5 Thoughts about Thursday’s Leaders’ Question Time

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May 2, 2015 by Paul Goldsmith

1. What a fine advert for our democracy that was

The star of the programme was the audience. Excellently researched and themselves persistent and knowledgeable, they gave the leaders a torrid time. Unlike debates between political leaders, where they have just shouted slogans at each other, the audience actually demanded their questions be answered properly, and when it didn’t happen, called them out on it. Within minutes of the programme starting the Twitterati were ablaze with compliments for the format, as it became apparent that political leaders having to deal with real people made compelling television.

I think the programme should be shown in many other countries as a sign of what a proper liberal democracy can be like. In how many countries can the Prime Minister be questioned like that, and held to account like that by “normal people”? Yes, I’m sure in Russia an opposition leader (should he be allowed to live or not be jailed) would be questioned like that, but not Putin. It was a stunning advert for the health of our democracy and if any of the formats we have seen this election campaign be retained, it should be that one.

2. If David Cameron were a cricketer he would be a bowler defending a large total in which many batsmen got a duck

Speak to an opening bowler about psychology and they will often tell you how good it is to be running into bowl when your team have got 500 runs on the board or a good first innings lead. It relaxes them and frees them to bowl without concerns about how many runs they themselves leak for a while. David Cameron stood on that ‘Q’ and had a very good first innings total to defend. Sustainable growth of 3%, inflation at 0%, 2.2 million jobs created (more than rest of Europe combined), half the deficit gone, lowest unemployment rate for 40 years. With that in his pocket, he had a comeback against most attacks from the audience and was able to remain consistent in the angle of his answers.

Yet anyone who knows about cricket will know that even big scores can hide problems. For instance, it could be that two or three players scored centuries whilst both the openers and quite a few others scored ducks and very low scores. Likewise, the great headline numbers hide numerous issues for the UK as a society. People using food banks, people working for massive companies that have smooth demand on zero hours contracts, the top 1% speeding away in terms of income and wealth, and a return of problems with waiting lists in the NHS. Cameron tried to fight these off with economics, even insisting to the man who asked him to talk about morals not economics that people having jobs are moral – but this fell down somewhat, for instance when he said that people having jobs is the best way to reduce people using food banks – wages are so low that many people who use foodbanks HAVE jobs now.

Furthermore, he is asking us to put a massive amount of faith in his word. Refusing to explain specifically how the party would pay for their £8bn into the NHS nor exactly where they would find £12bn of welfare cuts, Cameron simply argued that economic growth would fund the NHS, and provide the jobs that would reduce the benefits that would make the welfare cuts. This was backed up by arguing that given his track record of ‘delivering’ he should be trusted to deliver this. Yet on both Health and Welfare he was asked about why people don’t trust the Conservatives. It is a problem that could well push him out of Downing Street.

3. Ed Miliband’s main battle isn’t against the Conservatives but against New Labour

Like David Cameron, Ed Miliband has been protected from talking to anyone real for the last few weeks. His highly efficient guardians steer him away from anyone not pre-vetted and his speeches have been given in front of Labour supporters. Yes, he has been on stage with other party leaders and Jeremy Paxman, but this was a different experience. These were people who weren’t pre-vetted to agree with him and lap up everything he was saying. These were people who weren’t going to just accept everything he was saying without scepticism. These were people whose lives could be affected by his policies, in some cases for the worst, and for once in this campaign, Miliband stumbled, and not just as he stepped off the stage. David Cameron as I said may have been similarly protected, but he has had to defend his policies on 146 occasions in Prime Ministers’ questions, so the criticism was water off his back.

It must be to Miliband’s great frustration that he can’t seem to escape the yoke of New Labour’s performance in office. Can he really be blamed for selling the gold at the bottom of the market? Can he really be blamed for the structural deficit that was run up BEFORE the global financial crisis hit? It should be obvious that he is not New Labour – he was even prepared to stand against his brother to prove it, and yet whether he can be trusted to run our economy is being judged against the record of Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. The biggest air of collective dissent was when he said that he didn’t believe Labour overspent in government. Sadly this led to people missing his explanation – which was that so much needed to be spent on rebuilding schools, hospitals and the country’s general infrastructure after 18 years of Conservative rule that the high level of spending was inevitable and in the country’s interest.

