Thursday, 30 April 2015

Hayfield Hustings 29/4/15

The event was organised by Sustainable Hayfield and held in the Royal Hotel - a good albeit warm venue. Over a hundred people in attendance with yet again only a sprinkling of younger people. 

The candidates have become very familiar with each other - they have taken part in as many of these events as anywhere in the country. Questions had been pre-submitted but those chosen were read from the floor. We  were informed by the chairman, Laurie James, that our only contribution was to clap or withhold our claps. Shouting out and commenting were not welcome. Democracy? What democracy? 

It quickly became clear that this approach applied to the candidates too. Each at some time in the evening made claims that needed to be challenged. They were allowed to get away making statements that in the centre of Manchester would have been rightly howled down. The clap-o-meter approach was a poor substitution but it did at least give some measure of support in the room.

Bingham (Tory) had a small group of his supporters sitting right in front of him again. Bisknell (Lab) clearly had a good following with Farrell (Green) and Worrall (LibDem) having some support too. There were very few Kippers in attendance for Mr Guiver to rely on. 
He also said something quite strange in his opening remarks (candidates were given 5 minutes each to speak - far too long) when he said that he was a wealthy man, in fact so wealthy he was probably the wealthiest man in the room. This was greeted in total silence. He may have been attempting to use the American model of poor boy done good but it seemed out of place and even a bit offensive. The LibDem went last and used his usual humour to ask us if we were still awake. The questions were on the whole quite challenging but the responses were not. Bingham was allowed to get away with quoting food bank figures from 2012 and of course the big Tory lie about the debt without ever mentioning that national debt is double that of 2010 and that we are heading backwards economically. One area where candidates have moved forward was the Tory policy of subsidising  people in Housing Associations to help them buy their houses. All four other candidates spoke out strongly against the idea with much support from the assembled. Bingham admitted later that he had taken on board the feeling in the room. The Tory’s opening comment on the NHS question again needed scrutiny when he said he was concerned at the rising levels of obesity. Quite. So how do you justify your governments complicity with the food giants allowing them to get away with slow murder? This was not said. Neither was he challenged about his assertions that the NHS was improving and for us the great British public to let the Tories get on with running it.

The final question asked candidates which part of their manifestos they disagreed with - or were they party clones? This produced ‘Fracking’ from the LibDem, ‘HS2’ and ‘Trident’ from Labour and some waffle from the Tory about voting against Syria -until he was reminded to answer the question, when he thought defence should not be cut. UKIP said he agreed with their policies but was unhappy at the tone of some UKIP spokesbods, particularly on immigration. The Green admitted she was a clone as she agreed with all Green policies. 
The High Peak is a marginal seat and as such should have produced some real debate.
The organisers could feel happy that the event passed off peacefully but for this observer it felt that we too were treated as clones. 

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Manchester Withington Hustings 27/4/15

Hough End Police Social and Sports Centre - aprox 60 people of mixed age present. The event was organised by Unlock Democracy - an organisation seeking widespread reform of the political system - clearly much needed.

