BBC Question Time review 17/09/2015

The first BBCQT of the Parliamentary season was held in Wembley, with a panel comprised of comedian and writer Sandi Toksvig, Liz Truss MP (Conservative), John McDonnell MP (Labour), Alex Salmond MP (SNP) and Daily Telegraph columnist Tim Stanley.

L-R: Stanley, Salmond, Truss, Dimbleby, McDonnell, Toksvig
L-R: Stanley, Salmond, Truss, Dimbleby, McDonnell, Toksvig

Question 1: Is the Labour party any more electable now that it is being led by Jeremy Corbyn and not Ed Miliband?

Alex Salmond quickly and directly responds “No, I don’t think so”, but elaborates that his reasons are different from those of “the right-wing press”. His take is that it is the internal divisions within Labour that will prove fatal, with MPs refusing to serve in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet.

Sandi Toksvig says it’s “a curious thing” that the choice is presented as being only between the current Conservative government and Labour and that we need “a new system” of politics. She adds: “It’s extraordinary with PMQs that we got so over-excited that a new thing happened, which is that two men engaged in a debate in which one asked a question and the other gave an answer and they didn’t shout for half an hour.” She would like to see a “total shake-up” of the current system, meeting in a “round chamber” where we hear from “the Greens and the SNP and my own particular party, the Women’s Equality Party … I would like to hear diversity of opinion from this country”. When pushed by Dimbleby to reflect on Corbyn, she says the “lack of respect” shown by some Labour MPs towards the members who voted for him “was a disgrace” and the party should support its democratically elected leader.

Liz Truss belives Labour “has become less electable” because the New Labour ideas of accepting the need for a free market and prioritising education “have been abandoned”. She says debates about Trident and renationalisation of the railways are “retro” and “reheated” from the 1980s, but won out due to the lack of inspiration from the other three candidates and “a lack of new ideas on the left of politics”. She says that with Corbyn’s ideas “we’ve got threats to our national security and our economic security”.

John McDonnell says “I think something changed last Saturday”. When Jeremy Corbyn became a leadership contender, he went around the country and drew crowds from across the generations wanting “another kind of politics … we’ve had enough of plastic politicians and spin”. Corbyn’s anti-austerity policies are popular but he also “enthused people”, with a further 50,000 joining Labour since he became leader. “Something’s changed; it’s a new politics … and that’s come as a shock to some MPs.” He adds that Corbyn was “respected” for the calmer approach to PMQs and “it’s a kinder form of politics, where you respect the other person’s point of view and try to win the argument”.

Dimbleby asks whether he can restrain himself from feeling physically angry towards George Osbourne. McDonnell jokes that Corbyn is teaching him to be a nicer person, but he does sometimes get angry, “particularly when it’s very rich people talking down to people who are trying to make a living”.

Tim Stanley says he agrees with the need for a new style of politics, but people “also vote on substance” and the policies of Corbyn and McDonnell are “too extreme for this country”. He says Labour voters rejected three candidates associated with Blairism, spin and the Iraq war in favour of someone “who offered them honesty, principle and old-fashioned socialism”, which he respects but thinks is “against electoral logic”. He says voters in May 2015 thought Labour was too left-wing so choosing someone further to the left than Red Ed will make them unelectable.

McDonnell rejects Stanley’s use of the word ‘extreme’ and says Corbyn’s main points of discussion when travelling up and down the country were on renationalising the railways, building more houses and changing the university tuition fees system. Alex Salmond chips in: “I find the Daily Telegraph extreme … an anti-austerity message is not extreme”.

After a long introductory ramble, an audience member describes John McDonnell as “an IRA terrorist sympathiser”. Dimbelby contextualises this by reading a quote from a speech McDonnell gave in 2003 at a commemoration of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, in which he said: “It’s about time we started honouring those people involved in the armed struggle. It was the bombs and bullets and sacrifice made by the likes of Bobby Sands that brought Britain to the negotiating table. The peace we have now is due to the action of the IRA. Because of the bravery of the IRA and people like Bobby Sands, we now have a peace process.”

