This week's big questions: Is the economy on the mend? Would you eat a lab-burger?

This week's questions are answered by former Home Secretary Alan Johnson

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Do party political strategists such as Lynton Crosby or Jim Messina make a real difference to election results? And why the sudden fashion for hiring big-hitters from abroad?

The hype over Jim Messina is extraordinary. He is not the Gareth Bale of political strategy. Recruiting him will not give the Conservatives any better or worse chance of victory. Messina is newsworthy because he has some of Obama’s stardust sprinkled over him but it was good organisation on the ground, thousands of energetic activists, plenty of money and, above all, the candidate himself who won the election not a back-room strategist

Is there a need to rethink the law on dangerous dogs? Should an owner whose pet kills someone face life in prison?

When I was a postman, the cartoon caricature of a dog biting a postman’s backside was still rife. In reality the experience of being attacked was terrifying and hundreds of delivery staff were seriously injured every year. When children became the victims the laughing stopped.

As a union official I was involved in the lobby for legislation that led to the discredited Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991. The Government is now beginning to put in place the kind of measures that the Communication Workers Union has long championed – ensuring that a dog owner can be prosecuted for attacks on private as well as public property and a sensible sentencing policy (which I believe should be 14 years for the worst cases not life imprisonment). However, they need to go further and introduce micro-chipping for all dogs and other preventative measures such as Dog Control Notices.

Are zero hours contracts just a licence to exploit workers?

Vince Cable is right to launch an investigation into the use of zero hours contracts. Before the ’97 election Labour was committed to outlawing this practice. However, in government we found that it suited many workers who wanted to be tied to a company but with the ability to work as needed and when it suited the worker. My suspicion is that they became a licence to exploit by rogue employers.

Given the slew of positive economic statistics in recent weeks, is it safe to conclude that the worst is over?

I don’t think that recent good news should make us complacent about the economy and from his recent comments neither does Mark Carney.

I hope our economic situation does improve but it will not detract from George Osborne’s abject failure as Chancellor. He inherited five successive quarters of growth from Alistair Darling with annual growth of 2.5 per cent and promptly placed us back in the danger zone.

Osborne promised growth of between 3 per cent and 4 per cent by this year. Instead, after spending almost £6,000 for every man, woman and child in the country on quantitative easing it’s less than a quarter of that.

Should social networking site users learn to take the rough with the smooth, or is it up to law enforcement and companies such as Twitter to clamp down on abuse?

It’s up to companies such as Twitter to clamp down on abuse just as it was for BT to deal with anonymous phone calls and for Royal Mail to prosecute those who send illegal material through the post.

For all the obvious satisfaction that social networking brings to its users there is a dark side. The idiots who used to write foul graffiti on the cubicles of public toilets now have a fancier outlet for their vile thoughts. This isn’t about freedom of speech, it’s about misogyny and, in the case of poor Hannah Smith, the very worst kind of bullying.

Is there any way to avoid future troubles over Gibraltar without giving it back to Spain?

When this crisis fades the Foreign Office should return to the question of joint sovereignty of Gibraltar as pursued by Jack Straw, who almost succeeded in 2002. Spain will never be content to see a piece of its land permanently designated as a British Overseas Territory. It’s like Spain claiming ownership of Spurn Point near my constituency. Because of its history and the wishes of Gibaltarians, shared sovereignty has to be the solution. As for the current dispute, I have seen no acceptable justification for Gibraltar’s action in dumping those concrete blocks into the sea thus depriving the fishermen of La Linea of the livelihoods they’ve pursued since we took over in 1713.

Would you eat a burger made from lab-grown meat?

I’m not really a burger eater and I’m certainly no expert on GM foods. But I was at the old Department of Trade and Industry when the Frankenstein Foods storm broke. It was around the same time as the MMR jab was being discredited and in both cases we struggled to raise the scientific arguments above the media scare stories. There are important questions to be answered about whether the bacteria and viruses used to alter the DNA in these plants can also affect the bacteria in our gut but this is not an argument to stop the process.

The call for the return of grammar schools is being heard again. What is your view?

David Willetts gave the best reason for not returning to the tired old arguments about grammar schools. Selection, he said, doesn’t spread advantage, it entrenches it. I constantly hear from people who failed that test at 11 and their appreciation of night school or the Open University to make up ground. And from those who never recovered and whose bloom was born to blush unseen.

Alan Johnson is a former Labour Home Secretary. His memoir ‘This Boy’ is published by Bantam Press. He appears at the Edinburgh Book Festival on 20 August

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