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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Has Brexit, like indyref, changed the political axis to Leave vs Remain?

In Scotland, a referendum changed the debate. 

Not that long ago, politics in Scotland seemed to follow a familiar left-right divide. It was a Labour stronghold, and the fact there was only one Tory MP left seemed only to burnish its left-wing credentials. In the Scottish Parliament, too, the Labour narrative dominated.

Even when the Scottish National Party captured Holyrood, this left-right split was still taken for granted (the SNP were still, at that point, doing a good impression of becoming a centrist replacement for the Tories). 

But then came the Scottish referendum, and a Yes campaign that captured the imagination of not only SNP members, but Labour voters, and Greens. Meanwhile, sceptical No voters on both left and right found themselves in an uneasy coalition.

Labour backed the winning side, but ended up the biggest losers. While Ruth Davidson rebranded the Scottish Conservatives as the pro-union party, and Nicola Sturgeon put the SNP in touch with the wider left-wing Yes movement, Kezia Dugdale has been caught in the middle. The party lost all but one MPs in 2015. 

“That is the axis – independence,” Daniel Johnson, a Labour MSP who bucked the trend and won Edinburgh Southern in the 2016 Scottish parliamentary elections, told me in August. “We have to move it on from there. But, by default, that is what it will be.” I heard similar sentiments from Labour campaigners, exhausted after months and years of campaigning with little to show for it. 

Now, after another referendum, are we seeing a similar axis emerge in the UK between Remain and Leave? Just over a year ago, Lib Dem MPs were booted out of constituencies across the land. Now, a Lib Dem, Sarah Olney, has defeated the Brexiteer incumbent, Zac Goldsmith. The result is already being cheered as a victory for the coalition against hard Brexit.

Certainly, her support cut across party lines. She received the support of the Greens, which didn’t stand a candidate and, more crucially, many Labour and Tory voters.

There are important differences. The SNP, on the losing side of the Scottish referendum, nevertheless had a disciplined party, a high profile leader and a track record of centre-left government. Indeed, New Labour supporters often mutter darkly that it has "stolen our clothes". The national party with the clearest message on Remain, the Lib Dems, is by contrast, a diminished outfit after their own devastating defeats in 2015. 

Scotland’s parties also look more politically homogeneous, with Labour, the Lib Dems and the Scottish National Party all offering versions of the centre left. Under Davidson, the Conservatives have targeted the “tenement Tories” with a focus on social mobility and blue-collar traditions. It is unsurprising, then, that for many voters the overwhelming distinction is Yes to independence, or No.

In the UK as a whole, by contrast, the Remain vote is split between  the devolved nations, the metropolitan elites – Exhibit A, Richmond – and young people who may or may not be able to influence the constituency vote. 

If any party can stitch these groups together, it should be Labour. But the party is now locked in internal agonising over Brexit, and the direction of its leadership. Embracing a new axis could open the door to a soft Brexit progressive alliance, but might also mean abandoning Scotland to the SNP, and the North to Leave.

For now, it is ploughing on. Unlike the Greens, it stood a candidate in Richmond. Despite being a well-respected transport expert, he lost with just 3.7 per cent of the vote. Some things, at least, are like Scotland.    

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.