In my first posting on the subject, I reflected on one of the hustings that recently took place involving all the candidates standing for election in the Rochford and Southend East constituency, in the General Election on May 7th. The audio recording of what took place is available online. All but one (Floyd Waterworth, the UKIP man, who had a prior engagement) who attended then also partook in the hustings that took place last night at Belle Vue Baptist Church. I have to declare an interest as I was a member of the organizing committee. I was delighted it was an initiative of several of the church leaders in the town, which no doubt reflected the growing interest in matters political by the town’s Christians. We were keen to do what well run hustings usually manage to achieve – question candidates on the important issues and how they stand, with a view that those attending better engage with those who might represent them on things they care about. We also wanted to set a standard of excellence and do justice to what we were trying to achieve.
With the caveat that as I was involved helping bring this event about, I might be expected to be biased, I did feel that the hustings was a good example of what can be achieved when it comes to meaningful engagement with our far from perfect democratic system. I believe that most of the in excess of 100 people who did attend felt it was worth attending. There was a good atmosphere and while people were respectful passions were felt, with the occasional but by no means excessive heckling. Those attending came from all quarters and not just church folk and those active in politics. Having said that, I suspect BME and other marginalised groups were sadly under-represented. I suspect that while many who came were undecided or keeping their political cards close to their chest, where there were those with political allegiances, judging by applause levels those who did favour a political party might be ranked marginally in the order: Green, Labour, Lib Deb and Conservative.
The chair should be congratulated for showing strict impartiality and maintaining good humour and keeping good order throughout, as well as exercising discretion by occasionally inviting the audience to give their views and asking supplementary questions of the candidates (Jonathan Dimbleby would have been proud). In all, 13 questions were asked on a wide range of topics (which had been carefully selected from a much larger number of questions submitted), with the order for responding being rotated. Candidates were invited also to give opening and closing statements. To check out the responses, a podcast of the nights proceedings is available online, and again testimony to the “professionalism” of the organizers. While there were times candidates did not get what was being asked or strayed from answering the question, in the main they made a fair attempt at responding, according to their abilities and interests. The chair rightly commended them at the end for their contributions and openness, and their desire to serve the constituency if elected, being accountable to those who they would serve. I was pleased proceedings were opened and closed in prayer, not for ostentation but because it was felt that God was the most important guest, and where our hope ought to lie.
Regarding the remainder of this blog, I do not intend to go through the various responses, question by question, analyzing what each candidates said. I suggest that those who want to do so (and it would be helpful) listen to the podcast. Instead, I will consider how each candidate fared overall, pointing out their high and low lights. By way of conclusion, I will give my opinion on each candidates strengths and weaknesses, informed as it were by what was said on the night. I am aware that any attempt at identifying winners and losers may well be futile given how subjective such judgments are. By way of example, when I shared with a well informed friend my view of who gave the best “performance”, he expressed the view that my best performing choice gave, in his opinion, the worst!
Peter Gwizdala (Lib Dem)
In my last post, I made mention that is was at the previous hustings where for the first time I came across Peter and I felt (positively) that he was a man’s man, not a career politician, and having seen the world and life in the raw (including active military service in the Falklands and Afghanistan), he had something extra to give, reinforced when he articulated his commitment to bring about a fair society. If anything this good impression lessened at this hustings because of the way he answered the first two questions indicating to me he didn’t “get it”. When asked about David Cameron’s speech and whether he felt we were a Christian country and if it mattered and after about teaching British values in schools, I felt his response was weak, as the only wisdom he could bring was to with the importance of tolerance. He did redeem himself later, first by his surprising grasp of and passion for environmental issues where he almost outgreened the Greens in doing so. He spoke a lot of sense regarding the drowning fleeing asylum seeker issue providing much clarity on the short term need (better search and rescue – NOW), medium term (track down the criminals), long term (a political solution). As someone keen on promoting good mental health, unlike with the earlier example – I felt he gets it! Again he reinforced the middle way message – “it is about the economy stupid” quote was used twice yet supporting the social justice concerns that were articulated by the Greens and Labour.