This was the seat which famously had lines of students queuing up outside at 10pm when the polls closed in the 2010 election. It was held by the LibDem John Leech, who originally won the seat in 2005. He is standing again. His main rival is Jeff Smith for Labour. He has been a councillor in the area for several years. In addition there are Marcus Farmer standing as an Independent, Mark Davis for UKIP, Robert Mannion Con and Lucy Bannister for the Greens. 
The event was chaired by Jim Hancock, one-time Granada Reports political correspondent who had also worked for the BBC. 
Each candidate was given four minutes to make an opening statement - far longer than anywhere else to date. Several did not get near to filling the time and those who did were running out of steam. 
The Independent began - he had stood in 2010 and said he had spoken in the same venue to a packed hall of 500 people. He claimed the lack of interest reflected a lack of faith in current politicians and policies. He was particularly concerned at the disconnection of the young. Therefore he had enlisted the help of some young people to help him crystallise his campaign and focus on just right of the centre ground. They were going to be called the BlueyGreens!
The UKIP candidate was another successful businessman who was new to politics but was looking for people who shared his views. He reduced everything down to ‘supply and demand.’ The Conservative was straight out of Toryboy central casting. A besuited young lawyer he arrived late having been engaged elsewhere in a meeting.  He duly chanted the Tory mantra “2 million new jobs, no tax for the lowest paid and DevoManc - the latest wheeze from fellow Toryboy, George Osborne. He was listened to in polite silence. The young Green had a few supporters in the audience and they helped her as she spelled out Green policies. Possessed of a slight lisp and the unfortunate habit of inserting ‘erms' into her speech, she still came across as a knowledgable and decent campaigner. The Labour candidate made much of his local background and his service on Manchester City Council. This was to come back and bite him in ways he could not have foreseen later. 
Unusually questions had been submitted for the second half (National Politics) but the Chairman wanted local questions to prevail in the first half. He asked the assembled to contribute any they thought relevant. This brought a prospective UKIP councillor to his feet and just as he was getting into his stride telling us how good he was going to be he was bawled down to ask a question. He came up with ‘What did the panel think about residents getting summonses by email’ which took most present by surprise. The discussion quickly focussed on the need for advice, help and support if wrongly sent a summons. The next question took the advice theme further wanting to know why the Labour council had cut Citizen’s Advice Bureau and other similar help centres while at the same time spending millions on so-called vanity projects in the city. [There are 96 councillors in Manchester, 95 Labour and 1 Independent Labour]. Claims of a one party state and mistaken priorities rang around the room as the Labour man struggled to justify the spending decisions. He engaged in quite a to-and-fro with the LibDem, himself a former councillor, but he still enjoyed quite a lot of support in the room. 
Other issues included challenging the pro-Austerity stance of the main parties, whether your party leader would press the nuclear button and  attitudes to the First Past the Post voting method. Lab were again challenged for having AV in their 2010 manifesto but then quietly dropping it and campaigning to retain FPTP in the referendum. The LibDem said he had voted against the Coalition Agreement and had therefore felt empowered to oppose anything he did not agree with. Toryboy totally in favour of current system, surprise surprise, though he had the grace to admit that a different method could help break the Labour monopoly on the City Council. 
An interesting question asked how far they would go to defy their party whip in the Commons. Greens  and UKIP will not be whipped, Labour would if there was a need and at this point there was an ERUPTION from the floor as Jabba the Hutt’s younger and smaller brother bellowed from the back of the Hall several unsavoury and quite nasty comments aimed at the Labour candidate in particular and then attacked the chairman when he tried to call him to order. Jabba junior was in his 60’s and clearly not a happy Hutt. Amongst the splenetic bile there were odd nuggets about 6 Labour MPs going to jail over their expenses and how crap the city council were. Several folk implored JJ to calm down as did your correspondent asking him to watch his health as he was in danger of having a heart attack. Peace gradually restored and events moved on comparatively sedately until there came another attack from the floor, this time over a casework issue for the Labour candidate. 
Towards the end of a moderate discussion about how to help the lowest paid, Mr Mightily Angry JJ ROARED back into the event, this time twice as nasty and three times as threatening as before. This interruption went on for some time with JJ threatening to hit people near him who were telling him to shut up. Jim Hancock was rattled - despite the event being held in a police building there was not a copper in sight. He was asked to leave - a question which was supported by warm applause from the assembled. Having done some more sweary threats he finally got the message, told us all to “Fuck Off’  and hauled his massivety to his feet. As he was departing slowly through the back door he heard the Green candidate try to pick up the pieces and turned back and shouted very loudly “ERM - ERM - ERM - ERM”  provoking more comments from us for him to go home. The Green was somewhat rattled by the ‘Erm’ outburst and took a while to regain her composure. 
A question pre-submitted for the second half could not be read out by the questioner. Apparently she had left the room having felt very intimidated by JJ. Not surprising and a microcosm of the national election where political debate has been reduced to despicable pictures of Nicola Sturgeon in Murdoch’s Sun parodying Miley Cyrus. Everything afterwards was comparatively calm. 

