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Friday, 16 April 2010

PM Debate No.1 - A Liberal Victory.


On Thursday 15th April, Gordon Brown met with David Cameron and Nick Clegg in a debate televised live. This was the first ever televised debate between the candidates for Prime Minister, who are competing for the hearts and minds of the British public. There has been these kinds of debates in the United States for the past 50 years, the first being in 1960 in which Nixon took on Kennedy and lost. The debate was televised on ITV and chaired by Alistair Stewart, it should be kept in mind that ITV News could be viewed as having a thoroughly right-wing slant and possibly a leaning towards the Conservative Party. In regards to that, David Cameron was placed at the centre of the room, in between the Labour and Liberal candidates, putting his comparative youth and dynamic appearance at the centre of the debate. However, it seems that Cameron failed to "woo" voters and the debate appears to have been a success for Nick Clegg. There is disagreement over how successful, the percentages in the media ranging from 36% to 51%.

The opening statements of the three candidates tended to emphasised "change" and "fairness", though Brown also emphasised "prosperity" as he cannot practically stand for "change". Of course, the specific word "change" is being used by candidates to associate themselves with Obama's Presidential campaign in the minds of voters. Though, it seems unlikely that the optimism which ushered Barack Obama into office can be recreated over here as the three candidates do not convincingly portray themselves as three real options. Instead, they appear to the public as three versions of the same old deal. This is the reason that voting turnout has been in decline in recent years and will probably continue to decline. The embarrassing fact that more people voted for Joe McElderry than they did for Tony Blair in 2005 has not been mentioned in the mass-media. Hopefully, we are not going to end up like Lithuania where the dominant party consists of Lithuanian celebrities, who are so loved by their people that their policies are barely scrutinised in the media.

The first question that was raised revolved around immigration, with the candidates all trying to appear "moderately" opposed to immigration. Brown used the specific phrase "control immigration" and emphasised the importance of "tolerance". Cameron was more specific, stating that he wants to decrease the amount of immigration, he spoke of immigration quotas and welfare reform. Clegg spoke again of "fairness" and restoring "entry controls". After this question, the debate was moved to law and order. Cameron took the "tough approach", seeking to capitalise on the repute the Conservatives have as the "nasty party", he spoke of harsher sentencing and greater policing. Clegg also spoke of greater policing, but also of prevention. Brown defended his party's record, claiming that crime is falling but we need to maintain the current level of policing and increase parental responsibility. The debate soon turned to the issue of spending cuts as Brown pushed Cameron for answers on how he aims to supplement his tax-cuts.

This was really the recurrent issue of the debate, public spending and taxation, as it seemed to marginalise the difficult topics raised by the audience. This isn't a coincidence either, as the questions were more than likely "cherry-picked" by ITV. Brown pushed Cameron for answers on this issue repeatedly, and stood to his pragmatic position of continuing the rate of spending to avoid risking the recovery. Cameron dodged the question, accusing Brown of not being honest about the cuts that might be necessary to the NHS and the police. Ironically, this may have made Cameron appear dishonest and opportunistic. The lack of honesty among politicians, their constant avoidance of difficult questions and reluctance to self-criticism, is another reason for the great deal of disillusion with the political class. But Labour is also a perpetrator of this perceived dishonesty and opportunism, which has contributed to the declining belief in the democratic process.

When it came to the issue of the MPs expenses scandal, a real issue, Clegg came across as the strongest on the issue and attacked Labour and the Conservatives for blocking reform. Though, it isn't exactly hard-headed and radical to oppose such a scandal, as corruption is opposed even in the private sector as corruption disrupts in the system. Largely, the MPs expenses were brought up in the media to turn the public eye away from the issue of bonuses in the financial sector. Brown claimed to "agree with Nick", he then went on to speak of reforming the political system and attacked the Conservatives. Cameron then proceeded to bicker with Brown over reforming the House of Lords. Cameron ended the discussion by acknowledging that all candidates support the right of recall. It should be noted, in practice Labour and the Conservative Party have opposed attempts at reform. The way in which Cameron and Brown dodged that issue is evident of the reluctance to self-criticism they demonstrated during the debate. This is yet another reason for the prevalence of apathy, as most politicians appear disingenuous and self-interested.

On the question of education, Cameron slammed bureaucracy and expressed his desire to "set the schools free", while also presenting himself as the "family man" as he promotes greater discipline. Predictably, Brown defended Labour's past record and advocated "higher standards" in education. On the other hand, Clegg highlighted the importance of creativity and also condemned the amount of bureaucracy in schooling. The major buzz-words of their answers were "discipline", "creativity" and "standards", which are vacuous and were used repeatedly. Again, the debate was turned to the issue of public spending and taxation. David Cameron compared the state to a business, the point being that costs are a threat to profits, not seeming to notice that the state isn't a business it does not make profits and often has to spend beyond it's means for the sake of the welfare state and the people who need it. The analogy Cameron used is the major assumption of those who attack the government's fiscal policy over the last 2 years.

