At 7pm last night, the leaders of the big two parties were in London, gearing up for a grilling from Jeremy Paxman. Later, they lived out the fantasy of two-party politics, blissfully unaware that things have changed. At the University of Bristol, a student hustings showed a new reality. Away from the glare of studio lights, multiple parties now vie for a place in parliament, and nowhere is this more the case than in Bristol West. Here, the Green Party’s Darren Hall is in pole position to overtake the sitting Lib Dem MP, Stephen Williams. With one of the largest student populations of any UK constituency, student concerns are at the forefront of this election.
In any constituency where the Lib Dems stand, the party’s capitulation to their Tory partners on the issue of student fees casts a dark shadow. Unsurprisingly, one of the first questions asked concerned the principle of free education. Green Party candidate Darren Hall was the only candidate to back the abolition of tuition fees. Education, he said, ‘is at the heart of society’. It is ‘how we make progress’, and there should be access to education for everyone. To achieve this, there can be no fees. The system is untenable. The debt accrued will never be paid back in full. And alternatives exist. The Czech Republic has as many students as the UK, but every single one of them studies for free. If they can afford it, Darren asked, why can’t we?
On the topic of the exploitation of student workers, Darren Hall was the only candidate to unambiguously call for a ban on zero-hour contracts.This is Green Party policy.The Labour candidate, Thangam Debbonaire, gave an account of her own party’s policy. It promises only act on ‘exploitative’ zero-hour contracts. But this will mitigate only the worst excesses.Labour makes no commitment to banning zero-hour contracts full stop.
Letting agency fees are a big issue for student renters. ‘The market in letting agency fees is a fringe opportunity for profit’, suggested Darren, whose party supports the Ethical Letting Charter. To respond to what he calls a ‘wider crisis’ in housing, Darren offered some powerful policy proposals to address the problems faced by renters. He championed continental-style rent controls, with longer tenancies and a limit on rental price increases. The other candidates were unable to suggest anything as radical. Lib Dem Stephen Williams is in favour of letting agency fees,voting against their regulation in Parliament. Labour’s Thangam Debbonaire highlighted her party’s commitment to banning revenge evictions, but she did not seem to realise thatthis has already happened under the current government, after lobbying by homelessness charity Shelter. Replying to a later question, Darren pointed to the links between homelessness with the Tory-Lib Dem housing sanctions. The Green Party would get rid of the bedroom tax- for which Stephen Williams, the Lib Dem candidate,voted strongly in favour.
The sharpest intake of breath of the night came with a question from the floor directed at the Lib Dem candidate Stephen Williams. The question referred to a parliamentary vote on 23rd February 2015. Williams voted against amending the Official Secrets Act to protect those who assist inquiries into institutional child abuse. This question was specifically addressed at Stephen, but he used his response time to address other questions and avoided answering this one.
One of the biggest cheers of the night was for an alternative political system. Responding to a question on the voting age, the Green candidate argued that although he thought the voting age should be lowered, broader changes are needed, and that democratic failure is less about voter age than the political system itself. Darren was the only candidate to call for a system of Proportional Representation. This was fitting for a constituency where the binary bunfight of two-party politics is a thing of the past. Back in London, Dave and Ed played their part in a nostalgic battlefield recreation. In Bristol West however, the election campaign is well underway, and the Labour-Tory faceoff is nowhere to be seen.