Friday 16 April 2010

Living in a marginal (2): Kilburn hustings the aperitif for leaders' debate

The thing that struck me most about tonight's Hampstead & Kilburn hustings in St Mary's church, Abbey Road was how pointless the whole exercise was. It was woefully publicised, for a start; I consider myself fairly clued up, and I was asking around on Twitter only this afternoon to find out if it was on in the first place. For anyone not following the H&K battle moderately obsessively, or who happened to walk or drive past the large banner on the church, then they wouldn't have heard about it. As a result, there were maybe seventy people in the audience - the vast majority being party activists and stooges. Were there any floating voters at all? It seemed to me that the candidates would have had a much more productive hour knocking on fifty doors apiece.

Still, it was my first encounter with any of the candidates in the flesh - and my first ever hustings - so I was glad of the opportunity. A drink on arrival was a lovely touch, and a chilly St Mary's a great venue for the action. We were treated to Ed Fordham, Chris Philp, Glenda Jackson and Beatrix Campbell; I was rather disappointed that Magnus Nielsen wasn't on the panel, as by all accounts his shouty exploits livened up the previous hustings a fortnight ago. Luckily, he was in the audience, and asked a sonerous and predictable question about Europe late on.

Early questions focussed on the larger picture: what the individual candidates would bring to the table, how politicians could reengage with voters and dispel their disillusionment, and their views on the economy.

Of the performances, I was actually most impressed with Glenda Jackson in the early stages. There was, appropriately, an air of Lady Macbeth about her, but her pride in representing her constituents and belief in a strong, fair parliamentary system were both evident. I must confess she made a compelling impression on me in the early stages. She underwent an astonishing transformation halfway through as she suddenly seemed to lose interest - fidgeting, leaning back in her chair and making increasingly frantic hand gestures alongside disconnected answers. I don't know what got into her.

We touched on everything from "simple" issues like Europe, hunting and "Graylingate", most of which allowed the candidates to give swift answers. Chris Philp tied himself in knots over hunting, but it's a tricky one to defend when (1) you're in an urban constituency and (2) all the other panel members had given decisive responses against hunting in advance of him.

I had expected Philp to be a strong performer and I was slightly disappointed with his delivery. He is a strong, confident speaker, giving taut responses, but as my girlfriend whispered "he comes across as an arrogant City wideboy". Indeed there was something slightly cocky about him - perhaps it was a slight lack of contemplation before giving his answers. As for his content, of all the candidates he was keenest to push his party's manifesto and apply it to local circumstances. As a result he came across well, but the lines came out rather glibly, and there was the feeling that he was trotting out lines he had used many times before on doorsteps. In his defence, when he was heckled (as he was - frequently), he dealt with things very well.

I mention local circumstances. Philp and Fordham were especially keen to talk about Kilburn; clearly this had been billed as the "Kilburn hustings". I bet there wasn't anyone in the room from Kilburn - it had a decidedly West Hampstead feel to it. The less said about Ed Fordham's Kilburn jokes the better. Relevance in general was a bit of an issue; at the start Philp launched straight into his party's plans for apprenticeships for 16-24 year olds. There wasn't a single person in the room falling within that bracket.

Things hotted up when we hit the economy, with Philp branding taxation of the rich "an easy shot" - before using the equally easy line that the wealthy would all move abroad. Electoral reform was spoken of - with Fordham making succinct points and Jackson, once again, eloquently putting the case.

Succinct would be the word I would use to describe Ed Fordham more generally. He quietly made the point that two things spoken of by Jackson and Philp (electoral reform from Jackson, memory escapes what the Philp point was) as good ideas were already in the Lib Dem manifesto. He came across as balanced and earnest. Perhaps a little too earnest; compared to Glenda and Chris, Ed is neither a natural orator or debater and while the quality of his answers was excellent and kept him going, a little more debating aggression probably wouldn't have gone amiss. And less bad jokes. Beatrix Campbell, also, came across as credible and mature.

The two things I would have asked about were both argued over. The first was electoral reform, over which the candidates gave very satisfactory answers; the second was when Glenda Jackson said "this seat is between Labour and the Conservatives." This provoked an uproar among the many Lib Dems in the room. As I wasn't able to make the appeal in the room, I will make it here.

