Pre-selected questions submitted by members of the audience and impromptu questions from the floor, cut to the heart of the squeeze on living conditions in austerity Britain; and gave voters the chance to hold the candidates to account. The rowdy and diverse crowd grilled candidates on a wide range of issues such as housing, jobs and employment, youth opportunities, human rights, discrimination, radicalisation, and cuts and benefits; eliciting often intense responses from the floor. Questions were accompanied by frequently harrowing accounts from people experiencing the sharp end of austerity policies.
We started off with a question from a young Somali woman who outlined the experience of herself and far too many others of feeling closed off from job opportunities in Bristol and marginalized by society at large, and asked the candidates what they would do about it. Labour’s Thangham Debbonair to her credit spoke well on her families experience of migrating to this country ‘when Landlords could put up signs that said no blacks, no Irish, no dogs’, Labour’s historic role in migrant rights struggles, and the need for greater tolerance and diversity. This marked a positive contrast to Labour’s recent pandering to UKIP by pledging to get tough on immigration and strengthening boarders; winning her an applause.
Darren outlined the need for more opportunities for young people in general, like widening access to education by scrapping fees and abolishing student debt and investing in the public sector to create new jobs. Specifically in relation to the question he stressed the need to empower marginalized groups and to confront discrimination. He was well received and even Liberal Democrat Stephen Williams and Conservative Clare Hiscott got rare applauses for recounting their own parties attempts to diversify their candidates.
Next a question from a community youth worker, outlined the disastrous effects that the cuts to council budgets are having on youth services and asked the candidates what they would do. Darren stated the Green Party’s stance which has been ‘unequivocal on the need to end austerity and cuts to councils and public services’. Continuing he explained that councils have endured disproportionate cuts to their budgets, year after year, they’ve worked hard to find these savings and still function, but there just isn’t anything more that can be cut without the loss of essential services; winning him one of many big rounds of applause.
Thangham also received a strong applause for stating Labour would raise council budgets if elected, but was questioned as to how they could do this whilst cutting £30 billion from public spending by 2017 (with many other areas already immune from cuts). Stephen Williams and Claire both received heckles and jeers as they attempted to push the government line that ‘you’re not going to like it but’ (says Stephen) there isn’t any more money and we have to make cuts, and that (if the austerity parties – including Labour – win) further ‘cuts to council budgets are inevitable’.
The chair had to intervene (the first of many such interventions) to remind the floor to allow the candidates to speak, to hold them to account at the ballot box, and to express their feelings with thumbs up and thumbs down signs. But that can be hard to do when talking about such controversial issues that have had such a real and negative impact on the lives of so many peoples.
Darren got his biggest cheer for refuting this idea that public debt is disastrously high, explaining how ‘after World War II national debt was around 240%, and we were able to create the NHS and the welfare state; today it is less than 90% and we found half of that to bail out the banks, so don’t let anyone tell you there’s no money to invest in our society’.
This was indicative of the evening, with the audience warming to Thangham and especially Darren; whilst Stephen and Claire struggled to defend their government’s record on housing, jobs, zero hours contracts, privatisation and broken promises. The mood of the room prompted Stephen Williams to waste his response to an entire question on Tax Justice and instead attack Darren and the Green Party (perhaps rightly seeing them as the main opposition). He then went on to attack the audience for supporting Darren to continued cries from the floor of ‘answer the question’.
This wasn’t an overly Green audience (one woman had even tried to storm the stage to challenge Darren), just lots of ordinary people fed up with austerity and looking for fairness. It was easy to see why the majority of the audience were warming to Darren and the Greens as he outlined a bold vision of hope for an actual alternative to self defeating cuts and austerity.
Time and again we saw this. On Housing for instance – one of the most hotly debated issues – Darren proudly proclaimed that instead of treating housing primarily as financial assets we would end right to buy and invest in the construction of 500,000 socially rented homes. Instead of trusting in the market to meet our housing needs we would commit to fundamentally changing the housing market by promoting tenants rights, legislating to bring in longer tenancies, enacting rent caps, and ending exploitative tenancy fees.
The central argument running through Darren’s answers was the need to rebalance our society in the interests of ordinary people and the environment, so that we all have a decent standard of living and we’re not destroying the planet. ‘Take back the power’ Darren said as he outlined our approach to community owned renewable energy projects, a statement expressive of our wider approach to politics.
The drama didn’t end with the passionately contested debate. As the evening of incendiary question came to a close a fire broke out in the bathroom and we had to evacuate. Outside from the conversations of the crowd it seemed clear that most people had thought Thagham had done well, but that Darren had won.
The mood of the hustings reflected both the recent polls and the experience of canvassers on the door. General disillusion with the damaging austerity mantra of cuts and privatisation, and the search for an alternative. This is why the hustings on Monday, and Bristol West in general have turned their backs on the Coalition. People want something better. Thangham is stronger than the average Labour candidate, but sadly should she win she’ll still be whipped to follow her party leadership and its policy – which on far too many points is barely distinguishable from the other main parties. On Monday night Darren offered a credible alternative, and it was eagerly received.
[With thanks to Daisy Brasington for providing photos]