General Election meeting with candidates in the lower valley
"Where I grew up in East Yorkshire the Tories could put up a banana for election and he would be elected. When he retired he would go to the House of Lords as Lord Banana. There should be no such thing as a safe seat." Kate Sweeny
"Labour has stopped the boom and bust of the Tory years. This is global recession." Steph Booth
"The Conservatives are the last people I would trust with the environment." Hilary Myers
The people of Hebden Bridge were not able to attend the planned debate in January because the current Labour candidate pulled out and refused to agree another date. See Hebweb news (Jan 2010).
Debate organiser Jason Elliott wanted the people of Hebden Bridge to have the opportunity to meet and question the candidates, so he hired a coach to take people from Hebden Bridge to Hipperholme and Lightcliffe where last night a public meeting involving all declared candidates was held. The Hebweb went along.
This election meeting was chaired by Patrick Taylor, a local church minister. If anything, the meeting was too tightly controlled. Only short contributions were allowed, both from those on the platform and those in the audience. So there was little interchange or discussion or development of points raised. Perhaps one or more of the candidates had insisted on this level of control.
The candidates on the platform were from left to right as they faced the audience: Craig Whittaker, Conservative; Kate Sweeny (Green); Chris O'Connor (Independent); Steph Booth (Labour); Hilary Myers (Liberal Democratic) and Greg Burrows (UK Independence Party).
The meeting focussed on candidates' responses to 4-5 questions sent in by members of the audience; the candidates had no prior knowledge of these questions.
Question 1: Who would you trust with the economy.
Steph Booth was asked to answer first. Members of the audience requested that she stand up when talking. After a considerable pause, Steph Booth stood. She said that Labour was working to keep the recession to a minimum and she didn't know what the Tories were planning.
Craig Whittaker claimed that the country was in debt to the tune of £2.3 trillion! That this was the biggest debt per capita in the western world. And there needed to be cuts.
Hilary Myers said the debt was more like £178 billion. She pointed out that Lib Dem's Treasury spokesman, Vince Cable had been proved right on the economy time and again.
Kate Sweeny said the best model for the economy at the moment was Roosevelt's 1930s New Deal and that is why her party was proposing a Green New Deal which would re-stimulate health and transport.
Chris O'Connor felt that he or any of the audience could do better, and Greg Burrows said that the decline in manufacturing had been a disaster for our local area.
From the audience, Matt Baker, Steph Booth's campaign manager (pictured right) asked whether Craig Whittaker proposed immediate cuts or not? David Cameron had now ruled out immediate cuts, he said. Craig Whittaker replied that there were plenty of things which could be cut and that the Labour Government inherited a strong economy, the 4th best in the world at the time.
Steph Booth said "Labour has stopped the boom and bust of the Tory years. This is global recession."
Question 2: In view of the lost of trust in politicians what changes are necessary?
Chris O'Connor pointed to the loss of openness and local democracy.
Kate Sweeny said in many areas the Greens received over 10% of the vote but remain unrepresented. This is not fair. We need electoral reform. "Where I grew up in East Yorkshire the Tories could put up a banana for election and he would be elected. When he retired he would go to the House of Lords as Lord Banana. There should be no such thing as a safe seat."
Craig Whittaker pointed out that he had lived at both ends of the valley and wants to be a good local MP, and to make difference in the Calder Valley. With up to 400 new MPs in Parliament after the election, there was a chance to change attitudes.
To groans from the audience, Steph Booth claimed that the Tories claimed more expenses than Labour. She promised to make her accounts open, and wanted to reform the House of Lords so that we have two elected chambers.
Hilary Myers also wanted to see the end of the first past the post system - but not with one based on the alternative vote as the Government were currently proposing; this was not proportional representation. She also wanted the right to recall MPs and a reduction to the number sitting in the House of Commons to 450.
Question 3: Is it right to describe our society as broken?
Craig Whittaker says yes and claimed we have the highest levels of child poverty for a long time. He is a retailer and told that when he calls the police to a shoplifter, the police have to spend 9-10 hours on the case, which might have only involved an item valued around £10.
"Not broken, but there are cracks," was Hilary Myers' view. There was now a wider gap between rich and poor than when Labour came to power. Prisons are bulging with people who have mental health or addiction problems, and there is a high re-offending rate.
Kate Sweeny doesn't care for the term "Broken Britain". She said the Surestart scheme was terrific. "Surestart is the jewel in Labour's otherwise shabby crown."
Chris O'Connor didn't think we had a Broken Britain either. He pointed to a lot of young people doing a lot of good.
Steph Booth's tone completely changed to vitriolic at this point as she suddenly attacked Craig Whittaker who has been Calderdale's spokesman for children and young people's services for nearly three years. She referred to the PricewaterhouseCooper's report into Calderdale Council's procedures for safeguarding children (see Yorkshire Post). "Craig Whittaker's position is now untenable".
Craig Whittaker declared himself a little surprised at Steph Booth's outburst. He pointed out that he had commissioned the report after representations had been made to him by his staff. He described the suggestion that the report had been sent to Ofsted as "absolute tripe".
Question 4: What must the Government do about Climate Change?
Kate Sweeny said she felt that Ed Milliband was sincere in wanting to combat climate change and welcomed his recent announcement about the increase in offshore wind capacity.The Government should invest more heavily in renewable energy and she welcomed the 10/10 initiative where people signup for reducing their carbon imprint by 10% in 2010.
Steph Booth said we are world leaders in offshore wind capacity. Craig Whittaker pointed to examples of local green initiatives. Chris O'Connor was the only panelist to advocate nuclear power although Steph Booth had endorsed this technology when speaking at the Big Green Debate in May last year.
"The Conservatives are the last people I would trust with the environment," said Hilary Myers. She said there had been very little commitment from Labour on the environment and this was one of the big disappointments with the current Government. The Liberal Democrats will scrap Trident and invest in public transport and renewable energy.
The UKIP candidate said he had doubts about the science of climate change
Question 5: If you had the opportunity to bring in a Private Members Bill what would you change?
The panel were asked for two sentence responses to this question. Hilary Myers said she would invest ineducation to reduce class sizes. Chris O'Connor said he didn't want any more laws. We had enough. In fact, he'd abolish all the ones we have already. Kate Sweeny said she would stop creeping privatisation of the NHS. Craig Whittaker would also improve education. Steph Booth said all private education institutions should be subject to Ofsted inspections. Greg Burrows wants to rescind the smoking ban.
So how did the candidates perform? If we are looking at knowledge and familiarity of the issues, confidence, sense of humour, then Kate Sweeny and Craig Whittaker would win. Hilary Myers was competent. Steph Booth, perhaps not surprisingly given that Tony Blair is her son-in-law, remained solidly New Labour. Chris O'Connor might consider whether wanting to abolish all laws is actually a vote winning strategy. Greg Burrows could benefit from some public speaking training, although he did admit that this was his first time on such a platform.
Thanks to Jason Elliott for the photos
Big Green Debate (May 2009)
Coverage on the Hebweb of the controversial Labour candidate, Steph Booth
Coverage on the Hebweb of previous general election related activities