more than an election winning strategy. But I could be wrong. Blair certainly seems to think that New Labour amounts to more than that, to an ideology of some sorts. This isn’t surprising, as it would otherwise mean that Blair’s political direction was entirely controlled by a desire to win elections…

Not that it was. However, the big exceptions come across as exceptions to New Labour strategy, as well. The Iraq War is hard to see coming looking back at Labour’s 1997 election campaign. Blair’s public service reform ideas also materialised rather much later than the New Labour machine came into force. The two things; his original election strategies, and his attempt at a policy drive; were quite separate, which is why he has been criticised, both by Anthony Seldon and David Cameron, for not doing enough to plan for government.

But in any case, to get back to the point, looking at what Blair defines as “abandoning New Labour”, I don’t think the party should have much to worry about. His analysis smacks of that of someone who has been out of the country too much to have really understood the flow of UK politics in the last few years, and panders to his own hobby horse — an obsession with the “middle classes”. He talks about welfare and public service reform being at the heart of why Labour lost the last election, but I believe the truth is far simpler and far less policy specific than that. Labour lost because people lost trust in their government, and when the recession came, they were blamed for it.

Think about it. The real mortal wound to Labour didn’t happen over any specific policy failing — the lost data discs, Mid Staffordshire, Northern Rock. It was before all of this, in autumn 2007, with the now notorious election that never was, when Brown lost something worth far more than the public’s agreement. He lost their respect. This was further cemented, I believe, by the 10 pence tax row, which is bafflingly absent from Blair’s diagnosis of Labour’s ills. Nothing hurt Labour more than to be seen as dithering and hypocritical.

On the other hand, at least Blair does not define tuition fees as one of Labour’s worst failures. You will laugh, as this is now a favourite hobby horse of mine; but at least three of the candidates do, and it baffles me. I think after the Iraq War, the 10p tax rate, undermining jury trial and the Vetting and Barring scheme; a reasonably decent system of funding university education compares quite well with Labour’s overall record.

2. The Economist has endorsed David Miliband, arguing against a “lurch to the left”. Would a “lurch to the left” win a candidate the leadership election, but lose them the general election?

I think it was Ed Miliband (surprise, surprise) who responded to this by saying that such terms of debate were unhelpful. They are, although in my view in a different way to what Ed meant. I suspect he meant merely that it causes the type of division between candidates that a successful leader wants to avoid looking back on, both for his leadership’s and his party’s sake. I, however, am more and more thinking the the labels of “left” and “right” are unhelpful, simply because they seem to arbitrarily cut across the things Labour has actually claimed to stand for.

Tution fees are, again, a wonderful example. On the face of it, they were a right wing policy. But scratch the surface and you will see the Labour has actually improved matters quite significantly when it comes to University education. Not only did they change the ways loans were repaid in 1998, making it virtually impossible for student loans taken out post-1998 to bankrupt you, but they also shortened the lifetime of the loans more recently when they introduced top-up fees. The debt used to last till retirement — and many people I know have loans of this nature. Now they are written off after 20 years. So underneath the surface, who did Labour’s policy serve? The vast majority of people on low and middle-income backgrounds. At this point, I think “left” or “right” is pretty much irrelevant.

Another example is that of some of Ed Miliband’s policies. He supports various things, the two foremost which come to mind being the living wage and the High Pay Commission. Both policies definitely sound left, but both entirely depend on the means taken to achieve them. Remember, what they refer to are results. And the processes taken to achieve these results are just as important as the results themselves.

The Living Wage might sound brilliant, but if it were achieved by hugely increasing the minimum wage with no government contribution it could have very bad side-effects for employment. Given that Ed Balls talks about the importance of creating jobs, I am surprised he doesn’t pick up on this. The High Pay Commission is worse. No-one has defined what it is, apart from Compass, whose vision seems to be that of a pointless talking shop. But if it had any teeth things would hardly be better. There is no evidence I am aware of to suggest that government is successful at setting wages in the private sector. They struggle enough to decide what approach to take in the public sector.

So, again, “left” and “right” serve to distract us from meaning, rather than help us find it. Let alone the question of whether Ed Miliband would win or lose Labour the next election, the real question is how he would do in government.

3. Given the relationship between Labour and the Unions, will the proposed strikes simply damage the party further?

A) In fairness, this is one area where I can’t add much to the answers of the candidates. Of course, strikes may damage Labour’s standing, but there’s a world of difference between balloted strikes taken by a democratic process, and the strikes of pre-reform Unions in the 70s and 80s. I’m sceptical of the idea, as some of the candidates put it, that the big unions want to “want to be tactical about this”. We’ll see — but if the Unions think the public mood is sympathetic to rolling strikes to oppose the general policy of public sector cutbacks, then I think they’re on a massive gamble. There’s evidence so far is that the majority — or a plurality — of people think cuts even to core services are unavoidable.

It’s interesting that the candidates shy away — in some cases strongly — from the very idea of civil disobediance. Not surprising, of course, as to be seen to support it would most probably be disastrous for a leadership, let alone an election, campaign. But it interests me because I thought that the idea of civil disobediance, rather than simple disobediance, was an acceptance of the social penalties which are attached to it. No-one in the debate made that point, and that certainly didn’t surprise me.

Incidentally, I laughed at David Miliband’s reaction. “Bob Crow is not Ghandi”. Cheap, lazy, but funny. And also, if you analyse the difference between modern day Britain and pre-independence India, you’ll see there’s a serious point. Civil disobediance will probably backfire badly if it is not seen as a necessary step. And I highly doubt that many people see it as such today. That said — that was a reaction some made against the tactics of militant suffragettes, who people would be far more inclined to sympathise with today. Times change, and it’s not impossible for the public mood to swing violently against cuts. From my own ideological position, I think they’d be wrong to at the moment, however.

As usual, I’ve run out of time. I also suspect that my article is already long enough. I’m aware that further questions were asked, but I’m satisfied with my reactions to the ones I had time to watch, and will leave you to draw your own conclusions about the remaining ones. My own impression of the first half of the debate is that David Miliband came out strongest, whilst Ed Miliband has improved significantly as a communicator. At the end of the day, it’s not as if most of us have a vote in the Labour leadership election. If you do — use it well.