Sunday, 29 March 2015

Debates suggest the contest is Hunt’s to lose.

Last week the first local election debates took place, they were rather like the pre- season friendlies that precede the Premier League, they give some guide to who is up for the game and who is just making up the numbers; this time round they also suggest the end result might not be a forgone conclusion.

The first debate was held at the Civic Centre on Thursday evening and had been organised by the YMCA for the purpose of helping young people ‘connect’ with politics. It would be fair to say that my expectations weren’t high, such events can be a little worthy and forced, thankfully my preconceptions were confounded.

The young people involved were well informed and took the whole thing seriously, not something I have always found with, allegedly, adult audiences at political meetings. That said we had been waiting in the chamber for things to get started for less than ten minutes before a female voice shouting ‘Heidi’ crackled through the ageing PA system, followed by a mass of giggling and shushing; these were still teenagers after all.

And doesn’t our ailing political system need them more than ever, not just to provide a handy pool of voters of tomorrow, the young have the virtue of still believing in wrong and right as near absolutes. This can, of course, be dangerous when taken to extremes, but when managed properly provided a welcome corrective to the world weariness of voters who have let experience make them cynical.

The issues occupying the minds of the young voters present on Thursday night were predominantly related to the economy and mental health, between which it is possible to draw strong links.

Responding to their questions allowed Green Party candidate Jan Zablocki to score early points and applause attacking zero hours contracts and the ‘false expectations’ set up for young people by consumerism. Mick Harold, Ukip, made a less than impressive start, sprinkling his answers with mumbled ‘you knows’ and basically recycling old Daily Mail editorials dressed up as policies, a tactic he would use in both debates. Tory Liam Ascough managed to create a silence through which tumbleweed rolled when he said that cutting benefits ‘wasn’t a bad thing’ before repeating the party line about freeing people from dependency by making them destitute; not many votes won there I fear.

The main disappointment of the evening was the main event, the opportunity for the audience to hear Labour incumbent Tristram Hunt debate with the other candidates. He barely seemed to be in the room, spending an inordinate amount of time looking up at the, admittedly impressive, ceiling of the chamber and fidgeting in his seat like a bored schoolboy during double maths. When he answered questions he seemed to be reciting a script prepared beforehand using the lazy politician’s playbook, everything was prefaced by an ‘encounter’ with a hypothetical constituent, but any hint of passion or even interest was absent.

You could have been forgiven for getting the impression that he was finding the whole thing a bit of a drag, at least on Question Time there’s usually David Starkey to have a row with. The whole performance was strongly suggestive of bored entitlement and can hardly have made a good impression on the first time voters in the audience.

The following evening I found myself standing in the foyer of the Science Block at Staffordshire University listening to a man with a large Ukip rosette pinned to his lapel reciting very loudly the sort of opinions that do nothing to dispel his party’s stereotype. It is a space that resembles a motorway hotel more than a seat of learning with its coffee bar and acres of plate glass.

This second debate had attracted a larger and more varied audience, grey haired professors in baggy cords mingling with students and a smattering of long- time local political activists. In one corner ex-mayor Mark Meredith was holding court with several students, shoring up the youth vote for a comeback maybe, at some point Stoke North MP in waiting Ruth Smeeth loped through the foyer exuding weapons grade entitlement with every step.

Then, at last, the man himself Tristram Hunt, arrived, fashionably late to do his sound check and instantly gave those standing near a little amusement by struggling to open the door into the auditorium. Things like that just aren’t supposed to someone who is, by his own estimation anyway, the next prime minister but one.

This time round the issue that defined the debate was immigration, largely due to a small but noisy group of Ukip supporters being in the audience. It must have disappointed them that their man was no more impressive than he had been the previous evening, recycling the same truisms with a little more passion this time round.

Jan Zablocki gave another impressive performance, catching Hunt out twice, first on his having written in an article for the Sentinel that immigration wasn’t an issue locally only to say on the night that is was a major one on the city’s doorsteps; then picking him up when he said Labour would outlaw ‘unjust’ zero hours contracts when in the previous debate he had said they would ban them outright; oops.

Liberal Democrat Zulfiquar Ali also gave a strong performance, coming across as a decent man with a genuine feeling for local issues, but, sadly, one who had hitched his wagon to a party doomed to be a political punch bag at the forthcoming election.

Once again Tristram Hunt barely seemed to be participating, spending much of the evening sitting back in his chair arms folded exuding undisguised boredom, at one point he even took the opportunity to do a little paperwork. Perhaps he was finishing off another column he will have to pretend he can’t remember writing.

Out of the two debates it is possible to identify Jan Zablocki as a clear winner; he showed admirable eloquence and command of detail, more importantly he made a connection with both audiences gaining by far the most rounds of applause. Liam Ascough and Mick Harold proved to be plodding also ran’s, either or both might up their game as the contest goes on, but for now their deposits look like lost money.

The big question is just what does Tristram Hunt think he is playing at? Perhaps he’s deploying a sort of rope-a-dope tactic, lulling us all into a sense of false security before unleashing a devastating combination of rhetorical jabs and hooks; I doubt it though.

His assertion in both debates that after the election there will be a Labour or Tory prime minister come what may suggests he hasn’t quite got how things have changed over the past couple of years. Whilst technically true the leader of either party will in all probability have to work with the Greens, Ukip, the SNP or the parties from Northern Ireland to form a coalition, so it would be a good idea to start working with them now on a local and national level.

To keep the boxing metaphor going Tristram Hunt and Labour in general reminds me of a boxer so confident of winning his next bout that he sets up his training camp in the coffee shop of a luxury hotel. Pride often comes before a fall, the game has changed for good and if either fails to respond to that fact the coming election may be theirs to lose.

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