Last night I attend a hustings for the next constituency along, thus demonstrating my obsession with such events. But it is my town and, as a community activist and watcher of things political, I felt I should attend. Southend is split in two for election purposes, and in this case it was Southend West. Today it is the turn for Southend East (my constituency) and I will be blogging about that tomorrow.
As people who follow me know, I am a great fan of hustings. While these have fallen out of favour in recent years and there are a lot more ways to find out what candidates think, this is still imho the best way and when run well (and this one was run well). It is an opportunity to ask candidates a wide range of questions and analyse, compare and contrast the responses they make so that along with other impressions picked up on the way one can come to the view who is the best choice when it comes to voting.
All credit to Leigh Road Baptist Church and their associates for arranging, hosting and leading this event. They were at least on my wavelength theologically – while not telling people who to vote for etc. they provided an opportunity for people to make up their own minds, working on the premise whoever is elected to power matters and the issues to be covered are important and need to be aired. It was organized well – from chairing to stewarding. I liked the way the chairman kept to script and ensured everyone else, especially questioners, did so, was scrupulously fair (working on the basis that candidates had TWO minutes to make their point and not allowed to go over) and kept good order, especially when certain members of the audience got vociferous over things like marijuana and anti-Semitism. It was well attended (I reckon around 200) although I was a surprised on the make up the audience. I expected nice churchy types and as it was a strongly Conservative constituency these factors would influence the audience make up. From the applause it became apparent that they were more activist in their outlook abd sympathetic to the more progressive parties, but while passionate they were respectful. The candidates were David Amess (Conservative), Aston Line (Labour) and Nina Stimson (Liberal Candidate). There was another candidate, Joseph 77, who I was pleased to see as we go back a long while and who I will come to.
The format was to invite the candidates to make an opening statement about their credentials and then, rotating the strike, asking them a series of sifted, sent in questions (sometimes combined for convenience) followed by opening it up to the floor when members of the audience were invited to ask questions that hadn’t been raised. Obviously two minutes is hardly adequate and there was understandably no second bites of the cherry to take opponents to task. I liked the way that those asking questions were required to confine their words to that and not giving lectures etc. At this point I need to explain my reactions to the responses and give the briefest of what these were. It will be shorter than what I would like and to date I don’t have any transcript (but this may help).
Aston explained his credentials as a local community activist and it was these concerns that caused him to stand. Nina’s main pitch was that she was a firm remainer who cared about her community. As for David, the election was caused due to parliamentary disruption and the Conservatives will get Brexit done and he will continue to faithfully represent his constituents if reelected. This was the one opportunity for Joseph 77 (aka Tom Darwood – an old friend) to have his say. His pitch was like Joseph in Bible times who helped save from famine and rescue his people, he wanted to do that too.
All candidates agreed Foodbanks were a commendable response to a real need and regretted they were needed. Nina pointed out the rise in Foodbanks was as a result of inequalities and one response was to build more houses, e.g. the Fossets farm development. David pointed to Conservative policies like Universal credit. David said teething issues of UC are being addressed and the real solution was a dynamic economy that Conservatives would help deliver.
Candidates effectively restated their party manifesto commitments. Aston blamed Conservatives for not working with Labour, whose response was a logical one. Nina said how bad things would be if we leave the EU. David blamed the Labour and LibDem parliamentary derailers for a lack of progress.
All agreed this was a big issue and Aston and Nina talked of a crisis. David pointed to plans toward carbon neutrality. Aston pointed to Labour’s Green New Deal. Nina stressed the need for global cooperation and criticized President Trump for opting out of the Paris climate agreement.
All agreed to the need to improve the education system. Aston and Nina blamed the Conservatives for underinvestment in schools. David pointed to manifesto commitments to improve schools.
The questioner came as an asylum seeker with a brother wanting to come to the UK as an asylum seeker. All candidates agreed that the asylum seeker system needed improving but were vaguer when it came to other forms of immigration. David talked of the points based proposal and Nina a hostile system and talked about increasing overseas aid. Aston talked of improving the system.
NHS and nursing
The questioner pointed to issues around morale of hard pressed NHS staff. Aston blamed the Conservatives for reckless policies putting the NHS at risk. Nina felt the current system was not fit for purpose and had a pop at Trump. David pointed to extra spending on the NHS under Conservatives. There was an interesting Aston David exchange over Southend Hospital losing staff, an example of a point that needs to be followed up.
Nina and Aston while agreeing it was desirable for terminations to happen early that all abortions including right up to term should be decriminalized as it was a woman’s right to choose. David argued that life was precious including in a mother’s womb and abortion period should be lowered.
Police and security
(especially regarding drugs destroying lives) All agreed more policing was needed. Nina pointed to the need for more community policing and Aston to more front line services.
This was the first of questions from the floor and gets my champagne moment award. The questioner pointed he came along with two friends who he disagrees with politically but they still get on. All candidates agreed this was a great idea and were committed disagreeing agreeably with those who didn’t agree with them, citing examples when this was the case.
Nina affirmed her support for LBGT folk. She made mention of transgender issues re. women in refuges. Aston felt more can be done to ensure LBGT rights. David affirmed support for LBGT folk but his faith influenced his views e.g. equal marriage; Northern Ireland should decide their own laws on such sensitive issues.
This was in response to the questioner pointing out many Jews had left Labour due to concerns over anti-Semitism. While loathe to criticize Labour both David and Nina felt more could have been done to prevent this. Aston agreed but affirmed Labours commitment to stamping out all forms of racism.
All the candidates recognised this was a sensitive and important issue that needed to be addressed.
Both Nina and Aston felt the first past the post system of voting needed changing, but David was ok to accept the status quo.
I found the hour and half spent quizzing the candidates to be time well spent. The questions covered a wide range of subjects and while one can imagine improvements in the questions it was a good coverage. Sadly, the time allowed and the lack of follow up often meant superficial coverage. Even so, if I were attending without knowing much beforehand about the candidates and their parties, I can imagine I would have learned a lot, enough to be able to intelligently cast my vote. I was a little disappointed with Nina, as her shallow “progressive” take on issues is not one in the main I share, although to be fair she did make some valid points. David is a known quantity and an old hand and widely seen as a good constituency MP, and while not over convincing at times did enough to present a credible case why people should vote for him. If I was to pick a winner, it would be Aston; not because I agree with much of his more progressive brand of politics or his dig at David over his hetero rights comment, but it was his enthusiasm and commitment to social justice, especially when applied to the local situation.
As for who I would vote for if I could vote: then watch this space! I should add it was a pleasant experience and the few passionate outbursts only added to the excitement (the candidates while making some subtle digs at their rivals behaved exemplary). I thought the evening was rounded off nicely at the end, giving thanks to all who had contributed and ending proceedings with a non cringy prayer. It was nice to talk after with two of the candidates and catch up with some old friends, plus a few of the activists present realising that they cared about their community. All in all, it was a worthwhile evening. Well done to the organizers for putting on this event. It will be interesting to see how the East hustings compares!