Guest Post from Tom Roberts: Hustings Review.

As promised, here’s a pretty comprehensive overview of the hustings written by a guy I ended up sitting a couple of seats down from, Tom Roberts. He seemed pretty clued up, checking the vast amount of statistics that get bandied around at events like this. I asked him to send his write-up in, and he did. I think it’s a pretty fair assessment. 

There are just 20 days to the election, and it is really hotting up. The Independent ran a rather strange focus piece on Soubry today, where she drove round with the journalist as she slagged off the people living in certain streets for the crime of being middle class AND supporting Labour, as if the only response to working up to a nice house is to kick the ladder away and join the Tories. For somebody like Soubry, who has worked in exclusively middle class jobs (broadcasting, as a barrister, and an MP), that’s pretty rich. Especially as she was massively reluctant to move to Broxtowe as she couldn’t match the opulence of her pile in Mapperley in our borough).

The latest big beast to be sent up to shout for Anna is obnoxious berk Michael Fallon, him of the back-firing ‘Miliband stabbed his brother’ quote that saw the nation grimace when he expected them to cheer, and has forced the Tories to try and positive up their campaign by promising magic money trees

If you’d like to write a guest piece, please send me a precis / whole piece and I’ll try and get it in, if it’s relevant. Great to be dead lazy and get others to do this bloody time-consuming job   give space to as many voices as possible.

Over to Tom:

The stage was set at St John’s on Monday night for a Grand Battle of wills between candidates. The representatives were Anna Soubry (Con), Nick Palmer (Labour), Stan Hepstinstall (Lib Dem), David Kirwan (Green), Ray Barry (J4MB). The UKIP candidate was invited but unable to attend.

The opening question was about their priority in local affairs and how this fed in at a national level. Soubry focused on the Economy parroting Cameron’s claims that difficult decisions (surely we need a new euphemism? – Ed) had led to a secure footing and that this would lead to a prosperity throughout the generations. For many younger members of the audience this was a surprise given their wages have dropped by 14%. Barry talked a lot about “Men’s issues” and requested a public enquiry into “The misery inflicted upon men and boys.” This would be the last point of the night where he actually talked policy. Kirwan offered a somewhat scattered list of priorities ranging from the Tram to the NHS to HS2. These seemed to strike a chord with the audience but a lack of depth and focus hurt his overall argument. Hepstinstall ,as expected of an elder statesman of local democracy, talked about his focus on Broxtowe, placing himself in firm opposition to the large local cuts and the attempts to absorb Broxtowe into other constituencies. Palmer also addressed the economy calling current policies unsustainable and driven by consumer credit.

Carrying on from Hepstinstall’s discussion of grants the second question was about the large cuts to local government grants and asked the candidates to come out in opposition. Soubry again went first and claimed that the cuts were necessary as the nation was still in recovery deflecting blame from herself towards the formula. The Greens attacked all parties pointing out they had all agreed to some cuts and instead called for an end to austerity He complained that current services were on a shoestring budget; a claim echoed by both the Lib Dems and Labour. Palmer broadened the argument onto the national NHS pledge made by the Conservatives criticising them for making unfunded pledges. He also attacked the formula as it stands for giving more moneys to the Home Counties. Hepstinstall questioned the long term sustainability of the current budget and commended the local electorate for agreeing to pay for green waste collection which went someway to replacing funding. Barry began what would be a theme of the night and admitted that this was not in their manifesto and that he didn’t know anything about the grant cuts. He did add that he would oppose them.

The next question was about keeping Trident. Kirwan maintained the Green Party line calling for it to be scrapped and the money to instead be spent on infrastructure. Hepstinstall offered a metered and emotional response saying he looks at the world and sees the threats (ISIS and Russia) and thus, we have to keep it. He did however call for a cheaper alternative. Palmer criticised the idea of a cheaper alternative, calling it a clear choice between Trident or Nothing. He proceeded to surprisingly break with party policy coming out in opposition to Trident as he could see no situation where it would be useful. Barry again admitted this was not in his manifesto although said he personally supports Trident also mentioning Russia as a potential threat. Soubry also talked about ISIS and Russia claiming that trident works as an effective deterrent in the “very dangerous times” we live in.

Building upon this the candidates were asked if they did consider ISIS and Russia a potential threat and if they were perhaps scaremongering: after all, ISIS have no way of attacking us in a way that could be prevented by Trident, and Russia’s threatening noises are more to shore up Putin rather than based on any tangible attack. Soubry talked about how we now lived in the most dangerous time she’d been alive, explicitly addressed that she’d lived through the cold war. Nick Palmer addressed the question directly accusing some of the other candidates of scaremongering, he claimed that by doing this we risk “glamourising it” and increasing their influence. He was particularly scathing towards Soubry’s claims that these were’the most dangerous times’. Hepstinstall  backtracked slightly although he also warned about how the last few years had seen an increase in the number of surprise attacks. Kirwan also accused the panel of scaremongering, claiming that the current situation was better than many times in past. Barry again admitted that defence was not in his manifesto, he also talked about “terrorists creeping in.”

