Kicking off its General Election Countdown, the Institute of Contemporary Arts staged a debate on Monday night entitled How Will You Vote? Chaired by John Harris, journalist and author of the eerily appropriate So Now Who Do We Vote For?, the debate featured seven notable speakers and a crowd of about a hundred audience members crammed into the ICA bar.
The thrust of the debate centred on the question of what might be the best option in the upcoming election for traditional Labour supporters who feel betrayed by the right wing tendencies of New Labour and Blairism. And what do you know, it was actually rather good fun, albeit punctuated with occasional stretches of frustrated irritated boredom. Nevertheless, here we present the TFT lowdown on each of the participants.
NEAL LAWSON, Labour Party member and chair of party pressure group Compass
Neal Lawson looked a little glum. When he wasn't speaking, he could often be spied with his head in his hands, seemingly weighed down by what looked to be either disillusionment or acid indigestion. He kicked off his bit with a couple of rather stale gags, and even though they went over surprisingly well, you could see his heart wasn't really in it. Then he kind of rambled for five minutes about principles, freedom, equality and people being able to self-manage their lives. It has to be said he wasn't exactly setting the room on fire. In the end he got round to the point.
'I'm not going to tell you all how to vote,' he said. 'You'll make up your own mind about that.' Ah. OK. Thanks. 'But let me just say this.' Come here. There's more. And there was. Lawson went on to voice his concerns that if Labour are returned at the next election with a large majority 'it will give Blair an endorsement I don't want him to have'. Furthermore he worries that Labour is 'representing seats in places that it shouldn't be representing.' He recounted an experience in Enfield where people with 'long gravel paths and three Mercedes' were 'enthusiastically voting Labour, and you start to wonder what the hell's going on. Are these really Labour people?'
Something like a shiver of bizarre repulsion ran through the room. Labour people? 'Do they share our values of progressiveness, of equality, of liberty, of fraternity, eksetra?' Ah, Labour people. Lawson also worries that Labour will 'start representing *their* interests' and not the interests of the people he thinks it ought to represent. Then, after another short ramble into New Politics, New Collectivism and life self-management strategies, he ended with this: 'If you want a politics of solidarity and a politics of equality, the Labour Party is still the best place to go to.' He was greeted with a smattering of lukewarm totally unconvinced applause. Also, he was a bit whiny. 1 out of 5.
CHINA MIÉVILLE, Respect Party
Miéville began with an amendment to Harris's earlier description of the Respect Party. 'I don't think we so much as came out of the bowels of the Stop the War movement,' he said, 'as we were distilled in the cleansing fires of the struggle.' It got a big laugh and thankfully, was clearly intended to. Then he was straight into the war, chanting staccato, 'We - were - lied - to - by - our - Prime - Minister - and - thousands - of - people - died. That's really big. There is nothing bigger than that. And someone has to be held to account for that.... People,' he continued, 'are incandescent. And in many areas they are making an extremely rational decision. They're looking at the major parties and saying 'all of these people are saying the same thing. I'm not going to vote.' That's not apathy. That's political analysis. And so there's nothing more important than being able to present an alternative....' The alternative he favoured of course, was the Respect Party, and it is his party's shameless desire to tap into the anger felt by 'highly intelligent, pissed-off people around the country who feel they've been disenfranchised' and to turn them onto Respect Party policies.
Miéville noted a few. The Respect Party are: 'Firmly committed to trade unions, against privatisation, absolutely the only party to say troops out now... no erosion of abortion rights, no discrimination against people on grounds of sexuality.' And so on. He also managed to drop in a Bill Hicks quote ('It's irony on a bass level, but I like it.'), which has got to be a good sign. Got a little too carried away by his 'line in the sand' analogy, but was quite convincing on the whole 'new kind of politics' thing. On the whole, a fine performance. 4 out of 5.
SIMON THOMAS, MP, Plaid Cymru
Not unlike a slightly neurotic but still utterly insouciant club performer, Simon Thomas could be really quite charming if he wasn't in politics. Like a Welsh Max Bygraves, he dragged the audience into his world, drugging them on his Aberdare lilt. 'Plaid Cymru,' he sang. 'That's the name of the party, and it is the Party of Wales. I'll tell you a little about Wales and a little about politics.' And that's exactly what he did. What relevance it had to the proceedings was difficult to identify, but it was painless enough. Then he launched a couple of attacks at Labour, referencing Robert Jackson and Silvio Berlusconi. 'And this is why we do need alternatives,' he said, before pointing out, 'You don't live in Wales. You can't vote for Plaid Cymru. I'm the man you want but you can't vote for me.' When the applause died down, there was a bit more chat about Wales, followed by a reminder that Plaid Cymru were always very much against the war and were also responsible for the campaign to impeach Tony Blair 'for misconduct in relation to the Iraq war'. Very tidy. But really, it is difficult to know what Simon Thomas was doing there, entertaining though he might on occasion have proved. 3 out of 5.
