Reporting on the Think Tank Clash

Tonight I attended the Think Tank Clash at the South Bank Centre. The speakers were as diverse as you could expect from a government QUANGO, everything from progressives who want a million and one new state interventions to solve the country’s problems, to One Nation Tories who only want a million. No socialists or Thatcherites need apply. However, there was a libertarian – more on him later.

The first debate, “Revenge,” was on whether we should break up the banks. Unfortunately it was muddied because each side had two speakers, but there were four very divergent opinions and rationales. The clearest point was made by Kitty Ussher, who said that talking about TBTF was nonsense, because Northern Rock was pretty small and that still got bailed out. I know time was limited, but I found it incredible that no-one talked about the political economy of the banking sector, moral hazard, or public choice theory. Phillip Blond ended up winning for the bank-smashers.

The second debate was on Equality, and here we saw a straight Left-Right fight. Sunder Katwala gave the usual lefty spiel about how in America the top 1% own 40% of the country or whatever it is, so we need to do more about inequality. Maybe, Sunder, but we live in England. Still, he insisted that income inequality is the cause of “Broken Britain,” and we need massive wealth redistribution. Neil O’Brien gave the best speech of the night, and showed why Cameron loves Policy Exchange so much. His argument was that income inequality is neither the cause nor the solution to social problems – he claimed that 350,000 children grow up with drug-addicted parents, what is giving them more benefits going to do? He said that he worked with homeless people, and they all have the same CV – grew up in Care, didn’t get on in school, substance abuse, often mental health problems. Income inequality is simply not the problem here. We have to fix the real issues, not pretend that a more progressive tax rate will paper over the cracks.

This was great, unifying stuff – but it scares me, because it seems like a tactical victory but a strategic defeat. It seems to me that even if we “win” the equality battle on these grounds, we will lose the endgame, as the Left will simply demand ever more funds spent on social work and interventions of those kinds. Peter Saunders got my hopes up, by saying that what we care about is not equality, but fairness, and fairness means getting your just deserts. However, no-one specifically defended inequality.

At this point the debate was thrown open to the floor and as no-one seemed to want to speak – gulp! – I raised my hand. I pointed out that what we care about is not just money but many other kinds of interactions, so on Katwala’s logic we should be redistributing friends from the popular to the lonely. Naturally he completely failed to engage with my point. Mary Riddell did try, but she tied herself up in knots hilariously, claiming that they weren’t advocating a one-size-fits all, top-down approach. Errr, actually, Mary, you were saying that the solution was to make the tax rate more progressive. If that isn’t a one-size-fits-all top-down approach, I don’t know what is.

O’Brien didn’t capitalise on my point, however – he thought I was seriously advocating redistributing friendships! Oh well, this was on the South Bank, it wouldn’t surprise me if there were members of the audience who wanted to put Harrison Bergeron into effect.

The final debate was on Liberty – specifically, economic liberty. The opening speaker was our token libertarian, but unfortunately the host got confused and so I didn’t catch his name*. No matter, his speech was a stirring defence of economic liberty from the major attacks on it today, and it did not go down well. There were audible grumblings from the audience when he made his first three points – that trade barriers, price controls and bailouts are damaging attacks on economic liberty, but to this point the audience was polite. He then made what he said was his most important point, that people be allowed to keep most of what they earn, and spend it, give it to charity, or do whatever with it they see fit. Now the veneer came off, and he was roundly booed. Nick Pearce won the debate easily by saying that markets are imperfect and we need the perfect, all-seeing, all-knowing government to step in hard and often to correct them. He also said attempts to give environmental property rights was “privatising the atmosphere.”

*EDIT: The speaker was Dr. Mark Pennington of IEA

Unfortunately, this is the level at which the left argues, and they do so because it works, even among “sophisticated” people. We need our people to return it in kind, and pull no punches. Make crude appeals to emotion. Fight dirty. Say “When the government looks after the environment, you get Chernobyl.” Instead, they wittered on about the tragedy of the commons, and their point was lost.

To be clear – I do not want Conservatives to come across as angry, or extreme. What I do want them to do is couch their arguments in emotional terms, and portray the left as having evil motivations, while we are the sensible, realistic ones. Of course it’s deeply unfair, but they’ve been doing it to us for a generation, so cry me a river. Employ sarcasm, and above all be populist. It is a grave mistake to think you need to tailor your policies to the upper-middle class, because here your disadvantage is not policy, but image. Basically, you need to be more stylish, and friendlier to ethnic minorities – and no, Baroness Warsi doesn’t count. Perhaps she will help you with the Pakistani vote, I have no idea, but the most pressing need is to win over the cosmopolitan white voters who would like to vote for you but feel reluctant. To get them you need young, good-looking BMEs who speak with acceptable accents. I’m aware this is shallow, but so is politics.

To be quite clear – even though that audience was politically motivated and left-leaning, they could mostly have been won over on every issue by the right speakers with the right presentation. That much is clear by the vote differential between the second and third debate. The left won the “Equality” debate by the narrowest of margins, but got over 90% in the “Liberty” debate… even though much of the second debate was a rehash of the first. Think about that.

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One response to this post.

  1. […] I regard the standard leftist concern for “inequality” as deeply insincere. As I recently debated, their concern is only for income inequality, and never the other kinds of inequality that arguably […]

    Reply

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