Addressing the economy, the candidates were asked how they would combat growing wealth inequality. Hepstinstall talked about re-balancing the tax system to move the poorest out of tax brackets and to increase taxes on the wealthiest. He also addressed the previous pledge about tuition fees saying he wanted them to be free as he felt it was unfair to have benefited from free fees himself and to then charge others. Barry again revealed his party had no policy on this. Kirwan introduced his party’s slogan “for the common good.” He then expanded on this; talking about closing tax loopholes and pursuing tax avoiders demanding that they “pay their fair share.” He also claimed to want to abolish tuition fees, a policy which would be impossible as they would always be a minority party in government. Palmer also addressed tuition fees, backing party policy to cut them by a third and accusing the Lib Dems of sacrificing students in favour of power.

He then talked about his controversial decision to sign on after losing his seat. He claimed this had given him an understanding of how bureaucratic signing on could be and how reporting very small scale earnings (£30-£40) had made him feel like an idiot for both taking the job and reporting it. He contrasted this with the ease of reporting profits in a company claiming this as proof that the system is biased toward the wealthy.

He also talked about scrapping Nom Dom status and a fairer taxation system, claiming this was only possible within europe. Soubry led with an emotional story about growing up around those from deprived background as well as attacking Palmer for claiming benefits. Her claim was that a strong economy would tackle the issue and that it wouldn’t be solved by giving out “free money.” Her speech led to a minor controversy in which she was accused of claiming unemployment benefits was ‘shameful’. She later claimed she was referring specifically to Palmer claiming them.  (as Soubry should know, it’s actually a requirement to register as unemployed even if you’re not entitled to any money: you still have to register for National Insurance reasons). The Conservatives were then attacked by Kirwan and Palmer for demonising benefit claimants and making them jump through hoops, specifically addressing the bedroom tax and aggressive sanctions.

This led into a discussion of the living wage with the audience member who proffered the question wondering aloud “Why are we supporting companies to pay low wages?’ Hepstinstall gave an emotional speech about his wife’s work with food banks, talking about how the community that use them were enormously grateful and often returned to offer donations when they were back on their feet. Barry again admitted to a lack of official policies but said that “tax credits make people dependent on the Government” and that he instead believed in equality through wages. Kirwan and Palmer both pushed for increases in the minimum wage (to £10 and £8 by 2020 respectively) although disagreeing over the balancing point at which it would lead to increased unemployment.

The question about the what to do about Mental Health services engendered widespread agreement amongst the panel that the current services were not fit for purpose. Palmer offered the biggest soundbite of the night with “Mental Health is the Cinderella of the NHS.” Hepstinstall pointed out that his party took the early initiative and suggested improved training for teachers to recognise risks. Soubry talked about improving organisation to address the larger numbers coming forwards and blamed a lack of funding on having trouble recruiting. Barry talked about 70% of men in prison having a mental health condition and how this was unacceptable mistreatment. He did not address that there is (depending on locale) parity or a worse situation for women in prison. When asked about this afterwards he simply claimed higher numbers of men in prisons have these issues, so they should be the focus, although he also admitted this was because there were more men. David attacked Soubry’s claim about trouble recruiting by discussing the stagnation in NHS pay claiming that if we want better services we must be willing to pay for them.

Mark Iles, a former soldier and a local veteran’s campaigner was then brought in to address what for him is a personal issue, the fair treatment of ex-service personnel. Palmer admitted a lack of knowledge on the issue but expressed a desire to discuss it. Soubry began talking about funding veteran’s care through LIBOR fines but was interrupted by Iles who gave an impassioned speech about having to fight for his pension for six years. He issued her with a copy of a letter he had sent asking her to address his concerns and produced a sign reading “Betrayal of the Military Covenant.” At this point he was asked repeatedly to sit down and despite his father (himself also a veteran) speaking up to help fight his case eventually relented. At this point the debate was moved on.

The final important question addressed the recent Conservative pledge to increase Inheritance Tax bands. The questioner polled the audience as to whether any of them owner a house that would be affected, unsurprisingly producing no responses. Kirwan, Hepstinstall and Palmer broadly agreed on this saying it would perpetuate a wealthy class and that it only benefits the richest in society. They called the increase “pointless.” Barry, again without official policy, offered the opinion that the amount it would cost is a drop in the ocean relative to the entire deficit. Soubry defended the policy claiming that it was only fair to be able to pass our things on to our children. She claimed that it amounted to taxing the property twice.

The actual final question was a softball about getting young people interested in politics. Barry talked, almost inexplicably, about more women getting into university than men claiming we must address this (He fails to mention that acceptance/rejection ratios are the same). Palmer, Hepstinstall and Kirwan again fell into agreement on lowering the voting age to sixteen with Hepstinstall using the success of the Broxtowe Youth Council to point out that young people do have an interest. Soubry admitted that she was not a believer in lowering the voting age but admitted to being swayed by the arguments of the other candidates. She pointed out that the parties would do best to reach out through policy.

The meeting broke up, and the crowds broke up and streamed out, off to debate in ever shrinking groups over a pint, on the drive home, or across the internet.