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Sunday Times Online Discussion – Sunday 6th February

Sunday Times Online Discussion - Sunday 6th February

As part of a live question and answer session for The Sunday Times Newsroom online, Toby Perkins MP took questions ranging from the state of the economy to the proposed privatisation of national forests.  The full transcript follows:

Graham Grant

Toby, the assault by the coalition on families is quite horrendous. Would a future Labour Government seek to return such programmes as SureStart to where they were before the coalition came in?

Toby Perkins MP:

Hi Graham, Labour had a really strong record on family friendly policies, and you are right that families and young people seem to have been very much in the forefront of the government cuts. Sure Start plays a key role in giving young children a good start in life, but it is also supposed to be at the heart of the new government’s early intervention work, which is what makes the news that Councils across the country are finding that they haven’t got the money to run them pretty staggering.

ST Newsroom:

We have a couple of questions about coalition plans to change land ownership with regards to our national forests.

Thule : 

Toby, I have read some fairly convincing analysis, including by Charles Clover in this paper, that the selling off of the forests isn’t such a bad idea, and that the details of the bill aren’t as despicable as they have been made out to be. But no one cares about the details, and the Government has failed to communicate its message properly. Which areas of the bill do you actually disagree with?

Antonia : 

This whole selling off of the forests thing seems a little overhyped. No one is going to chop them down after all

Toby Perkins MP:

I think the central point is that our forests are currently the subject of a public consultation yet before that consultation is complete the government are already selling off 10,000 hectares of forests, and the wider sell off takes away that control of what should be a key part of our national heritage. We have seen with many of the other sell offs over the years that they sometimes have consequences down the line that no-one could have considered at the time and I think that people feel are forests are too important to be put in jeopardy.

Eric the Red : 

Toby, you have a very famous predecessor as Chesterfield Labour MP in Tony Benn. Would you describe yourself as a Bennite?!

Toby Perkins MP:

I’m a fan of Tony Benn, I was a member of the CLP when Tony was our MP, but politically we are reading from a different page, I’m afraid. It’s amazing how he has become a national treasure now that the press no longer fear him!

ST Newsroom:

Unsurprisingly, we also have a couple of questions about Ed Miliband…

Hilit Koppel : 

Toby, who did you support in the leadership election? And are you impressed with Ed Miliband’s performance?

Ed Cunningham : 

Why has Labour elected such a lack lustre leader?

Toby Perkins MP:

Hilit, I supported David Miliband in the leadership contest, but I think that Ed has set out his stall well.  He has performed well at PMQ’s which his critics thought he would struggle in, he has made some bold decisions regarding the party, and he is orchestrating a credible and structured programme of policy reform that enables Labour to identify where it went wrong and not leap to commit ourselves to positions that may be outdated by the time the next election comes round.

Toby Perkins MP:

Ed Cunningham, I don’t think he has been lacklustre at all, he has made it clear he wants to steer clear of meaningless stunts, but the fact that this Labour opposition has recovered it’s polling position quicker than any opposition in history suggests he isn’t doing that bad a job!!

Tony, London : 

Toby, I’m a higher rate tax payer – but only just – and have three children. I’m going to be absolutely hammered by the abolition of CB. I know it’s early days yet, but would Labour implement the cut in CB?

Toby Perkins MP:

People are shocked by the ill thought out way that this policy was introduced in a rush for the Tory Party conference, apparently without their colleagues in the Lib Dems even knowing about it. It is patently unfair that it is done on individual income rather than household income.

Labour are not going to get into proposing piecemeal revisions to economic policy for the 2015 manifesto now. But the decisions on CB will need to be considered alongside all of the other economic decisions that we need to make when we assess the state of the economy and propose our manifesto for 2015.

Eric the Red : 

So you don’t think the Iraq war was an imperialist expedition as Tony did then?

Toby Perkins MP:

The Iraq war was a major mistake, in the light of what we know now, though I don’t believe that we could ever have just wished Saddam away but clearly far too little thought or effort went into the aftermath.

I don’t believe that it was done with immoral motives but it caused a rift between the Labour Party and many of our natural supporters that still hasn’t entirely healed.