None of the candidates stood out as being top class material. The Independent revealed himself to be as right wing as the UKIP guy who yet again managed several sensible points along with three or four indigestible ones. The Green held her own and was greeted warmly by her supporters at the end. Toryboy left little trace and was rarely challenged. Of the two front runners, the LibDem enjoyed the better of the evening.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Liberty and Human Rights

Attended the Liberty AGM on Saturday at Manchester University. Inspiring and thought-provoking. Harrowing tales of government and institutional abuse and how using the Human Rights Act (HRA) has brought justice into some victims lives. Set out below is a letter sent to my local paper, the Buxton Advertiser. In this disgraceful election of threats, bribes and lies there has been a remarkable absence of discussion on key issues such as surveillance, education, climate change, privatisation, foreign policy etc. This is one attempt to begin a debate.

Last week saw the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Belsen. After the war, to ensure that such horrors would never happen again, Winston Churchill and fellow conservative Lord Kilmuir, were instrumental in drafting what was to become the European Convention on Human Rights. In 1998 the Human Rights Act (HRA) was passed in the UK with cross party support. This was a landmark for defining democratic, civilised values.
The HRA acts as a bastion against the misuse of power by the state or agencies acting on behalf of the state e.g. police, military police, security services - and even local government officials. Article 2 of the Act - the right to life - has been used to help the Hillsborough families seeking justice for the 96 victims. The same part of the act has been used to help reform the military justice system and obtain justice for victims of domestic violence and other attacks. 
Article 8 of the Act, the right to privacy has been opposed by the press, particularly the tabloids, because it limits their lucrative ‘kiss and tell’ stories.
Unsurprisingly the media has undermined the HRA whenever it can. The government has also proved to be incompetent at following due process which has for example slowed down the process of deportation i.e. Abu Hamza.  Another example where the Act has allowed the truth to come out is the story of Naomi Bryant who was killed by convicted sex offender Anthony Rice while he was freed on licence from prison. Using Article 2 Naomi’s mother secured an inquest - which otherwise would not have happened - which concluded that Naomi was unlawfully killed due to an astounding series of institutional failings by the prison, parole board, probation services and other agencies. Tellingly, Ministers responsible for these same agencies had tried originally to blame the HRA for Rice’s release. Equally tellingly, the truth about the incident did not receive coverage in the media. This is a regular occurrence. 
Speaking about the HRA at the Tory party conference in 2011 Theresa May said, “The illegal immigrant who cannot be deported because – and I am not making this up – he had a pet cat.” This turned out like so many similar cases to be completely untrue. She was making it up! The reality was that yet again her department had not followed due process and had in effect screwed up. 
The Conservatives and UKIP have both promised to repeal the HRA and replace it with a Bill of Rights. Why do they want to do this?  The government can deport criminals and terrorists now as long as they follow due process.It appears that the only reason is to protect them from further revelations of their incompetence. What will be in the new Bill of Rights? We do not know but former Tory Attorney General Dominic Grieve dismissed the draft last October as “Legally illiterate”. This is great cause for concern. Can we trust them? Look at what they have done to Legal Aid. They have effectively prevented most of us from getting access to the justice system.

The HRA is not the terrorist’s friend as painted by the tabloids. It is our friend. It protects us from injustice, it helps us speak out freely, it helps keep our private lives private and it keeps an over powerful and incompetent state in check and holds politicians to account.

Is this the reason the HRA has not been mentioned in the current appalling election campaign?

