Libya; the UK economy; and how shop staff should speak to customers

Leader Conference, Series 1 Episode 4 of 4

In the fourth edition of Leader Conference, Andrew Rawnsley was joined by Anushka Asthana of the Times; Rafael Behr of the New Statesman; Stephen Glover of the Daily Mail; Sarah Sands of the London Evening Standard; and Martin Shipton of the Western Mail.

We debated: UK policy in Libya; the UK economy after the latest official estimates for growth; and Selfridges' reported policy at its Manchester store of discouraging informal greetings to customers.

We note that British intervention under United Nations Resolution 1973 of 17 March was in large part to provide protection to Libyan citizens from the heinous acts of the Gaddafi regime and that this laudable aim continues to be served by NATO enforcement of the no-fly zone.

Nevertheless, in our view the original mandate has been stretched considerably beyond the language used in the Resolution and has come to mean simply regime change. We suspect that this "mission creep" has contributed significantly to the current military stalemate.

Accordingly, given the unease which we sense from UK parliamentarians of all parties about the situation on the ground and the escalating cost of military operations, we advocate a stronger role for diplomacy.

This is a problem on Europe's borders which requires European governments to concert together and act decisively, not one on which they should expect the United States to take the initiative.

The Foreign Secretary's announcement on 27 July that the UK government recognises the rebels' National Transitional Council (NTC) as Libya's sole governmental authority is right - although it is clear that the NTC does not enjoy support across the country.

We are doubtful, however, about the government's reversal of its stance on the need for Gaddafi to leave Libya, not least because the International Criminal Court may seek to bring charges against him and other members of his regime for alleged abuse of power.

Amidst all the talk about "plan Bs" for the British economy, we are not persuaded that the strategy to reduce the budget deficit very significantly by 2015 is wrong. However, where the role of the public sector is important (e.g. Wales and the north-east of England), the government needs to be alert to the effects of job losses.

The UK's sluggish recovery convinces us that more emphasis needs to be placed on growth. We note Labour's proposal to reduce VAT to 17.5% but we prefer other measures at this stage.

We see the argument for further quantitative easing by the Bank of England, as urged by the Business Secretary, Vince Cable. But we advocate bringing forward the coalition's existing plans to cut taxes for those on low incomes. The less well-off spend more of their money and spend it in the UK compared with those on higher incomes.

For these reasons as well as on grounds of fairness, we reject the Mayor of London's call for a cut in the top rate of income tax for those earning more than £150,000 a year.

High inflation and the pressure on family incomes are curbing back consumer spending. A particularly important factor in this is the rapidly rising price of gas and electricity.

The major suppliers have established in recent years a pattern of hiking prices to consumers following rises in the wholesale market, while often failing to pass on price reductions as fast. Such behaviour is particularly worrying for people on fixed incomes.

We think the gas and electricity companies should be referred to the Competition Commission to establish whether they are operating against the public interest and to promote far greater competition in those markets, as promised at the time of privatisation.

We are disappointed that the highly-regarded Selfridges department store in Manchester has apparently told staff to avoid local speech patterns, such as "Ey up, chuck!" and "See ya!" when speaking to customers.

We regret this and urge a change of heart. Regional dialects and turns of phrase enrich our lives and enhance local identities. Over-formality can be alienating - or not cool, if you prefer - even if others like it.

We feel Selfridges' approach, if motivated by genuine concern for customers, runs the risk of taking the "Mank" out of Manchester and curbing the widely celebrated friendliness of the locals. As if! (as Mancunians are known to scoff).

So let's not crudely impose what may be regarded as London norms - especially since we're not sure that they are, judging by our recent visits to West End stores!

Producer Simon Coates.

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45 minutes

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Wed 27 Jul 2011 20:00