Some post-Question Time clarifications

I seem to be the Marmite man. People love me or hate me!

Thanks to all those people who posted messages of support, praise or congratulations either on this blog, the Question Time blog or on Twitter after I made my debut on that show last night. But as one tweeter pointed out, "@ns_mehdihasan is like Marmite." Indeed. I seem to have upset, annoyed and angered lots of people on the right, as well countless Lib Dem apologists. What can I say? That's life. Don't take it so personally. Let's agree to disagree.

QT is a great show and I had great fun appearing on it (even though Iain Dale thinks I didn't smile enough. Sorry, Iain!). But it's not a format that lends itself to forensic examination of policies or arguments, and despite the fact that I speak at ten words per second (thanks, David Prescott!), even I couldn't challenge or clarify some of Simon Hughes's claims.

For the record, I like and admire Simon Hughes and felt sorry that he had to defend the indefensible. Where is David Laws when you need him, eh? Oh, and while I'm at it, Michael Heseltine is my second-favourite Tory -- after Ken Clarke, who's my favourite (I know, I know, but I just can't help it!). It's a shame I've had to have a go at both of them in recent BBC panel debates. Where's Michael Gove when you need him?

So here are some post-QT clarifications:

1) Simon Hughes kept pointing to the Tory/Lib Dem proposal to raise the income-tax threshold to £10,000. He seems to believe this is a perfectly progressive policy. But he knows, as the IFS and others have pointed out, that such a policy will cost £17bn, of which only £1bn will go to the lowest earners. He also knows that the poorest people in Britain will not get a penny from this policy because they tend to be out of work and not paying any income tax to begin with. Oh, and as the Fabians' Tim Horton has pointed out, this policy is no longer funded by redistributive measures such as the mansion tax and the scrapping of higher-rate pension relief.

2) Hughes could not address the main issue: why did the Lib Dems agree to Tory cuts in spending this year, despite campaigning against such cuts? Aren't such cuts, to quote Vince Cable, a "smokescreen" for public-sector job losses? This is an unforgivable concession, in my view.

3) Talking of concessions, Hughes claimed that Labour had offered nothing and that the Tories had moved the most. I'm confused. In the end, the Tories adopted the Labour manifesto pledge to legislate for a referendum on AV (not PR!) but promised to campaign against AV in the actual referendum itself. How is that a better deal than a Labour referendum on AV which the Labour Party actually then backs? He also got lots of applause on the topic of civil liberties -- but omitted to mention that Labour negotiators had offered to drop ID cards in return for a deal with the Lib Dems.

4) I'm not an opponent of coalitions or coalition politics. I had hoped for a hung parliament because (i) I didn't believe Labour had earned the right to govern on its own, after 13 years of ups and downs in office, and (ii) I naively assumed that such a scenario might bring about a progressive realignment on the centre left and hasten electoral reform. I was wrong. And I'm angry that a coalition of Labour tribalists and Lib Dem power-seekers betrayed the progressive, anti-Tory majority in this country. But let me be clear: unlike Melanie Phillips, I have no problem with coalitions and think coalition government, in theory, can actually have a positive impact on the nation and on the economy. I just think this coalition is a coalition of convenience, unprincipled and unstable. But I hope, for the sake of the country, that I'm wrong and the optimists and apologists are right.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Where Labour has no chance, hold your nose and vote Lib Dem

May's gamble, MacKenzie's obsession and Wisden obituaries - Peter Wilby's First Thoughts.

In 2007 Gordon Brown allowed rumours to circulate that he would call an early general election for the spring of 2008. When he failed to do so, he was considered a coward and a ditherer and never recovered. Theresa May has tried a different strategy. After firmly denying that she would call an early election and killing off speculation about one, she suddenly announced an election after all. Will this work better for her than the opposite worked for Brown?

The Prime Minister risks being seen as a liar and an opportunist. Her demand for “unity” at Westminster is alarming, because it suggests that there is no role for opposition parties on the most important issue of the day. If Labour and the Lib Dems are smart enough to co-operate sufficiently to rally the country against what looks like an attempt to instal an authoritarian, right-wing Tory regime, May, even if she wins the election, could find herself weakened, not strengthened. I never thought I would write this but, in constituencies where Labour has no chance, its supporters should hold their noses and vote Lib Dem.