JOHANN HARI, regular columnist for the Independent, playwright and last year's Young Journalist of the Year
Johann Hari kicked off with a warning that he might have to disappear at short notice due to a run-in with a bad kebab. From there he moved into five reasons not to vote Labour. Good reasons they were too. Then he went on to list three reasons why Labour are better than the Tories. Also good reasons. From this equation however, he concluded that Labour should be voted back in at the next election but with a tactically engineered much-reduced majority, illustrating perfectly perhaps, the problem with British politics in most people's minds: that there really are no decent alternatives.
Most entertaining Hari moment was his recounting of the only line of his that the Independent has ever refused to print. It concerns Blair's record on gay issues and is as follows: 'Tony Blair has done everything that the gay rights lobby could possibly ask except take it up the arse himself.' A woman in the audience was heard to remark, 'He's hilarious!' Things got a tad heated however, in the Q&A following his bit when Hari stated that the war in Iraq was justified as it was the only possible way to unseat Saddam, and shortly after that, as promised, he was himself briefly unseated by last night's dodgy kebab. Fiery stuff. Passionate, personal and sincere. Shame Hari's not in politics. 4 out of 5.
KEITH TAYLOR, Principal Speaker for the Green Party of England & Wales, Brighton Counsellor
Cuddly kindly uncle figure. Kicked off with some rose-tinted green spiel which was all fine and dandy and well and good, then focussed on the discrepancy between what New Labour *say* and what new Labour *do*. Was rather tedious about it on the whole. Stammered a bit. Pointed out that the Greens were not about 'cuddling trees', but were really about people. Wanted a strong Green voice in parliament. Really went on a bit. Nice enough bloke of course, well-intentioned and impossible not to warm to in a vague, slightly bored way. In truth, the only thing he really had going for him was climate change. 2 out of 5.
BRENDAN O'NEILL, Deputy Editor of Spiked Online
Brendan O'Neill is a stocky, slightly pugnacious character. Has the sneaking physical aggression of someone who suspects deep down that he is probably wrong about most things. 'I shall tell you what I'm going to do. I am not going to vote in the general lection, which I believe to be a rather degrading charade, and I don't think any of you should vote either. And I'll explain why.' Unfortunately he never really got round to the explanation. At least not a satisfactory one. Early on, he got wrapped up in the twee little conceit that the evening should not have been about *who* we should vote for now, but rather *what* should we vote for now.
He seemed inordinately proud of this and repeated it a few times with some rather generic supporting rhetoric. 'I think we've had quite a bit of 'who' in politics,' he concluded. 'We need a bit more of 'what' in politics.' What? What what? Well, this was apparently the point. 'It is exactly this absence of 'what', this absence of any kind of substance or real debate which means that I will not - certainly not - be taking part in this forthcoming general election which I just think is a sham.' He wasn't coming across as awfully constructive, it has to be said. Then he moved into a five-minute nanny-state riff, which led directly to his staggeringly insipid contention that people should be able to eat what they want, smoke what they want and weigh what they want.
Then, but seemingly not for comic effect, he declared in a quite sinister voice, 'All parties use the politics of fear.' He finished with the following summation: 'Politics is in such a degraded state... that it would be worse to take part in this general election than it would be to abstain from it.' And furthermore, 'There is no party in the forthcoming general election that I think is worthy of my vote.' Then came the question from the audience that had been on everyone's inner lips: 'How do you change anything if you do nothing?' And that pretty much finished O'Neill off. No amount of insistence that he was actually 'passionate about politics' could make him sound anything other than an utter berk. 1 out of 5.
BEN RAMM, editor of The Liberal magazine, 'a magazine devoted to poetry, politics and culture'
Oozing charmlessness and viscous nasality, Ben Ramm is a hunched smarmy figure with little presence. He actually sounds like some kind of goblin, hepped up on goofballs and liberalism. We don't mean to get unnecessarily personal but if it came to a choice between sharing a lift with Shane Richie or Ben Ramm, we'd plump for Richie every time. Ramm's thrust, when he could finally manage to slither around to it, was that 'The Lib-Dems represent the only real viable coherent alternative' in British politics. From then on it was merely a case of alternately bigging up the Libs and dissing the government and getting slightly flustered when a sideswipe at George Galloway brought in a few mini- heckles. Ramm's only redeeming moment was a nice remark he made about the Lib Dems not being interested in whether you have three Mercedes or not. Other than that, he was rubbish. Ungraded.
Harris on the other hand, in his role of debate host and moderator, was on excellent form throughout the evening. Highlights included him refusing to get bogged down in Iraq when it seemed inevitable; rapping O'Neill firmly on the knuckles when he started to get all shouty and mic-hogging; expertly taking the piss out of the pomposity of David Aaronavic; rather sensitively encouraging the audience to give a round of applause to O'Neill when they really didn't want to; and reigning in the Respect and Stop the War audience members who were in danger of becoming an unruly and slightly supercilious mob. Harris helped turn what could have been just a bunch of privileged white men sucking their own cocks on stage all night into a fun and informative debate. 5 out of 5.