My first hustings, and it was everything I’d hoped it would be. Politicians taking shots at eachother, excitable audience members shouting and jeering, and an overwhelming sensation of ‘this sure beats sitting at home watching TV’. Little did I know, Inside the Perfect Predator was being broadcast on BBC1 – thank goodness for iPlayer.
The Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel, in association with the Ham & High, played host to the event. Around 150 people squeezed into the hall, sitting in neat rows facing the altar. At the top table were seated, from the audience’s left to right, Glenda Jackson MP (Labour), Chris Philp (Conservatives), the Chairman (that’s right, I never bothered finding out his name), Ed Fordham (Lib Dems), Magnus Nielsen (UKIP) and Bea Campbell (Green). Tamsin Omond was given a kind of ‘seat of honour’ in the front row of the audience, but was not involved in the BBC Question Time-style debate. The questions were selected in advance, and each candidate was given the opportunity to answer in turn, with the odd rambling, opinionated contribution from members of the audience.
Proceedings got off to a friendly enough start, the candidates milling about near the top table, chatting freely amongst themselves. The gentlemen were all looking very smart, with a full complement of dark suits, buttoned-up shirts and ties. A more interesting range from the ladies, with Glenda sporting a smart black jacket over a little black dress, Tamsin mixing it up with a trouser suit, complete with zip-up hoody and t-shirt. Bea was wearing the evening’s red-carpet miss (actual carpet colour: blue), with a pink t-shirt over a long sleeved grey number, clashing nicely with her massive green rosette.
The candidates’ answers to the first question, which happened to be on Darling’s budget, set the tone exactly for the rest of the evening. In fact, I could have walked out after those first 15 minutes with the same impression I was left with at the end of what turned out to be over 2 hours worth of party-politicking debate. Bea Campbell’s main point was that instead of building warships, we should be building wind farms. And a fair point too perhaps, but if the Greens are really hoping to make waves in order to obtain power (little hydro-electric joke for you there), they’ll have to convince the wider public that there’s more to their policies than just glorified hand-holding and tree-hugging.
Magnus was definitely my favourite speaker, though by far the worst candidate. He spent most of his question-answering time explaining that he didn’t have enough time to answer the questions. As the UKIP candidate, everything was Europe’s fault, predictably, from sleaze and corruption to debt and recession. Want to improve the NHS? Get out of Europe. Or you could just read his new book, which he was keen to let us know is out soon. Magnus is like that great-uncle who sits in his chair in the corner, commanding attention, shouting a lot, and making boldly inappropriate comments. He also reminded me of Christopher Llyod’s character in Back to the Future. If his party’s policies weren’t so intolerant, unsubtle and weak, someone might even vote for him.
As for the big three, they each did their parties proud. Glenda tended to talk around the questions a bit, eventually settling on overwhelming support for the party line. Everyone seemed to overlook the fact that she got MMR mixed up with MRSA at one point, but this was hopefully just a slip of the tongue, as opposed to a real lack of knowledge. She spoke fluently and authoritatively on most subjects, but owing more, I imagine, to her experience as a public speaker than to her depth of understanding. Highlight: when an audience member exclaimed that they had never seen Glenda shopping in Hampstead, the Labour MP was quick to come back with, “Well I’ve never seen you before, how do I know you live here?” Much to the audience’s amusement.
Ed Fordham is a man who has done his homework. On the matter of the transport disruptions that plague our constituency on the weekends, Ed produced a statement read out in parliament in 1999 supporting the PPP scheme, by the then transport minister, Glenda Jackson, with Ed saying to the incumbent, “the reality is, you stitched us up.” Queue applause. Nor did he shy away from taking digs at Tory candidate Chris Philp. When the latter proudly boasted that in his four years as councillor he had never claimed expenses, Ed pointed out that as a local councillor, he did not have the ability to do so anyway. Essentially, he hadn’t claimed expenses because he wasn’t able to do so. Some of his remarks could have been construed as being a little catty, and Chris certainly didn’t appreciate being accused of being disingenuous as to the origin of his campaign funds. Having said that, Ed comes across as a mature candidate who understands the matters at hand and the concerns of his (potential) constituents.
I was equally impressed by Chris Philp. If I had to sum-up his performance last night in a single word: smooth. He looked the part, he sounded the part, he acted the part. If you were voting based on a candidate’s individual merits, as opposed to the party they represented, you could do much worse than to vote for Chris. He spoke with confidence in a matter-of-fact tone, coming across as prepared, but not rehearsed. The only candidate in his introductory speech to thank the Chapel for hosting the event, he was charming at times and, when he needed to be, impassioned too. In a heated moment, on campaign funding, Chris brought up a dodgy unreturned donation to the Lib Dems’s coffers of £2m, saying, “maybe you’ll find it down the back of your sofa, Ed.”
The best question of the night was posed by Tamsin Omond, who asked the candidates to name their own party’s faults, and how they hoped to remedy these. This struck me as a fantastic opportunity for the candidates to give off an impression of openness and honesty, and to demonstrate their individuality. Unfortunately, none of them made the most of it. Chris gave it a shot by saying that in ’97 he’d voted Lib Dem, but his party had moved on since then. Glenda probably came closest, bemoaning the lack of female candidates being presented by Labour in the party’s safe seats. Tamsin told me that she had found the overall experience quite depressing, with the candidates’ focus seeming to be on the negative elements of their rivals’ campaigns, as opposed to the really positive aspects of their own.
Hampstead & Kilburn is one of the most marginal seats in the country, a fact recognised by all the candidates. Interestingly, the audience – excluding pockets of supporters for each candidate – was representative of this fact. I didn’t get the impression that any particular candidate had more support than any other and, encouragingly, well-argued points received equally generous and vehement rounds of applause, regardless of who had put them forward.
The bookies still have Ed down as favourite, with Ladbrokes offering the best odds of 5/4. At Paddypower, you can now get 2/1 on Chris, and 5/2 on Glenda winning. Ladbrokes are now also offering 25/1 on Tamsin and her Commons party, with Magnus and Bea joint-outsiders at 100/1.
There’s everything still to play for, and the candidates will all be upping their games in the run up to May 6th, with Glenda (ominously) announcing that we’ll be seeing a lot more of her in the coming weeks. More events like last night’s hustings are due to take place in the run up to the election, and I’d urge you to come along to one for yourself, especially if you’re a floating/undecided voter. They offer a great chance to see the candidates for yourself, up-close and personal.
But I’m afraid I couldn’t pick you a winner – not based on last night’s performances anyway – not from all the way up here, on this fence that I’m sitting on…