Hustings between parliamentary candidates fill the last month before an election; especially in the marginal seats where candidates are keen to speak to as many voters as possible. While planning our April roadtrip, we noted that there are hustings almost every evening that we pass through a constituency. Fortuitous maybe, but it more likely points to the fact that candidates’ diaries are filled with many opportunities to square off against their opponents in front of the voters who will determine their fate.
The topic of a given hustings is normally general and determined by the composition of the audience assembled. When I chaired a hustings between the Northampton North candidates at the University of Northampton, a significant portion of the night was dedicated to student tuition fees. Hustings normally contain heated disagreement between candidates on many issues, candidates in Northampton North clashed over the environment, the economy, as well as the new £9,000 tuition fee.
However, in a recent hustings I attended between Oxford West and Abingdon candidates the theme was pre-determined -“Sleepwalking out of Europe” – and disagreement between candidates was minimal. Of the candidates attending- Layla Moran for the Liberal Democrats, Sally Copley from Labour, Alan Harris from UKIP, and Martin Stevenson from the Green Party, who is a candidate in nearby Henley- it probably wouldn’t surprise you that three were in favour of continued European Union membership, whereas one wasn’t.
The current Conservative MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, Nicola Blackwood, was unable to attend the hustings and a replacement from the Conservatives was not sent. A seat was left empty.
Layla Moran started her opening remarks by describing that she “self-identifies as European as much as British” and described her party as “instinctively international”, a view which she said is reflected in Oxford. Sally Copley opened by saying that “we need to take the heat out of this debate” and criticised the Prime Minister for his approach on European affairs, denouncing it as “just swagger”. Harris said that many were “disillusioned with the three main parties”. Stevenson finished the opening round of remarks by concluding that “To blame migrants for welfare… the numbers just do not add up… All of us could become migrants and we have to treat migrants how we would like to be treated if we were migrants.”
On the effects of the EU on the NHS, Copley pointed to the number of the organisation’s workforce who are European Union citizens, and said: “People don’t just bring a number, they bring their experience.” Moran said that sending European Union citizens back after a European exit would have disastrous consequences, commenting the “NHS would collapse if we pulled out of the EU”. The view was disagreed with Harris who said “If the UK was out of the EU, we would curb welfare tourism.”
Turning to the local dimension of European Union membership, Copley drew attention to the concerns of BMW – a large employer in the city – of a British exit, concluding: “Lots of return from what we put into the EU is not always quantifiable… The cost of leaving would outweigh the benefits of being in.” Moran commented that many small business owners in the constituency were switching from Conservative to Lib Dem because they were concerned with a possible exit. However, Harris disagreed with this view, saying that many businesses would be “pleased” to operate in “a less regulated part of the EU.” Stevenson- who agreed with the comments of Copley and Moran- stated that greater care should be taken to ensure that large firms’ capacity to lobby the government on economic affairs did not become greater.
As the questions were opened to the floor, one politics student remarked that there had been many similarities between Copley and Moran’s responses. Her question ‘Does this mean that the Liberal Democrats and Labour parties are going to form a coalition?’ raised a few smiles on the panel.
“I love how you think that Layla and I are part of those discussions.” Copley replied.