Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Older people vote they ask tough questions too.

North Staffs Pensioners Convention held their election hustings in a church hall on the edge of Newcastle town centre. A slightly dowdy space with lots of folding chairs and a stage at one end over which hung a banner with ‘Older People Vote’ stitched on it.

As I sat at the side of the room watching the mostly retired audience file in I over- heard a white haired woman explaining to what were probably her grandchildren what was going on, just as I tuned in she was asking the oldest if she’d heard of Ukip; let’s hope they’ve been forgotten by the time she’s old enough to vote.

The candidates on the panel were a mixed selection drawn from across Stoke and Newcastle with a Tory and a Ukip candidate from Stoke North, a Green from Central and Labour and Liberal Democrats from the home team in Newcastle.

Ben Adams (Conservative) looked and sounded like a suburban bank manager, decent but just a bit dull, Paul Farrelly (Labour) walked onstage with the heavy waddle of a retired prize fighter; Geoff Locke (Ukip) had the sort of beard Gladstone might have envied and an avuncular manner that made you wonder why he was in such a nasty party, Jan Zablocki (Green) arrived smartly suited as ever with a file of facts and figured tucked under his arm; Ian Wilkes (Liberal Democrat) arrived fashionably late looking a little like a crumpled polytechnic tutor from a Malcolm Bradbury novel.

In their opening statements, timed with superb eccentricity using a kitchen timer that rung from somewhere off stage each candidate gave their take on the key issues of an election that hasn’t, yet anyway, properly caught fire.

Ben Adams said issue he had been faced with most on the doorstep was the future of the NHS and praised the outgoing government for the work it had done to address the concerns older people had about healthcare, public transport and pensions. He wasn’t an electrifying speaker, but probably deserves a gold star from Tory central office for heroically staying on message.

Ian Wilkes said, rather shamefacedly, that he’d have liked to use the figures Adams had just rattled off so impressively, but didn’t want to bore people with repartition, a common problem for Lib Dems these days apparently. He also made a rather half- hearted attack on the government’s record, but then gained a few Brownie points by speaking well about his links to the locality.

Jan Zablocki also stressed his strong local links and his long association with trade’s unionism in the city. He made an eloquent appeal to the audience’s memories of the post-war Keynesian consensus that delivered welfare for all and the NHS and how the monetarist policies of the past thirty years had largely destroyed its legacy. The Greens, he said, were a party committed to reviving the spirit of that consensus along with the optimism and solidarity it created.

Geoff Locke stressed his long experience in local campaigns and spoke knowledgeably about the need to protect and improve pensions. Unfortunately he undid most of the good this did him later on when he fumbled badly over a question about ATOS and their infamously unfair assessments of benefits claimants.

Paul Farrelly was strong on his role and an ‘independent minded’ back bench MP since winning the seat in 2001 and his long track record of supporting local campaigns. He defended Labour’s record on pensions and attacked government plans to give people the ‘freedom’ to take and spend their entire pension pot at fifty five.

The formalities of where everyone stood out of the way it was time to get down to business; questions from the floor. If this debate was more of a cricket match than a boxing one, with the panellists competing certainly, but not doing so in a spirit of antagonism, then the questions were from whence a googly or two was going to come; they did not disappoint.

Asked about the privatisation of healthcare for older people Ben Adams suggested it could be helpful as a means of improving the service delivered, this was an audience, mostly, too polite to heckle, but having forty odd people all frowning at him in silence must have been pretty intimidating. Ian Wilkes waffled awkwardly over the same question and suggested an all- party commission should look into the issue, dear lord not another! Jan Zablocki tore with gusto into the government and its privatisation by stealth of NHS and council health services, saying that providers should be brought to account where the service was shoddy, getting a deserved round of applause in return. Paul Farrelly called the government’s plans to privatise healthcare ideologically driven and called for better pay for care staff, also strong applause.

Asked about the role of accounting companies such as KPMG and PwC in government affairs Jan Zablocki drew attention to the role one had played in ‘funding’ certain MPs, one rather close to home and asked if their support was being bought. Geoff Locke said tax avoidance, one of the subjects on which said companies had given advice was hard to prevent, so maybe we shouldn’t try? Ben Adams said people should pay their taxes, but that KPMG et al weren’t necessarily wrong in what they were doing; another stony silence met that one.

The question of the day though came from the most unlikely source, Jack Hood a sweet looking centenarian with a mind like a steel trap. He gave the panel a Paxman style grilling over the ‘bedroom tax.’ Well played that man, would that we all could be that feisty at half his age.

At the end of two hours of debate Paul Farrelly and Jan Zablocki emerged as joint winners; both put forward a pugnacious defence of the need for independent voices in politics. Farrelly though has a painfully small majority and so may find holding on to his seat in Newcastle a struggle.

His chances might be helped considerably by the fact that Ben Adams hardly emerged well from this debate, along with Ian Wilkes and Geoff Locke he came over as an effective campaigner in local politics, but an also ran in the parliamentary race.

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