Neil : 

I am a Brit of Asian origin, and I must say I agreed with most of David Cameron’s speech on ethnicity. I think national identity is important. It isn’t something you can force on people or ever should, but if you are going to have nations functioning coherently don’t you need some form of bond between people?

Toby Perkins MP:

Yes, you do, the question for Cameron (as he will know) is that as he is talking in general terms but isn’t actually as far as I can see proposing anything specific on policy, what do people take from what he said, on the day of a major EDL march.

Many people in Asian communities who may feel embattled already will take it from his message that it is at least an implicit support for some of the thought processes that those on the far right hold even if it is not support for their actions or motives. I think that to have expanded more on the fight against extremism in all of its forms (that includes the EDL and the BNP) would have been more helpful.

But I do agree that a pride in national identity and Britain and the many stories of our countries past that we can look on with tremendous pride is important.

Jambon : 

Is David Cameron a little Englander? Are we being turned into a country that doesn’t have a global role? And is this the right thing to do? What are your views on Britains global role in the 21st Century?

Toby Perkins MP:

Great question, Jambon. Personally I think that Cameron would like to be more internationalist but is frightened of his own party (or at least a large section of it). I think this is colouring his judgement and resulting in a lack of leadership on the world stage.

If he is going to go into every international negotiation wanting to prove that he has ‘won’ at the end of it, it is going to be very difficult to develop a constructive relationship with his counterparts on the internal stage. Much of diplomacy and progressing Britain’s national interests needs to come from co-operation and that is a two way street.

I do think that our future is at the heart of a strong and co-operative Europe, and that we can play a key role on the world stage, and that global influences can’t be just wished away, we’re a part of a small world now, whether we like it or not, and we need to work together.

Robbie : 

Hi Toby, It’s funny how something like tuition fees was a dominant national issue for two months, and now the bill has been passed it has disappeared from the agenda. Would a Labour government actually reverse the bill it opposed? Once these new funding arrangements are in place, I can’t imagine they will ever be rolled back

Toby Perkins MP:

Labour’s 2015 manifesto can’t be about just undoing everything that the Tories have done and trying to go back to 2010,  That would be a terrible lesson to learn from our 2010 defeat. You are right that when changes are introduced they are much more difficult to undo, because any radical change will require more money coming from elsewhere.

However one of the key things we need to decide from our policy review is to what extent does the government wash its hands of funding higher education.

This government has really picked out higher education as an area that is largely the responsibility of students to fund rather than the taxpayer. I think that is the big question, and I hope that we would recognise that higher education benefits our nation and that government and students should both be responsible for funding it.

OvalSlammer : 

I agree with you about Ed Miliband, I really do think he has done a lot right. But I also sincerely doubt that he has real leadership potential. More than anything, I don’t think the nation would be proud to have him as a leader, for simple reasons like he is awkward and doesn’t speak very well. Sad but true

Toby Perkins MP:

Ed has come through a leadership election that no-one thought he could win and won, I think people will underestimate him at their peril. In very short time he has got the Labour Party to a position of reasonable strength in the polls.

Remember for how long the Tories were trying to get to that magic 40% but couldn’t make it before they finally broke through. He has done it already.

We’d be foolish if we got too flattered by improved opinion poll ratings, but ultimately I don’t see his image being a problem in the way it was for Gordon.

I don’t fancy him personally, not really my type!!

But he seems to brush up Ok as far as I can see, so ultimately people will judge him on who they think he is, what his values are, how they think he will react in a crisis, all parts of his image that he will need to convince people about by virtue of the way he reacts to situations in opposition.

ST Newsroom:

A couple of questions on the economy now…

Richie B : 

How do you rate Ed Balls’ performance so far? Seems like the Balls vs Osborne battle, and the wider economic clash it represents will define who wins the next election

Kev34 : 

Would it be fair to say that if the economy recovers and we don’t face high unemployment, then regardless of how unpopular some policies were, the coalition will get away with it, and the next government will be a Tory one

Toby Perkins MP:

Yes, Richie the economy is going to be crucial, and Ed is going to do a fantastic job of putting over a strong alternative. He actually has a far stronger economic pedigree than Osbourne and it might make for some great TV!!

