This week BBCQT hailed from in Clacton-on-Sea on the day of the by-election, with panelists Eric Pickles MP (Conservative), Harriet Harman MP (Labour), Patrick O’Flynn MEP (UKIP), Malcolm Bruce MP (Liberal Democrat) and Jeanette Winterson OBE (writer, broadcaster and activist).
Question 1: The main parties insult UKIP supporters by claiming they’re protesting against Westminster. Why not acknowledge that a substantial proportion of the public just prefer their policies?
Harriet Harman said that people have told her they’re switching from Labour to UKIP “because the system needs a shake-up”, which is where this idea comes from. She feels that in reality the proposals UKIP are putting forward would make the problems people have worse; people will scrutinise UKIP’s policies as they gain political ground and will soon realise the flaws.
Patrick O’Flynn countered that people are turning to UKIP because many working people understand “we cannot control immigration” whilst the UK is part of the EU, adding the analogy that our borders are “like staging your wedding and saying anyone can come.” He suggests adopting a points-based system for immigration like that operated in Australia.
Eric Pickles said that Nigel Farage is promising different things at different times and in different parts of the country. Voting UKIP in the next general election will block Cameron’s return to number 10, and only the Conservatives can hold a referendum on the EU.
Jeanette Winterson said that UKIP make it up as they go along; and nobody other than Nigel Farage has any form of name recognition.
Malcolm Bruce said the UKIP approach is to put out a policy, judge the reaction, and then keep or reject it based on public reaction. In the Liberal Democrats, the party members decide policy together, democratically at conference.
Question 2: If the NHS and social care services are at breaking point, is ring-fencing spending enough?
Jeanette Winterson said we have to find a way to keep the NHS sustainable without it being about pharmaceutical companies etc. making a huge profit. She believes we should poll people via an online questionnaire to see what they want to prioritise in terms of funding.
Malcolm Bruce said we need to prioritise mental health, which the Lib Dems have talked about this week. When pushed by Dimbleby, he conceded that to fill the funding gap we do probably have to have a debate about small individual items requiring a contribution.
Eric Pickles said that the coalition has protected the health service and we’ve seen waiting lists go down. The biggest challenge is to integrate medical and social care, especially with regards to the elderly.
Harriet Harman said that ring-fencing isn’t enough; but that compared to systems in other countries, the NHS is very good value for money. She challenged Pickles’ assertion, saying it’s not true that waiting lists are going down under the coalition.
Patrick O’Flynn honed in on Cameron’s ‘broken promise’, saying that Andrew Lansley implemented a top-down reorganisation of the NHS and asking Eric Pickles if he would apologise for it.
Question 3: Would members of the panel support the cutting of overseas aid to help reduce the national debt after the next election?
Patrick O’Flynn said that foreign aid should be about things like global inoculation, not long-term programmes and foreign wars with no end game where we see the funds being leeched away.
Harriet Harman was very straightforward in her answer: “I don’t think we should cut international development support.”
Eric Pickles agreed with Harman, adding that it’s in our interests to ensure there is literacy and clean water in overseas countries.
Malcolm Bruce also concurred, saying that the UK aid programmes serve both the global and national interest, and that the aim is to lift people out of poverty in a way that is sustainable.
Jeanette Winterson surmised that they were all on the same side, apart from perhaps UKIP; “of course we’ve got to keep the aid going”.
Question 4: If we are all in it together, should MPs’ expenses and wages be frozen like other public sector workers?
Malcolm Bruce pointed out that it was frozen for three years and raised by only 1% last year, but feels that this increase to £74,000 is mistimed.
Patrick O’Flynn felt that MPs’ pay should be pegged to average earnings, to reflect what is happening across the country.
Harriet Harman said that Labour have proposed a 5% cut to ministers’ pay as part of reducing the deficit.
Eric Pickles said that ministerial pay has already been cut in the past; when his personal pay has increased at times that the country is suffering, he has given the extra to charity because he didn’t feel it was right.
Jeanette WInterson added the point that the original idea of paying MPs emerged in the nineteenth century to ensure working men could stand for election. She said we’ve got to have a balance so that people can earn a living as MPs, without it being too far above what the average person earns.
It was a more pedestrian offering this week. Jeanette Winterson was the most consistently strong, with the three MPs giving convincing speeches in some places and wavering in others. Patrick O’Flynn was rhetorically weakest and almost picked a fight with the audience on a couple of occasions.
The programme would have benefited from spending more time on the Clacton by-election, given that it was the reason behind the location. What was the campaigning like? Which way did the audience expect the vote to go? This was only briefly touched upon, and it seemed the general opinion was that Douglas Carswell’s record as the incumbent would be a more decisive factor than the UKIP banner, but I’m judging for a sample base of about three opinions. It would have been nice to dedicate more time to it.