Saturday, 12 October 2013

CheltLitFest 2013: Political Party

Davis, Johnson, Neil
Started today's trip to the festival with a political discussion involving Tory politician David Davis, Labour trade unionist Alan Johnson, and journalist Polly Toynbee being mediated by presenter Andrew Neil.

The topic was:

How can we create a fairer, more open society? Can government policies make a real difference, and if so, how?

It was an interesting, and surprisingly packed, debate. I'm usually pretty quick at picking up political arguments, but my brain had to run to catch up with the concept of 'social mobility,' a term which was used a lot. Once they started referring to it within the context of 'equality of oportunity' I understood perfectly, but it did make me realise how very inaccessible political language is to people who don't work in that sector or study it. 

Social mobility, in layman's terms, simply means 'a person's ability to change their circumstances' by, for instance, getting a better job (or a job, in the current climate) and accessing education. Sure 'social mobility' is a much quicker way of saying that, but I tried to imagine whether I'd have kept up with the debate had I not already had the education and sector experience that I have.

No wonder people are put off engaging with politics.

It was interesting to note that social and financial inequality continues to widen; an ever increasing gap which previous Labour measured have helped to stem rather than stop. It's at odds with my own perception of a fairer society where information technology gives everyone greater access to knowledge, and the welfare state helps to prevent the very poorest (or most unlucky) from hitting rock bottom.

Yet, as Polly Toynbee pointed out when referring to the recent numeracy and literacy statistics, as a nation, we're very good with the top 30%, possibly even 50%, but we're very bad with the bottom 20%, which is what affects our overall figures. Again, a sign of great social immobility and inequality.

Sadly, we were sitting in front of a row of Cheltenham Tory councillors and every time Toynbee opened her mouth to speak, they started spewing rage. At one point I had to turn and look at them to shut them up. I felt like saying 'excuse me, we paid to listen to their debate, not yours.' Inconsiderate bunch.

Most of the panelists talked about education, nobody really addressed employment. Toynbee felt it all needed to begin with society agreeing that it wanted to be fairer and more equal, rather than immediately trying to define the exact parameters of what fairer constituted. Davis felt that it was impossible for government to play any role in creating a more equal society, that equality couldn't be controlled and therefore we shouldn't bother trying. Johnson was extremely well researched and put Davis to shame on that front. He seemed to think we should cut the inequality between top earners and bottom earners and get back to the lower income disparity of the (I think it was) 60s and 70s.

Andrew Neil eventually asked Polly Toynbee why she, out of all of the panelists, claimed not to be socially upwardly mobile (her family had remained the same economic and social status for generations, whereas the other two had worked their way up through the ranks), to which she became self-deprecating and said something to the effect: "probably because I didn't have the brains or the ambition."

As Dad quickly pointed out, perhaps her reply would better have been: "I'm a highly successful journalist and the only female member on this panel. What more do you want?"

They didn't even bother including her picture in the online programme (above). Says a lot, really.

Anyway, an interesting debate. Though I sort of came away feeling that you could probably have swapped any member of the panel with almost any member of the audience and had pretty much the same, or possibly even a slightly better, debate. Which leaves the question: if politicians are there to debate, and we can do that well enough for ourselves, what else are they there to do?

So, for now, at least under the ConDems, I think much of the good work done to slow social inequality is likely to be undone. Only one thing for it: tea and cake at Dimkin's.

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