10 Questions for Vince Cable, post-Question Time

An open letter to the Business Secretary following our debate on BBC1.

Dear Vince,

Nice to see you last night in Liverpool. I just got home!

You've had a great week, with a strong speech to your party members at the Lib Dem conference followed by a fluent performance on Question Time. (You were also, I hear, a big draw at the NS fringe on "progressive austerity" in Liverpool on Monday.)

But QT is just too short for me. Sixty minutes? Call me greedy, but I wanted more time to continue our debate and discussion on the economy. If we'd had longer, and it'd just been you and me, here are the questions I'd like you to have answered for me:

1) You have referred to "slashing now" as "an act of economic masochism" (13 March 2010) and have said that "cutting too soon and pushing the economy back into recession will make the deficit worse, as tax receipts fall and benefit payments rise" (24 April 2010), so how can you now claim that your opponents are "deficit deniers" for making precisely the same case as you made only months ago?

2) You claimed last night on television that we were facing a financial "emergency" and that the deficit had to be confronted and cut down. But in your book, The Storm, you wrote that UK debt is "moderate in comparison with those of other countries" (p25) and that budget deficits of 13 or 14 per cent in the US and the UK were "not a great cause for alarm" (p144). How do you explain the disconnect?

3) You referred in your conference speech to the "spivs" and "gamblers" in the City, and denounced bankers' bonuses on Question Time, but bank shares rallied after your coalition's "emergency Budget" in June and Deutsche Bank, for example, described the Budget as a "good outcome for banks". Again, how do you explain the disconnect?

4) Nick Clegg said five days before the general election: "My eight-year-old ought to be able to work this out -- you shouldn't start slamming on the brakes when the economy is barely growing." How is it that eight-year-old Antonio Clegg has a greater grasp of economic theory, and of the lessons of economic history, than you, Clegg or Danny Alexander?

5) Do the latest figures from the Republic of Ireland worry you? Make you doubt your support for immediate and widespread "austerity"?

6) How about the news from the eurozone?

7) You have said that John Maynard Keynes is your hero, but isn't Keynes turning in his grave right now? Why is it that all the leading Keynesian economists (Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, David Blanchflower, Robert Skidelsky, etc) are so opposed to your coalition's cuts?

8) Can you tell us when exactly you switched your position on cuts? The date and time, please?

9) In the green room before the programme was recorded, you and I discussed how much Liverpool had changed and progressed in recent years. So do you agree or disagree with the Lib Dem leader of Liverpool City Council, Warren Bradley, when he says that northern cities like his own "could be set back ten or 20 years" by the impact of your coalition's cuts?

10) You condemned monopolies and "rigged markets" in your conference speech. Will you promise to launch a review, on public-interest grounds, of Rupert Murdoch's bid to take full control of BSkyB? Or will you have to check with Andy Coulson first?

I hope you had a safe journey back to London.

Regards,

Mehdi

 

 

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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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.