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Spectator Debate - Taxes and Inequality

A review of the Spectator Debate on taxing the rich

The most recent Spectator Debate – Leave the wealthy alone - delivered a spectacular contest from the illustrious halls of Milton Court at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Featuring a star-studded panel of outspoken thinkers and chaired by the Godfather of political commentary himself, Andrew Neil, the event promised much and didn’t disappoint.

In the end, the proposition team, led by Fraser Nelson, Toby Young, and William Cash won out with a close but still decisive victory, beating their opponents: Owen Jones, Jack Monroe, and Molly Cato Scott by 232 votes to 160. The results of a preliminary vote taken before the debate showed a majority of the room was already on their side, suggesting that the opposition never had a look in, but I know that’s not true. They could have won their audience over if they’d taken a different approach.

I know this because I have been running public debates for the last six years and in that time, I have seen even the largest gaps in public opinion narrowed and even reversed in the space of a 90 minute debate. People have changed their minds on everything from the foreign policy of George W Bush, the national DNA database, and the use of censorship to tackle religious extremism.

Why did the opposition team lose?

"opposing a motion in a debate is like a game of poker: to win you need to play the hand of your opponent, not just your own"

They forgot that opposing a motion in a debate is like a game of poker: to win you need to play the hand of your opponent, not just your own. They actually had plenty of good arguments, but they stuck rigidly to their own case with only Owen Jones making much of an effort to critique the other side. They were also too reliant on tactics that only work if the audience already agree with you, such as Jack Monroe’s appeal for empathy with the plight of the poor to Molly Scott Cato expecting us to agree that her arguments were true because an expert said so.

So how do you win over a tough crowd?

  • Don’t write a speech
    By all means do research and agree on your key arguments, but never write a speech for a debate as it totally diminishes your ability to respond to what your opponents have to say, which is the entire point. It also puts up an unnecessary barrier between you and the audience if you’re reading to them instead of speaking to them.
  • Think like a judge not an advocate
    It is easy to get tribal when you’re in a debate. It is an adversarial exercise after all – but far from just contradicting everything the other side says, the best debaters step back and set the criteria that both sides must meet in order to win the debate. They then calmly assess if the other side has achieved that goal.
  • Highlight areas of agreement
    Similar to Point 2, guide the audience through the debate by identifying any areas of agreement between you and your opponents followed by the issues on which you disagree and the reasons why. This will help combat the impression that your disagreement is tribal and that the audience must decide who they identify with the most. Instead, you come across as the voice of reason trying to find a workable solution to a serious problem.
  • Question your opponents’ assumptions (and explain your own)
    Every argument we make is based on an assumption. The argument that public spending must be cut to reduce the deficit, for example, is based on the assumption that a large deficit is a bad thing. The problem with assumptions, though, is that a) they are not universally shared by everyone and b) they are not always true. When you are facing a tough crowd, you cannot deal with their objections until you have dealt with the underlying assumptions first, not matter how basic they are. 
  • Remember the Golden Rule – the audience is never wrong
    This applies more to taking questions from the audience. Now, of course, there are going to be times when your questioner patently is wrong. However, the worst thing you can do is treat them like an opponent to be defeated rather than a voter to be wooed. This is because even though they may never support you, the rest of the audience might and when you’re speaking in public, you’re addressing everyone in the room and not just the one annoying person who riled you up with their question.

What would the losing team have done differently if they had been following these rules?

"they would have jumped on Toby Young’s admission that the debt to society owed by the rich"

They would have started off by using the proposition team’s own definition to explain what each side needed to prove to win the debate. In this case, Fraser Nelson defined the wealthy as the super-rich and declared that as long as they were paying the taxes they owed, they should be left alone. So, before Owen started making the case for higher taxes or blaming the rich for the plight of the poor, he would have stood up and said in no uncertain terms: “if Fraser Nelson and his team cannot prove that the super-rich are paying the taxes they owe in full, for whatever reason, then they will have lost this debate.” If he had begun his speech this way, then his barbs about dodgy accountants and pay inequality would have packed a much bigger punch.

Next they would have highlighted how Toby Young agreed with them in his speech that the super-rich owed a debt to society through their access to state infrastructure. They would also have given him and Fraser Nelson credit for agreeing with them that economic inequality was a serious problem that had to be addressed. If they had done this, there is a good chance that the audience would have paid more attention to Molly Scott Cato when she explained why the only way to solve such a problem was through raising taxes.

Finally, they would have jumped on Toby Young’s admission that the debt to society owed by the rich was incalculable and that he could not be sure if they were paying too little or too much tax. Since it was his job to prove they were paying too much, the proposition team would have found themselves on the back foot for the rest of the debate had this been pointed out to the audience. It was also a surprise to see all three members of the opposition team accept the double assumption, made by Young and his team mate William Cash, that the state is reliant on the super-rich to create the wealth necessary to pay for public services. This is not to say such an assumption is wrong (although it certainly is questionable), but merely that it was not once challenged during the entire debate even though no proof of its truth was ever offered.

When all is said and done, though, I can only commend each and every speaker for a sterling performance. Delivering a nine minute speech on a subject that has perplexed philosophers and economists for centuries is difficult at the best of times, let alone when you have the glare of 400 people on you. I have had the benefit of taking two days to reflect on all the arguments while writing this piece. So, in spite of all my experience of competitive debating, I am by no means certain I could have even matched the performances of the six men and women on that stage, let alone bettered it. I am immensely grateful to have been invited to watch this tremendous debate and I can’t wait to see the next one.

By Tony Koutsoumbos
Founder of Debating London
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