kirkby stephen and alston meetings
I have now done two hustings/candidate debates. The first was in Kirkby Stephen on Monday, the second in Alston on Tuesday, and the third will be in Penrith tonight. Tonight’s event will finish fittingly enough just before the national debate on television between the three leaders. They are very, very strange events. Important. Useful. Indeed perhaps, more important than ever before. But still strange.
Who knows exactly what the audience of Kirkby Stephen were expecting. They were sat in an ornate and galleried Methodist meeting hall: some in the stalls and some in the upper circle facing a long table on which sat we three candidates. Were they aware that each candidate had brought their “agent” with them? What did they make of the fake newspaper which the Liberal Democrats had been distributing? (A fascinating, pantomime document called the Penrith and Border Gazette with a series of articles praising the Liberal Democrats in the tone of an objective journalist). In an American Presidential debate, the experts are very concerned about which order the candidates sit omn and in which order they speak but I assume none of us were up on such niceties. Then, what did Peter the Lib Dem candidate or Barbara the Labour candidate think when they walked into that room? None of us have stood for Parliament before. None of us have had to perform in that way in front of an audience on behalf of our parties.
I was impressed by the questions which had been compiled by Churches Together. Eight questions of unusual sensitivity and sometimes almost philosophical depth. Their emphasis was on how parties would approach the poorest and most vulnerable people in society and how we would tackle the role of religion in society and define the ethical status of the war in Afghanistan. The questions from the audience were both blunter and livelier and because the chair held us to a very strict 60 seconds of response, we were able to fit in 20 different questions (on my estimate). We were asked how we would weigh our relative loyalty to the party and to the constituents, how we would encourage marginalised people to vote, how we would tackle the problems of agriculture and the supermarkets, prison, debt, pregnancy, immigration, and education. Perhaps the most heated section was over Europe complete with a heckler from the gallery.
I felt that we could have perhaps more audience participation of that sort. It was very striking that different people took different approaches. Barbara’s answers I thought reflected her time in local government. She very sadly was losing her voice and I felt had some difficulty being heard, but she was particularly effective on issues of deprivation and poverty. Peter very skillfully brought questions back to his own personal experiences and the many professions he has had. His opening speech somewhat to my surprise tackled international issues and in particular energy. He came across as strongly pro-European Union and compared Britain to “the grumpy person in the club who is always complaining and who no one listens to”. He part blamed the war in Iraq on George Bush “watching too many cowboy movies”.
It was a two hour debate and led into over an hour of discussion and coffee with participants, completing for me at least a full day in Kirkby Stephen, where I had visited many businesses, including printers, framers, a pet shop, the antique shops, local cafes and the Post Office. A couple of people stopped their car to wave good luck. I had an intense half hour with a man who was very angry about the direction of the country and said he was likely to vote for the BNP. I told him that we were unlikely to agree. The most picturesque part of the afternoon was an open air hustings in the pub garden at Ravenstonedale surrounded by 35 people on wooden benches in a warm, spring sun. We talked in very precise detail about the challenges in Kirkby Stephen, ranging from footpaths to the community center, discussed the structure and budgets of parish councils and explored ways to give genuine power to local communities. Kirkby was at it’s very most beautiful, as was the whole Lune valley.