This is my third and final post on the subject of hustings for the 2015 General Election (my first two can be found by clicking here and here). I don’t expect there will further hustings held in my area, although the debates will and do need to continue in other forms. Sadly, there were no hustings for my own ward, regarding the local elections, as it would have been helpful to see what each of my own local candidates have to say and more importantly asked to defend their record and argue why, if elected, they would do a better job than the other candidates. As it happened, and as imperfect a mechanism hustings are, that is what we witnessed, to a more than decent degree, when I attended the Southend West constituency hustings, held last night. While this is the one and only hustings I have attended held outside my own constituency, it is relevant given I know four of the candidates and as a Southender it is still part of the patch where I operate, whatever the constituency boundaries.
Just like with the last hustings I attended, this was organized by the local churches and even if I say so myself their organization was excellent, including neat innovations like the names of the candidates prettily displayed and the questions projected up onto the screen. I liked the way courtesy and fairness were extended to candidates and proceedings were concluded in prayer. Well over a hundred people attended and it could have well approached two hundred. The people profile was not so dissimilar from the other church hustings – a smattering of political activists, lots of church folk, a balance in terms of party support, with the Greens edging it (if clapping fervor was anything to go by) and UKIP least popular (if the moans and jeers were anything to go by), but with a good degree of support for the sitting Conservative MP, and very few black people attending. While there were the occasional heckles, the audience was fairly constrained as one might expect with nice Christian folk. I would have liked to see a bit more passion and audience participation but I was fully occupied taking notes for this blog and felt this was the one occasion when I should maintain passionless neutrality, at least until after the end when I got to chat to friends from all sides of the political divide. Except for Jeremy Moss (English Democrats), all the candidates were present: David Amess (Conservative), Julian Ware-Lane (Labour), Paul Collins (Liberal Democrats), Jon Fuller (Green), Brian Otridge (UKIP). There were eleven questions in all, covering a wide range of subjects, but with a bias towards those to do with social justice and what particularly concerns Christian folk. I will deal with the responses question by question. I will add my comments where appropriate on what was said and will try to be equitable, realizing I may miss some important points. If you want my overall conclusions and miss my individual question analysis, then jump to the last paragraph!
Firstly, there were opening statements by each of the candidates setting out their stall. David wanted to be re-elected based on his record of public service and that he has put his constituency before personal ambition. He also made mention of the broken economy when his party came into power in 2010 and that it was the only party that can deliver on the economy and keep the kingdom united. Paul emphasized his liberal credentials e.g. supporting human rights and listening to and working for the people. Jon made mention that climate change was the big issue and the Greens were the only party with the solutions. Brian explained his reluctantly taking up politics in order to serve and that UKIP most aligned with his views on life, about which it was not just about the Europe question but rather across a wide range of issues. Julian emphasized the need to treat all peoples with respect and to be inclusive and that while there is need to grow the economy, it needed to work for all citizens.
Question 1 was to do with addressing homelessness and the housing crisis. Brian made mention of co-ordinating NHS and housing policy (which I didn’t quite get) but also controlling borders and building affordable homes on brownfield sites (which I did get). Jon referred to the big increase in population and the Greens plans to build many more affordable homes. Paul (rightly) related homelessness to mental health, which needed addressing, and the need to address the housing need (though not clear how). David re-iterated the need to grow the economy and some of the government initiatives for example around infra-structure projects (although unconvinced how much this will address the crisis). Julian pointed out his consternation at the failure of the government to provide more homes, especially social housing, and how Labour would change this, and maybe was the more convincing. For my own concerns regarding housing and homelessness, far from fully addressed, check out my Homeless Information blog.
Question 2 was to do with the growth in food banks, why and how to reverse the trend. Paul emphasized this was due to changes in the benefits system but to reverse their need, there needs to be more jobs and improvements in the economy. Brian attributed the rise to having not enough decently paid jobs, especially among young people, and rising living costs e.g. energy. He felt there was a need for more appropriate counseling. Jon felt the rich poor divide was a key moral issue facing the country and besides practical measures like stopping the sanctions regime the rich should be taxed more. Julian noted that despite there being much wealth it was wrong that many now depend on food banks and the poor should be less hammered and those who work should be receiving a living wage. David wheeled out the appropriate stats as to the why the growth in food banks (which he did impressively on several other occasions) but other that yet again pointing to a need for an improved economy, he seemed to offer few solutions. For my views on food banks, refer to my earlier blog on the subject.
