Friday, 17 April 2015

Hunt raises his game to make a draw in the Hartshill debate.

It’s Tuesday evening and I’m sitting in the bar of the Medical Institute in Hartshill ahead of the second debate I’ve attended in two days.

The surroundings have a touch of late sixties coolness that is both pleasing and deserving of being preserved as a reminder of more optimistic times. Early evening sunlight is pouring in trough the tall windows, there are nibbles to spare and the crowd milling around the circular bar seems genial. As billets go during an election that is yet to really catch fire there are far worse.

Ukip seem to have brought a fair contingent again, a different crowd though than at Staffordshire University a couple of weeks ago. This time it is all rugby club blazers and faux posh accents instead of Primark suits and low level bigotry. Most of the audience though when we file through into the Wade Hall where the debate is to take place are local residents with no noticeable political axe to grind.

The running order is much the same as at Staffs a couple of weeks ago, although the Liberal Democrat candidate is absent due to a family bereavement. The Cannabis is Safer than Alcohol Party and the Ubuntu Party of the UK candidates also send their apologies, rather a shame in the case of the latter since they sound intriguingly esoteric.

Tristram Hunt, the incumbent and so the star of the show strolls in wearing an artfully crumpled suit and no tie; the daringly fashionable devil, this is maybe a ploy to look more relaxed and approachable. Par, probably, for the antic atmosphere of an election campaign, it is to be hoped though that he has raised his game after two lacklustre performances in the last double header watched.

There were are the usual opening statements from the candidates, by this stage they have all repeated the same few words so many times to so many audiences they must be able to recite them in their sleep.

Mick Harold (Ukip) is no better a public speaker than on the previous occasions I have seen him, much given to swaying about and clasping his hands nervously. He places emphasis on his working class origins and ‘passion’ for the city, but has little in the way of a real message, rather like Ukip as a whole who seem to have spent the campaign so far making a lot of noise but saying very little.

Tristram Hunt (Labour) gives an overview of the work he’s done over the past five years, some five thousand or more pieces of casework, impressive sounding, but much of the actual work would have been done by his office staff, rather more creditable have been his efforts to help the ceramic industry fight back from years of decline.

Liam Ascough (Conservative) wears a natty three piece suit with shows that don’t quite match, tonight is turning out to be a night for political fashion victims. He makes great play of his humble origins, council house Tories are a rare breed these days. His speaking style has grown more assured as the campaign has progressed, suggesting he may have prospects in another seat at another election, not here though, he’s a little too on message to win friends.

Jan Zablocki (Green) also made play of his working class roots, as the son of a Polish miner who fled Stalin’s terror after the war and his long career in the trades union movement. He said he wanted to fight for the sustainable regeneration of the local economy and to encourage local people to demand more opportunities.

The preliminaries out of the way the panel take questions from the floor, unsurprisingly given the setting the first topic is the health service with several well thought out questions from NHS staff in the audience.

Asked about nurses from abroad coming to work in the NHS Jan Zablocki attacks the government for the pressure constant reorganisations have placed on health workers and calls for something to be done about the crippling costs of PFI. Mick Harold also attacks PFI and calls for hospitals to be given the option of buying themselves out of the debt; Tristram Hunt waffles around the issue, possibly because he memorably described opposition to privatisation of cancer services as a ‘knee jerk’ reaction puts him on something of a sticky wicket. He does seem to be more engaged than during the last debate, perhaps the Wade Room doesn’t have such an interesting ceiling.

Asked by one audience member who she should vote for if she wants to pay higher taxes in return for better public services Mick Harold says the British public are overtaxed already, a popular tune in the Ukip repertoire; Tristram Hunt treats the whole thing as a joke, poor form, and Liam Ascough launches into an attack on the tax rises to be expected if Labour return to office. This probably gives him the best of the exchange, though since there are probably more unicorns in the room than Tory votes the points gained count for little.

Asked about the environment Liam Ascough then promptly undoes all his good work by outing himself as a supporter of Hs2, a white elephant that has already cost the city dear through chasing after lost causes. Tristram Hunt and Jan Zablocki both make lucid points about, respectively, the need to improve energy efficiency in the ceramics industry and the importance of using geothermal energy to create jobs and make the city greener; score than round as a draw.

Then comes a curve ball, where would the panellists say their ‘moral compass’ resided. Jan Zablocki and Mick Harold both cite family and the importance of treating people fairly, Liam Ascough finds his in his Catholicism and Tristram Hunt finds it in the writings of the early socialist thinkers and the Judaeo Christian heritage; that sounds a bit like showing off, score another win for Jan Zablocki with honourable mentions for honesty going to Ascough and Harold.

At the end of the evening it is possible to score the debate as a draw between Tristram Hunt and Jan Zablocki, with the latter having had to raise his game significantly. Liam Ascough has shown both growing confidence and obvious potential, Mick Harold trailed in last leaving behind the impression that his is a party fighting a one note campaign and that their best hopes rest on the local elections.

On the way out I pass through the lobby just as Jan Zablocki is leaving and I am impressed by the number of people who come up to shake his hand and promise their vote, such things are, of course, subjective, but it does suggest his campaign is holding its momentum.

Tristram Hunt, as befits a member of the shadow cabinet is whisked away to another engagement through a side door, tonight though should have confirmed for him that he has a race on his hands.

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