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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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.