GUEST HUSTINGS REPORT: TOM ROBERTS GIVES US THE LOWDOWN ON THE BEESTON EXPRESS HUSTINGSn

I couldn’t make the Beeston Express Hustings, due to other engagements. This is another of those rare occasions where I find a similarity with myself and Soubry, who didn’t turn up.

Huge thanks to Tom for getting a report over so fast, and with so little notice to write about it, literally just a few hours before it kicked off. 

Last night’s hustings were perhaps an example of the sadder kind of politics we often see. Faced with an audience who largely appeared to have made up their mind the show in front of us wasn’t to convince votes instead it was a sport. Specifically it was boxing, long periods of tightly choreographed jabs and feints with only very rarely actual fighting.

The night began with opening statements. These were largely about prior qualifications but also gave the candidates a chance to introduce themselves. The room seemed to warm to most of the candidates although perhaps in different ways, Stan came off, in his usual way, as cuddly. A kind grandfatherly figure who genuinely does want the best for his community. Nick, despite rambling, was the first to address policy and in doing so seemed the more practical choice. David Kirwan had possibly the most impressive CV (the NHS, the college of nursing, business owner) and so used the opportunity to position himself as a real alternative to austerity using the classic line “they’re all the same.” Frank Dunne came out as boisterous and blustering in a way that seems to be a UKIP trade mark. His “straight talking” made it apparent he felt he was channelling Churchill but in reality he just seemed loud and bouncy. Ray Barry fared perhaps the worst here using the time to launch into a discussion of discrimination against men before accusing politicians of taking men for granted. Visible question marks formed above the heads of much of the audience. Anna Soubry, perhaps in tribute to David Cameron, had declined to attend. When asked why she said she believed the questions at the first debate were biased against her and that she couldn’t get a fair hearing. Given the questions came from her audience this may indicate a disconnect with the people of Broxtowe that will be hard to reconcile.

With the Conservatives not in attendance the watch word of the night became “anti-austerity.” Jabs came in from all directions and parties towards Mrs Soubry but these will largely not be included as she could not reply. I will offer Mrs Soubry, should she read this, the chance to answer all of the questions herself and I will write that up separately. (No. available on request)

The first question was about the IFS reports published today, these analysed the party manifestos and questioned whether their spending matched their deficit targets. The Conservatives had a £30bn gap and Labour had £1bn. The Lib Dems passed the test but were asked if some of their assumptions were feasible. UKIP was assessed by a different group who confirmed the numbers but were alarmed by the significant assumption of continued trade levels with the EU despite a British exit. The Greens meanwhile are accused of an unclear and uncosted plan that requires unreasonably high assumptions with regards tax revenue. Heptinstall was confident in his party and has every right to be, they have delivered the most fiscally balanced manifesto a point he was keen to get across. Palmer offered justified and accurate criticism of the Conservatives but did not fully address the question of whether Labour’s own budget gap could make it difficult to achieve all Labour’s policies. Dunne was also proud of his costed manifesto but completely avoided the lingering question of maintaining pan European trade. Instead he followed Palmer’s route and used his time to attack the other parties. Kirwan was by far the most optimistic but did little to allay fears about his party’s lack of economic expertise. Barry fell back onto his traditional men’s rights arguments and after being pushed admitted his party did not have a full economic plan. Yes, that is quite embarrassing.

The next question was about immigration. In spite of the presence of UKIP the discussion of EU membership was very rarely brought up, this left the debate hard to parse and difficult to interpret honestly so the following should be taken with a large pinch of salt. Although Mr Palmer admitted he was pro-free movement of labour within the EU he also indicated pride in limiting other forms of migration and instituting a points based system whilst in government. These positions are compatible in practical terms but seem ideologically at odds. The Green policy was clearer with Kirwan setting up his stall as pro-immigration from all sources, this didn’t win him fans within the room but may appeal to others. It was at least consistent. Mr Heptinstall broadly agreed with Nick and both of them were saddened that immigration had become such a dog whistle issue. Mr Dunne talked a lot about how to reduce immigration to just the skilled migrants but didn’t acknowledge the elephant in the room of the EU exit. This left the policy sounding convincing but with large, unaddressed caveats which made it a case of offering the world without the cost. Mr Barry, in spite of a lack of official policy came out in support of UKIP’s ideas making it clear that he was in favour of an EU referendum and that he would prefer an exit. He did not address the impact of this but it was nice to see some actual policy.
At this point there was an interjection from the floor asking why Labour and the Lib Dems wouldn’t promise an EU referendum. This led to cries of “Are we too stupid?” and “Are you undemocratic?” Nick Palmer took the brunt of the beating here and although Stan Heptinstall interjected in support it was obvious where the questions were directed. Palmer offered a convincing but somewhat dispassionate defence: saying that calling a referendum would be irresponsible. He pointed out that our economy had just recovered from the uncertainty of the Scottish referendum and that it would be dangerous to jump into another so quickly. He did however say he would be open to a referendum should there be a new treaty drawn up. Although reasonable his answer got a very mixed response amongst the crowd and it’s likely we would have been stuck here for a while had the moderator not intervened as the attacks got louder.

