On Wednesday the 15th of April the RNCM played host to a General Election debate hosted by The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
The event was chaired by Independent journalist Steve Richards and featured, on one side, John Bickley, UKIP candidate for Heywood and Middleton, and Ian Birrell, Independent columnist and speechwriter for David Cameron’s 2010 election campaign. They were joined by Vicky Pryce, economist and writer of Greekonomics and Prisonomics, and Andy Burnham, Labour candidate for Leigh.
The Independent Live event was marketed as “question time with an Independent twist.” The aim was to encourage conversation about anything election-related, and audience questions ranged from the economy to healthcare.
Pryce and Burnham were keen to quickly address the assumption that the economy passed on to the coalition government in 2010 was shrinking. “The UK’s large financial sector meant it was disproportionally affected [by the global financial crisis],” said Pryce.
“In defence of the Labour government, they pulled out all the stops to ensure that the economy didn’t collapse at that time. They expanded government spending significantly—in some ways, we’re now complaining that the government did all the things they needed to do.”
When quizzed on why the party has not been explicitly explaining that the economy was growing in 2010, Burnham said, “it is quite hard for a first term opposition to get heard. We needed to go through a deep reassessment like the Tories did in 1997.
“Yes, there was communication failure, but I think it’s more about spin than policy.”
Early on there was a question about whether the current election indicated that the British political system was becoming presidential.
“I don’t think this one will be. Some thought [the 2010 debates] sucked the life out of it. We had the seven-way debate a couple of weeks ago, and the debate [on the 16th] without the coalition parties that might feel quite strange. Overall, people want to see more than personality-based politics. You’ve got the best Labour manifesto for a considerable amount of time. Ed’s reshaped things from first principles and put his own stamp on policies.”
Bickley said, “incumbent parties are fighting for airtime. You need a leader who commands an audience. Cameron and Miliband are avoiding a close debate with Farage. We need to ensure politics is about ideas. At the end of the day politics is only about how some parties play their role in running the country.”
Birrell added: “Whether Ed Miliband can eat a bacon sandwich or not is irrelevant, but if he can stand up to Putin—that is important. Cameron was more Chief Exec-like than Thatcher or Blair.”
In response to a question on obesity, John Bickley was quick to criticise the Labour Party on both the economy and the NHS,. “When Labour are in power, the NHS is wonderful. When they’re not, it has to depict the NHS as in crisis. The Labour Party has very little credibility left after what they did to the economy.
“The NHS has not been privatised. It is a very large institution and things will naturally go wrong. The Labour Party has played as big a role in outsourcing services to the private sector. We should stop vilifying private services. [UKIP] wants the NHS to remain free at the point of delivery.”
Birrell was also critical. “I used to have the view that the NHS was the greatest institution in the world until 21 years ago when my family had a seriously disabled child. The NHS can be wonderful, with staff who work incredibly hard, but there is some absolutely disastrous healthcare.
“The ones that suffer are the disabled and elderly—there are many unnecessary deaths every year. Let’s concentrate on getting it right—let’s not use it as a political football.”
In response to Vicky Pryce’s emphasis that exercise is still disregarded by policymakers, Burnham said “physical health is the best way to tackle obesity. Compel? No,but exercise on referral in all GP practices.
“The question of a nanny state—I think it is right for the state to intervene decisively in the question of children because they often can’t make decisions. We are suggesting big changes—maximum levels of fat, salt and sugar in food, and a much more positive policy on physical activity.”
Birrell, however, disagreed. “It’s more about tackling food manufacturers than exercise. The Tory reforms were botched and bungled, but reversing them would be misguided.”
The debate quickly turned to the EU, with an audience member asking about its effect on our economy. John Bickley outlined the UKIP stance on this. “It’s important to separate the EU and Europe, which is a trading opportunity. We only ever gave permission to our politicians to join on a trading basis.
“This happens all too often—the government makes decisions on our behalf. If we are a democracy, this debate should have been taking place in the past 30 years. We should have a debate as to whether we want to be part of a super-state. Unfortunately, the political elite have bounced us into this, and they’ve never given us permission to decide on this.”
Burnham was emphatic in his response; “Why would you throw barriers between you and your trading partner? It seems to me there will be a moment when people want to have their say.
“People think a referendum can be easily offered. It causes polarisation, and so soon after an election it would throw British businesses into three years of uncertainty. I support free movement of labour, but I have never given my consent to the free movement of benefit. People don’t see why there should be entitlement for all the benefits of the British state. I am pro-European, Labour is pro-European, and I never want to see that change.”
As the debate turned to the campaign, Vicky Pryce commented that she was probably the only one to have read all the manifestos. “They were great fun. Because it’s so unclear about what’s going to happen, and the fact that fringe parties may give support, means quite a lot of what’s in them is worthless; it’s not going to happen.
“What was surprising was that the Lib Dems have much more of an international policy. We have had growth, yes, but a very poor labour market. There has been no real change in the economy—the financial sector still dominates.”
John Bickley encouraged disillusioned voters to take action themselves. “With UKIP coming along, the Greens, if we’re forcing the main parties to have to answer questions, they actually agree on things.
“If you don’t agree with anything you’ve heard, set up your own party! I wish I had got involved earlier.”
Burnham added: “For the first time in a long time, we’ve had an opposition leader stand up to the vested interests of business leaders. Nationalism is on the rise. Whether you are on the left or right, you will feel a little worried and use your vote to defeat nationalism in its tracks.” This final comment received the loudest applause of the evening.
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