PMQs: Does Brown Have A Point?

Watching PMQs today, you would have had to be almost comatose not to have picked up on Gordon Brown’s main point of rebuttal against the Tories: that they weren’t talking about the issues. Of course, it’s a convenient way for him not to answer awkward questions about his own leadership, but it has to be said, the man has a point. PMQs today had what seemed like more than its fair share of throughly pathetic, Westminster-village questions.

The Tory questions today included (and I paraphrase, here, but you get the idea):

  • Cameron: You’re shit, and you know you are.
  • Bullying in the Workplace! Arf!
  • Look, an online petition for you to resign!
  • How are you doing on the whole setting out your vision thing?
  • Will Hazel Blears’s article be dealt with in “the usual way”? Titter.

But it certainly wasn’t all coming from the Tories. Labour MPs are often to be found offering fuckwittedly craven softballs to the leader, on the glorious achievements of Her Majesty’s Government. Today’s included:

  • Rother Valley’s unemployment is not yet as bad as it was in 1997. So no worries, keep up the good work!
  • Tell me all about your plans to exclude tips from the minimum wage.
  • Let me tell you about my local football team, Brighton & Hove. They wunned at the weekend, you know…
  • Swindon borough council is run by evil Tories. Would you like to join me in denouncing them?
  • Please can you confirm that the £300m available for higher education building projects might include the plan in Blackpool to build, well, a higher education building? Just to clarify.
  • Please will you give a meaningless, open ended commitment to do whatever you can to save jobs at General Motors factories?
  • Please agree with me when I say that the government is brilliant, and creating 1000 jobs in Gloucester docks.
  • Would you care to join me in attacking the Tories, who might cut police in Greater Manchester. ps. We’re building some new stuff in Bury, wooo!

There were, to be fair, some non-pathetic questions from the two biggest parties. From the Tories, we had:

  • Will the Gurkhas vote be binding?
  • Compensating the fund for Christie hospital for losses in Icelandic banks.

And Labour MPs offered:

  • Will you secure a report to the house on the government’s actions to tackle child trafficking?
  • Will you meet with me to discuss illegal gangmasters in the construction industry?
  • What’s going on with the trouble at Stafford hospital?

And then we have today’s Lib Dem questions. Nick Clegg tackled Gordon on his big speech about children and education, in a similar manner to Cameron, only Nick had a point about an actual thing. Here’s the run-down of our questions:

  • Clegg: Education and young people.
  • Low returns on savings offered by bailed out banks.

That was it for us. Today also saw the DUP doing some special pleading for Northern Ireland, and Plaid Cymru asking about Trident.

So after all that, what conclusions can we draw? Which parties have made a good use of the opportunities that PMQs present? Here’s a little summary:

Labour: 11 questions, ~3 of them with much substance to them.
Conservatives: 12 questions (6 from Cameron), 2 of them with much substance to them.
Lib Dem: 3 questions (2 from Clegg), 3 of them with much substance to them.

That’s a success rate of

Lab: 27%
Con: 17%
Lib: 100%

I know the Lib Dems have an easy time under this kind of metric, because we don’t really have the number of questions to piss some of them away taking the piss. But really, can we not expect any better than that from the other parties? If Gordon Brown is serious about wanting better questions from the Tories, he could start by planting some slightly less pathetic questions for himself from his own side.

Daniel Hannan, Guido and the American Right

Guido is terribly proud that Daniel Hannan’s speech, straight out of the Guido playbook of diagnosing Gordon Brown’s “pathologies” and wrapping himself in libertarian bollocks, has become something of an internet sensation. Noting that the clip has attracted the attention of such illustrious organs as the Drudge Report, he declares:

Cometh the hour, cometh the man – we are all ditto-heads now; Rushies and the Co-Conspirators.

He slightly surprises me with his eagerness to take up the mantle of “dittohead“, but it fits like a charm. After all, doesn’t Guido’s blog have exactly the same right-wing echo chamber effect as Rush and Fox News do for the US? Isn’t his comments thread full of the same brand of half-sentient hate-spewing twats that call Rush? Guido seems to be embracing the comparison before any of his regular critics really articulated it properly, just to block off that particular line of attack.

Anyway, on to the clip itself. Since it was released on Tuesday, it has become remarkably well exposed; yesterday it was the most watched clip on YouTube. So is it all that remarkable? Well, to be fair, it’s well crafted, to the point, snappy, and clearly expresses Hannan’s position. What’s more surprising is that it achieved this without much exposure at all from the MSM in the UK. Interestingly, Hannan has become something of a hero to the US right, with Rush Limbaugh (de facto leader of the Republicans) endorsing his words, Fox News cheerleader for the markets Neil Cavuto interviewing him, and well known crazy person Glen Beck inviting him on his show too.

Why, then, are the UK Conservatives not more proud of him? Hannan seems to be viewed by his own party as a slightly loose cannon, being one of the more headbanging eurosceptics in the party, a cheerleader for joining the loony fringe of Europe, and in fact he’s already been expelled from the EPP himself.