In this constituency we are (un)lucky enough that our votes actually count for something, so as a result we are thigh-deep in election literature. As a voter, I am slightly insulted and hugely irritated about both the Lib Dem and Tory literature claiming "Tories can't win here" and "Lib Dems can't win here" respectively. Why am I insulted and irritated? Because I am clued up enough to know what's actually going on here and know the state of play - while many people will be confused. It's a complex situation and easy to be confused. Both parties' literature not only takes advantage of voters' ignorance, but, worse, hopes that those voters will stay in the dark about the real situation.

Here us the reality. The Lib Dems claim that the Tories have no chance in this seat. Better tell that to the 35 Tory MPs (presumably all from safe seats; our crippled electoral system strikes again) who famously descended on Hampstead & Kilburn recently to do some campaigning. Here's why the Lib Dems are wrong.
  1. The Conservatives would never have put the efforts they are putting in, if they had no chance of winning. Those mammoth efforts will inevitably lead them to a greater share of the vote
  2. The Tories are nominally in second place in the "old" wards of the H&K (formerly Hampstead & Highgate) seat. They have a strong presence.
  3. The more affluent wards may more naturally gravitate towards the Conservatives than the Liberals.
  4. There is a strong national swing from Labour to the Tories, and the Conservatives will, rightly, feel that very few seats are "off limits" to them.
  5. The Teather vote will not necessarily translate from Brent East to H&K (although the yellow boards in that area are pretty prominent already).
Meanwhile the Tories (with Glenda Jackson backing them up tonight) claim that the "474 votes to win" claim of the Lib Dems is a nonsense, and that the Lib Dems are nowhere. He also claims that the figures used by the Lib Dems are obsolete. This, too, is rubbish because:
  1. Those results refer to real election data. These people actually did vote for those parties last time around. Therefore they are liable to again, potentially.
  2. BBC, UK Polling Report (which tells me that even in the old seat, the Liberals were only just behind in third), and Sky News (which explicitly describe the Lib Dems as being in "a close second") all use the Thrasher & Rallings data. The Evening Standard had an article the other day which mentioned the Lib Dems as challenging hard in second.
  3. As with the Tories, there has been a lot of hard on-the-ground campaigning by the Lib Dems. They're not stupid either...
  4. Tonight's election debate. It's all too easy to think it's just the local candidates themselves and their local campaigning that will determine the results of this seat; on the contrary, there will be plenty of people who are swung mainly by the national issues. Many people barely register that there's an election on; I spoke to one tonight (she lives round the corner from St Mary's, and a Lib Dem campaigner on her way to the hustings had knocked on her door. My friend felt flattered that somebody had bothered to speak to her, and may actually vote for Fordham as a result). For many floating voters, especially towards the apathetic end of the scale (they all count!), these debates could be all they need to decide. Nick Clegg's staggeringly good impression with the public tonight, with 61% declaring him the winner in one poll, could be enough to tip the percentage in his favour in key swing seats like these. Perhaps it would be a better idea for Clegg to return for another visit to the constiuency now that people know who he is?!
Ultimately, the bookies have it spot on, I reckon: Ed Fordham is the odds-on favourite (10/11), with Chris Philp 2/1 and Glenda Jackson 3/1. In other words, unless both the news sites and the bookies are entirely stupid, then the politicians' campaigns are trying to take us all for fools.

What I had wanted to say to both men was this:

Both of you know that what your election material says is complete rubbish, and I know that you know this, because you are not complete muppets. You are both clearly intelligent men. You know the situation. I defy you to look me in the eye and tell me that you truly believe that the other party is not a threat in this election. I know that you cannot. I urge you both to ditch the cynical exploitation of confused voters, and concentrate on convincing us that you are the best candidate to be our local MP because of your personal qualities and beliefs, and that your party is the most fit to govern. You are as bad as each other on this.

I maintain that we have a set of three extremely strong main candidates, and backed up by the eloquence of Beatrix Campbell for the Greens, the shoutiness of Magnus Nielsen for UKIP, and the wonderfully naive enthusiasm of Tamsin Omond for The Commons, it remains a fabulous race. Game well and truly on.

Update: another write-up here. That reminds me, I forgot to write about Sir Peter Stothard, who was utterly hopeless as chair. No control, waffled, no sense of timing, put Chris Philp first three times in a row (Philp, quite rightly, sounded nettled at this). He was awful.

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