I was disappointed that David Dimbleby, who otherwise had a good night, didn’t go back to the businessman who owned a tourist business. Those types of businesses rely on zero hour contracts, as they have seasonal demand so can only offer work to people for at most six months at a time. Miliband explained his 12 week (3 month) rule, in which an employee has the option to ask for a full time contract based on regular hours after 12 weeks on a zero hour contract. He had wanted the businessman to respond but Dimbleby moved on. The businessman would no doubt have pointed out that he simply couldn’t offer full time contracts to those people, as after three more months they would not be required. Miliband’s attack on zero hour contracts – though well intentioned – could cost jobs in these areas and it would have been useful to hear about it.

The most newsworthy thing that Miliband said was that he would do no deal with the SNP. Not at all. He went as far as to say that if his ability to be Prime Minister depended on having their votes to support him then he would rather not be Prime Minister. This, if true, is really rather extraordinary. It means, as Nicola Sturgeon pointed out later, that he would rather have David Cameron as Prime Minister than do business with the SNP, and surely if he made that decision he would “never be forgiven”. It made me wonder whether Ed Miliband thinks this country is actually ready for him and Labour yet. To make the changes he wants to the way capitalism works, he needs a clear mandate, and he won’t have a legitimate mandate if he is having to be propped up by the SNP. I wonder if the country needs another 5 years of the Conservatives and another 5 years more distance between Miliband and New Labour before he gets the mandate he needs. I wonder if the Labour Party will give him that time? I do hope that the success of the campaign means they will.

4. Nick Clegg is becoming more and more politically irrelevant by the day

You could tell by the drop in activity on social media. You could tell by the drop in interest in the audience. You could tell by the far less forensic questioning. Nick Clegg’s appearance wasn’t one that people ascribed much significance to. The problem with a man whose party is heading for about 25 seats and who might lose his seat himself is that people knew what he said didn’t really matter. Not as much as Miliband and Cameron anyway.

The major questions were about the tuition fee furore and the actual act of going into coalition. Clegg got far more tetchy with the audience than Miliband and Cameron had, which wasn’t the greatest idea. His answer on tuition fees was that once he understood the financial situation the country was in it wouldn’t have been sensible to try to force it through and so he concentrated on getting them capped at as sensible a level as he could and putting up the rate people started paying them at. In terms of going into coalition, Clegg insisted that at the time, as the Global Financial crisis was coming to an end, and the country’s finances needed rebuilding, the electoral mathematics didn’t give him a choice of party to support, and anyway he felt his influence on the Conservatives had been a force for good. He had smoothed out some of their more aggressive policies and, with the rise in the personal income threshold, the pupil premium and free school meals for key stage one pupils had added some liberal policies to be proud of.

It still reminds me of the Conservative politician who wondered aloud when speaking at Latymer about why Clegg had chosen electoral reform and House of Lords reform over tuition fees in the coalition negotiations. Politically, abolishing tuition fees may have been more popular. But electoral reform is a cherished long term ambition of Liberals, as is House of Lords reform. So Clegg may have been right to try to use the first period in power since 1922 to get concessions there.

Sadly, though, the political cost of tuition fees led to the cheekiest of all questions asked, which was what Clegg was planning to do if he lost his job as an MP. That is looking likelier than he will admit. All in all, it made his appearance laced with more pathos than he will have liked.

5. The political impact of the programme could be significant

Some will argue that all the programme did was reinforce traditional prejudices. The left saw Cameron attacked on welfare and hospitals, and the right saw Miliband attacked on the economy. Neither would probably admit to being swayed by the answers on it. But I was watching from the perspective of the floating voter I am. My overall impression was that David Cameron knows that he is running into bowl with a large first innings lead. Miliband has the unfortunate millstone of Labour being in charge of the country when the Global recession hit hanging around his shoulders. I wonder, in the privacy of the ballot box, those who have decided to vote with their gut will remember those two things. I wonder.

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13 thoughts on “5 Thoughts about Thursday’s Leaders’ Question Time

  1. danielgoldsmith says:

    I can’t agree that this is a fine advert for democracy when the Green Party, which is the third largest party in this country with over 60,000 members and has representation at local, regional, national and European, was not invited to appear.