Continuing the theme the next question was about the Mediterranean boat crisis. Frank Dunne opened the debate with a passionate speech about how much the tragedy had moved him. Sadly, much like Shakespeare’s proverbial idiot, this was “all sound and fury signifying nothing.” Something the audience did not let stand. Mr Dunne proceeded to say we should have provided aid to Libya when they asked 4 years ago. This does not fit with UKIP’s policy of reducing foreign aid and he was again called on the hypocrisy. In a final attempt he suggested adopting an Australian system of turning back the boats and offshore processing. This did not go down well with the audience who pointed out the death toll of such a programme and that these offshore processing centres were akin to prison camps. At this point he also backtracked on that policy leaving him with no cohesive response. The other three major parties were hard to distinguish on this issue, they all wanted to restart the programme and they all wanted to use aid to construct refugee camps in Africa to try and stop the trafficking. The theme that defined each of their speeches appeared to be responsibility and they were all somewhat disparaging to what they saw as a coldness from Frank Dunne. Ray Barry was silent for much of this discussion, presumably because it did not involve men specifically.
The first major debate focussed on housing, the issue in play was the extent of building on brown field and green field sites. Stan Heptinstall spoke first, condemning the Greens and UKIP for quoting numbers that weren’t feasible and, somewhat sadly, admitted that it was likely construction would have to be done on green field sites. David Kirwan rebuked this thoroughly, accusing the local report that reached this conclusion of getting the numbers wrong and developers of just wanting to take the cheaper option of using green field sites. This conflict formed the crux of the debate with Frank Dunne speaking in support of Kirwan and Nick Palmer in support of Heptinstall. There was no consensus reached, although having since read the support it is obvious Heptinstall has a point. The number of houses that can be built locally on brownfield sites is not enough to cover the shortfall and alternate measures may be needed. Nick Palmer suggested we begin building large blocks of flats aimed at a younger population, a policy which seems feasible but costly. It does however necessitate smaller plots of land. There was, however, a consensus amongst most of the panel (Mr Barry did not comment) on “right to buy.” All candidates joined forces to condemn the extension and there was discussion of curtailing it in order to replenish housing stock.

The next question asked the candidates to put aside their differences and to admit to policies from the other parties they liked. This saw some of the most predictable, and most bizarre moments of the night. On the more predictable side Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens rallied together around progressive politics and environmental issues. Perhaps more surprisingly UKIP also agreed that inequality needed addressing and praised the other parties for policies such as free childcare and NHS funding. The Greens and UKIP also formed a loose agreement on HS2 and preserving Greenbelts revealing that even among ideological enemies there is often common ground. The running gag of proceedings was  for candidates to struggle to remember something they agreed with the Conservatives on, even UKIP joined in the teasing. The outsider in this regard was Mr Barry who revealed support of Conservative economic policy and UKIP’s policies on the EU. This finally firmly established his position on the right wing and left him somewhat distant from the other parties. The single Justice for Men and Boys policy that was agreed upon was introducing prostate cancer screenings for the over 40s, although questions were raised about the tests efficacy as it is known to produce large numbers of false positives.

The final question was about youth unemployment, this was a timely question as youth unemployment is 3 times that of the nation itself. The candidates all  talked about improving education with a focus on raising vocational skills to the same level as academic skills. Heptinstall pointed to his party’s record in government on creating jobs although given the 14% fall in real term wages this is of questionable merit. Nick Palmer talked about re-establishing a link between apprenticeships and a job although sadly he offered no specifics on achieving this. Frank Dunne speculated about reintroducing Grammar Schools as engines of social mobility. The evidence on grammar schools is fairly difficult to gauge because those who attend are disproportionately from wealthy backgrounds. David Kirwan proposed reintroducing the EMA as a way to allow school leavers to pursue further training without having to borrow money. He also condemned the school culture as overly reliant on tests but did not offer specifics on which he believed unnecessary.

Overall no-one in the debate ruled themselves out of the running. The four candidates from major parties offered their visions of Britain but on the most part left out the downsides. Stan Heptinstall was perhaps best in this regard, his positions on housing and green issues made it clear than he was conflicted between ideology and practicality but did at least reveal an acceptance of the downsides. Nick Palmer delivered an admirable if not wholly remarkable performance. He was by far the most policy driven of the candidates using his laconic almost dry style to present the audience with the policies without the cloud of rhetoric. Hopefully this indicates a confidence that the policies can stand for themselves. David Kirwan was perhaps the most animated of the candidates, delivering extremely well on his message and his beliefs but the policy underneath was sometimes hard to determine. This left him passionate but also made him seem impractical. Frank Dunne was affable and seemed honest but revealed the standard UKIP weakness of trying to be all things to all men. This left him at times flip-flopping on positions to follow the mood of the room which made his typical stance, to the left within his party, harder to believe. Ray Barry had his usual laser focus on men’s issues. This will have served him well with those in the audience that agreed with him but will alienate him from those who don’t.

On all other issues he was either quiet or revealed a lack of policy and lack of specific knowledge making him hard to take seriously as a candidate. In what may be a theme of this election, if you knew who you were going to vote for this debate was unlikely to sway you towards the other parties. However for those who are still undecided it was a good chance to scrutinise the candidates in a more intimate environment and I’m sure many will have addressed issues that they hold close.

Thank you to the Beeston Express for organising the event, and thank you to Sheila for chairing.

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