But fundamentally, we need to win the battle about the history (why we have got the deficit) and the future (whether the steps that the government take are anti growth – they are) and whether they actually make our recovery more difficult.

Remember Labour’s plans basically worked, we got into a position of growth, we minimised the social damage of the recession, and only four months ago David Cameron was arguing that Britain had now returned to growth. He was right, it had- thanks to Labour, the fall in economic confidence thanks to the rhetoric and policies of GO have seen our economy start to hit tougher times again and Osbourne has to face a large amount of the blame for that.

Toby Perkins MP:

Kev, Popular wisdom is that if the economy is seen to be thriving then it is very difficult for oppositions to win, and with good cause.

The likelihood is that the global economy will be in a better position by 2015 than it was by 2010. Britain’s probably will be too, If Britain’s isn’t then this government will have failed disastrously, but even if there has been some recovery, we need to remind people that under this government’s plans the recovery will be slower, the social cost will be huge and the damage to a generation will be irredeemable.

ST Newsroom:

One more on the economy, from Paul this time…

Paul : 

How can the Labour party and Ed Balls persuade the government to limit the depth and pace of Osborne’s cuts that have proved detrimental to economic recovery and will continue to dampen growth?

Toby Perkins MP:

Getting George Osborne to change his mind may be beyond the combined wit of any group of people, he seems absolutely wedded to the idea that cuts are the whole of the answer and no evidence from Ireland of the danger of cuts without growth is going to change his mind.

But voters can be immensely persuasive, there needs to be a strong message to this government in the local government and Scottish and Welsh elections this year that they are pursuing the wrong course and only a vote for Labour will send that message.

ST Newsroom:

We just have time for a couple more questions

AngryBlue : 

Toby, how does your generation of Labourites feel about the likes of Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson? They must feel like creatures from another planet, I already find it odd that they ran the Labour party for so long

Toby Perkins MP:

I can’t speak for a whole generation, but I would say that unlike the Tories, the Labour Party is much kinder to Labour leaders that lose elections than ones that win them.

The previous generation maybe got to a position of such strength that they focused internally rather than on the problems facing the country too much, there seems little doubt about that, but Tony Blair still has much to be proud of.

I’m not even going to kick Mandelson, he had his flaws, but he was a brilliant political operator at the same time, and I think a brilliant BIZ minister too.

ST Newsroom:

Ok, last question for Toby is a follow-up from Kev34

Kev34 : 

Social damage is a tough thing to prove though. And the argument ‘Yes the economy has recovered but it would have recovered even more if we’d been in charge’ is a tough one to get across

Toby Perkins MP:

I agree, and that is why no-one on the centre left should be in any way complacent about how difficult a job it is going to be for us to win the next election. This government are set on an ideological course that will radically reduce the collaborative nature of our public services and will lead to them getting worse, and I think Britons will take a dim view about that.

The CONDEMS are also allowing their ideology to cause great damage to our prospects of recovery. For the first time we actually have a Chancellor talking down the economy. So there are opportunities there for us to exploit but we have a lot of work to do: to win the economic arguments, to put forward a strong case for the alternative, to adopt a strong and credible policy portfolio for 2015 and if we don’t learn the lessons from the past then we won’t give Britain the strong and progressive government it deserves.

So we must learn those lessons, and I hope some of you will join us in finding the right messages and policies for the future.

ST Newsroom:

Thank you very much to Toby for giving up his time to take your questions this morning, and thank you to all of you who came in and posted. It was a good spread on Labour past, present and future, and what is and isn’t wrong with the coalition government.

Toby Perkins MP:

Thanks very much to ST Newsroom for the opportunity to be involved in today, I really enjoyed it, even if I have had to miss taking my lad to Football for it, thanks to everyone who contributed, put me through my paces pretty well!

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Welcome

I am Toby Perkins, Labour's Member of Parliament for Chesterfield. If you would like to get in touch with me, my office is open and can be reached by phone on 01246 386 286. I also hold regular surgeries so that constituents can meet me and I can take up their concerns. If you would like to make an appointment then please do contact my office. Thank you for visiting.

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