    This is censorship against a non establishment party of the worst kind. And the fact that a highly intelligent commentator such as yourself has not even mentioned it shows it is working!

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    • Daniel you know full well that the Greens have made many advances this election, including inclusion in two televised debates. The Question Time programme was for the three people who will actually have the greatest chance of actually running the country and the a Greens aren’t there yet. Finding a leader with some sort of charisma and an ability to remember numbers and explain policies as well as the manifesto does will be a great start.

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  2. Hmm… your faith in the great British public is admirable – but I wonder how well screened it was and just how representative. Seems like at least a couple of Ed Miliband’s ‘excellently researched, persistent and knowledgeable’ roasters put themselves down as ‘undecided’ when in fact they are Conservative Party activists. All of the right wing newspapers are crowing about this – and you seem to be agreeing with them that this is some sort of game changer in the final week as people approach the ballot box. If that turns out to be true it will be very bad news for the most vulnerable in society – but also for the large majority who send their kids to state schools.

    https://scontent-lhr.xx.fbcdn.net/hphotos-xtp1/v/t1.0-9/11203164_682181348574762_8572675755616765057_n.jpg?oh=b7e3773d8c762c2e7da39faf4a4a1863&oe=55C4219D

    The ‘narratives’ about the economy, about Miliband, about the dangerous Scots etc. are being pumped out with such concerted and co-ordinated ferocity by the right wing newspapers that they are obviously sinking in. Rather than your cricket analogy I would rather suggest that the Tories are like The Empire – trying to build a new Deathstar as fast as they can – and with overwhelming superiority of resources crush the Rebel Alliance beneath their iron heal. There are plenty of candidates for who plays Emperor Palpatine in this story – but I think Rupert Murdoch would be a good contender – having told his people at The Sun that they must up their efforts and crush Ed Miliband at all costs. The fact that so often these rich and powerful (and frankly nasty) vested interests are so often able to persuade so many poor (dare I even use the term ‘working class’) people to vote for politicians who represent the interests of the rich leaves me feeling rather less positive about ‘our democracy’.

    http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/election-2015-murdoch-tells-sun

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    • Trouble is Jon, whether you like it or not. The Death Star didn’t preside over the creation of over 2 million jobs and inflation-less growth. You can throw out your “yes-buts” all you like but taking the strategy of simply denying that it has happened is, to me, not unlike my wife’s aunt who insists that Hamas don’t mean their call in their charter for the destruction of Israel. Happy to consider plenty of arguments about the nature of those jobs etc, but to deny that the Tories have actually done well with the economy as a whole is just denying reality.

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      • Paul – we’ve talked about this before so not sure whether there’s anything new to say. You keep banging on about this statistic as if in itself it’s a clincher – well it isn’t for me (obviously).

        First – you have no way of proving that the economy wouldn’t have grown and jobs been created if different policies had been followed. After a recession or ‘downturn’ etc. economies grow back – it’s easier to show growth if you’re starting from a depressed level. Austerity is not the only way to deal with economic problems – it can even depress growth and recovery. How did FDR get the USA out of the Great Depression?

        Who is benefitting from these headline statistics that you seem to love throwing about in favour of the Tories’ narrative? (because to an extent these things are so complicated that it really is all about the ‘narrative’ through which people try to get some kind of understanding of them) The Sunday Times rich list published last week showed that the top 100 have doubled their wealth over the last year. People like me are earning less now than they were 5 years ago. Inflation is very low today – but after 2010 there were big increases in food and fuel prices – never mind the absurd rise of house and rental prices. You know very well that people starting from nothing (i.e. without help from parents) haven’t got a hope in hell unless they are bankers/hedge fund managers etc.

        Yes – what sort of jobs are they? What are people’s lives like who have accepted the necessity of taking them? How many of them are still using food banks or being subsidised by the state? Yes – it is about ‘values’ as well as the bottom line. I don’t want to live in a society that resembles a Ryanair flight. As James Meek showed in that article you sent me – the spirit of universalism and the public services/infrastructure paid for by progressive direct taxation benefit us all.