McDonnell says the statement “needs explaining” and that in the context of the 3,000 lives lost on both sides during The Troubles, there was a need to ensure no split amongst republicans that could threaten the peace agreement. He says: “In 2003, we were pushing for, we were trying to impress on all sides, that we should sign the peace process, the Good Friday Agreement. I made this speech to a group of republicans and I urged them, I urged them to put away their weapons and continue in the peace process.” (This is a conflation of events: the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998. The crisis point in 2003 was that the IRA had not shown sufficient evidence of disbanding and decommissioning for the unionists to enter into political power-sharing with the nationalists, and it looked like both sides were in danger of walking away from the peace process.) McDonnell goes on to say that his choice of the word “honouring” was wrong and “if I gave offence, and I clearly have, then from the bottom of my heart, I apologise. I apologise.”

Sand Toksvig brings the conversation back to Labour’s electability, pointing out that there were “17 million people who failed to vote, who were not engaged in politics. We have no idea how they would vote.” She says the Women’s Equality Party has taken off in just six months and her party, like Jeremy Corbyn, has engaged some people in politics for the first time.

Liz Truss says that Labour are unelectable on the basis of their economic policies, and that printing more money and imposing higher taxation “hasn’t worked anywhere in the world” and didn’t work in the UK in the 1970s. She says the economically successful countries are “those that have low taxes, that promote private investment”. She says Labour’s foreign policies are extreme, with the leadership believing we should leave NATO and disband the army.

John McDonnell denies these policies and says their platform is to reduce the deficit not by cutting state benefits but by taxing corporations and “investing in our infrastructure, in housing and skills”. Alex Salmond picks up on Liz Truss’s comment that printing money doesn’t work, and says that’s exactly what the coalition government were doing with their policy of quantative easing. If the idea of printing money to give it to the financial sector was acceptable, then the idea of printing money to invest it in infrastructure should not be seen as extreme.

A 17-year-old audience member asks Liz Truss why he should vote Conservative rather than Labour when he becomes eligible to vote. She says “we are the party of opportunity; we’re bringing more university places, more apprenticeships, more ways of getting on in life for people”. Sandi Toksvig says it’s “really sad” that he sees the Conservatives and Labour as the only two possible choices instead of a wider spectrum. Toksvig says, “Women are the majority beneficiaries of the welfare system” and we need to ask why they are bearing the brunt of austerity. She sets the £12bn in welfare cuts against a potential £23bn “if you unleash the full potential of women”.

Question 2: Should Britain take in more refugees?

Liz Truss says it is a “tragic” and “heart-rending” situation but the UK is helping Syrians “close to their own country” by investing £1 billion in aid for the refugee camps. She adds “it is the fitter people with better resources” who are travelling across Europe and the UK will take 20,000 refugees directly from Syria over the next five years. The only “long-term solution” will be to secure peace in the Middle East, which is an international responsibility.

Alex Salmond says “yes, we should take more; I don’t think it’s an either/or. I don’t think you either take people from camps or people who have got to Europe. I think you can and should do both.” He believes the UK should “take a proportionate share of those who have made it to the EU” and this would encourage EU partners to reciprocate by putting more money into the refugee camps in Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East. He also calls on the UN to provide “safe corridors” for travel and for people to see the mass movement of people not as a problem but as an opportunity, because refugees contribute to their adoptive countries.

Sandi Toksvig says she cannot be measured about this topic because “they are some of the most harrowing scenes I have seen in my whole life. When the Hungarian Prime Minister says ‘We want to close the door into Christian Europe’, it is the least Christian thing I have ever head anybody say.” She says the refugees are a mixture of people from all professions “just like us” and she is disgusted nobody raised the issue at PMQs, adding “the British people are a kinder, nicer people than the tabloid press would ever have us believe, and I believe we can open our arms and welcome people to this country who need us.”

Tim Stanley says everyone is in agreement about the horror of the crisis, but “the problem has been exacerbated by Germany unilaterally saying that it would take up to 800,000 asylum seekers”, which encouraged people to travel there, “passing through countries which simply couldn’t cope with those numbers”. He believes the UK government’s approach is the correct one and “the long-term solution lies in Syria”.

John McDonnell says that the UN should ensure the states in the surrounding region and across Europe are all doing their fair share. He says the British people have shown their power in pressing upon the PM the “need to assist”, so that Cameron’s position has moved on vastly from calling the refugees a “swarm” just a month ago. McDonnell echoes Salmond’s comments that the UK needs to “work together with our European partners” in a shared approach to allocate refugees “on a fair basis”. The UK’s 20,000 over five years compares with Germany taking 20,000 in four weeks, and McDonnell says the humanitarian nature of the British people extends beyond what the government has offered.

Question 3: Jeremy Corbyn is quoted as saying, “It’s strange, some people are overly concerned about the National Anthem.” Do the panel agree?

