6 June 2001
Last night was the second and last debate between the candidates, and it provided more of that most precious of commodities, feedback from the voters.
It was organised by Churches Together in Heston – they do one every general election – and it’s fair to say that most of the audience were already planning to vote Conservative and were unlikely to change their minds whatever the candidates said. This made it a challenge, and a fun one at that.
I did promise my Tory opponent, Liz Mammatt, that I wouldn’t write about it but the temptation to illustrate a few moments is impossible to resist. I will not quickly forget, for example, her explanation of how adoption of the Euro would ultimately result in Brussels abolishing the Monarchy.
It was, in fact, an evening for arguments that creak when exposed to the harsh light of day. One independent candidate chose to answer almost every question with a detailed and incomprehensible explanation of some sort of council fraud he believed he’d uncovered.
Europe, pensions, asylum – it didn’t matter what the question was, he had the same answer. The exception was NHS reform, where he answered the question with a detailed critique of the Government’s handling of Foot and Mouth.
The questions had been submitted beforehand in writing, and reflected the concerns of the audience: mainly conservative (with a small ‘c’), mainly of retirement age, and mainly Christians. There was asylum, the Euro, long–term care for the elderly, abortion, the role of the church in politics. And there were supplementary questions from the floor, which kept us on our toes.
The one that I shall treasure for some time to come was from a gentleman who asked what was to stop nurses from south east Asia coming to England (with their fares paid for them), leaving nursing once they had safely got permission to stay in the country, and going to work as barmaids for more money. Labour’s Alan Keen deflected it with an answer about the minimum wage in the pub trade.
Afterwards there was the feedback. A businessman with no love of Europe lectured me on import–export figures, while two people approached bashfully with praise (although one disagreed with me on Europe, and will not be voting for me). What they said was a microcosm of the feedback I’ve been getting all through the election and also of the reaction to the national campaign that Charles Kennedy has fought.
On the one hand, people like that we are prepared to be honest and – if necessary – blunt about what we believe in. Yes, we’ll raise your taxes but we’ll do it openly and we’ll tell you what the money is earmarked for. Yes, we have more sympathy for asylum seekers than certain sections of the population, and (as Kennedy did with such success in the Romsey by–election) we are not afraid to argue publicly for their fair treatment.
On the other hand we have tried to avoid personal attacks and negative campaigning. We turned down a proposed poster that combined John Prescott’s face, Ann Widdecombe’s hair and the slogan ‘There’s something very wrong with British politics’. It was hysterically funny – looked a bit like Les Dawson – but had to go. Sadly, Labour had a different attitude with its less amusing Hague/Thatcher design.
And I have had feedback from readers of this column commenting favourably that I am prepared to praise other candidates when they deserve it. Seems to me the only fair way to do thing, and it’s sad that people are surprised to see a politician doing it.
All in all, I think the campaign’s gone well for us as a party. Politicians live in glass bubbles, cut off from public opinion by the artificiality of most of their dealings with people. But now and then the truth creeps through, and I think it bodes well for us tomorrow.
I’ve never seen an election where more people are prepared to consider voting for us. I don’t know if they will go through with it, but if they do then Friday morning will be a good day to be a Liberal Democrat.