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      • My issue Jon is not that there are ways of arguing against the significance of each statistic, which you do well, but that I feel you deny the statistic exists at all, which may be easier to do but doesn’t work for me. Neither of us knows whether the same amount of jobs would have been created under a Labour government. But that isn’t the point, they WERE created under a Conservative government. Denying that in the hope that people won’t notice is different from accepting it then pointing out the quality of those jobs and the cost involved in them. This is why Miliband shouldn’t deny that the Labour government from 1997 arrived at a global recession after 13 years of continuous growth with a structural deficit, which on the face of it is a clincher to the argument they spent too much. Instead, he should do more to state that fact then explain that schools and hospitals needed to be rebuilt etc etc and in the long term that spending will pay off as they pieced back together the infrastructure of the UK. Instead, Labour just deny the structural deficit existed. Silly. Take the biggest argument against you and turn it around, and the biggest argument against change are, whether you like or not the 2.2m jobs created. More than the rest of EU added together, and you can’t argue that France (fewer jobs created than Yorkshire) haven’t had a go at left wing solutions and been models of austerity. Economic facts may be inconvenient, but they are there.

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      • One more little point of order on the question of the structural deficit which was the result of global factors: weren’t the empty coffers also something to do with bailing out several banks?
        The whole country are now paying off a deficit largely caused by the reckless gambling of bonus chasing bankers – and while their bonus culture remains pretty much unchanged – the resulting cuts are disproportionately affecting the poorest and most vulnerable – as well as the 94% of children that go to state schools.

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    • It is sobering and somewhat healthy to think that if Ed Miliband wins he will be the first Prime Minister for a very long time who doesn’t owe a debt to a newspaper proprietor.

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      • Sobering indeed – and it will be sobering and depressing if he doesn’t win for precisely that reason. Now what about this ‘cross section of the British public’ in the QT debate – or was it a group of people dominated by West Yorkshire small business owners and undeclared Conservative Party activists?

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  3. And finally here are a couple of Guardian readers who don’t share your positive spin on the QT debate:
    http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/may/01/question-time-over-the–debate

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  4. Jon you know full well that the opposition leaders debate at the BBC two weeks ago had a similar bias but the other way politically. That was quite obvious. It happens. But it is interesting that you think it is a problem that these activists were there rather than a great opportunity. Miliband had a chance to answer the difficult questions he needed to answer public ally and convert some wavering voters. You may not like it (or empathise with it), but he NEEDS to have an answer for small businesses who may be forced to cut jobs due to his new regulations. He NEEDS to have an answer on the spending prior to 2008. He was given a great chance to do both that he may not have done otherwise. I think that was an opportunity. It also doesn’t matter what the make up of the audience was…you could have 100 Tories and 10 labour but if the 10 labour ask the best questions then Cameron has a problem. There were some good questions for Cameron on food banks, which he didn’t answer but also good questions for Miliband which he did actually try to answer, particularly on zero hour contracts, but wasn’t given the chance by dimbleby. If Miliband is right you should have nothing to fear from difficult questions.

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    • That’s not my point about the audience. These people were dishonest in describing themselves as ‘undecided’ in order to get into the audience – which was presumably supposed to be balanced – pretending to be concerned and impartial ‘ordinary’ members of the public – when in fact they are deeply committed Conservative Party activists. It’s disingenuous – and it attempts to promote the ‘narrative’ that ordinary swing voters are anti-Labour because they are this that and the other when it comes to the economy (insert Tory spin). they’ve got most of the newspapers pumping out their party propaganda (disguised as ‘news’) – they’ve got 10 times as much money as Labour to spend on adverts.

      I’m getting a bit fed up with the false dichotomy that you keep on suggesting – that it’s either Tory job creation (unfettered unregulated never mind if it’s exploitative) – or the opposite from Labour – as if small businesses can’t create jobs if they have to pay people properly and give them some decency and respect. These things are not mutually exclusive for god’s sake. Workers who are paid properly, given some job security and a stake in the success of the business will work harder and feel more fulfilled. Equally the public sector and the private can and should be complimentary and in co-operation – as I think they are in countries that aren’t so hell bent on this American style predatory unfettered me me me selfish capitalism.

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