Pre-Election Debate: MPs, Journalists and the Royal Holloway Debating Society

The Independent Live! Pre-Election Debate took place on February 3rd 2010, and three members of the Royal Holloway Debating Society attended in order to participate in the political discussions which are reaching their climax in the run-up to the general elections. Although no date has been officially set for the general elections, there is a legal requirement for polling stations to be open before June 2010. Politicians and journalists formed the panel, which was presided over by Steve Richards, the Independent’s chief political commentator. The MPs were Charles Clarke, Labour MP for Norwich South and former Home Secretary, and Chris Huhne, Liberal Democrat MP for Eastleigh. They were joined by Independent columnists Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Michael Brown; the latter is a former Conservative MP.

The debate opened with each of the panellists offering their opinions about the British economy, society and globalisation. Charles Clarke expressed concerns that there had been an “insufficient assessment” of globalisation. His primary focus was the economy, stressing how the finance sector needed to be re-evaluated in light of “utility” versus “casino” banking; he called for “less centralised government” and greater transparency of the tax system. The issue of centralised and local government became a theme throughout his speech, as he elaborated on public services reorienting their focus to the consumer’s needs, or the “patient, pupil and parent”. In response to green issues, he noted that society needs to undergo drastic “changes in behaviour”, in tandem with energy and transport policies. Clarke reflected that “we have to be more dependent on ourselves and our local communities.”

Michael Brown offered a disparaging overview of the Conservative party’s shortcomings, commenting that the Tories are always liable to “snatch defeat from the jaws of victory”. Just a few months ago Brown was sure that David Cameron would “sleep-walk” his way into parliament; now, however, he does not believe that the Conservatives will be elected with an overall majority. He says that the Conservative’s economic policies are “unclear” and “confused”. Despite this, the Labour party are deeply unpopular amongst the British public, with 72% of the general public indicated in a recent poll that they do not want another Labour government. In Brown’s view, Cameron does not appreciate what being the leader of a country means, he simply fancies himself as the Prime Minister.

In Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s view, Britain should “never again be taken to war on a false premise”, alluding to the Iraq Inquiry currently taking place. Alibhai-Brown offered a characteristically metaphor-laden diatribe against “double standards”, saying that we have all “got to live by the same rules”. She talked about the “imperialist gene”, apparently written into our DNA, which we must get over in order to face the “Muslim question”. Tensions became evident in her speech however, when she followed her previous argument with the idea that the British government had “gone too far” in liberalising society, and that this was the cause of increased fundamentalism.

The final speaker, Chris Huhne, followed Clarke in making the economy the primary focus of his speech. He spoke of the need to reinvent the economy in light of advances in renewable energy, calling for a “green revolution”. This issue, he emphasised, needs to be driven by policy change rather than technology and business demands. Huhne commented that society is still “deeply unfair”, but he was quick to point out that the increase in the gap between rich and poor has not happened as fast as it did under the Conservative government of the 1980s. Huhne was particularly vocal in calling for less of the “lumbering traditional central government”, devolving powers to local authorities and constituencies. He noted that the UK has the most centralised government in the EU, with 94 pence of every £1 going through Whitehall, compared to an EU average of approx. 50%.

After the panellists had given their speeches, the debate was opened out to the floor and audience members invited to ask their own questions. We asked of all the panellists “Why is it that no political party will be drawn into the debate surrounding tuition fees?” The response that we received was a little less than illuminating. Chris Huhne restated the standard Liberal Democrat line that his party is committed to “free education” for all, and that he thought it “basic and sensible” that we should uphold this fundamental principle. He quickly qualified this with the observation that “fiscal constraints” prevent this from being possible. Charles Clarke, who was a key proponent in passing the legislation for top-up fees, reiterated the argument that “nothing in life is free”. Somebody “needs to pay” so it seems fair that the individual user pays for that service, given that they themselves benefit. In Clarke’s view the standard loan should not be means tested, since what a student’s parents earn is irrelevant once you are over 18 years of age. It seems that the choice has been made to prioritise funding for the government’s “Sure Start” policy, rather than higher education.

“The Debt Question” was raised by several people, specifically with regard to what measures the panellists thought would be most effective in solving the UK’s debt problem. Charles Clarke called for an increase in taxes, “not cuts in public spending”; he stressed that we must discourage spending in the domestic sphere, and called for greater “regulations for private lending”. Michael Brown vehemently opposed Clarke’s arguments, remarking that there must be “nasty, vicious cuts…that will hurt the people”, that “there is no way of escaping pain”, and that we had better start now or else the situation will only get worse. Chris Huhne argued that we do not just need to increase taxes and make spending cuts: we need “the third ingredient” growth. He used the metaphor of a “lost generation” to illustrate the danger of plummeting self-esteem in a financially depressed period, as witnessed during the 1980s.

Another theme of considerable concern to members of the general public was a complete ‘disillusionment with politics’: how will MPs engage with their constituencies and the electorate in order to combat the increased apathy that voters feel in the wake of the ongoing expenses scandal and the Chilcot Inquiry? Electoral reform seems particularly pertinent in light of the fact that 40% of all constituencies have never changed hands since WWII. Michael Brown restated his argument that “David Cameron simply wants to be Prime minister” and that the Conservative party are “scared of their own shadow”. In Brown’s view, it is a shame that the Conservatives will not coherently state their views on reform of the financial sector, since all voters have clear – and often united – views about regulating the industry and the bankers.

When polled, the majority at the pre-election debate thought that there would be a hung parliament, and the majority wanted a hung parliament. A hung parliament occurs when there is no clear majority in the House of Commons; the last time there was a hung parliament in the UK was 1974, and before that 1929. Charles Clarke, a staunch anti-Brownite, suggested that a new Labour leader would have a good chance of winning a majority. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown called for a “new kind of party”, adding that a hung parliament was the most preferable outcome of the general election. Chris Huhne rather unsurprisingly remarked that people always underestimate the Liberal Democrats. Brown closed the debate by remarking that the Tories will most likely “stumble into office with a narrow majority.”

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