Update 30/4/15
The letter was not published. Fancy that. Will consider sending an amended version to other  papers.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Manchester Central Hustings

Friends Meeting House, Mount Street, Manchester  24/4/15

This had a very different feel to it even before the hustings began. Organised by several groups, 38 Degrees, Results Organisation, Unlock Democracy, Open Rights Group, Equality North West and Christian Aid. The event took place very close to Manchester Town Hall. We were greeted by supporters offering us leaflets and flyers - it was a long way from leafy suburbia and complacent conservative land. An audience of about 250 had a goodly number of young people present. The constituency covers some of the poorest parts of the country and there is a massive disconnection with mainstream politics. The seat was held for Labour by Lucy Powell in a by-election in 2012 with 62% of the vote. The turnout was 18% which beggars the question - at what point should a vote be deemed to be invalid? The turnout in 2010 had been 42% Given the paucity of interest it would be reasonable to expect a similar shortage of candidates. Not so - there were 8.
Alex Davidson TUSC (Trades Union & Socialist Coalition); Paul Davies Communist; Loz Kaye Pirate Party UK; Myles Power UKIP; Xingang Wang Con; John Reid LibDem; Kieran Turner-Dave Green and Lucy Powell Lab. The LibDem did not turn up - apparently he could not get back to Manchester. The sitting MP Lucy Powell was also unavailable - she had offered several dates but this was not one of them. In her place was a local Labour councillor from the Beswick ward Rosa Battle. 
The event was well organised and chaired. Proceedings began with a series of questions from the organising groups and candidates had 75 seconds each to respond. The second half was turned over to the assembled masses for questions from the floor. 
The values on show were unlike anything seen before. There was broad agreement on many issues between Loz, Alex and Kieran who spoke with clarity and passion, expressing deep hostility to the Coalition’s Austerity plan. Rosa was also a passionate defender of parts of Labour’s policies but was clearly unhappy at other aspects. The UKIP fellow was of the more moderate persuasion, recognising he was not among many friends. The communist used the Cuban regime as a model for workers struggle against the capitalists. He was particularly strong on the effects of dropping bombs on parts of the Middle East. The Conservative candidate had weak english and did not grasp the meaning of some of the questions and comments. He parroted ‘Long Term Economic Plan’ as the panacea to all problems - so much so it became a running joke. The standout performer on the night and of all those candidates in the other constituencies seen to date was the Green. Kieran Turner-Dave is about 25 and a name to remember. He has the lovely ability to communicate with warmth and good humour. He was also genuinely delighted when a fellow panelist said something he agreed with. Excellent on Green Party policies, he deserves to go further. Several of his ilk could transform politics into something that not only matters but is engaging and inspiring too. No doubt the bastions of privilege and wealth will summon up all the tools in their media armoury to ensure that this does not happen.
Several Labour supporters were disappointed that Lisa Powell did not attend. She would have had to be on her mettle as Labour are seen by the left as just as much the enemy as the tories. Unsurprising when the Westminster party voted to maintain tory cuts of £30 billion.

