It was a wet and windy evening and the warnings that a December election would not really work loomed large – but proved irrelevant. St Mary’s Church was full – extra chairs were needed and there were even some people standing at the back.
Which all added up to at least 240 people attending the hustings organised by Marlborough Churches Together and chaired by Keith Fryer on Wednesday (November 27).
The four candidates for the Devizes constituency, Emma Dawney (Green Party), Danny Kruger (Conservative), Rachel Ross (Labour) and Jo Waltham (LibDem) gave brief opening statements. The Green, Labour and LibDem candidates were careful to emphasise their very local roots.
For some of the thirteen questions that followed, we could have been at the 2017 hustings – but not for all of them. Three questions stood out as regards the audience’s vocal interest: food banks and poverty, ‘Who can I trust?’ and the voting age.
There was also one very surprising absentee among the questions: no one asked about the NHS. It got one brief mention in Emma Dawney’s summing up – if elected, she wanted to bring a Bill before Parliament to reverse NHS privatisation .
Afterwards one of those not called to put a question said she had wanted to ask about the future of the NHS – which has so far, after all, been a seminal part of this campaign. Another area that slipped off the agenda was education policy and education spending.
But back to the three standout questions:
What policy would you introduce to reduce the use of food banks? The three female candidates had ideas – cancel Universal Credit (Green), review the living wage (LibDem), end food poverty in three years (Labour).
Rachael Ross: “It’s very worrying that they are part of everyday life.”
Danny Kruger said he had spent more time working in the poverty area than anyone else on the panel: “It’s a very, very complicated issue – there’s always been food poverty. I’m sensitive to many social ills in our society…fundamentally we need stronger communities – better jobs, more support for families.”
“Nothing”, he emphasised,” is simple in this area.” But he did support Universal Credit and thought its successes were just not reported by the media.
The debate then moved on to child poverty – where, Rachael Ross said, lay ‘the fundamental difference between us’ and the Conservatives: “There is a very important role that the state needs to play in this…I struggle with food banks being ‘a good thing’.”
Danny Kruger: ”The problem is wage stagnation – technology and globalisation is taking jobs away…in the developed world it is working people that suffer.” And he defended cuts to child benefit:
“We shouldn’t be sending a signal that children are cost free. I don’t think you should have child benefit for any number of children.”
For the first time in my 70 years I do not know how to vote. Who can I trust? This brought a much applauded plea from the Green candidate for a change from First-past-the-post to Proportional Representation. She added: ”Vote with your heart – because actually it probably won’t make a difference.” (Laughter)
Danny Kruger: “I won’t say I’m trustworthy – that would be difficult to convince you of.” (Laughter) He stressed his commitment to the constituency area and said how civilised the debates here had been. He paused…and then went on to defend Boris Johnson: “They pick on small things…he connects with human beings because he himself is very human.”
Reminding us the question was about trust, he went on: “The only way to unite our country is to get Brexit behind us.” He objected to the depiction of Boris as ‘right wing’: “He’s a centralist – a one nation conservative.”
Rachael Ross: ”Our democracy is in danger of being broken – our politicians have lost their relationship with the truth…truth has left the building.”
And she defended Jeremy Corbyn: “He’s not everyone’s cup of tea – he’s an authentic person.” And she quoted him saying: “I just want a decent society”. Adding that she was worried about ‘…how our parties are funded’.
The third standout question came from a Marlborough College student: With climate change and Brexit, it’s my generation that’ll have to fix it. What about reducing the voting age to 16?
Rachael Ross: ”I got into politics for my children…and in a way being led by our children. I agree with votes at 16 – that makes perfect sense to me.”
Danny Kruger: ”I don’t think Greta Thunberg should be in charge – children shouldn’t be in charge.” He argued for sticking to the status quo: “I think we’re doing the right thing by keeping it at 18.”
Emma Dawney wanted votes at 16 and Jo Waltham pointed out that the votes at 16 was in the LibDem manifesto.
Other topics covered were defence policy and the Russians – Russians and the Brexit referendum – the dangerous position for our ecology – the housing crisis – and lots more about climate change and about Brexit and the ‘oven ready’ departure agreement.
It was said afterwards that the good support the Labour, LibDem and Green candidates had from the audience might have been because many Conservatives stayed out of the rain at home – safe in the knowledge of the constituency’s recent records of large majorities for their candidates. Will they stay at home on Thursday, 12 December?
And there was a rumour circulating amongst some of the audience that Danny Kruger will be keeping this Parliamentary seat warm for Boris Johnson – in case he loses at Uxbridge and South Ruislip. A rumour termed ‘fantasy’ by one member of the audience. At least he did not call it ‘fake news’.
Click Here to watch Noel Woolrych’s recording of the hustings on his Youtube channel.