In the firing line, but nobody’s shooting

29 May 2001

For the first time in this campaign I have opponents, not just photographs on leaflets or in the papers: I’ve locked horns with them in a public debate, and it’s turned them into real people.

I’d met them before, once each, but not for long enough to form any real impressions. I’d encountered Labour’s Alan Keen at a careers and training open day, and he’d seemed friendly enough. The Tory Liz Mammatt had once loomed up on me in a darkened street as we both attempted to squeeze the last few votes out of the final minutes of a late-autumn council by-election campaign. In neither case was there time to really get a feel for what made them tick.

Now, I’ve been fed to the lions with them on a public platform, courtesy of an education debate organised by the local branch of the NUT. I know Mrs Mammatt is actually Miss Mammatt, wants more Latin taught in schools, drives a Mini, and prints her road maps off the internet. I know Alan Keen didn’t go to university, but did once address the Oxford Union where he was unimpressed by the pomp, circumstance, and lack of regional accents. And they know the best way to get me incoherent with rage is to seat me near a Conservative who believes in William Hague’s asylum policies and isn’t afraid to say so.

The debate featured candidates from both Hounslow constituencies and was held at a school in the heart of the borough. It was scrupulously impartial, but you couldn’t disguise the fact that Alan Keen and his wife Ann, the Labour candidate in the neighbouring seat, were on first-name terms with the organisers. When the Socialist Alliance candidate turned out to have a son at the school and another set to join soon, things looked bleak indeed for the forces of Liberal Democracy.

However, that was without taking into account the effect of dropping an unreconstructed and unapologetic Thatcherite in front of an audience of teachers and other educationalists. Time and again the six candidates of the left and centre (two Labour, two Lib Dem, a Green and the Socialist Alliance) said one thing, Miss Mammatt said the exact opposite, and the bloke from the UK Independence Party sat in baffled silence. It would be unfair to say she was booed and jeered every time she spoke, but I don’t think she was ever cheered. And it would be inaccurate to say that everyone else was cheered every time they spoke, but I don’t think any of the other candidates were booed. The closest was the gale of laughter that erupted when the bloke from the UKIP declared (as everyone knew he eventually would) that education could be improved immensely by spending the money saved by withdrawing from Europe.

But the important thing is that he was there, arguing his corner. And the same could be said of all the candidates. Miss Mammatt was somewhat disadvantaged by the unavoidable absence of her Tory counterpart in Brentford and Isleworth, but even I – who think her views range from the daft to the dangerous – can’t deny she stood her ground. The Keens made a formidable double act: Alan did the laid back ‘I’m an ex-football scout, not a career politician’ number for all he was worth and Ann was the classic New Labour steely-eyed cheerleader. Danny Faith and Nic Farraday (Socialist and Green respectively) added a lot to the evening and in truth probably drew the most applause – but more for their analysis of the problems than their answers to them.

And me and my opposite number from Brentford and Isleworth? Gareth Hartwell did an excellent job laying out Lib Dem policy, which was generally well received. I think a lot of our points on extra investment and reduced bureaucracy were well made and well taken. My main contribution was to crack a few jokes and to lose my temper with Liz Mammatt over asylum, which was greatly enjoyable.

The sad thing is that no-one really noticed any of it. There can’t have been much above 50 in the audience, and quite a few of them arrived with the candidates so were hardly floating voters. The press didn’t attend. And there won’t be many more chances, either – in my constituency there is only one more debate planned before polling day. Public meetings are part of the ‘old’ politics, almost dead in this day and age of e-campaigning, focus groups, and cynical stay-at-home electorates.

Damn shame, I say. I could do that every night, and still come back for more.