Marple Hustings 23/4/15

Hazel Grove Constituency

Marple Methodist Church
Candidates: Lisa Smart (LibDem); Michael Taylor (Lab); William Wragg (Con);
Darren Palmer (UKIP); Graham Reed (Green)
Yet again the assembled throng (150+) were predominantly middle aged and older. As we entered we were greeted by activists giving out information on TTIP and the NHS which boded well. Sadly it was not to be. 
The previous MP, Andrew Stunnell, held the seat for the LibDems from 1997 and stood down in 2015. This meant that all five candidates were political virgins and it showed. Being set in a church reduces passion and the proceedings were far too polite. Candidates were allowed to get away with making claims without being challenged from the platform or the floor. Having experienced just how good and dynamic a hustings could be the previous night, this was a return to the frustrations of New Mills. Each candidate was given one minute to answer a question. It meant many more questions (several very good) were dealt with superficially. This was particularly evident in responses to questions asking how they would reduce food banks; the situation in the Mediterranean; Ofsted and Faith Schools. The consensus on the panel was that Faith schools were a good thing. The Labour candidate in particular stressing his catholicism (this followed his strong anti-abortion stance earlier). At this point there was a noisy interruption from the floor bemoaning the sterility and mundanity of the discussion. The point was made that this was the only chance in 4 or 5 years to challenge and test candidates who seek to represent us. This was greeted by some applause, several glares and bemusement from the lady vicar chairing the event. 
Hands up - it was me…. 
At the end of the event the Labour candidate bounded off the stage and shook my hand. The vicar came across and asked how things could have been done differently. The examples of Bollington and Buxton were explained and other members of the audience came up to offer support. 
As for the candidates…..
The Conservative said very little of substance and sold himself as a decent Primary teacher. The Green was competent and more than held his own as did the UKIP candidate. Lisa Smart for the LibDems came across as a grounded thoughtful person with decent values. Michael Taylor was a revelation - though not in a way he would have hoped. His strong catholicism and anti-abortion stance immediately turned off this correspondent. Alastair Campbell had it right when he told Blair “We don’t do religion…..”  

Bollington Hustings

This event was held in the Civic Hall and took place in the Macclesfield constituency - a safe Tory seat with a majority of over 12,000. It was chaired by Peter Sissons (yes, that Peter Sissons, once of Question Time fame). As people arrived they were asked to write a question for the panel to consider.
Another 150+ people filled the venue with a few younger people present among the middle aged and elderly. 
Candidates: Tim Roca (Lab); David Rutley (Con) current MP; Neil Christian (LibDem); Adrian Howard (UKIP); Joan Plimmer (Green)
Each question was asked by the person who wrote it. This immediately linked the panel with the constituents. Sissons did a splendid job of chairing the event. There was quite an emphasis on local issues - bad planning schemes in Macclesfield and Bollington. AH for UKIP was strong on local issues and quite clearly pinned the blame for all the problems on having a Tory Council. DR became less smooth and urbane as the evening progressed as he had to defend his actions locally and his party’s policies nationally. He withdrew gradually and contributed less and less. He was completely overshadowed by TR for Labour, who was the stand out performer on the night. Charming, warm and witty, he was an excellent communicator and was knowledgeable to boot. For him to win would take a real upheaval - the LibDem vote to collapse along with the Green vote, with UKIP taking a good chunk of old Tory votes.
Sadly the Green was another not presently suited to the role. She was hesitant and relied too much on reading her notes. The chairman sat to one side of the candidates and the Green candidate replied directly to him ignoring the 140+ sitting to his left. A basic error. The LibDem guy was largely safe, sound and dull. He was a barrister and strangely uninspiring. The question of Libya and the boat people provided a really bad moment for Mr UKIP. His callous opening response produced shouts of anger from the assembled. He tried to row back later but the damage had been done. 
At the close, Peter Sissons was warmly applauded by the crowd and Tim Roca was surrounded by well-wishers offering their congratulations and thanks. People bubbled happily out into the night feeling they had been engaged and not passive observers (cf New Mills).

One odd fact. David Rutley is the only Mormon in the House of Commons. So what you may say. Mormons share a lot of Christian beliefs but - and it is quite a massive but - they also follow the Book of Mormon, “another testament of Jesus Christ” received by founder Joseph Smith and published in 1830. Smith claimed that he “received divine direction” to translate the metal plates “he found buried near his home”. Oh. Right. 
Two Green candidates have now been seen. Despite being clearly decent people they were way out of their depth in this arena. So much so it was felt they could have actually lost potential Green votes. Bumping into a couple of long term Greens near home they said the party had decided to try to get candidates in as many seats as possible. The potential candidates need support and training in how best to cope in a potentially hostile and challenging situation. Just being decent is not enough. Politics is a dirty business and the ability to think on your feet and deliver a killer comment may not suit some.

