Last night I attended my first hustings to do with the 2015 General Election and it involved the candidates contesting my constituency (Rochford and Southend East – R&SE). All the main (and only?) candidates were present: James Duddridge (Conservative –the sitting MP), Ian Gilbert (Labour), Peter Gwizdala (Liberal Democrat), Simon Cross (Green) and Floyd Waterworth (UKIP). I nearly didn’t attend and it was only because someone mentioned on Facebook the day before it was happening, I found out. The format of the hustings involved each candidate using an allocated time to make opening and closing statements about their suitability as candidates and respond to a number of pre-prepared questions.
As some will know, I am keen on hustings and have organized and chaired these in the past. I am part of a church led initiative to put on another R&SE hustings, more of which later. The reason for my enthusiasm is that this is one of the few ways of finding out what candidates are standing for and the type of person they are, although there are limitations. All credit to our local newspaper (Southend Echo) for arranging this and for a nearby church (All Saints) for hosting the event. Other than the lack of publicity and it was difficult to hear sometimes (there was no PA system) the hustings went well and I came away feeling it was worthwhile my attending for the reasons I have given. I reckon the number at the event was not much more than sixty and at least half that number were party political activists, a reflection more maybe on a woeful lack of community engagement in politics. While the chair might have done more to keep the candidates on track when coming to answer questions (easier said than done) he chaired the hustings well and with scrupulous fairness. He had a robust and winsome approach to calling time when speakers overrun their allocation (a 10 second warning might have helped). Given the wide range of views being presented, everyone seemed to be notably polite.
As for winners and losers, I suspect there were none. As for being enlightened about what the candidates thought on different subjects, I was but maybe not as much as I would have liked. Having supplementary questions and allowing candidates to engage in controlled debate (like on the live election broadcast) might have helped but the downside would have been the hustings going on too long maybe. The three candidates I know: James, Ian and Simon were adequate but not much more. James wanted to defend his record as an MP and the government record and was okish but has a lot more to do to address my concerns about his performance and that of his party. It was a shame he wasn’t pressed more on the matter of MP expenses and the untoward effects on the poor regarding austerity cuts. I was a little disappointed with Ian. While I can imagine him being a decent MP, I felt his performance was lack-lustre and did not touch on the issues I care about well enough. I felt a bit like that with Simon also, although he did show more passion. It seemed he was intent at making a party political broadcast whenever it was his turn to answer a question, but at least he had facts and figures up his sleeve, which I found mildly impressive, and gave the impression he too would make a fair go at representing his constituents if he were elected. Regarding Floyd, I had little by way of expectations (as those who have read my earlier “Kipperwatch” blogs might detect), so the fact he did a lot better than that was to his credit. While following the typical UKIP approach of seeing everything in black and white terms rather than shades of gray, he did at least try to answer the questions and came across clearly. His response to the issue of relocating oncology services from Southend to Colchester was one of the best on the night. The biggest revelation on the night concerned the one person of whom I knew nothing, parachuted in at the last minute (some say as a sacrificial lamb for the Lib Dems). As a person, he impressed me more than the others (his military background and living in the real world may have helped) – just a shame Lib Dems are at the bottom of my party preference list. His mantra of fairness being his reason for being a Lib Dem I found convincing and he gave the impression that, if elected, he would do a good job grasping the issues and representing his constituents, although on reflection his point about being part of the checks and balances for another Conservative / Lib Dem coalition did come across as a bit desperate.
All these of course are first impressions but then there are many (not me) who make up their minds on little more. I look forward to hearing more from these guys over the next few weeks, especially given that I am genuinely undecided who to vote for even though I am keen to make whoever is elected aware of the things I believe matter most and make them accountable to the electorate. Besides needing to study their party’s manifestos, including reading between the lines, I need to come to a view of the sort of persons they are in order to come to a view. The questions asked at the hustings were reasonable ones, covering a fair range of subjects. As a whole I found the responses disappointing. As a euro-skeptic that believes in more immigration controls, I would have liked to hear more convincing arguments from those who aren’t/don’t. Regarding the issue of the NHS, all candidates agreed it was a key one, yet some of the points I raised in some of my blogs, which boils down to huge gaps in services e.g. mental health, the ongoing farce regarding a lack of a permanent health centre for my ward, one of the most deprived in the town, an appalling lack of leadership, transparency and fairness in the system, seemed hardly touched on. The important in my view matter of defining and encouraging British values, candidate’s own personal values, creating hope out of despair, and addressing and balancing the need for financial prudence, economic prosperity, freedom of conscience, helping the poor and social justice, likewise were not dealt with as much as I would have liked, which came as no surprise. I intend to remedy deficiencies by pressing these matters.
It was a worthwhile experience and one I enjoyed, although I can think of more suitable adjectives to describe how I felt after. I look forward the hustings at Belle Vue Baptist Church, Wednesday 22nd April from 7.15pm , when it is hoped that all five candidates will again be in attendance and we will know even more what each are made off and what they can offer if they were to be elected.