Friday, 30 April 2010

Election 2010: Final Hustings - Tooting

At the age of 26 I've only been able to vote in one general election so far, so as both a resident of Tooting and a professional journalist I attended the final hustings at Upper Tooting Methodist Church on Wednesday night with great interest. I was sceptical when I stepped into the hall as attendees seemed a bit thin on the ground, however by the time the debate started almost every seat was occupied. To add to the excitement the audience was blessed with a full quota of parliamentary candidates.

The group of hopefuls sat in front of me were incumbent Labour Tooting MP Sadiq Khan, Tory hopeful Mark Clarke and Liberal Democrat candidate Nasser Butt. Besides the main three parties the Green's were represented by Roy Vickery, UKIP by Strachan McDonald and Susan Johh-Richards completed the set as an independent candidate for Tooting.

Questions were submitted in advance to the chair and were picked to represent the concerns of constituents across a broad range of issues.

First, however, were the obligatory opening statements. In a slightly unexpected move Clarke opened the night with an opening statement that praised Khan on the work he had done in the constituency, informing the gathered electorate that they had worked together on a number of projects. Khan however made no such attempts at the niceties played out by his rival, keeping his opening statement fairly brief with the simple message that his work as the Member of Parliament for Tooting had been a "privilege." From the start the debate and audience attention seemed focused on the candidates from the two larger parties and despite a national shift of favour towards the Lib Dems the audience seemed to save their approval or distaste for Labour and the Conservatives, with a few heckles directed at McDonald of UKIP when the time seemed right.

On tuition fees Clarke towed the Tory line of wanting them to stay, while Khan also kept with the Labour line but said that it was important that there should be "no cap on aspiration." McDonald used the opportunity to rather predictably talk about Europe without much mention of universities and the independent John-Richards suggested that a better solution of financing might be to find education money in the budget for war efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Green Candidate Roy Vickery maintained that his party's policy was that education can come at any stage in life and a university education is not the only option for the citizens of the UK. In one of his more succinct answers of the night, Nasser Butt claimed that there were already enough barriers to education in a nation where a "culture of Debt" is already established.

Not until the next question on electoral reform did we see the candidates begin to settle into their stride and cast off those initial nerves. Khan said that he, like his party, would like to introduce electoral reform using the "vote plus" system. This is the same kind of system used in the mayoral election and requires a voter to select not one, but several candidates in order of preference. McDonald agreed that the "alternative" vote plus system would be preferable while Butt stated that if the Liberal Democrats had any say in the next government it would fight for the system of proportional representation. Vickery meanwhile declared in a turn of phrase that was unclear if it was intended or not, that "when.... if Labour get re-elected I hope they will implement electoral reform." Clarke took on a more aggressive stance saying that those parties who call for electoral reform are the parties that historically have little chance of winning an upcoming election. He also, through rather tenuous links to voting reform, managed to include his opinions on both the Middle East and the economy. However, Clarke's comments did seem to strike a chord with the audience who gave him the hustings' first round of prolonged applause.

John-Richards certainly scored points in the next round of questions for being the first to reference genuine local issues. On the question of immigration policy she stated her opinion that there had to be a change in national policy, giving the example if a local man who had been detained as an illegal immigrant. Meanwhile, Vickery said that he was relaxed about immigration and received applause for his comment; "wouldn't you want to get out of Afghanistan and Iraq?" Clarke used the question as an opportunity to bring up 'bigotgate', receiving sizeable applause from the audience. He also admitted that "migrants have brought benefits to the country." Khan forcefully responded to the Tory line saying "the idea of a cap [on immigration] is glib and stupid," for which he received the loudest applause of the night so far.

On tackling the deficit, John-Richards said that she would like to see more transparency from the three main parties on their policies and indicated that if elected she would vote on the measures that would directly benefit those in the constituency. Butt gave very little of his own opinion choosing instead to purely focus on Liberal Democrat policy, which he said would mean no sweeping cuts in 2010 and extra money raised through the scrapping of ID cards and reform in the NHS. He did add that the Lib Dems were the only ones who had set out any clear figures on costing the handling of the deficit. Clarke said that the Conservatives would "tackle the debt properly" and that it was "time for honesty on the debt", while Khan admitted that savings did need to be made but questioned the sincerity of Clarke's concerns about national debt. "If Mark is so concerned on debt why is he punishing couples who are not married," said Khan, who later implored voters not to allow Clarke to "make excuses on cutting schools." For UKIP, McDonald attacked the parties slow response to dealing with the deficit and reminded the room that the "EU will not lose this opportunity to raise VAT."

A question on environment and climate change provided the almost universal response from the candidates that things definitely needed to change. The only deviation came from McDonald who stated that he didn't believe in Climate change. Butt reeled off a list of things that the Lib Dems would like to introduce but appeared waffly, mumbled and unclear. It was Khan who received the biggest applause for his answer in which he cited Climate Secretary Ed Miliband's comments how "now" was the opportunity to find solutions to tackle climate change. At this point in the debate the chair seemed unable to subdue a heckler who questioned Khan, but instead of getting flustered the labour hopeful addressed the audience member directly and responded calmly. When it was his turn, Clarke launched into an immediate attack on Khan's support for a third runway at Heathrow. He also questioned the science of some of the transport minister's figures. The audience appeared to have a mixed reaction to Clarke's response when he was pushed into placing climate change on his list of priorities, where he eventually settled on third. Khan had said it was his number one priority. Not surprisingly Vickery stayed true to his party colours and John-Richards said responded briefly that "we should respect the environment."

When it came to the image of politicians and maintaining a squeaky clean image, Butt provided a moment of somewhat unintentional comic relief when he passionately stated that there had been "no fiddling in my closet". Khan talked candidly about his expenses repayment and said that transparency was the way forward. An astute observer would have noticed Clarke and Butt appearing to confer with each other during Khan's response to be conferring during this time. Clarke, like the other previously unelected candidates, listed the things he would not do if he was elected and, following a heckle, categorically stated "I do not take any money from Lord Ashcroft." (At this point in the evening I received one of Mark Clarke's "news bulletin" emails. One has to wonder why people were sending out his emails instead of watching him debate?)

The candidates were offered the opportunity to make a closing statement, a chance for them to speak from the heart one last time before a final week of furious campaigning. Khan received the largest applause in his closing comments when he said that the people of "this community" were very important to him. Clarke received an almost but not quite equal round of applause for his remarks. Vickery meanwhile said that he was filled with hope, a message that was echoed by Butt who said that this election would bring a unique opportunity for change. John-Richards said that she would provide a real voice in parliament, not just an echo of the larger parties.

I would usually use this opportunity to offer my own comments on the general performances of candidates and go on to draw my own conclusions. However, I feel that in this election it may be better to give those everyone an opportunity to decide for themselves. My only comment would be that this seat is considered a marginal in 2010 and based on audience reaction on Wednesday night and the ferocity of the campaign in the area I think it is fair to say that Tooting will be a fight to the end between Labour and the Conservatives.

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