The debate last night was billed as “The Big Debate” by the people at ramsbottomonline.com, and maybe considering the fact Ramsbottom is not the largest of places, you could argue they were right. The three main general election candidates were asked to put their views forward to the electorate and try and convince us all why they should replace disgraced MP Daivd Chaytor as the representative for Bury North at the Theatre Royal in Rammy. With the election campaign only a few days old, this was the chance for the three candidates to really show us what they were made of. Would Labour candidate Maryam Kahn be the feisty, young thing that we’d heard so much about on the political rumour mill? Had David Nuttall turned around his image of simply being an empty suit to fill with Tory policies? And could Richard Baum really convince a place that weighs Tory votes in stead of counting them that the Lib Dems really are a credible alternative? The audience at the Theatre Royal was buzzing with these questions at 7pm last night and the evening didn’t fail to give us answers to those questions.
The debate got off to a good start with the chair for the night Arif Ansari (from the BBC’s ‘The politics show’) keeping things real by putting the candidates very much in their place. Pointing out that Nuttall had lost his last four elections on the bounce and that Maryam Kahn had given up the law for politics whereas her predesessor had given up politics for the law (David Chaytor is one of the big three in court for fraudulent expense claims) the audience were warmed up nicely. No merry quips about Richard Baum – maybe Mr Ansari couldn’t think of anything funny, maybe there was a little bit of “Oh – and here’s a LibDem” itis, but nevertheless we were off. Questions came thick and fast about the economy, the cuts to public services, the way that the candidates would engage with their local communities. It was politics as it should be – open, transparent and in front of people.
Politicians all over the country often scratch their heads as to why so many people are turned off by politics completely and disengage with the process that is there to serve them. “We knock on their doors and give them thousands of leaflets but they still don’t go out and vote?”. Well last night we all witnessed a concrete example of why many people have just given up on the process altogether. The room (which was very nicely refurbished – well done people of the Theatre Royal!) was filled with activists of all political colours, as well as local people who were very much of the mindset that they didn’t know who to vote for, so were going to see for themselves. What that second people saw was the true nature of some (not all) local activists, who think that politics should be a gladiatorial debate and not a process of getting the best from your community. There were jeers, heckles and outright abuse coming from some parts of the room as the candidates tried to give their answers.
The most worrying thing was that this was not from some young upstart who didn’t know better, this was from local councillors, many of whom have senior positions on Bury Council. When I raised this point with the chair and the audience as it was not helping those floating voters with any chance of making up their mind, I was told roundly to “Shut up” and “Get a life” by the boo boys behind me. I’m thick skinned, but if that’s the way they talk to their opponents in front of the electorate, it’s no surprise that turnout has been steadily falling for so many years. That kind of behaviour is for the Stretford End, not the debating chamber in my opinion although from many years of witnessing events like this – it doesn’t really shock me anymore.
The boy did good
And so how did the candidates get on? Well, that’s hard to me for say in a balanced way, as you know full well that I’m 100% behind our candidate Richard Baum. From my point of
view, I thought he ran rings around the other two candidates. Using humour to soften the audience but then immediately backing it up with some solid information about policy, he’d obviously done his homework. There was warm appluse from all sides of the room for what he was saying and he seemed to be the only candidate with real debating experience. Clearly his three years as a St Mary’s ward councillor has paid dividends and he was in complete control throughout the evening.
David Nuttall has improved in five years since I saw him debating last election but he was clearly struggling to get his point across to the audience as there was very little in the way of policy that the Tories have announced in their campaign as yet. He did well with the little he had to work with, but you really do need the charisma of David Cameron to get an audience on side with so little substance. He’s a nice man, but charismatic David Nuttall is not.
The biggest shock for me was the performance of Maryam Kahn as the Labour candidate. With the questions being given to the candidates in advance, I would have thought that she would have done much more research into party policy as well as ensuring that she knew more about the local area (she has only moved back here recently to be a candidate). Struggling with her notes, tripping over herself on many occasions and failing to answer at least two of the questions put to her, she looked at one point like she wanted the floor to open up and swallow her whole. It was uncomfortable to watch at times and from speaking to some floating voters in the pub after has definitely failed to win over any of the people that came with an open mind.
The best they can do?
The real thing that the debate showed to me is that the problem of having the wrong people for the job of local MP will continue for a long time to come. We all know that the Lib Dems have a mountain to climb if they are to win a seat like Bury North as there are so many ‘core’ Tory and Labour voters who would not have witnessed the debate last night, nor will they hear about it other than from political wafflers like me. The glossy leaflets which are costing tens of thousands of pounds from the two Labservative candidates will make no mention of Maryam and David’s lacklustre performances in front of their electorate, nor will they give an idea of how poor either would be as a representative of the people of Bury North. The Lib Dem campaign – funded entirely by activists (ie on the cheap) will always look third place in comparison, leading to the assumption from voters that we are not to be taken seriously as a party. With no union backing and no tax dodgers ploughing millions into party coffers, that’s unlikely to change anytime soon, so the status quo looks set to rumble on.
My major worry is that if this is only target seat number 46 for David Cameron and the 46th most marginal for Labour, then what is the quality of the candidates like for seats no 100 & 150? These people are clearly not good enough to hold this office, yet are statistically likely to do so. More than worrying.
Completely aside from all this – last night I also had the pleasure of meeting the pirate party candidate for Bury North. Contrary to popular belief, he had no parrot or wooden leg and didn’t start every sentence with an ah-hargh! apparently they are a serious political organisation. How disappointing…..