This episode of BBC Question Time came from Romford, with panelists Michael Gove MP ( Conservative), Chuka Umunna MP (Labour), Norman Baker MP (Liberal Democrats), comedian Jo Brand and Daily Mail columnist Amanda Platell.
Question 1: Is David Cameron’s ‘no ifs, no buts’ promise to reduce immigration to tens of thousands now in tatters?
Chuka Umunna was given the first opportunity to respond, and said that the Prime Minister had ‘promised something he couldn’t deliver’, adding that to blame immigration for the UK’s problems is a ‘con’.
David Dimbleby asked as a follow-up question, ‘Are you happy with the current levels of net migration?’ Umunna ducked the question, instead focusing on migrant workers’ contributions to the NHS and the role of skills & education in successful integration.
Michael Gove said that there are many different types of immigration, with the real problem being the ‘rate and pace’ of net migration, and we need to change the rules within the EU. Umunna came back on this to say that almost 2 million Brits currently live elsewhere in the EU and that the strain on services isn’t due to immigration; rather, not building enough houses and the top-down reorganisation of the NHS have caused the pressure.
Jo Brand’s response was that Cameron is frightened and covering off the threat from UKIP. She pointed to scaremongering by the press, saying ‘as far as I’m aware, immigrants put more into the country than they take out. ‘
Amanda Platell said the press has been ‘vilified for a long time’ for tackling the issue of immigration but there is no indication that EU renegotiations are achievable. She added that when she was an immigrant 30 years ago she wasn’t expecting a meal ticket. Chuka Umunna again cut in, this time to point out his father had the same attitude and that likewise today’s immigrants want to work and contribute.
Norman Baker said the Prime Minister had been unwise to commit to something he couldn’t deliver. He added to Umunna’s earlier point that EU migration is a two-way street, citing the example of retired Brits benefitting from health services in Spain.
Michael Gove rounded off the question by saying (in response to an audience point about community integration) we need to make sure immigrants speak English and subscribe to the British values of ‘tolerance, fair play and respect for the law’.
Question 2: Does the threat by Labour to remove tax breaks for private schools signal the start of a new class war?
Amanda Platell was handed this one first, and responded ‘It’s an old class war.’ She thinks it’s a typical Labour fallback to penalise private schools and that Tristram Hunt put the policy forward to distract everyone from Emily Thornberry’s white van man tweet.
Michael Gove said that Hunt deserves the benefit of the doubt for his announcement. He agrees with Hunt that private and independent schools should help state schools, and believes state schools should have more competitive sports, drama, music and ultimately aspiration. But he thinks Hunt is wrong to use ‘a big stick’ and should instead use persuasion. Gove added that the school system needs to be meritocratic for students of every background.
Jo Brand responded to the carrot/stick debate with ‘threaten them, I say!’ She quotes a statistic that two-thirds of private schools refuse to share their facilities with neighbouring state schools.
Norman Baker felt Hunt was looking through the wrong end of the telescope and focus should be on helping support students in state schools through initiatives like the pupil premium.
Chuka Umunna said the aim of the policy is to ensure not just some but all independent and private schools are contributing back to the community.
Two final quick points were made by Brand, who highlighted parental input as a key factor in outcomes of children’s education, and Gove, who said teachers are now better qualified than ever before and the profession now has the prestige it deserves.
Question 3: I’m a single parent working full time and struggling to pay the bills and put food on the table. Is it fair that there are unemployed people with more money in their pockets than I have?
Michael Gove said it isn’t fair and that working people have to feel rewarded for doing the right thing.
Norman Baker cited the moves towards universal credit and raising the tax-free income threshold, which he believes will help make work pay better than welfare.
Amanda Platell agreed with Baker that the system is changing and complimented the questioner on setting a good example for her daughters.
Chuka Umunna said it clearly isn’t fair and the challenge is what to do about it. We need to increase the minimum wage but also get employers to start paying a living wage.
Jo Brand saw the questioner as a good counterpoint to previous stereotypes about single mothers. She highlighted zero hours contracts as another issue, but encouraged those finding little financial difference between work and benefits to still seek work for the sake of inner purpose.
Question 4: Is it the job of Facebook to protect the public from the threat of terrorism?
Norman Baker felt it is both impractical and dangerous to go down that route, categorically stating ”No’ is the straight answer’.
Amanda Platell said if Facebook can gather information for the sake of targetted ads it should be able to flag terrorist activity.
Jo Brand disagreed and felt Facebook can’t police the site in the way the government wants them to.
Michael Gove said that given Facebook can identify pro-terrorist groups and shut the page down, it should then pass that information on to the authorities.
Chuka Umunna said the ultimate responsibility should lie not with Facebook but with each of us, and that we need vigilance within our families and communities.
Question 5: Has any political party tried hard enough to engage the white van man in national politics?
Jo Brand asked the questioner to define the term, and he said he meant the working classes. Brand said that Emily Thornberry’s tweet from Rochester was wrong and snobbish, and that stereotypes are always problematic.
Chuka Umunna picked up the same thread, saying we should focus on what we have in common rather than categorisations.
Amanda Platell said a recent poll showed 29% of the working classes feel unrepresented in politics, and middle classes also feel overlooked.
Norman Baker gained warm audience applause by suggesting that moving away from the era of career politicians would help people engage with politics.
Michael Gove said that categorisations aren’t helpful and we can instead help everyone through tax cuts, opportunity for home ownership and giving the next generation an education that guarantees a well-paying, satisfying job.
The key concerns of the final question were completely ignored aside from one suggestion from Norman Baker. I really wanted someone to say we need to attract a wider group of people into politics, or that a basic level of political education should be compulsory at 15 or 16. It was a wasted opportunity and I’m sure the questioner felt the answer was a resounding ‘no’ based on the panel’s contribution.
Interestingly there were two mirror image pairings of same style, opposite substance on the panel: Brand and Platell both came across as strong-minded women wanting to make individual connections with the audience, whilst Umunna and Gove both launched a charm offensive with pitch-perfect deliveries but content that was often too idealistic to be believable. Norman Baker put in a steady performance but was somewhat overshadowed by the larger personalities around him. (It must have felt like he was back at the Home Office…)
I felt the panel could have delivered more, but it was a fairly civilised episode and interesting to consider whether Gove/Umunna or Brand/Platell are two sides of the same coin.