Economic growth was the next issue, taxes and spending were bound to come up here and they did. Cameron immediately brought up the issue of national insurance, which he described as a "kill job" tax, and bragged about the support he is receiving from the business community. Support which is indicative of the Conservatives appeal, not to the majority of the population, but to a minority of rich predominantly white men. Clegg tried to communicate with the audience by addressing people by their first names, while bringing up the possibility of doing away with Trident. Brown defended his past record on the economy on pragmatic grounds, we must continue spending a while to avoid a double-dip recession and so on. It should be noted that a double-dip recession has not occurred for many decades. And it is unlikely that we will go into another recession, but the reason for that is an expansionary fiscal policy. The Conservatives would have implemented such a policy regardless of the free-marketeer rhetoric they propagate. What is vital, and what none of the candidates offer, is the restructuring of the financial sector and the economy.

Then the war in Afghanistan came up, framed around the specific topic of army pay and equipment. The underlying assumption being that in war British soldiers should not die, only the Afghans should die and not just insurgents but civilians.  Gordon Brown was quick to express his pride in the troops and claimed to have increased funding and equipment in recent years. This is contrary to the popular belief that soldiers are underpaid and poorly equipped. Brown went on to claim that the war is to stop terrorists in Afghanistan. There was no mention of the fact that the Taliban offered to hand Osama bin Laden over to the US, if the US provided evidence, that George Bush refused to do so and the invasion came soon after. The invasion turned into a war against the Taliban, and an exercise in state craft, after it became apparent that al-Qaeda were not in Afghanistan. 

On the issue of the Afghan war, David Cameron also expressed his pride in the troops and stressed that his pride was in their brilliance. He went on to point to China, Iran and North Korea as potential threats to British national security and the justification of Trident. This isn't anything particularly surprising as North Korea and Iran are part of the "Axis of Evil". But Cameron's mentioning of China is interesting, as China is a superpower in waiting. The war in Afghanistan is valuable to Western powers in strategic terms, it's close to the major energy providers of the world, and can used to further ostracise disobedient states like Iran. The control of energy resources is also a way for the US government to maintain it's status as the world's leading superpower. Though, the decline of the US as a international hegemon seems inevitable, it looks likely that China will surpass them in future decades and Britain may have to reassess the "special relationship".

The debate regarding the war in Afghanistan was constrained to the safe realms of paying and arming the military sufficiently. As opposed to the real issues of the legitimacy and the morality of the Afghan war. Naturally, the fact that the UK and the US invaded Afghanistan with the full knowledge the war could kill several million Afghans went ignored. None of the candidates mentioned that the war in Afghanistan could be seen in the same light as the Iraq war. The Iraq war was also ignored as an issue, even though the Conservatives and Labour voted for it while the Liberals opposed it. The war in Iraq has now killed over 1 million Iraqis, but the politicians in Westminster prefer to bicker over national insurance and spending cuts. This is not only a dishonour to the anti-war movement, who have been campaigning about these wars for almost a decade now, it is an insult to the innocent human beings killed in these conflicts.

The next two topics were on health-care and the elderly, Cameron used his "experience" with the NHS to reassure the audience that his party will not cut spending to the NHS. This is where the debate once again led back to taxes and spending cuts. Brown and Clegg attacked the Conservatives for their tax-cuts for the rich and the cuts to the NHS that could come with such tax-cuts. Strangely, the Conservative Daniel Hannan who is opposed to universal health-care was not mentioned. In the past, Hannan has referred to it as a mistake and has even slung mud at the NHS on American TV. Labour and the Liberals could easily capitalise on the fact that Hannan's attitude, towards a vital aspect of the welfare state, is out-of-date and in direct opposition to the view of the British population. The existence of a national health service and the acknowledgement of health-care as a right, should not be a matter of debate today. But politicians who challenge the right to health-care are rightfully scorned by the British public.

On caring for the elderly, none of the candidates proposed a method or policy to prevent or ease the coming pensions crisis. The fact that the amount of old people in this country will surpass the amount of young people, particularly those working and paying the taxes which support the pension system, is a serious issue. There are methods that could have at least been discussed, but are not popular. One option is increasing taxes, which Labour is already being attacked for, the Conservatives and Liberals oppose outright. Another option is increasing immigration, but The Sun feels there is already too many immigrants in the country, that's not even a realistic proposal for politicians to even acknowledge. The remaining option is privatisation, which is not only unpopular it would probably be a disaster as private pensions are dependent on the stock market and are vulnerable to the chaos of the market. It should also be noted that a private pensions system would mean that working people would have a stake in the undermining of their own interests, lowering wages and increasing work hours.

In the closing statements, Nick Clegg presented himself as something "new" and "alternative", he was sure to recall the names of all audience members who asked questions. The emphasis of his statement were on  "change" and "fairness" as offered by his party. Brown stuck to his position on the economy, a pragmatic vision featuring "fairness" and painless spending cuts, his attacks on the Conservatives for their lack of guarantees. Cameron tried to portray his party as exemplifying "hope" not "fear" and made reference to his vision of a "Big Society" - a notably vacuous phrase. He stressed "values" and "change" in his statement. The comments made by political figures, the likes of William Hague and Alan Johnson, were interesting. Johnson pointed to Brown as the winner as he presented the public with "substance", something which Johnson claims Clegg and Cameron lack. This is an interesting claim as it assumes there is a lack of "substance" in the political system and that a "man of substance", like Gordon Brown, is unique and rare.

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