There was a point in last night’s Battle for Number 10 TV interview with Ed Miliband when an audience member told Ed Miliband, “All the money was spent by Labour. Liberalisation of banks was under Labour,” basically demanding that the current Labour leader take responsibility for the financial crisis and the austerity the Conservative-led Coalition imposed afterwards.
Miliband started his answer by referring to the questioner as Tim, but had misheard and was quickly put right by the man more correctly known as Dean. The Labour leader admitted that Labour had got matters partly wrong by under-regulating the banks (although he did also point out that other parties – like the Conservatives – wanted even less regulation at the time).
Well, Dean – you got off lightly there. In fact, Ed Miliband could have roasted you alive because your question started from a false premise. Labour didn’t spend all the money, Dean. Labour’s financial record during its time in government is in fact better than any previous Conservative government for the past 50 years, Dean. Labour was forced into a corner in which it had to pay out hundreds of billions of pounds in order to save your bank account, Dean. The financial crisis was a global phenomenon, Dean. In this country it was caused by Tory-voting bankers, Dean. They had promised blind that they could behave responsibly and did not need a nanny looking over their shoulder, Dean. It was the bankers who ruined the country, Dean – Labour had to try to sort out the mess afterwards.
And Labour was doing a good job until the 2010 election happened and George Osborne replaced Alistair Darling at the Treasury. In one ’emergency’ budget, he reversed all the good work Labour had done and plunged us into three years of stagnation. But we didn’t hear Dean talking about that.
Of course, Dean won’t be reading this article so he won’t know that he was wrong. His type sail through life in their little bubbles of ignorance, never noticing the effect their attitudes have on others. He’s a bit like a dangerous driver who causes one collision after another among other motorists who are forced to try to compensate for his behaviour.
That was this writer’s reaction to just one question, from one questioner. From that angle, the 95-minute show seemed very long indeed.
Let’s rewind to the beginning. David Cameron was first up, having lost the coin-toss to Ed Miliband, who put his opponent in to face Jeremy Paxman’s grilling first. How did he do?
He admitted he couldn’t do a zero-hours job (despite having forced at least 700,000 others into them); he was inaccurate about his government’s record on getting the national debt and deficit down; he lied about Labour’s fiscal plans; he admitted he had failed to bring immigration down. His promise not to raise VAT was unconvincing. He lied about the speed of the UK’s economic growth – we’re not the fastest-growing western economy but are somewhere around seventh.
He absolutely refused to give any hint about where the Conservatives’ planned £12 billion cut in the benefits budget would fall. Anyone on benefits – in-work, out-of-work, pensioners; there are an awful lot of us – should therefore be very afraid of what will happen if he returns to government in May.
He repeatedly claimed the economy was “close to the brink” when he came to office in 2010. What does that mean? Close to the brink of what? Bankruptcy? Ridiculous – the UK can’t go bankrupt while it has a sovereign currency (or at least, not as easily as Cameron seemed to be saying). He lied that he had cut the deficit by half – in numerical terms, his government has reduced it by a third, but it is rising again now.
One comment that stood out: “We still don’t have one company [italics mine] that owns all the government’s buildings.” Why do government buildings need to be owned by a private, profit-making firm? Aren’t they public buildings? Can’t the government manage those buildings itself – in the name of the British people who own them? It was a sign of his neoliberal sensibilities – he wants to take anything owned by the state, sell it to the corporations, and pocket the proceeds so the public won’t even get any benefit from the sale.
He said it was important that local councils have resources. What a disingenuous statement – his government has been cutting funding for local government.
He implied that another government might join the Euro. Why did he do this? Nobody has even mentioned it.
On the privatisation of the NHS, he again brought up his son Ivan as a human shield, deflecting an honest question that was prompted by concern with his own anecdotal recollections about a service that no longer exists because he ended it. It was up to audience members to point out that he broke his promise not to have another NHS reorganisation, and he broke his manifesto promise not to force the closure of hospital Accident and Emergency departments. He said spending on the NHS had increased but omitted the fact that the profiteers he invited into the service are eating those increases and leaving nothing for the provision of care. And he said there were more doctors now – all of whom would have begun their training under the last Labour government and were nothing to do with him.
It was a miserable performance by a miserable excuse for a prime minister.
