This episode of Question Time was in Bolton, with panelists Nicky Morgan MP (Conservative), Jim Murphy MP (Labour), Leanne Wood (leader of Plaid Cymru), Steven Woolfe (UKIP spokesman) and broadcaster & columnist Janet Street-Porter. It also directly followed the C4/Sky programme ‘The Battle for Number 10’, and the panel and audience had watched the Paxman interviews with David Cameron and Ed Miliband.
Question 1: Do the television debates have any real political merit, or are they just the result of our culture of personality?
Dimbleby decides to start with the audience’s take on this, and asks for their feedback on the Paxman interviews they’d just watched.
The questioner says ‘I liked Miliband more than I thought I would’, but it hasn’t swayed him on who to vote for. Other comments from the audience were that issues weren’t taken seriously enough, that it was ‘style over substance’ and that it was frustrating to see Cameron not answering the questions properly.
One audience member picks up in the point raised in the Miliband interview over plans to use the mansion tax to help fund Scotland, and asks for an exact figure. Jim Murphy, who is the leader of the Scottish Labour Party, said the tax will be applied to all properties over £2 million, most of which are in London / the south east, and ‘about £125 million’ of the money raised will be spent in Scotland.
Dimbleby then puts the main question on whether the TV debates have any merit to the panel.
Janet Street-Porter is sceptical, on the basis that Nick Clegg came across very well in the 2010 leaders’ debate resulting in a surge in the Lib Dem vote, because ‘he’s a very good television performer’ but there’s a difference between that and being a good politician. Politicians are also falling back on clichés and disconnected language too often, e.g. ‘hard-working families’, ‘consequentials’, ‘upwards pressure’, instead of speaking normally.
Nicky Morgan says the debates ‘have some merit’ because they heighten political engagement, and people want to know the personalities behind the leaders as well as their policies. In her view Ed Miliband was evasive about where the money to fund public services would come from, ‘and it’s going to come from people’s pockets’. An audience member says she’d like to see politicians focusing more on ‘quality of life issues’ and discussing the struggles of everyday people.
Leanne Wood said the Paxman interview highlighted that Cameron is not used to being subject to close scrutiny. He was ‘in denial’ about zero-hours contracts and ‘showed no concern’ about the rising need for food banks. She welcomes Miliband’s admission that the banks should have been regulated more carefully under the previous Labour government, but thinks he is wrong to follow the path of austerity.
Steven Woolfe blames zero-hours contracts on (any guesses?!) EU directives and says ‘the principle of people working without security is wrong.’ Neither Cameron nor Miliband impressed him because ‘it wasn’t really like a debate’ but ‘like two boxers fighting in two separate rings with one referee’. (Damn, I have to agree with him there. First time for everything, eh?)
Jim Murphy says that ‘we learned why David Cameron didn’t want to have a proper debate’ and that he spent all his time defending his record rather than why we should vote for him in the future. He feels the first question put to Cameron was the most revealing, and ‘the truth is that the government doesn’t even count how many people are using food banks.’
Question 2: Given that both major parties have ruled out increases in VAT and national insurance contributions, does this mean that spending plans will now have to be paid for with even more cuts in welfare?
Jim Murphy is asked to give a quick answer, and says ‘No’.
Janet Street-Porter says the Conservatives have already indicated cuts in welfare, such as the reduction in the cap from £26k to £23k. She says that as a cynic, she would say yes, because the media hype up benefit fraud and politicians know they won’t lose many votes by cutting benefits.
Leanne Wood says ‘the austerity experiment has failed’ and the deficit hasn’t been eliminated within this Parliament. Plaid Cymru’s position is that it’s time to stop the cuts and invest in public services (in other words, they’d fund it through tax rises instead).
Steven Woolfe says UKIP have identified savings ‘by looking at projects which are not necessary for the welfare of this country’. They would scrap HS2 and reduce overseas aid by £9bn. Leanne Wood says he’d also target Scotland and Wales; Woolfe agrees they would revisit the Barnett formula (which is used to adjust public spending allocated to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and essentially means greater spending per head in the devolved regions) because people in England are getting ‘a raw deal’.
Jim Murphy says part of the reason the Barnett formula was established is because public services are necessarily more expensive in rural communities. Labour would cut £250 million from the police budget by getting rid of the ‘costly experiment’ of having police commissioners, £200 million from housing benefit, £400 million from capping child benefit, £60 million on changes to the Ministry of Defence, and they would reverse the reduction in the top rate of income tax.
Nicky Morgan says £20bn has already been saved through efficiencies in running government and there are more of those savings to come; £5bn will be raised through ‘cracking down on tax avoidance and tax evasion’. She finds it ‘incredibly frightening’ that the smaller parties could hold the balance of power after the election, and thinks that’s what we should be talking about. Alex Salmond ‘wants the power to write the next budget’.
Jim Murphy says the Conservatives keep talking about Alex Salmond because if the SNP can reduce the Labour vote in Scotland it may allow Cameron to ‘cling onto power’.
Question 3: If Greg Dyke can say English places for English players, why can’t Nigel Farage say English jobs for English people?
Leanne Wood says immigration makes a net contribution to the economy and Plaid Cymru has no intention of scaremongering. We should ‘introduce a living wage’ and ensure everyone has access to a trade union to counteract exploitation of foreign workers.
Steven Woolfe says there is ‘a concerted attack’ to misquote UKIP’s policies. The problem is not mixed ethnicity but the scale of net migration. ‘All that UKIP is saying is that for 5 years we would have a moratorium of low-skilled and unskilled migrants coming to this country to relieve pressure on a number of areas’ such as school and hospital places. Those already here would have the right to remain here.
Janet Street-Porter says ‘the big elephant in the room’ is that young people ‘are leaving school unemployable’ in areas such as catering and leisure.
Nicky Morgan says the idea of British jobs for British workers is ‘a sticking plaster that doesn’t address the real issue of immigration’. People should be welcomed if they’ve come here for a job, but we need to clamp down on benefit tourism,
Jim Murphy says there are ‘pressures’ caused by exploitation of immigrant workers and we need rules, but it’s great that people want to come to the UK and we shouldn’t blame the immigrants themselves. Labour measures would include not allowing immigrants to claim benefits for two years and banning employment agencies that only recruit overseas workers.
Question 4: After an online petition gathered more than 1 million signatures from licence fee payers, how is it acceptable for the BBC to sack Jeremy Clarkson?
Nicky Morgan says they needed to ‘set an example’ because Clarkson was ‘in the public eye’.
Janet Street-Porter disagrees that public figures have to be role models, and says the BBC have an image problem overall.
Leanne Wood says ‘if anyone else assaulted a colleague in the workplace, they would be sacked, so I think this is a case of a bully having his comeuppance’.
Jim Murphy says ‘it’s pretty straightforward’; the BBC would have set a terrible precedent if they had done anyone else.
Steven Woolfe says the BBC acted correctly and have a ‘duty of care to their staff’.
BBCQT will be in Salford on 2nd April, and will directly follow the seven-party leaders’ debate, bringing all of the reaction to it. I think this will be the key date for setting out national policies for the 2015 General Election, so earmark Thursday evening and if you can’t watch in person, keep an eye on this blog!