Bristol West candidates debated at Cotham School on Wednesday night in the Bristol Post hustings. Recent polls show momentum is with the Greens. Chair Mike Norton opened by reminding the audience that ‘there are still plenty of undecided voters’ in this tight marginal seat.
The seat features a close race between the Greens and Labour. With the Greens well ahead of the Lib Dems, their incumbent MP Stephen Williams is set to lose his seat. The future of Bristol West lies in the hands of either Green candidate Darren Hall, or Labour hopeful Thangham Debbonaire.
With Debbonaire arriving late, some forty minutes into proceedings, Green candidate Hall stole the limelight. Hall opened by promising to be a ‘voice’ for ‘many thousands of people’ struggling for social change. He champions movements against TTIP, NHS privatisation, fracking, anti-migrant hysteria and attacks on welfare. Bristol has a chance to elect a representative that will champion its status as a ‘world leader in demonstrating that a better vision for the future is possible’.
Hall pledges to help create jobs, whilst reducing inequality and our impact on global climate change. Distancing himself from the lack of boldness that pervades mainstream politics, Hall thinks long term and talks about the big issues. It is, as he puts it, about vision and values.
Neither Labour nor the Lib Dems had a good night. Lib Dem candidate Stephen Williams was repeatedly moved back on track by the chair, Mike Norton. When it was time to talk about Residential Parking Zones, he reminisced at length about his glory days at Avon Council. The chair, Mike Norton, stopped him mid-flow and told him to answer the question.
When it was time to talk about tuition fees, he banged on about the Labour candidate for Bristol West at the last General Election. Once again, the chair stopped him and instructed him to focus on the question. And when it was time to talk about potential coalition partners, he focused on proportional representation. Again he was told to ‘answer the question’. When he finally got around to answering, the chair cut him short because he had taken up too much time.
Williams bases his appeal for re-election on the ‘incumbency factor’. He is a sitting MP with ministerial experience. But this link with Westminster was all too transparent in his inability to answer questions. He has clearly learnt a lot in government.
At times, Stephen Williams must have wished he was somewhere else. He may well have wished he was Labour candidate Thangham Debbonaire, who really was somewhere else, having been held up on her way to the hustings. The first forty minutes of the debate took place without her. Some in the audience met each mention of her name with angry mutters and incredulous splutters. When she turned up to finally occupy her empty chair, a smattering of slow clapping rose to greet her arrival.
The first thing an irate-sounding Debbonaire had to do was defend Labour's notorious ‘Controls on Immigration’ mug. The mug is availabble on the Labour merchandise website. ‘Who here thinks there shouldn’t be controls on immigration?’, asked Debbonaire, defending the indefensible.
Things went from bad to worse, with Debbonaire later insinuating her preference for a Labour-Lib Dem coalition. Indeed, Labour and the Lib Dems found much in common over the course of the night. Their candidate statements resonated on topics such as immigration and the need for austerity. Green candidate Hall set himself apart by stating that the Greens ‘definitely won’t prop up a Tory government’. A vote at the party’s Spring Conference decided that there would be no coalition with a party advocating austerity. If they were to support any potential government, this would proceed only on a vote by vote basis.
The Lib-Lab truce was briefly broken when Williams criticised Debbonaire on the topic of tuition fees. The proposed Labour reduction of tuition fees from £9,000 a year to £6,000 would benefit only the richest students, Williams said. Those who walk into the most lucrative jobs post-degree would begin paying back the reduced amount sooner. They would be debt-free sooner than their lower-paid counterparts, who would continue racking up interest well into the future.
Criticism from the Lib Dems is bad portent for Labour’s fees policy, and only goes to show that neither party has the answer. Only the Green Party advocate the abolition of the usurious and unworkable tuition fees system. Darren Hall was clear that ‘they should be scrapped’.
Hall pointed out ‘how odd it is that we hear from politicians that it’s not okay for the country to have debt, but okay for students’. When Hall went to university it was free, and he received a grant because his parents were on a lower income. He is in favour of restoring such support today. ‘If people get good jobs, they pay more tax’, Hall said, and it is this tax that pays for education. There is no need for students to repay by means of the fees and loans system.
Hall also attacked the stratospheric rise in Vice Chancellor pay, noting that it is ‘no wonder universities cost so much’ when VC’s are so well-recompensed. The Greens would legislate for a 10 to 1 pay ratio on university campuses, regulating widening inequality between the highest and lowest earners.
Where Hall took a stand against any efficiency savings in the NHS, Labour’s Thangham Debbonaire faced tough questions on her party’s health policy. Debbonaire said that Labour will scrap the Health and Social Care Act, which paves the way for private enterprises to run NHS services. But a member of the audience pointed out that the Labour website promises only the get rid of its ‘most damaging aspects’. This is not a commitment to scrapping the Act, and still allows for private businesses to run the NHS.
Hall, on the other hand, is firmly against this creeping privatisation. Rather than outsourcing and efficiency savings, Hall thinks that government should put more money into the NHS instead. There is ‘no room for the profit motive in the NHS’, Hall said. When the Attlee government established the NHS, he said, the debt to GDP ratio was 240%. Today it is much lower. It is ‘time to invest in the NHS’. In Hall’s view, investment should combine with new approaches. 'We run an illness system', Hall claimed, not a health system. ‘We need to deal with the causes of illness’, he suggested.
One example he gives is the transport system and the air pollution it creates. That day, the Supreme Court ruled that city councils should do more to improve air quality. Hall emphasised the importance of this judgement, telling the audience that more people die from issues related to air quality than who die in car and road accidents.
Car and road safety were up for debate elsewhere, too. There were extensive exchanges on residential parking zones and the introduction of 20mph limits in Bristol. Hall said that, whilst 20mph zones have not had the desired impact, they do give a greater ‘feeling of safety’. In some areas, children play in the streets. The message that 20mph zones set is that the streets are ‘spaces not only for the ownership of cars and the rights of car owners’.
Having set out his stall, Hall concluded by reinforcing his credentials. Bristol has the chance to build upon its ‘fantastic grass-roots innovation and creativity'. It can burnish its reputation for ‘amazing environmental action’. This it can do by returning a Green MP to parliament.
Hall would challenge ‘an energy system run by big business'. He would take on 'a transport system run by private companies'. And he would shake up 'a planning system run for the benefit of developers'. He would overturn the sorry state of affairs whereby ‘the top 1% have the same as the bottom 55%'. He would stop the NHS being gradually 'sold off to the highest bidder'. And he would work to ensure that corporations 'pay their fair share of tax'.
In order for him to do this, the Greens have to beat Labour in this closest of electoral races. The momentum is behind them. But for Hall to be Bristol West’s next MP, people need to remember his closing message at the polling stations next week: ‘Vote bold, vote brave, vote for what you believe in.’