Ed Miliband’s turn began with some truly bizarre choices of questions from audience members. The challenger for the country’s top job was asked, “Why are you so gloomy?” He was asked if he thought his brother David, who lost to Ed in a Labour leadership election, would have done a better job as Opposition leader. “Are you going to break your promises?” “Why aren’t you steaming ahead in the polls?” It’s hard to understand how he could answer a question like that – so he did well even to try.
In fact, he did extremely well, considering the quality of the questioning. Asked why Labour demonises high-rate taxpayers (another curiosity – who says Labour does this, apart from high-rate taxpayers?) he said Labour is not against wealth-creation. He thinks the best way for the UK to succeed is not just for people at the top to have more, but for everybody to succeed. Good answer. He revisited this later, when he asked, “Is our country going to just work for the richest and most powerful, or is everyone going to get a fair shot?”
Asked about Labour’s deficit reduction plans, he pointed out the elephant in the room that David Cameron avoids mentioning: “Living standards have fallen so tax revenue has fallen.” Labour’s plan is to improve living standards and increase the amount of tax revenue coming in, by increasing the number of people able to pay it.
On the David Miliband question, he admitted that New Labour had made mistakes and it was time to move on. “New Labour was too relaxed on inequality.” He mentioned the Iraq War, and he admitted that New Labour grossly underestimated the numbers of immigrants likely to arrive here after the eastern European countries joined the EU. This is important, because it neutralises claims made by Labour’s detractors that the party hasn’t learned the important lessons of its time in office; clearly, he was saying, he has. He returned to foreign affairs later, under grilling from Jeremy Paxman, when he flagged up his response to the government’s call for British armed forces to go to Syria. He said the current situation in that country remains terrible, but it would have been wrong for the UK to have become part of it.
Asked if he was another politician who was going to break his promises, Miliband offered a firm “No.” He said he was going to follow through on his promises because he wanted to rebuild trust in politics and politicians. “I want to under-promise and over-deliver”.
These questions left Jeremy Paxman with very little to ask. He revisited immigration, and asked what else Labour got wrong when it was in office – also covered in the audience’s questions. He tried to trap Miliband with questions about Labour’s economic forecasts about Coalition policy being wrong (they were based on information from the Office for Budget Responsibility – and the claim that wages have fallen is accurate), and about his time as energy minister (“I never said raising energy bills would combat climate change. You can’t use climate change to rip off the consumer”).
The challenge on the Mansion Tax was extremely ill-thought-out. Paxman claimed that Jim Murphy had said it was a way of taking money from the southeast of England and using it to subsidise Scotland. Miliband pointed out that this is what taxation is all about; tax money is used to support government policies throughout the whole of the UK. In fact, it is worrying that this was even mentioned as it suggests that people are starting to forget what taxation is about; the redistribution of some of the nation’s wealth into services for everybody.
Finally, Paxman came to the questions he had to ask, because they are the basis of the Tory election campaign: The claims that Miliband is a poor leader. Is he in a bargaining game with Alex Salmond over a deal with the SNP? No. “People look at you and say, what a shame he’s not his brother.” (This one raised a groan from the audience, who were firmly on Miliband’s side by now, having clearly decided that the questions put to him were not fair). Miliband shrugged. “Who cares? I’ve been underestimated at every turn.”
“People think you’re not tough enough.” This one provoked the iconic moment of the evening, that will be recalled by everyone who saw it – even Miliband’s detractors.
“Am I tough enough?” he echoed. “Hell yes, I’m tough enough!”
And then it was all over, bar the shouting from the political commentators in the press and on the social media.
A Guardian/ICM poll suggested Cameron had won the confrontation, by a margin of 54 per cent of respondents to 46 per cent for Miliband. YouGov had the difference much narrower, at 51 per cent against 49 per cent. Labour commentators said this was a great result for their party, as Miliband had been trailing much further behind Cameron in the run-up to the show.
On Twitter, the response went the other way entirely, with a hands-down win for Miliband. Paxman and co-host Kay Burley of Sky News came under fire for apparent favouritism towards David Cameron (both are known to have Conservative leanings).
Most damning, for Cameron is the simple fact that he refused to debate Miliband face-to-face. They were in the same TV studio, at the same time, and Cameron didn’t have the courage to do it.
Perhaps that is what voters will remember.
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