I suspect that most politicians would be very keen to appear on Question Time (BBC1), as they can spout anything they like without fear of forensic challenge or the availability of sufficient time to point out any flawed ideology. This long running flagship program is, in reality, a lightweight entertainment program masquerading as serious political discussion and is increasingly encouraging celebrity comment which is often embarrassingly naive, misinformed and rather self serving.
Thursday’s edition (11th December) promised more of the same with the self appointed people’s saviour and Che Guevara lookalike Russell Brand, facing off UKIP’s very own Nigel Farage. What a panel, the BBC must have thought, but in reality it turned out to be a bit of a damp squib with, predictably, no coherent observations from Brand and little recognition of anything said to him which threatened to modify his views. It seems that the plan was for Brand to be gratuitously and personally offensive to Nigel Farage and stoke up a few well set prejudices of some members of the audience.
Magnificently ironic, all this took place without Brand realising that he was actually agreeing with UKIP policy in at least two instances, those of tuition fees and the very challengeable assumption that outsourcing services to private companies always has to be the best way. However, such small considerations as truth and accuracy played little part in this fabricated charade.
Mary Creagh the shadow minister for international development delightfully chastised Brand for his constant interruptions making the spuriously sexist point that people don’t like men talking over women only to then persistently interrupt Penny Mordaunt the Conservative MP notable only for repeatedly getting the word ‘cock’ into a speech in the House of Commons. Judging by her performance on this program that may well remain forever her most memorable contribution.
Creagh, steered every question into a mini party political broadcast, as Labour spokespeople are often wont to do, in which the current fantasy is that Labour will balance the books in such a way that nobody will notice and they’ll be so much nicer than those nasty coalition ‘partners’.
There was a time when this show was more politically leaning but has, for some time, followed a gentle descent into irrelevance despite the best intentions of the capable David Dimbleby. Although clearly wedded to broadcasting as his first loyalty even he must wonder from time to time if this progressive dumbing down is really the right way to go?
Russell Brand is an enigma. He is popular in the sense that a lot of people know who he is and some may know what he does as his day (or should that be night) job. It’s also ok to be anti-establishment and such attributes mixed in this way can be a powerful voice so it’s disappointing that he doesn’t seem to be able to move past superficial ranting to offer any kind of future vision despite the fact that within his incoherent utterances there lie genuine concerns that, ironically, would be shared by most politicians and particularly UKIP supporters. The manufactured ‘one of the boys mate’ persona and his artificial concern coupled with a desperate need to always be in the limelight detracts from rather than supports the bits of the anti-establishment rhetoric most of us would support.
On Thursday night and briefly he raised the subject of retirement age for firemen but seemingly only because a ‘mate’ has to work until age 60, the point being that it’s an intolerable age to expect people to run in and out of burning buildings. As it happens most firemen will retire on full pension at age 55 but with the usual superficiality that meets any public service profession that was the cue for lots of accolades about our wonderful firemen, nurses, doctors, care workers etc depending on which group happens to be in the frame at the time.
Perhaps unintentionally one of the most politically significant and at the same time avoided issues was raised but, of course, with not the slightest possibility that it would be explored to any degree of depth in this lightweight ratings hunter.
The issue of public sector pensions is, however, possibly the biggest joint threat to sustainable public finances along with an equally unsustainable healthcare model. The reason is clear that it is politically impossible to publicly address such a contentious issue when one’s opponents will use such concerned pragmatism as a weapon to influence voting intentions. This tactic has been used to great effect over the years to stifle debate about immigration with only UKIP daring to speak for the majority. We all know how resilient we needed to be to sustain that politically motivated onslaught to a point where every other party now has exactly the same message.
A simple statement of fairness is that public sector workers should retire at the same age that everyone else does. If the national retirement age is 65, or 66, or 67 then why should that not apply to public sector workers including the fire and police services? Early and consequently prolonged retirement on enhanced ‘gold plated’ pensions is one of the reasons why this financial time bomb will have to be defused at some point.
The argument partially presented by Brand, presumably on behalf of his ‘mate’, trod a well worn path. Of course people cannot be expected to discharge a physically active role into their dotage, therefore retirement (early, or even earlier ill health retirement) is dependent upon characteristics of physical capability.
Superficially this is easy to agree with because it seems to make sense but only if you view work and demarcation in the customary and narrow perspectives we have been used to.
In fact, the public sector is huge. The vast majority of jobs do not require the holder to leap tall buildings so with a change of perspective one can see that such early retirement isn’t at all necessary except, of course, in the eyes of vested interests and they represent the true opposition to an affordable and rational use of human resources.
If the concepts of flexibility, supported by appropriate training, are accepted there is no reason why a fireman or a policeman having become too old, ill, fat or tired to adequately carry out their more physically demanding jobs cannot be re-assigned to less active but still essential roles elsewhere in the ‘Public Sector PLC’. All it needs is a little imagination and some political courage but it probably won’t happen by design and we’ll all suffer, or at least our grandchildren will, from the impending and unavoidable financial meltdown on the horizon.
This really is a major issue but it was lost in this TV format, as anything substantive always is, in favour of more questions being fleetingly and poorly answered.
So perhaps it is time for the weary ‘Question Time’ to move over for something where the bias is for rational political discussion as opposed to cheerleading? The ITV lookalike ‘The Agenda’ has rapidly accelerated towards the bottom of the political discussion barrel so there is no hope there but there is public interest in politicians being challenged in an arena that includes audience participation and for a politically aware population the current offerings no longer fit the bill.