I could have stayed in and watched the Challenger debates, but instead I decided to go to one where the incumbent would actually bother to turn up.
And I’m sure he’s glad he did, since there was easily over a hundred people in Glasgow South’s beautiful Langside Church. Local democracy may be in trouble elsewhere, but it appears to be in vigorous health in the southside of Glasgow.
Providing a Shoogly summary of local hustings has become something of a blog tradition, so I shall do my best to give a round-up of the best bits, but a couple of observations first.
Firstly, my next MP will be a man. Six candidates, all male. No offence, but that’s a poor state of affairs, and it got me thinking – at the age of 38, I have never once been represented by a woman at Westminster. I’ve had a veritable Who’s Who of local MPs – Michael Forsyth, George Galloway, Mohammad Sarwar, oor ain Tom Harris – but all of them have been male. It’s shocking and it can’t go on – I don’t want my daughter to also go through the first half of her life without ever having a female MP.
Secondly, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of each of the candidates. Without wishing to be rude, hustings for previous elections have sometimes been a bit like watching a bunch of toddlers arguing with the teacher – Labour’s total dominance and the lack of local opposition has made the imbalance between the sitting candidate and the opposition seem preposterous. That isn’t the case now. Each of the candidates, even the terrifyingly young Conservative Kyle Thornton, was confident and not in the least overwhelmed by the occasion. A result, I wonder, of the referendum campaign? Many politically active people have spent the last two or three years publicly arguing their position, and it seems a welcome side-effect of that is a newly articulate and assured generation of political candidates.
Anyway, to the questions. Several people were live-tweeting the event, so I won’t try to summarise the whole thing – the Twitter hashtag #gshustings will give you chapter and verse. There were several outbreaks of consensus, particularly on the minimum wage and Living Wage, both of which everyone supported. Tom Harris rightly claimed credit for Labour introducing a minimum wage in the first place and Stewart McDonald of the SNP called for devolution of the minimum wage to Scotland and an uplift to £8.75 by 2020. The Lib Dems and Tories were woolliest on this, choosing to focus on increasing tax allowances rather than the minimum wage itself.
A question about welfare cuts provoked guffaws when Kyle Thornton attempted to position the Conservatives as a compassionate party. To his credit he stood his ground, but his argument that we need to expand the economy because otherwise we need to make cuts that hit poorest people hardest was not a strong one – several candidates had already argued that allowing the consequences of austerity to hit hardest those who have least was a political choice, not an inevitability. Stewart McDonald gave a strong answer, pointing out that the Scottish Government spends £100m mitigating against the impact of welfare cuts but that this money could be better used elsewhere if welfare powers were devolved. Ewan Hoyle of the Lib Dems spoke knowledgably of his own experiences of being unfairly sanctioned and let down by benefits assessments, while the Greens’ Alastair Whitelaw called for a Citizen’s Income combined with progressive taxation.
A question about the Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership (TTIP) prompted the first real inter-party boshing, with Tom Harris accusing the SNP of hypocrisy over allegedly supporting TTIP when it was first introduced, while Labour fought for protections for public services to be introduced. Brian Smith of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition described TTIP as the 1% ripping off the 99% and demonstrating that the EU is a capitalist boss’s club. And Ewan Hoyle made the rather more subtle point that it’s hard to be for or against TTIP as it’s being written behind closed doors, which in itself is undemocratic.
Given the absence of women on the panel, a question about whether candidates would support all-women shortlists was pertinent, and I was surprised that all but the SNP and Labour said no. As I’ve said before, I don’t think we’ll know whether all-women shortlists are the solution until we understand what the problem is, but I’d have liked to hear more about what the candidates propose to do instead – surely the continuing total absence of women from the ballot paper cannot be acceptable.
There was an element of following party talking points, with Tom Harris regularly lampooning the SNP on Full Fiscal Autonomy, and Stewart McDonald sticking to the line that the SNP would be Scotland’s voice at Westminster. But by and large the candidates were personable, rather than party machines. There were some rousing final pitches, with Brian Smith making the excellent point that there’s no point voting tactically, we’ll only end up annoyed with the outcome so we might as well vote for who we believe in. Tom Harris made a good pitch based on Labour’s progressive record on issues like the Human Rights Act and tax credits, while Alastair Whitelaw highlighted his scientific background as a rare attribute among MPs. Ewan Hoyle rather forlornly summarised the Lib Dems as “more important than you might think” and sounded like he was making more of a pitch for people to join his beleaguered party and help to reform it than for us to actually vote for him. Kyle Thornton focused on the economy, schools and the NHS, which was unfortunate given than two of those three are devolved, and Stewart McDonald made a rousing call to let the SNP speak for Scotland.
Kudos to Langside Church and the Common Weal for organising the event, to my neighbours for pitching up on a lovely spring night, and to the candidates for robustly but mostly respectfully taking part. It’s just a pity that we do not have a voting system that is capable of representing the diverse range of views that are evident in this community – but maybe that’s something our next MP can help fix.