Last night (May 27th) was the Maidenhead 2017 hustings, organised by Churches Together and held at the High Street Methodist Church. I was there. So was the Prime Minister, if not quite on the same footing.
With thirteen candidates for Maidenhead, the organisers had decided that only the five candidates in parties with a national presence and at least one MP would be invited, i.e. UKIP, Lib Dems, Conservatives, Labour and Greens. There is, I’m sure a bit of sophistry there – they decided who they wanted to invite and exclude and then came up with a definition which would placate the Electoral Commission, but I do have sympathy with their position. Among the 13 of us are a couple of costumed exhibitionists, a number of single issue campaigners as well as one or two of us who at least claim to have a broad alternative agenda. It is hard to see how they could have done differently so I don’t especially resent my not being invited to the platform, although I do think it rather discourteous that I was not even informed that the hustings was happening and found out only via the local Labour Party website. More of this later, however.
So I went along not as Independent candidate for Maidenhead, but as Joe Public, Maidenhead constituent. I met up with fellow uninvited Independent Yemi Hailemariam, in a nearby pub, speculated whether Mrs. May would show up, had our bags searched, (we are told for gastronomic projectiles as much as offensive weapons) and took our place in the sweltering hot church.
Theresa May, did, indeed attend accompanied by discreet but very vigilant looking security. I’ll start with her performance first.
As the basis of my campaign is objecting to much of what Mrs. May has said or done as Prime Minister, you might expect me to pour undiluted vitriol on her, but that would be rather unfair. For a start her attendance is a credit to her – coming from the G7 summit to a hustings of 100-odd people in the safest of seats says something about her. Her introductory address hit a clever balance of real knowledge about local matters and national issues. Throughout the questioning she was superbly informed on whatever was thrown at her. Granted, she is the only professional politician amongst the panel and it is her job to be informed but as Diane Abbot has shown this isn’t always so. She was also rather bland, reserved and cold. She suffered badly for her bizarre decision to pick the fox hunting scab. I’m not sure her smooth deflection of her opposing the Heathrow 3rd Runway as a constituency MP which her government now supports convinced anyone but we were left in no doubt that she is a considerable person.
And she did not, at least to my memory, say “strong and stable”, even once.
Gerard Batten was a cookie-cutter UKIP candidate. An undeniably able stump speaker he was braying, smug, inconsistent and frequently plain factually wrong. He managed to turn every question, even on biodiversity in Maidenhead’s green spaces, to immigration. The expression on Tony Hill’s face during Mr. Batten’s sillier diatribes was a joy, but I’ve wasted enough words on UKIP.
Tony Hill, of the Liberal Democrats was probably the star turn of the night. I’ve met him a few times in the campaign and he has always been polite if rather patronising and disapproving of my candidacy, but his outlook is closer to mine than anyone else on the dias, so I have a bias towards him. Nevertheless I think his performance was excellent. Morally forthright, compassionate and consistent. Passionate but remaining rational. He was willing to concede the constraints placed on government and give credit where deserved. He also didn’t duck hard questions. I think he had a really good night.
Pat MacDonald of Labour has a tough job in Maidenhead and the couple of times I’ve met him has seemed a sincere, dedicated man. He seemed a little bit out of his depth last night (I’m pretty sure I would have been) but put up a game defense. His statement that he was a practicing Catholic was quite appropriate in his position on the conscience issue of assisted suicide, but I was less comfortable in his statement that Britain’s attitudes towards foreign policy and immigrants are guided by our being a “Christian country”. Faith is not a prerequisite for morality or compassion. Even if our values are a legacy of our Christian past they are those of a liberal democracy, not a Christian state.
Derek Wall of the Greens (sadly not pictured above) was the firebrand of the evening. Passionate to a fault, with anger crescendoing in every speech. An economics lecturer he combined his clear, if radical expertise with bewildering scriptural quotations, examples of how Kurdish social structures should be applied to British politics, defense of freedom fighting friends, battles of good versus evil and disdain for everyone else on the podium (and most of us in the room). It was a loud, kaleidoscopic display, bordering on, if not quite becoming, unhinged. In his summing up, he maintained his position that he was going to win this seat, due to three things- his position on Heathrow, Fox hunting and the Kurds. I suspect he may have misjudged the electorate.
So what was discussed?
The panel was pretty united on assisted dying none were convinced that good enough safeguards could be put in place to prevent abuse of the system, so with sadness they would oppose legalisation. MacDonald’s opposition was more absolute, opposing assisted suicide on principle.
On Heathrow 3rd Runway, Wall and Hill were against, MacDonald for, May had to justify her change of heart and I can’t remember what UKIP said.
On choosing your friends in foreign policy, most gave bland answers, except Wall who was far from bland. In response to an angry question on Gypsy rights all played defensive strokes and talked about travellers they had once known. On biodiversity all talked about animals they had seen or owned, Batten blamed immigrants, Wall got angry, and those with local knowledge displayed it.
This, of course led to fox hunting and there was a sizable proportion of the audience there just for that very question. May made her point that there were many people who wanted this issue readdressed (really?). She was heckled. Wall was angry and esoteric in response. Hill was angry and eloquent. MacDonald also opposed. I don’t think Batten got a say on this one.
On social care, May defended her manifesto position very professionally. MacDonald proposed that there should be an analogue to the NHS for social care. Hill took a similar line, that we pool the risks of illness in our society so why should it be different for social care- crucially though he acknowledged that this was hugely expensive and this would mean substantial taxation, which I though commendable.
On allowing refugees into the country, Batten of UKIP gave the expected ingenuous bile. Hill gave an excellent response on our responsibilities as a civilised country, supported by MacDonald. May showed her habitual deep knowledge of the subject, and the specifics of Community Sponsorship but was rather non-committal on numbers
On foreign aid, I thought the questioner got a bit of a rough deal from the panel. He asked how much ended up lining the pockets of the undeserving. This was interpreted , especially by Hill, as implying that the questioner was opposed to foreign aid, which I don’t think he was and was rather slapped down when he tried to protest. Batten, as expected wanted to slash nearly all of it, belying his argument in his diatribe about refugees where he said that we should send money abroad to aid them in place. The other rest of the panel were pleasingly united in supporting a high level of continued foreign aid.
After the meeting was wound up there was one final piece of drama for us fringe candidates. Several of us – certainly me, Yemi Hailemariam, Julian Reid (of the one candidate Just Political Party) and I suspect one or two more were in attendance. None of us had got chance to speak from the floor. Chris Challis, Just Party leader said that he had agreed with the chairman Rabbi Jonathan Romain that we would get 3 minutes each from the floor. This didn’t happen (and, for the record, I was made no such promise, neither was Yemi) leaving Challis incandescent with rage. I left before the denouement of that situation, keen for a cold bottle of beer and a chat with my wife, Lisa about a novel evening.
I will probably never make a successful politician, reporting events as I see them and praising those whom I oppose, but it was a fine evening of robust discussion and it would have been a shame to reduce it to a piece of election propaganda. I will, though be standing alongside them in early morning on 9th June.