In many ways, the interviews with the US media are rather more revealing than the speech itself. In the Cavuto interview, he pretty much takes ownership of being the”do nothing” party (look at about 3 mins in), and answers “yes” in response to the question “in the same situation [of the US banking crisis], would you have said “Let ’em rip”?”.

I have to say, watching those videos is quite entertaining in at least one respect: the right wings of both our countries are currently maintaining that their particular screamingly socialist government is taking their country to much lower depths than are to be found anywhere else in the world. The result, when you bring the two together, is a pissing contest. Witness much claiming to have it worst from both sides of the pond.

The most amusing bit, though, is this big stompy red quote from Guido: “It is the speech that many Republicans wish they had someone to deliver to Obama“. Um, no. The Republicans have plenty of populist ranters who could deliver a little mini-speech like this. Trouble is, none of them could say it with a straight face, because unlike Gordon Brown, Barack Obama hasn’t been in the driving seat for the last ten years. He’s been there for three months. If the Republicans tried to pull this, they would rightly be derided, because it was George Bush who turned a surplus inherited from Clinton into a deficit.

Daniel Hannan is said to be somewhat perplexed at the traction he has achieved in the US. Let me help you out, Daniel: It’s a distraction. Like so much that the Republican noise machine does, it’s a talking point to try to prove a point from a country with different circumstances to those of the US, and then import the “take home message” to the US, without people noticing the bait and switch they’ve just been offered whereby something that reflects badly on the Republicans becomes the fault of “socialists” over there in Yerp. There’s a reason they’d rather talk about the backstory in someone else’s country: it’s because they’ve only been the opposition for three months, and most of that backstory in the US is their backstory.

Tax Credits as Tax Cuts

So I just watched PMQs and the discussion of it afterwards on the Daily Politics, which you can see again (today anyway) here. The interesting thing to note here is not the u-turn itself, it is the bizarre situation the government have put themselves in regarding the whole issue of taxation.

Andrew Neil was busy putting a lovely, liberal argument to Patricia Hewitt about just not taxing people rather than making them fill in a form to get their money back. I can’t be arsed to transcribe it, but here’s the conversation stripped down to its core meaning:

Neil: My cleaner pays more tax under this system. You are making her pay more tax, then fill in a big form to get some of it back.

Hewitt: The tax credit system has transformed the lives of poor families.

Neil: She doesn’t have a family, she isn’t entitled to most of the tax credits.

Hewitt: Which is why we introduced the working tax credit for single people without children. But yes, some people still don’t qualify for it, so clearly what’s coming is an extention of tax credits.

Now, pay attention at the back! The argument on this stuff has gone basically as follows since Brown first announced the abolition of the 10p rate in his last budget:

Government: We are abolishing the 10p rate.

Opponents: But that leaves many people, mostly poor people, worse off.

Government: But not all poor people. Look, pensioners, people with children, etc. are fine, because we’re giving it back to them with tax credits and the like.

Opponents: Yes, but what if you’re on a low income and you don’t have children. Then you will lose out.

Government: Lalala, I’m not listening.

Opponents: Well, our constituents are, so we’re going to keep this up and possibly destabilise you.

Government: Oh all right then. But we aren’t reversing the decision.

Opponents: Then you’d better think of something else to make it all better then, hadn’t you?

Government: Got it! We roll out more tax credits and winter fuel allowance to make sure nobody loses out.

Opponents: Hmm. That’s a pretty wide net of tax credits, then.

Government: Oh, don’t worry, it will be.

The point has to be made here that tax credits are supposed to be a redistributive measure, smuggled in by Brown to allow him to feel like a Labour chancellor whilst seemingly not doing too much redistribution. And fair play, there is an argument to be made there; after all, if you want to make judgments about how much of their own money people should be allowed to keep based on something other than their income (eg. whether or not they need to look after children with it), this is one way to do that.

But they’re only justifiable as long as that’s what they are, a specifically redistributive thing, designed to allow the government to effectively tax some people more than others depending on whether or not it approves of their life choices. As liberals we may not like that, but you have to admit that it’s got some ideological underpinnings.

Now look again at what the government and its surrogates have done in conceding the argument to the opponents that there must be no losers from this budget, but maintaining that the way to correct this is not to reverse the original decision (or to do something else to the tax system – say, adopting Lib Dem policy). They have made a mockery of the tax credits system. If, as Hewitt and others are suggesting, the point of the tax credits system is simply to roll it out until nobody is any worse off, then we are going to end up in a situation where everyone on a low enough income is eligible for some tax credit or other, and no fiscal difference has been made to anyone. All that will have changed is that now, people are filling in more forms to stay in the same situation as they had before.

This is bonkers. So in addition to simply pointing out who the people who still lose out from this are, can our response start to take a slightly broader perspective too? Please, Mr. Vince?

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