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.