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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Labour’s best general election bet is Keir Starmer

The shadow secretary for Brexit has the heart of a Remainer - but head of a pragmatic politician in Brexit Britain. 

In a different election, the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer might have been written off as too quiet a man. Instead - as he set out his plans to scrap the Brexit white paper and offer EU citizens reassurance on “Day One” in the grand hall of the Institute of Civil Engineers - the audience burst into spontaneous applause. 

For voters now torn between their loyalty to Labour and Remain, Starmer is a reassuring figure. Although he says he respects the Brexit vote, the former director of public prosecutions is instinctively in favour of collaborating with Europe. He even wedges phrases like “regulatory alignment” into his speeches. When a journalist asked about the practicality of giving EU citizens right to remain before UK citizens abroad have received similar promises, he retorted: “The way you just described it is to use people as bargaining chips… We would not do that.”

He is also clear about the need for Parliament to vote on a Brexit deal in the autumn of 2018, for a transitional agreement to replace the cliff edge, and for membership of the single market and customs union to be back on the table. When pressed on the option of a second referendum, he said: “The whole point of trying to involve Parliament in the process is that when we get to the final vote, Parliament has had its say.” His main argument against a second referendum idea is that it doesn’t compare like with like, if a transitional deal is already in place. For Remainers, that doesn't sound like a blanket veto of #EUref2. 

Could Leave voters in the provinces warm to the London MP for Holborn and St Pancras? The answer seems to be no – The Daily Express, voice of the blue passport brigade, branded his speech “a plot”. But Starmer is at least respectful of the Brexit vote, as it stands. His speech was introduced by Jenny Chapman, MP for Darlington, who berated Westminster for their attitude to Leave voters, and declared: “I would not be standing here if the Labour Party were in anyway attempting to block Brexit.” Yes, Labour supporters who voted Leave may prefer a Brexiteer like Kate Hoey to Starmer,  but he's in the shadow Cabinet and she's on a boat with Nigel Farage. 

Then there’s the fact Starmer has done his homework. His argument is coherent. His speech was peppered with references to “businesses I spoke to”. He has travelled around the country. He accepts that Brexit means changing freedom of movement rules. Unlike Clive Lewis, often talked about as another leadership contender, he did not resign but voted for the Article 50 Bill. He is one of the rare shadow cabinet members before June 2016 who rejoined the front bench. This also matters as far as Labour members are concerned – a March poll found they disapproved of the way Labour has handled Brexit, but remain loyal to Jeremy Corbyn. 

Finally, for those voters who, like Brenda, reacted to news of a general election by complaining "Not ANOTHER one", Starmer has some of the same appeal as Theresa May - he seems competent and grown-up. While EU regulation may be intensely fascinating to Brexiteers and Brussels correspondents, I suspect that by 2019 most of the British public's overwhelming reaction to Brexit will be boredom. Starmer's willingness to step up to the job matters. 

Starmer may not have the grassroots touch of the Labour leader, nor the charisma of backbench dissidents like Chuka Umunna, but the party should make him the de facto face of the campaign.  In the hysterics of a Brexit election, a quiet man may be just what Labour needs.

What did Keir Starmer say? The key points of his speech

  • An immediate guarantee that all EU nationals currently living in the UK will see no change in their legal status as a result of Brexit, while seeking reciprocal measures for UK citizens in the EU. 
  • Replacing the Tories’ Great Repeal Bill with an EU Rights and Protections Bill which fully protects consumer, worker and environmental rights.
  • A replacement White Paper with a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union. 
  • The devolution of any new powers that are transferred back from Brussels should go straight to the relevant devolved body, whether regional government in England or the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Parliament should be fully involved in the Brexit deal, and MPs should be able to vote on the deal in autumn 2018.
  • A commitment to seek to negotiate strong transitional arrangements when leaving the EU and to ensure there is no cliff-edge for the UK economy. 
  • An acceptance that freedom of movement will end with leaving the EU, but a commitment to prioritise jobs and economy in the negotiations.

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

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