Taken for granted

I wonder if May, before she took her decision, looked at the precedents of prime ministers who called unnecessary elections when they already had comfortable parliamentary majorities. In 1974, after three and a half years in office, Edward Heath, with a Tory majority of 30, called a “Who runs Britain?” election during a prolonged dispute with the miners. He lost. In 1923, Stanley Baldwin, a new Tory leader sitting on a majority of 75 obtained by his predecessor just a year earlier, called an election because he wished to introduce tariffs, an issue strikingly similar to the one raised by Brexit. He also lost. The lesson, I think (and hope), is that prime ministers take the electorate for granted at their peril.

China’s long game

Commentators compare the crisis ­involving North Korea and the US with the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. It doesn’t feel that way to me. For several days that year, nuclear war seemed, to my 17-year-old mind, all but inevitable. I went to the cinema one afternoon and felt surprise when I emerged three hours later to find the world – or, at least, the city of Leicester – going about its business as normal. Two nuclear powers were in direct confrontation. The US threatened to invade communist Cuba to remove Soviet missiles and blockaded the island to prevent deliveries of more weapons. Soviet ships sailed towards the US navy. It wasn’t easy to imagine a compromise, or who would broker one. Nobody doubted that the two sides’ weapons would work. The Soviet Union had carried out nearly 200 nuclear tests. North Korea has claimed just five.

For all the talk of intercontinental missiles, North Korea at present isn’t a credible threat to anybody except possibly its neighbours, and certainly not to the US or Britain. It is in no sense a geopolitical or economic rival to the US. Donald Trump, who, like everybody else, finds the Middle East infernally complicated, is looking for an easy, short-term victory. The Chinese will probably arrange one for him. With 3,500 years of civilisation behind them, they are accustomed to playing the long game.

Mussel pains

Whenever I read Kelvin MacKenzie’s columns in the Sun, I find him complaining about the size of mussels served by the Loch Fyne chain, a subject on which he happens to be right, though one wonders why he doesn’t just order something else. Otherwise, he writes badly and unfunnily, often aiming abuse at vulnerable people such as benefit claimants. It’s a new departure, however, to insult someone because they were on the receiving end of what MacKenzie calls “a nasty right-hander”, apparently unprovoked, in a Liverpool nightclub. He called the victim, the Everton and England footballer Ross Barkley, who has a Nigerian grandfather, “one of our dimmest footballers” and likened him to “a gorilla at the zoo”.
The paper has suspended MacKenzie, a former Sun editor, and Merseyside Police is investigating him for racism, though he claims he didn’t know of Barkley’s ancestry.

Several commentators express amazement that Sun editors allowed such tripe to be published. It was not, I think, a mistake. Britain has no equivalent of America’s successful alt-right Breitbart website, disruptively flinging insults at all and sundry and testing the boundaries of what it calls “political correctness”, because our alt right is already established in the Sun, Express and Mail. To defend their position, those papers will continue to be as nasty as it takes.

Over and out

Easter is the time to read the cricket annual Wisden and, as usual, I turn first to the obituaries. Unlike newspaper obituaries, they record failures as well as successes – those who managed just a few undistinguished performances in first-class cricket and, most poignantly, some who promised much but died early. We learn of a 22-year-old Indian who, during demonstrations against the alleged molestation of a schoolgirl, was shot dead by police and whose grieving mother (invoking the name of one of India’s greatest batsmen) cried, “Bring my Gavaskar back!” In England, two young men drowned, having played one first-class match each, and a 22-year-old Sussex fast bowler, described as “roguish” and “enormously popular”, fell off a roof while celebrating New Year with friends in Scotland. In South Africa, a young batsman was among five municipal employees killed when their truck crashed; the local mayor fled the funeral as his workmates “chanted menacingly” about unpaid wages.

Among the better-known deaths is that of Martin Crowe, probably New Zealand’s best batsman. In a Test match, he once got out on 299 and reckoned the near-miss contributed to the cancer that killed him at 53. “It tore at me like a vulture pecking dead flesh,” he said. Cricket can do that kind of thing to you. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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