Consigned to history? Will we see similar leaders' debates to the ones in 2010 this time around? Photo: Getty
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The boon of election debates, remembering the Brighton bomb, and a school inspector’s power

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column. 

The 2010 TV election debates turned out to be rather like leylandii: they killed off everything around them. The old-fashioned morning press conferences almost vanished. Instead, the parties designed their strategies around the weekly debates, which changed the texture and rhythm of the campaign to an extent nobody had anticipated. The defining moment was Nick Clegg’s “victory” in the first debate, which ultimately led to an 850,000 rise on the Lib Dems’ 2005 vote (though they won fewer seats). The only other memorable event was Gordon Brown’s encounter with the Rochdale grandmother Gillian Duffy.

Following the broadcasters’ proposal that next year Nigel Farage should be included in one debate, Clegg excluded from another and the Greens still left out in the cold, it seems possible that, with litigation threatened from all quarters, what happened in 2010 will not be repeated. If so, it would be a pity. The debates should continue while other forms of electioneering, including party political broadcasts and leaders’ walkabouts, wither away. Nothing is perfect but 90-minute debates, free from filmed sequences, computer graphics, spontaneous audience intervention and other irritating media tricks, seem to be a relatively good way to decide an election. They are cheap, leaving politicians without need for either big donations or taxpayer subsidies. Perhaps similar debates, between candidates in each constituency, could go out on the web.

Aid prescription

As large numbers of Britons, moving serenely towards early deaths from excessive food and alcohol, panic over the ebola virus, you couldn’t have a better argument for overseas aid. Like nearly all diseases, ebola spreads in countries with poor public infrastructure: insufficient doctors, nurses and public health workers; inadequate sewage systems; absence of running water; unreliable electricity supplies; low literacy levels that make it hard to convey vital health information. Only by developing better public resources can this virus and others be stopped at source, ensuring hypochondriac westerners can continue undisturbed with their sugar-saturated diets. Aneurin Bevan, architect of the NHS, said that when a bedpan was dropped in Tredegar, it should resound in Westminster. The same could now be said of a bedpan dropped in Monrovia.

I doubt that Farage, the most prominent advocate of abolishing overseas aid, will be impressed. He seems to believe the answer to everything is to keep foreigners out. Ebola, he will think, strengthens his argument for a return to the 1950s when migrants came only by boat and hardly anybody ever got on planes.

Wages of sin

It is hardly surprising that NHS staff went on strike. Since 2010, nurses’ and midwives’ pay has gone up 5 per cent while the service’s top managers have enjoyed rises of almost 14 per cent. Meanwhile, boardroom pay in the biggest UK companies is up 21 per cent in a year while average earnings continue to fall. Nobody is any longer surprised by such figures, which pass almost without comment. Why are they not at the centre of political debate and why does no politician seem to know what to do about them?

Blissfully unaware

The 30th anniversary of the Tory party conference bomb in Brighton reminds me that, before mobile phones and the internet, it was possible to go for long periods unaware of even the most dramatic news. The bomb went off at 2.54am. That morning, I overslept and dashed straight to the station with the morning’s Guardian, printed too early to carry the news. I then worked for the Sunday Times in a small office hidden down a corridor where other hacks rarely ventured.

Up against a features deadline, I worked alone and single-mindedly, ignoring phone calls, until I left for a lunch appointment. I spotted an evening paper billboard about a Brighton bomb as I entered the restaurant and greeted my fellow luncher with: “Ha! Somebody’s put a bomb under the Tories!” Only then, nearly 12 hours after the event, did I learn the full, grisly story.

At least this was an improvement on the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Robert Kennedy’s assassination and the Munich Olympic massacre, of which, being on holiday, I remained ignorant for two, three and five days respectively.

An inspector’s call

I thought the Chief Inspector of Schools, Michael Wilshaw, was going too far in June when he proposed that heads should have the power to fine parents who didn’t read to their children. However, Nigel Gann, a former head teacher who now runs an educational consultancy, recalled at a conference I attended the other day that Matthew Arnold had gone further. He told a six-year-old girl that, if she didn’t quickly learn to read, he would put her parents in prison. Startled and frightened, she asked her father if a poet had such powers. After some hesitation, he said he didn’t think so but that, since Arnold’s day job was schools inspector, perhaps he could.

Arnold’s threat worked: the child (who grew up to become Lina Waterfield, the Observer’s correspondent in Italy, and recalled this episode in her autobiography) was reading Grimm’s Fairy Tales within weeks. But please don’t tell the power-crazed Wilshaw.

Dangerous mind

Sally Tomlinson, who has been an education professor at three universities, received an email last month inviting her to the 15 October launch of a campaign, supported by all the mainstream party leaders, to have more people visiting primary-school classrooms to “make the connection” with “the world of work”. The email demanded an immediate reply and a postal address to allow security checks prior to formal printed invitations. Tomlinson duly replied, giving her Cotswolds address. No invitation followed. Are professors of education now regarded as security risks? 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Isis can be beaten

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle