This week, Question Time was in Croydon with panelists Jo Swinson MP (Lib Dem), Alan Johnson MP (Labour), Bernard Jenkin MP (Conservative), Peter Hitchens (journalist and eleventh-hour replacement panelist) and Christine Blower (General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers). No UKIP presence this time, an indication that they’re still not considered as big as the other three parties.
Question 1: Is the NUT strike action justifiable as it’ll disrupt parents, hold back education and damage teachers’ reputation?
(Dimbleby added that this is about a strike by NUT-member teachers planned for next week.)
Bernard Jenkin said that this is over pensions and teachers shouldn’t be able to go on strike; the profession should be akin to that of policemen etc.
Christine Blower was quick to point out that the strike isn’t the only thing the NUT is doing – for example, on June 10th teachers lobbied MPs whilst colleagues covered for each other. She said it isn’t just about pensions and amongst other things recruitment of new teachers is at risk from the changes.
Peter Hitchens said the right to strike is important and should be retained, but shouldn’t be done unless it’s a last resort. In this case, he doesn’t believe there is no alternative, and the NUT will actually end up making Gove look good as a result of taking industrial action.
Jo Swinson said that trade unions do a lot of good and Christine is right in saying that taking strike action is only a small part of what they do. That said, she thinks it regrettable this particular strike is happening and hopes it is kept to one day.
Alan Johnson said that the right to go on strike is part of a healthy, mature democracy and unions think before taking action. He then went on a bit of a pro-trade-unions rant, from which I was only able to pick out the quote “There’s a good argument for a stronger trade union movement in this country rather than a weaker one.”
Christine Blower, having being prompted by an anti-Gove audience member, added that Michael Gove is wrong to implement performance-related pay and has been told by several experts it’s the wrong way to go.
Bernard Jenkin, somewhat surprisingly, agreed, saying it was “misunderstanding the nature of the profession” to take such a transactional approach.
Peter Hitchens got drawn into the Alan Johnson trade unions vortex, arguing that striking doesn’t usually do anything good for the industry it’s supposed to be defending.
Johnson countered by saying that things have changed massively since the 70s and unions are regulated so comparisons to the walk-out days are invalid.
Just as I was losing the will, Dimbleby finally realized it was time to move on and asked for the next question.
Question 2: Is David Cameron a hero for standing up to Europe?
(Dimbleby explained this is in the context of Cameron forcing the head of EU Commission vote, even though only two countries voted against Juncker in the end.)
Alan Johnson said that no, Cameron’s approach was totally wrong. He evaluated Cameron as being concerned “not with what’s right for the country but what’s right for the Conservative party”.
Peter Hitchens said he believed Cameron was wrongly briefed by someone who told him he could have an easy win against Juncker, based on the false assumption Merkel would be on side. He said if it came to an EU referendum, Cameron would urge people to vote to stay in it; the Conservatives are a pro-EU party and shouldn’t be pretending otherwise.
Bernard Jenkin said if there was a vote tomorrow, he would vote to leave the EU. Cameron is, in his opinion, a hero for openly saying he does not agree with the rest of Europe. Jenkin believes other countries have reservations about Juncker but are too scared of Germany to say anything.
Christine Blower clearly wasn’t expecting the question and could only initially say that the NUT doesn’t have a policy on the EU. After prompting from Dimbleby, she said that on a personal level she’d vote to stay in, and thinks Labour’s position of voting on future significant treaty changes is reasonable whereas the Tories’ 2017 referendum offer is “phoney, destabilizing and unsettling”.
Jo Swinson answered the initial question with a “no”, adding that the stoking up of anti-EU sentiment is not particularly conducive to our national interests.
Peter Hitchens had another go, and this time said that the idea of renegotiation is a complete fantasy. He came out with the no doubt pre-prepared but nevertheless memorable quote that “complaining the EU is federalist is like complaining that a bicycle has handlebars”.
Towards the end of the discussion, the prize for contributing the most sensible remark goes not to a panelist but to the member of the audience who said: “On the Juncker issue, David Cameron picked the wrong fight.”
Question 3: Croydon MP Richard Ottaway suggests residents who can’t afford houses in the area should move to Manchester. Do you agree?
Bernard Jenkin said he doesn’t agree with Ottaway, but there is a need to allocate resources so that London is not the only hub. Dimbleby asked him to what was wrong with what Ottaway suggested; Jenkin clarified that he believes people need to be able to live and work in the cities where they grew up.
Christine Blower said we haven’t been building enough houses and there are bits of the green belt on which we could build. There are large numbers of unoccupied houses in city centres, and this should also be tackled.
Jo Swinson said that people shouldn’t be forced to move for work and that the coalition government had built 450,000 houses and was looking at more garden cities. She added that we need to be more inventive with brownfield sites and regenerate derelict buildings.
Peter Hitchens’ evaluation was that Ottaway had made the mistake of telling the truth. He said the reason for our housing crisis is mass immigration due to the open door provided by the EU. Cue audience heckle: “Blame the immigrants!” Peter Hitchens: “To say I’m blaming immigrants is a straightforward, big, fat lie.”
Alan Johnson pointed out that Oswald Mosley said the same thing about immigrants, and the question was then quickly shut down, as it was about to succumb to Godwin’s Law.
Question 4: A recent Populous poll described our leading politicians as weird, arrogant and out of touch. Are they?
Bernard Jenkin admitted there was such thing as a Westminster bubble, but pointed out that MPs listen to the public’s problems in their weekly surgeries and therefore keep in touch.
Christine Blower said that politicians who make remarks like “People who go to foodbanks as a lifestyle choice” are definitely out of touch – a reference to Conservative councillor Julia Lepoidevin, who said in a speech to Coventry City Council that some families “make a conscious decision not to pay their rent, utilities or to provide food for their children because they choose alcohol, drugs and their own selfish needs”.
Alan Johnson said that there is a disconnect and these findings can’t be dismissed. He said politics is a noble profession and democracy something to be proud of, so if we’ve got to the stage where most people feel like this, we’ve got to tackle it.
Jo Swinson said that politically active people are in a minority, so perhaps that makes them a bit weird, but if you talk to constituents and knock on doors you can connect with people. She suggested there is a difference between people’s perception of their individual local politicians and their feelings when asked to think about politicians in general.
Peter Hitchens said some politicians are alright, “but most of them are like us”. He pointed out you can’t get elected before you get selected by the parties, and in his opinion that is the real reason for the disconnect. He then spoiled a relatively decent point by going into big-three-party-conspiracy-theory territory. Cue audience heckle: “How did Caroline Lucas get elected in Brighton?” Peter Hitchens (after too long a pause): “Because it’s Brighton.”
Dimbleby was a bit less on the ball during this episode and let a couple of the conversational threads disintegrate too far. Peter Hitchens seemed okay on the first question and then came across very badly, particularly on the third question. Christine Blower wasn’t particularly convincing as an advocate of the NUT cause and should have been much more specific about the problems with the policy changes. Jo Swinson was pretty weak throughout, and has been on each occasion I’ve seen her; it’s difficult to pinpoint the problem, but somewhere between a lack of drive and absence of conviction. Bernard Jenkin came across as pretty forthright and I found that even where I disagreed with the content of what he was saying, I liked the manner in which he got his point of view across. Alan Johnson was average with hints of poor. Swinson and Johnson were, however, somewhat saved by having Hitchens there, as they looked better in comparison. The intended panelist had been Tony Gallagher, deputy editor of the Daily Mail, and I wonder what he made of his stand-by’s performance.