Buxton Hustings

University of Derby 20/4/15

The event was staged by the University in Buxton in their Dome building. A large lecture room was packed with over 120 people - again mainly middle aged and older. Only a handful of young people attended - sad as the event was aimed at engaging them. A student union official explained they had tried to persuade students to attend but had been met with responses based around the theme ‘what’s the point, they never listen to us’. A good example of a self-fulfilling prophecy which bodes ill for our democracy.
The event was very effectively chaired by Chris Hughes, Chairman of the university’s governing council. He established the tone of the event very quickly with humour and clarity. Questions had been submitted and candidates were allowed a couple of minutes to answer. We were encouraged to put our hands up if we wished to contribute to an issue and a microphone would be provided. He would allow two or three contributions before asking panellists to respond. 
This was so much better than the barren affair in New Mills. 
There was a strong local flavour to the questions and follow up. A knowledgeable and articulate audience contributed well and often. This meant that we only explored three actual questions in two hours. However the amount of supplementary comments and challenges from the floor widened and deepened the discussion effectively. Candidates were engaged in a dialogue rather than merely parroting party lines. One exception was the ‘Housing’ question which went on too long. The question did produce a wide range of supplementary points from the floor including ‘Right to Buy’, the Hunting with Dogs Act, Wildlife Crime and the Badger cull, Fracking and Quarrying. 
The sitting MP Andrew Bingham had a better night but was still on the defensive over the coalition’s record. He was helped by having a phalanx of true-blue supporters seated directly in front of him. One of these was the infamous Edwina Currie, one time Tory Minister and paramour of John Major. Her contribution to the housing issue was spectacularly weird involving her belief that adult children should live at home with their parents in some form of Edwardian extended family arrangement.

Bingham’s principal challenger, Caitlin Bisknell (Labour) had the difficulty of also facing the same Tory phalanx with her supporters scattered in the rest of the room. The UKIP candidate was less combative; the LibDem was better in this setting, quite funny and delightfully honest even admitting that he did not like David Laws. The Green candidate struggled again despite having excellent values. 

New Mills Hustings 2015

April 17th: New Mills Town Hall (High Peak constituency)
Candidates: Andrew Bingham (Con) current MP
Caitlin Bisknell (Lab) stood against Bingham in 2010
Charlotte Farrell (Green) 
Ian Guiver (UKIP)
Stephen Worrall (LibDem)
The event was organised by the local council of churches. The format was very limited. Questions had been submitted prior to the event and nine had been selected. Each candidate had two minutes to respond. A list of topics, though not the actual questions, had been sent to the candidates prior to the event. This produced a passionless, mainly sterile ‘debate’. The event was chaired by an assistant curate from a local church who made it clear that dissent from the assembled motley (approx 120 citizens, predominantly middle-aged and older) would not be countenanced. What is it with vicars? A particularly pompous and officious one in Buxton suppressed comment at the last election. A woman with genuine grievance at the impact of austerity on the weak and vulnerable was told she would have to leave if she did not shut up. 

As for the candidates, the Green and LibDem were weak and not MP material. Both appeared to be honest, decent people with the Green having good values.They lacked the spark necessary to tell truth to power. The UKIP guy was the most competent speaker and 70% of his comments were spot on as he attacked the political elite and corruption at the highest level. The remaining 30% of his remarks were offensive, objectionable and UKIP’s policies, if delivered, would make our society even more nasty and divided. The conservative made a big point about being a local boy who put the people of the High Peak first and had opposed the government on several occasions. Well, up to a point. Last July he had accepted a post of Parliamentary Private Secretary, the lowest rung on the government ladder. Bye Bye dissent. Hello yet another government lackey. He was defensive on several issues. The Labour candidate had been unimpressive in 2010. She was much much better this time round and injected some real feeling into her summing up when she condemned Bingham for supporting austerity measures including the bedroom tax at the same time as voting for the rich to get tax cuts.