The Conservative Party, under the guise of new Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, has described the BBC licence fee as “unsustainable” and that the current set up is “worse than poll tax”. He said all that in the last parliament actually, when he was not Culture Secretary. Nevertheless, Chris Bryant, the shadow Culture Secretary, decided to go all proactive on Whittingdale in the chamber last week, asking of him:
“He says the licence fee is worse than the poll tax but I think he always supported the poll tax. So is Auntie safe in his hands?”
To which Whittingdale responded:
“As for the licence fee, he’ll have to await our conclusions. But I would say I very much agree with him when he observed that elements of the licence fee are regressive because everyone has to pay it and so it falls as a greater percentage of the income on the poorest people.”
Ouch. The problem with this comeback is that it’s factually correct. The licence fee is regressive. Now, that isn’t an argument for doing away with it – I support the fee myself. But it is a completely flat tax, and as such does unquestionably take up a greater percentage of poorer people’s income as Whittingdale asserts. That is simply a fact.
The only way that Labour can argue the other side is with a value based construct: the BBC is important and this is the best way to fund it. And besides, who wants to change the way we do TV in this country at such a tumultuous time, endangering a sacred British institution along the way (playing into people’s innate conservatism here)? You could see Bryant trying to do all that with his “Auntie safe in his hands” thing, but it wasn’t enough. It was not even actually an argument at all, because all Whittingdale would have had to say back was: “yes, it is safe in my hands thank you very much. The BBC doesn’t need it to keep going, in my opinion.” In fact, as you can see by what Whittingdale actually said instead of my suggestion, the Culture Secretary didn’t even need to say that much.
I mention all of this as I can see this kind of line of attack becoming a recurring Tory theme – boxing Labour into a corner by taking on the territory of the working poor and their problems. So I hope Labour get better at rebutting it than what we’ve seen so far. Of course, it’s always nice to see the least liberal Labour MP this side of Simon Danczuk territory getting his arse handed to him in the chamber, but I’ll put that aside for a more grown up point about democracy. Which is this: Labour cannot allow the Conservatives to own these types of debates or they (and we) are in for a very long parliament. One that ends with an increased Tory majority, incidentally. You lot were in favour of poll tax a quarter of a century ago, so yaboo sucks to you, simply isn’t going to cut it.