Question 3 was to do with austerity and whether driving down the nation’s deficit should be a priority over that of helping its more vulnerable citizens. Julian pointed out that while we do need to give priority to helping the vulnerable, we do also need to live within our means and balance the books. David emphasized the economic recovery, from a dire position in 2010, led by the Conservatives, and that their achievements and policies were the most likely to end up helping the most vulnerable. Jon had a more simple solution – taxing the rich more. Paul took an approach that meant there was a need to balance the budget, but we needed to invest in infra-structure to help the next generation. Brian was also keen to balance the budget and reduce costs e.g. ill thought out foreign aid, and also to save money by getting out of having to fund costly projects, starting with money paid into the European Union, but to invest in worthwhile projects e.g. the NHS. Overall, I was at best half convinced by the responses.
Question 4 was to do with neighbourliness and our responsibilities to help those in other countries less well off, especially where the people are oppressed. Julian made the point that those with the broadest shoulders should carry the greatest burden and the principle of giving foreign aid was a good one. David concurred in that as a relatively wealthy nation we have a responsibility to those less wealthy and pointed out to the 0.7% of GDP the current government is giving and the likely British generosity to countries like Nepal, having just experienced an earthquake disaster. While Brian went a little way to defend the UKIP policy of not giving foreign aid, the position would he suggested be modified if that aid were not to be linked to buying influence and would be given to helping address some of the big needs in the world e.g. immunization, clean water. He emphasized trade rather than aid and of the importance of the teaching a man to fish adage. Jon commended the Conservatives on their 0.7% policy and said if anything the Greens would increase this. It was important, even by way of enlightened self interest, to help the world’s poorest nations. In some ways I felt this question was that least well answered by the candidates and I was a left with a sense of discomfort that the aid we give doesn’t always go to where most needed and there is more we could and should do with our national leaders leading by example.
Question 5 was to do with the matter of our being a welcoming country and how to balance this with a perception this country is over-crowded. David agreed we are a compassionate people and while non EU immigrants numbers were reducing that was not so with the EU, and there is little as things stand we can do about it. There is an issue of services to support growing numbers of immigrants. Julian seemed less concerned on numbers of immigrants but recognized there needed to be strategies to cope. Jon seemed even less concerned and pointed to the net contribution of immigrants to the economy. Brian (understandably) stated UKIP would support genuine refugees while considerably reducing numbers of usually EU economic migrants, as much due to lack of sufficient infra-structure. Paul supported the free flow of peoples in EU countries, especially if wanting to work and felt UKIP policies were immoral. My views on immigration, including the specific issue of asylum seekers, are included in various blogs e.g.
Question 6 was to do with defence and the future role of Trident or similar. Paul said his own view was not the same as his party’s, for there is a need to find alternatives and that Trident should be scrapped as there was no moral justification for it. Jon pointed to advanced economies, like Germany and Japan, with no independent nuclear deterrent. He would clearly abandon any nuclear deterrent, using the money saved in investing in social programs. Given the modern threat is terrorism rather than powerful nations, it was difficult to see how Trident could be used. Brian felt there was a need to consider the alternatives and if there were more flexible options but given the dangerous world we lived in felt on balance an independent nuclear deterrent was needed. David felt in this dangerous and uncertain world it was important to maintain defences, including nuclear ones. Julian while recognizing the need for good defence (having reduced), including possibly increasing our defence forces, felt there was no justification for Trident or similar. For my own views on Trident, refer to my earlier blog on the matter.
Question 7 was to do with protecting the NHS and where the money is to come from. Brian pointed to UKIP’s commitment to more funding for the NHS and increased training opportunities. He felt there needed to be more integration with social care and joined up thinking. Jon stressed that the NHS can only truly work if true socialist principles were employed. Greens would repeal the health and social care act and remove market mechanisms. They also would put a large injection of cash into the NHS. Julian felt the setting up of the NHS in 1948, under Labour, was one of its greatest achievements, and it needed to be preserved through costed developments to maintain the high level of services. Paul also pointed to more developments and a closer look at NHS structures. David felt the NHS is a wonderful service and the Conservatives had invested in it and would continue to do so if elected. He stressed the importance of a 7 day a week service and the need to take into account an ageing population. While I liked the commitment each candidate showed to the NHS, I was left with doubts, given some of the concerns over the lack of mental health services and the fiasco over the St. Lukes health centre remain.