Dimbleby clarifies that this is in the context of Corbyn being chastised for failing to sing the national anthem, and he has already said he will sing it in future.

John McDonnell says he spoke to Corbyn afterwards, asking him why he hadn’t sung the anthem; Corbyn replied that he usually did, but was reflecting on the war because that was what the event was commemorating. McDonnell adds, “the media seized on it and turned it into a personal attack”.

Tim Stanley says he has a “confession”: he was left-wing when he was younger and got suspended from school for refusing to sing the national anthem at prize day. The difference is that as Labour leader, Corbyn is a “statesman” and when representing people at a public event “you do up your tie, you put on a proper suit and you sing lustily”.

Alex Salmond doesn’t believe McDonnell’s explanation and says “it was a silly thing for Jeremy Corbyn not to do”. He says the anthem was written in 1745 by “a panicked Hanoverian” with the fourth verse containing the lyrics “God save Marshal Wade, rebellious Scots to crush”. Nevertheless, as leader of the SNP when Salmond attended public events he sang the National Anthem “because I wasn’t representing myself or my view, I was there to honour or commemorate other people and the story wasn’t meant to be about me, but them.”

Liz Truss also casts doubt on McDonnell’s story and says Corbyn carries responsibilities as the leader of the opposition.

Sandi Toksvig picks up on Salmond’s point and says it may have been written in 1745 but it was originally penned for a show at Drury Lane to give “a big finish”, so “it’s really sung by custom and not because we all sat down and agreed it … maybe it’s time we all sat down and wrote a tune we all agreed on”.

Conclusions

It was a strangely lop-sided edition of BBCQT, with around two-thirds of the total time spent scrutinising John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn, so as a result McDonnell did far more of the talking than any other single panelist.

What stood out for me was that by rejecting the external concept of spin and the meticulous briefings that go with it, McDonnell was forced into spinning on the hoof and got caught out. I don’t think anybody believed that Corbyn normally sings the anthem but was lost in reflection. It would have been far better for McDonnell to have said Corbyn would not normally have sung the anthem in a private capacity, but has now realised he is there in a public capactiy and will do so for future events. I am more prepared to believe his explanation of the remarks made in 2003 at the Bobby Sands commemoration, but didn’t like the fact it was presented as contemporary with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. If Labour are going to do politics without the spin, they need to be more forthright with the facts.

Sandi Toksvig was great on the refugees question but her tangent about women’s equality when the (male) audience member had asked about Conservatives versus Labour was a bit bizarre, especially as she appeared to have been invited on the panel in her capacity as a comedian and writer rather than as founder of the Women’s Equality Party. I suppose Toksvig wanted awareness of the new party and its objectives to reach a wider audience, but it felt horribly shoe-horned in.

Tim Stanley was confident, articulate and utterly predictable, with his answers precisely reflecting the editorials he writes in the Daily Telegraph. He set out his views fully and gave direct answers to the questions, but he is completely deluded in thinking that the wider world automatically agrees with his evaluative judgements on “Red Ed” and “extreme” Corbyn.

Liz Truss remained firmly along government and party lines, wavering in delivery slightly when challenged by McDonnell and Salmond but giving an assured response when asked to give reasons for voting Conservative. She stuck consistently to the idea that the Corbyn/McDonnell Labour party are both outdated and a threat to stability, and that the UK is already fulfilling its responsibilities towards refugees. Her comment that economically prosperous countries are those with low taxes wouldn’t have stood up to any form of scrutiny (take Norway, Denmark and Sweden for starters), but unfortunately nobody challenged it.

Alex Salmond looked entirely in his element and played the format perfectly, waiting to be called on by Dimbleby and then delivering measured answers. In a sense it was easy for him to take a step back and do so, as the issues raised were not directly related to Scottish policy, and McDonnell was the focal point of scepticism. Salmond and McDonnell almost reached a consensus, as they were in agreement on anti-austerity economic policies and co-operating with European partners to take in proportional numbers of refugees, but Salmond was careful to distance himself on the topics of McDonnell’s 2003 speech and Corbyn’s refusal to sing the national anthem.

This one could have been chaired a bit better: Dimbleby allowed some odd tangents to develop whilst other points went undiscussed, and several inaccurate statements presented as facts went unchallenged. Still, it was an interesting hour and there was less evasiveness than usual. Hopefully the next installment can combine willingness to answer the question with more effective selection of which points to follow up on and which complacent points to challenge.

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