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Laurie Penny trials Question Time drinking game ... and gets a political hangover

A new drinking game based on the ubiquitous programme gives much away about the robustness of political debate in Westminster.

Like the late, great Douglas Adams's towel-clutching anti-hero Arthur Dent, I never could get the hang of Thursdays. Somehow, most of them end up with me sitting by myself with a ready deadline and a drink of something horrible, shouting at the television. By myself but not, it seems, alone -- because thanks to the magic of the internet, the vicissitudes of modern politics and the boundless capacity of the British to creatively enable one another's alcohol consumption, we now have the cultural phenomenon that is the Question Time drinking game.

It happened like this: the tweeting classes realised that we were all drinking miserably in our living rooms in front of the same long-running political debate show at the same time and it would be much more fun if someone came up with some rules -- so someone did. You can imagine that by the time the show is broadcast -- it's recorded earlier in the evening -- most of the panellists and production team could already be sloshing their way to frantic oblivion, so it's all in good fun.

Dimble Dance

Enough with the preamble: here's how you play. You sit around in front of the telly with epic quantities of corner shop booze and a bunch of friends or, if you're a dynamic young gunslinger like me, by yourself with a bottle of Jameson's and your Twitter feed, and you watch Question Time and imbibe until the staid predictability of mainstream political debate is at all bearable. The rules are subject to amendment, but the principles of the game are sound. While the stirring theme music plays, you down your drink and attempt to do the Dimble Dance, which looks like a cabinet minister having a spasm in an Eighties disco, setting the tone nicely.

You then proceed to drink on the following occasions: every time the veteran chairman, David Dimblebly, attempts to crack a joke. Every time David Dimbleby confuses the gender of a questioner from the audience. Every time David Dimbleby says: "I'm afraid that's all we've got time for". Every time a contributor uses the phrase "political correctness gone mad". Every time a government panellist informs the audience that they "don't really understand what we're trying to do".

You drink again every time a minister blames anything on "the mess Labour left us in", and if the vanishing credibility of this sound bite as an excuse for imposed austerity elicits boos from the audience, which it usually does, you drink twice. This should leave you nicely battered by the time there's a break in questions for Dimbleby to say, with all the confident self-mastery of an Englishman attempting to buy condoms in a Croatian chemist's, "if you'd like to follow us on Twitter, here's our hashtag".

You get to down your drink whenever anyone echoes the sentiment "we're all in this together", or its less cheesy variant "we all have to tighten our belts". This is the most tiresomely enormous lie of our times -- the notion that we've all been living merrily beyond our means and deserve to suffer the consequences together. We may have all been to the same pre-crash party, but some were enjoying the free champagne while the rest of us stood serving drinks and smiling as our money was gambled away.

Now that the inevitable hangover has arrived, it's the rest of us who have to suffer. Meanwhile, our representatives shuffle and equivocate. Unfortunately, the fact that we can have a drinking game based on a few stock platitudes and still be proto-paralytic by the time the credits roll on Question Time says a great deal about the robustness of political debate in Westminster.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: How should Labour respond?

The government always gets a boost out of big setpieces. But elections are won over months not days. 

Three days in the political calendar are utterly frustrating for Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition – the Queen’s Speech, the Budget and the Autumn Statement. No matter how unpopular the government is – and however good you are as an opposition - this day is theirs. The government will dominate the headlines. And played well they will carry the preceding with pre-briefed good news too. You just have to accept that, but without giving in or giving up.

It is a cliche that politics is a marathon not a sprint, but like most cliches that observation is founded in truth. So, how best to respond on the days you can’t win? Go to the fundamentals. And do the thing that oddly is far too little done in responses to budgets or autumn statements – follow the money.

No choices in politics are perfect - they are always trade offs. The art is in balancing compromises not abolishing them. The politics and the values are expressed in the choices that you make in prioritising. This is particularly true in budgets where resources are allocated across geographies - between towns, cities and regions, across time - short term or long term, and across the generations - between young and old. To govern is to choose. And the choices reveal. They show the kind of country the government want to create - and that should be the starting point for the opposition. What kind of Britain will we be in five, ten, fifteen years as these decisions have their ultimate, cumulative impact?

Well we know, we are already living in the early days of it. The Conservative government is creating a country in which there are wealthy pensioners living in large homes they won, while young people who are burdened with debts cannot afford to buy a home. One in which health spending is protected - albeit to a level a third below that of France or Germany – while social care, in an ageing society, is becoming residualised. One where under-regulated private landlords have to fill the gap in the rented market caused by the destruction of the social housing sector.

But description, though, is not sufficient. It is only the foundation of a critique - one that will succeed only if it describes not only the Britain the Tories are building but also the better one that Labour would deliver. Not prosaically in the form of a Labour programme, but inspirationally as the Labour promise.

All criticism of the government – big and little – has to return to this foundational narrative. It should connect everything. And it is on this story that you can anchor an effective response to George Osborne. Whatever the sparklers on the day or the details in the accompanying budgetary documentation, the trajectory is set. The government know where they are going. So do informed commentators. A smart opposition should too. The only people in the dark are the voters. They feel a pinch point here, a cut there, an unease and unfairness everywhere – but they can’t sum it up in words. That is the job of the party that wants to form a government – describing in crisp, consistent and understandable terms what is happening.

There are two traps on the day. The first is narrowcasting - telling the story that pleases you and your closest supporters. In that one the buzzwords are "privatisation" and "austerity". It is the opposite of persuasion aimed, as it is, at insiders. The second is to be dazzled by the big announcements of the day. Labour has fallen down here badly recently. It was obvious on Budget Day that a rise in the minimum wage could not compensate for £12bn of tax credit cuts. The IFS and the Resolution Foundation knew that. So did any adult who could do arithmetic and understood the distributional impact of the National Minimum Wage. It could and should have been Labour that led the charge, but frontbenchers and backbenchers alike were transfixed by the apparent appropriation of the Living Wage. A spot of cynicism always comes in handy. In politics as in life, if something seems to be too good to be true then … it is too good to be true.

The devil may be in the detail, but the error is in the principle – that can be nailed on the day. Not defeated or discredited immediately, but the seeds planted.  

And, if in doubt, take the government at their word. There is no fiercer metric against which to measure the Tories than their own rhetoric. How can the party of working people cut the incomes of those who have done the right thing? How can the party who promised to protect the health service deliver a decade of the lowest ever increases in spending? How can the party of home ownership banish young people to renting? The power in holding a government to account is one wielded forensically and eloquently for it is in the gap between rhetoric and reality that ordinary people’s lives fall.

The key fact for an opposition is that it can afford to lose the day if it is able to win the argument. That is Labour’s task.