I attended a hustings debate last night in my local constituency of Holborn and St Pancras hosted by the Camden New Journal. It was held upstairs in the vast St Pancras International building next to a statue of John Betjeman so as well as competing with each other to be heard the candidates had to speak over the tanoy and the noise of the Eurostar coming and going. It lent the whole event a somewhat detached and surreal quality to be one of only 25 or so people taking part with hundreds of passengers rushing past oblivious to the discussion taking place.
Frank Dobson has held the Holborn and St Pancras seat since 1979 but is facing a strong challenge from Jo Shaw of the Liberal Democrats. I went into the debate undecided between Shaw and her Green opponent, Natalie Bennett, hoping to hear a bit more from each before deciding how to vote. I must admit I was slightly disappointed by Shaw’s performance. In her opening remarks, Shaw said it was civil liberties which first attracted her to the party (you can see her speaking against the Digital Economy Act here) but she missed several chances to forcefully condemn Labour’s record. Instead, it was left to her Green opponent to hit the appropriate note of disgust at ID cards, state surveillance and intrusive anti-terror laws. Perhaps it was the distraction of the noise and the trains but I had hoped for a much stronger denunciation of the current government from Shaw. A lawyer by profession, she might have been expected to have dealt with a question on trade union rights better, for example, as well as a question about PFI and the London underground.
Dobson himself appears to be a good constituency MP so far as it goes. He seems to be on top of local issues and campaigns, as you would expect from someone who has been around for 30 years, and has a decent-enough record of standing up to his party on Iraq and the privatisation of the NHS. But there was more than a touch of complacency about New Labour’s legacy from Dobson and no clear vision of how things could possibly change for the better with the same government in power after May 6th. When he won most support from the audience it was for talking about issues, like NHS privatisation, where he had stood against his party. At one point, Shaw pointed out that “like it or not, Frank is still a member of the Labour party”. It was a fair enough point to make given Dobson’s tactics, but aside from that one swipe Shaw failed to land any decent blows on the incumbent or capitalise on public anger in the way Clegg so spectacularly managed to do.
That role was left to Bennett who I felt had by far the best grasp of the deep-seated problems our politics must deal with. This stretches beyond the immediate problem of the deficit to the massive inequalities of wealth and power in our society, our addiction to consumption and economic growth at all costs and how these things are socially and environmentally unsustainable. On questions about public services and immigration she came across as assured and confident. She pointed out how under the three main parties, the financial crisis, which originated in the greed of the banking sector, has transformed wholescale into a problem for the public sector with no mention of higher taxes for the top 10% of society who massively profited during the boom years. A vigorous defence of equality and a new social compact is precisely what Lib Dems and Labour should be talking about, but both have disregarded this for the bland language of “fairness”.
The Conservative candidate, George Lee, was pretty hopeless. He has an interesting background, having been raised in a “converted pig-shed” in Hong Kong before immigrating here where he became a cop and then worked in the financial sector, but he made mention of this too often for my liking without enough talk of policies. His attempts at partisan point scoring missed the mark and looked petty at times. At one point he tried to explain what the Tories mean by the “Big Society”, an idea Cameron is apparently now being urged to drop by panicky senior figures within the party. Lee talked in vague terms of applying the best of the third sector to the public sector and handing over the management of public services to the professionals who deliver them. I doubt many people will have come out any the wiser following his explanation and personally I wasn’t dissuaded from my view that the Big Society is a bit of a bizarre mish-mash designed to provide a philosophical rationale for cutting back state spending.
After ninety minutes I had a good feel for the candidates and where they stand, despite the trains and the tanoy, and it was invigorating to take part in some robust public debate. Yet my dilemma over who to vote for out of the Greens and the Lib Dems remains. If I was voting tactically it would be for the Lib Dems in order to get rid of one more Labour MP and help bring about a hung Parliament that will deliver reform. But then I also think the Greens deserve support for being the only party talking about the kind of radical changes our society needs, especially when they have strong candidates like Bennett. So with just over two weeks to go until polling day I'm still weighing up my options.