Simon Cross (Green)
Unsurprisingly, Simon emphasized that his was the only anti-austerity party (whatever that means), pointing out the damage that has resulted in the government’s austerity measures (looking set to continue). He set out his stall of working toward a fairer deal for a whole variety of vulnerable people including a better deal for children failing in our education system and of the NHS. While claiming the Green program had been fully costed, I did not come away feeling convinced. I also felt qualms over the Greens brand of socialism (a lot more extreme than that of Labour) headed by it buying back national assets that had been sold. I did feel though Simon gave a good account when answering the questions, which I felt was honest and cognizant of the facts. I liked his answers to the first two questions that we should be promoting peace and encouraging teachers to teach well. He was strongest as I would have expected on answering social justice questions although begging the question regarding the economy. I liked his community approach to addressing mental health issues and his empathy with carers, as with most groups that society seems to undervalue and overlook. He was brilliant on fracking (as I predicted – one reason I pushed for the question) and I was touched by his moral anguish when answering the assisted suicide question. I did feel disappointed that he kept digging at UKIP and, when he made them out to be the bad guys when it came to efforts to rescuing fleeing asylum seekers, he was, in my view, rightly heckled.
Ian Gilbert (Labour)
When I wrote following the earlier hustings, I felt Ian’s performance was lack-luster and underwhelming. But based on last night’s performance, I see that is his natural temperament and I was overall impressed with the wisdom that Ian demonstrated answering the rather probing questions. He set out his stall by emphasizing the NHS needed protecting and was honest enough to blame his own party for sowing the seeds for some of the problems it was now experiencing. He also put a lot of emphasis on the need for better and more community policing, and I wondered if he was out of step with his own party here. Regarding the first two questions, while like Peter he didn’t give the answers I had hoped he did say on matters of religion he was unqualified as was the government when trying to impose the teaching of British values on schools, examples of his dry directness I found somewhat endearing. He was particularly strong on the matter of housing and I came away feeling that of all the candidates he had the best ideas when it came to tackling Britains housing crisis, including making this his cause if he were to bring a private members bill – clamping down on bad landlords and unused buildings. While getting many of the social justice issues, there was a refreshing realism when it came to how to fund the desired changes, but I did not get the impression he had too many ideas on growing the economy but, as Ian admitted, he isn’t a professional politician.
James Duddridge (Conservative)
In setting out his stall, James did so with a degree of humility, hoping he would be re-elected to continue the job he loved and was doing to the best of his ability and, as importantly, Mr Cameron should be returned so they could finish the job of growing the economy, which they had started in a time of economic crisis, which he rightly saw as the key issue in order to be able to fund services etc. While he made a passable job of defending his government record, I felt that too often he didn’t get it when it came to social justice issues, for example showing little empathy with the victims of the benefits sanction regime now operating. The most telling example was when pressed on how to help fleeing asylum seeker boat people, he still did not agree to some of the practical measures the other candidates felt were essential. While on paper he gave the best answer to the Christian country and British values questions, I sensed a degree of hollowness, leaving me unconvinced. When it came to improving the NHS, I had qualms when at the same time austerity measures would continue, and it wasn’t clear where the money would come from. Having said that, he was the most convincing candidate when it came to the questions of managing the economy and balancing the books. While the subject was not raised, his euro-sceptic position is one that is closest to my own.
So in conclusion, I can say that as far as I was concerned the hustings was definitely worthwhile and I wished there were more of them and more people opt to attend, if only to be able to exercise their democratic responsibility more intelligently. Did it change how I viewed candidates? – the answer is yes given I feel I understand better as a result what each can offer if elected. While naturally skeptical regarding politicians, I did see them more as fallible human beings and despite individual flaws and foibles, yet I felt each one of the candidates would make some attempt to serve the people if elected, according to their understanding of needs. While I am closer to being able to make that choice of who to vote for on May 7th, I am still not yet fully decided. In the interim, I will continue to follow developments and entreat the Almighty who raises up and puts down rulers and authorities, in whom I hope.