Question 8 was to do with electoral reform and the fact that many, especially among the young, are disengaged with the political system. David regretted the decision in 1997 to cede certain powers to unelected quangos, making it harder to get things done. He conceded there may be a need for electoral reform and saw an important role for schools. Jon wanted voting age to be lowered to 16. He felt more should be done to bring to task corrupt politicians. He supported proportional representation and a need for an elected House of Lords. Brian also supported PR. He also saw the need for having more referendums and engage more with schools. Paul (unsurprisingly) also supported PR and stressed the need for more integrity in politics. Julian also supported electoral reform and PR, a democratically elected House of Lords, and reducing the voting age to 16. The subject of electoral reform is not one I have given that much thought to but the need for more democratic engagement is one I feel strongly about. The fact that I am blogging about the issues people need to decide on here is evidence of this.
Question 9 was to do with the work Christians do in society and how to encourage and support them. Paul gave a typical well done, keep up the good work and we will support you message (I told him after I would have given him more than tea making duties at my night shelter last year, if I had known). Unsurprisingly, as a cradle Catholic, David was supportive of the work of faith groups, citing faith schools as an example, regretting them being attacked when they did so much good. Brian agreed with David and felt Christian faith was central to English culture and that freedom to practice and faith schools needed supporting. Julian, while admitting to his non belief, recognized the importance of faith groups but also the importance of inclusiveness. While Jon, admitting also his atheism, wanted more integration rather than disintegration, and faith schools should come under local authority control, he also opposed attacks on faith, valuing the work of faith groups. Overall, while I was heartened that all the candidates recognized the important role of churches in contributing to the common good, no one addressed the issue to Christians being increasingly marginalized, as discussed in my “Protecting religious liberty” blog and I was disappointed this aspect was not incorporated into the question.
Question 10 was to do with religious persecution and how we can reduce the threat and help those who are being persecuted. Brian made the point that no one should be attacked because of their religious beliefs and there was a case for letting in asylum seekers, especially Christians. There was a need to stabilize some of the more troubled parts of the world and military assistance may be needed. Jon also felt we needed to be prepared to give those, who were fleeing persecution, asylum and play our part in bringing stability to the world’s trouble spots and putting more pressure on Middle East countries like Saudi Arabia. Julian’s message was one of tolerance and I either lost the thread after that or he didn’t have much to add. David expressed empathy for prisoners of conscience and the need for people to practice their religion in peace and safety. He wanted us to support the Syrian opposition but I couldn’t work out his specific ideas. Paul wanted us to use more powers to put pressure on countries that had a role to play e.g. Saudi and Russia. All in all, the responses were overall disappointing and seem void of ideas. Strangely I felt UKIP gave the best answer.
Question 11 was to do with what the most pressing local issue and what is to be done to address it. Besides upping his pro economy and Europe credentials, Julian made supporting our much cherished local hospital a priority. Paul wanted to make helping young people a priority and talked about local jobs, e.g. around the airport expansion. Jon made mention that he had long campaigned against airport expansion, partly for environmental reasons, and felt if jobs are created it would be at the destinations the airport will serve. David spoke about Southend’s ageing population that needed to be supported, the need to continue regeneration especially around learning provision and getting more people involved in public life. Brian spoke of the need for more localism, affordable housing and addressing health inequalities and funding shortfalls in the East of England region.
I must admit, writing this blog has been heavier going than I predicted but the amount and importance of ground that was covered in the hustings is reason enough for doing so. I would urge folk to check out for themselves what was said. Matthew Dent has posted the unofficial recording of what was said and I am told that Leigh Road Baptist Church will be doing so soon. Regarding who came out best when it came to answering questions, this is for the readers to decide. I have given my views regarding many of the individual questions. I do not live in the constituency so the question of who to vote for does not arise. But here goes with my one liners for those who did participate. Brian Otridge did remarkably well on some questions, but less so on others, but has not done enough to shed the UKIP nasty party image. While Jon Fuller surprised me with his climate change is the most important issue statement, he has an equally surprising ally in the Book of Revelation, but for this election there are more pressing issues and he has not done enough to convince me. Paul Collins has reinforced the impression he is a decent guy, who will work well for his constituents if elected, but he has not done enough to outweigh the fact he belongs to my least favourite party. Julian, even without notes, showed passion and ideas, and would tirelessly and creditably represent the whole wide cross-section of the constituency if he were to be elected, but still not enough to convince me. That leaves Sir David Amess – despite doing not enough to convince me on many of the social justice issues I care about, I believe he has been a good constituency representative and he cares more than the others about three things that don’t feature much on most peoples radar, yet I see as very important: right of life, traditional marriage and freedom of conscience. Several of the reasons for my not voting for his R&SE colleague, contained in my “Dear Mr. Duddridge” blog, do not apply to him, and that on balance and upon reflection, if I were living in his constituency, he would be the person I would be voting for.