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.

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left