Last night's Question Time: Mehdi Hasan on the facts

The facts and figures of last night's debate.

Last night I was a panellist on BBC1's Question Time, in Stoke-on-Trent. You can watch it, via the iPlayer, here.

It was my fourth appearance on the BBC's flagship news-and-current-affairs debate show and it is always an amusing experience to be one of the five panellists. I must say that I was quite impressed with the Tory peer and Next boss, Simon Wolfson, who wasn't the swivel-eyed, bash-the-poor, corporate fatcat some on the left might have assumed him to be. However, right-wing recorder and barrister Constance Briscoe - who seemed to think I was a politician! - had firm views on most issues but few facts.

My own approach is to try and always inject facts and figures into these debates, which tend to be distorted by misinformation, ignorance and prejudice. ("How do you know all this?" a bemused David Dimbleby asked me towards the end of the show, in only a semi-serious tone!)

But television isn't the best medium for reeling off lists of statistics or data (which is one of the reasons I left TV to become a print journalist in 2009).

That's why I thought I'd briefly outline some of the facts and figures I didn't have time to provide, or elaborate on, last night.

On the financial transaction tax:

Wolfson claimed that the a financial transactiont tax (FTT), or "Robin Hood tax", would end up funding Brussels and not the UK. Nonsense.

The International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the Gates Foundation have all released studies showing that unilateral transaction taxes are feasible and raise funds for individual countries (the Robin Hood Tax campaign says a 0.05 per cent tax on transactions could raise £20bn for just the UK alone!).

Here in Britain, we already levy unilateral taxes of this sort: for example, the Treasury imposes a stamp duty of 0.5 per cent on all transactions involving UK shares. This raises £3bn per year.

On Tory funding and the City:

David Cameron has repeatedly accused Labour leader Ed Miliband of being in "the pocket of the unions". Why? Because the trade union movement is the biggest donor to the Labour Party.

Yet, as I pointed out last night, using Cameron's own logic, he and his party are in the pocket of the bankers and financiers. Why? Because the Conservative Party relies on the bankers and financiers for more than half of its funds.

According to research conducted by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism:

Since Mr Cameron assumed the leadership, the Conservative Party has become twice as dependent on City funding: from 25 per cent of its total donations to nearly 51 per cent in 2010.

Guess what? Wolfson and Tory MP Claire Perry had little to say on this subject. Surprise, surprise!

On unemployment benefit:

One audience member raised the issue of compassion towards the unemployed (in reference to the British Social Attitudes survey this week which revealed that more than half of Britons believe unemployment benefits are too high and that they discourage those out of work from finding new jobs). Briscoe employed all sorts of dubious metaphors ("sponge"?) in order to make her point that "we spend far too much time subsidising people who don't want to work" (she couldn't, however, tell me how many people on unemployment benefit "don't want to work").

Yet unemployment is worth less than ever. As my colleague George Eaton has noted (using ONS figures), Jobseeker's Allowance (currently £65.45 a week for a single person aged 25 or over) is is worth just 10.9 per cent of average weekly earnings (£600.90) - compared to 12.2 per cent in 2000, 16.6 per cent in 1985 and 19.2 per cent in 1970.

Then there is the issue of jobs - there aren't many to find! As I said, there are now 5.7 unemployed people for every job vacancy, which is the highest figure on record since October 2009. How do you squeeze five people into one job? And how does slashing JSA create jobs?

On housing benefit:

One audience member raised the issue of unemployed people and housing benefit. But as Shelter's chief executive Campbell Robb has pointed out:

The vast majority of housing benefit claimants are either pensioners, disabled people, those caring for a relative or hardworking people on low incomes, and only 1 in 8 people who receive housing benefit is unemployed.

Those of us on the left, who call ourselves progressives, need to ensure that these points are raised, discussed and circulated, online, on air and in print. The spread of conservatism, and conservative economics, relies on ignorance, not evidence.

Yet, as the most famous conservative of all, Ronald Reagan, once remarked:

Facts are stubborn things.

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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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt