Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Thoughts on the Hustings...

My first thought is: "Great! We have hustings, and they're well-attended."

One of the great things about Levenshulme is how engaged its residents are. We might disagree, squabble, snark and sneer, but ultimately we all love where we live, are proud of it and will defend it when outsiders look down on us. We go out on the streets, we campaign loudly and effectively and we speak up when we think something's wrong. So where other areas fail to engage voters in the electoral process (especially at local level), we have hustings, organised by the Levenshulme Community Association, which packed out one of the few secular meeting spaces in the area (that, in itself, is an issue) on a warm spring night when people could have simply stayed at home enjoying the weather. Thanks are due to the LCA for organising it, and to the Klondyke for being excellent hosts.

Many of us already knew each other socially; others, I suspect, will have been putting faces to names from social media pages. Some of us are overtly political, others defiantly non-aligned. The evening was designed to allow us to get to know the candidates who seek to represent us on Manchester City Council from next month, with written questions and some from the floor, addressed to all candidates in turn. We have five candidates, UKIP perhaps wisely recognising that they stand little chance in an inclusive multicultural area such as ours. 

The Conservative candidate was a no-show - pretty disgraceful, as the (admittedly few) Tory voters in the area deserve to be represented, just as the other parties were. To be fair, he did have a bit further to travel, I suppose - from a street just over the border in the Gorton South ward.  It seems that like their leader, though, Conservative candidates don't feel the need to turn up to debates.

The LibDem candidate was the veteran former councillor John Commons, eager to distance himself from his party, and emphasising his credentials as a longstanding Leve resident and activist. He gave a barnstorming performance (aided by knowing pretty much everyone in the room, residents and 'visitors'), and it will remain to be seen whether he can distance himself from his party sufficiently to win back the seat he lost a few years back.

The Trades Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) candidate was Fiona Higgins, a Leve resident and care worker who spoke with passion and integrity from a position of having experienced the effects of austerity cuts and zero hours contracts in the care sector. 

The Labour Party's candidate was Basat Sheikh, the owner of a care company (the only candidate present not to live in the ward). He was loudly supported by (as John Commons pointed out) a sizable number of Labour councillors and assorted supporters, who were both very vocal and combatative (one criticised the chairing of the meeting, another heckled and interrupted while others were speaking). The enthusiasm for Mr Sheikh appeared to be confined to this section of the room, though, and it begs a question as to why it was felt he needed so much partisan support, including a question from the floor from his campaign manager? 

Things got particularly tetchy around the issue of zero hours contracts (the widespread use of which the Labour Party has committed to ban), when he was tackled on whether his care company does (or did) offer such contracts to staff. He stated that he does not, and has never done so, a statement which was queried by several of those present, including one voter who had a copy of a letter which seemed to indicate otherwise.

The final candidate was Dick Venes of the Green Party, who also stood in 2014. Sadly, although I recently scored 97% Green on one of those 'Which party are you most aligned with?" quizzes (a bit embarrassing for a Labour Party member and former branch official*), I find, 24 hours on, that I can't recall any of his answers in any detail. I have the same problem with the Foo Fighters...

There were a range of questions on local issues, and most of the candidates acquitted themselves well on them. I'm sorry to say that 'my' candidate was severely underwhelming. Not having even an estimated completion date for the new leisure centre (possibly the biggest issue in the area over the last year or so), suggesting an Eric Pickles-style 'grace period' for those parking on yellow lines, telling us that he wants to make Leve "the kind of place you move to because you want to, rather than because you can't afford Chorlton or Didsbury" (which was met with a concerted response that many of us already ARE here because we want to be, and have no desire to live in Chorlton or Didsbury). He then compounded this by telling us that it really doesn't matter if the candidate lives in the ward (Yes, it does!) and telling us that "Sir Gerald Kaufman doesn't live in Levenshulme." It had to be pointed out to him that Sir G. might not live in Leve, but does live in the constituency he serves! So, factually irrelevant and very disrespectful to a much-admired MP who has served this community with great distinction for 45 years. It was not a high point.

All in all, it was a good evening but I have to say that, with a few notable exceptions, the clacque of Labour politicians present was a bit of an embarrassment. Do they consider their candidate so weak that he needs the support of so many councillors from other wards? Where were the Levenshulme Labour members who selected him for the candidacy**?

As I've said, Leve residents are intelligent, committed and engaged. We don't take well to being talked down to by someone who'd barely set foot in the ward before last year, or being told our area is a second choice stepping-stone to Hipsterville. We want to know who our candidates are and what their values are, which is why we turned out in pleasing numbers last night.

I will be voting again for Sir Gerald Kaufman on 7 May, but the local elections are another matter.

*that's a whole other blogpost....
** and that's another....

[Full disclosure: I was one of the unsuccessful nominees for the Levenshulme candidacy. If anyone would like to see my candidate statement, I'll happily post it and folk can judge for themselves whether the best man won.]

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