Arriving in Midsomer Norton, a town just south of Bristol and Bath and near the Mendip Hills, I was secretly hoping to bump into Inspector Barnaby because I knew the gloves were certainly going to be off in a hustings for the Somerset North East candidates in Norton Hill School.
In an interview with 50for15 in December the Labour candidate Todd Foreman berated the incumbent Jacob Rees-Mogg for taking “extreme right wing positions” and Rees-Mogg is well known by parliamentary colleagues for his prowess in debating and his ability to filibuster bills. In one case he talked out the Sustainable Livestock Bill with the words: “I particularly dislike carrots, and I remember that George Bush Senior got into terrible trouble…”
The chairman of the debate began by inadvertently introducing the UKIP candidate, Ernie Blaber by saying, “I’ll start to my far right,” before allowing each candidate to introduce themselves to the assembly of students.
“I’ve had a good life.” Blaber said addressing the young audience, “I want you to have what I’ve had… But you are also going to pick up the bill for the decisions we make today.”
“Young people are not getting a good deal out of the coalition,” argued Foreman. “Labour policy is to work for the many and not the few. I am passionate about the living wage and there should be preference in government contracts to those giving the living wage.”
Rees-Mogg – a man perhaps even more stereotypically English than an episode of Midsomer Murders itself – cited what he evaluates as the fundamental principles of the Conservatives: “It is the individual who knows how to lead their lives.” He attempted to persuade those assembled that the country needs “less bureaucracy, whether be that in Westminster, Brussels, or Bath.”
Wera Hobhouse, the Liberal Democrat candidate referred to criticisms of her party’s record in Government. “There’s a record… and that’s never going to be perfect… We have delivered grown up politics, a politics of dialogue.”
With an audience comprised of 16 to 18 year olds, it is perhaps of no surprise that the first topics of debate focused on modern social issues: marriage equality and votes at 16.
On the issue of lowering the age of suffrage, Blaber mused; “If you’re old enough to drive a car, you’re probably old enough to vote, [but it’s] not something I feel strongly about.”
Foreman was for the idea, adding, “Schools have a role to play by educating 16 and 17 year olds which will get them into the habit of voting.”
Hobhouse agreed, pointing to the audience- most of whom who are too young to vote in May – and said: “I trust you guys.”
Rees-Mogg quipped, “Personally I would have liked to have voted from the age of two.” He conducted a straw poll of the audience, and when a clear majority of those who currently cannot vote expressed that they would if they could, Rees-Mogg offered support to the idea.
However, he opposed Foreman’s idea of schools having an institutionalised role in teaching students about voting: “Better to find out politics in life and not in school…. I’m deeply suspicious of teaching British values; a British value is not to teach British values.”
Conversation then centred on Rees-Mogg, with Foreman criticising him for working for Somerset Capital Management whilst also serving as a MP. Rees-Mogg responded to the attack with: “I set up a business which now employs thirty people… Surely that is a good thing for a Member of Parliament.”
One of the final issues of discussion was a particularly key local topic: fracking. Foreman is against the idea of fracking in North East Somerset but accepts the idea that there are some places in the world where the method could be used successfully; Hobhouse opposes fracking anywhere in the UK; Blaber believes the arguments against fracking outweigh those in favour, but suggests a referendum may be a way to resolve the debate; and Rees-Mogg argues that shale gas is a potential benefit of cheap energy, and points to the fact that 70% of the constituency has green belt status, which gives certain protections against fracking being permitted in the area.
Foreman, questioned by Rees-Mogg over whether he would defy a three-line whip in a vote in Parliament, affirmed he would do what he could to stop fracking in the area. “I applaud anyone who defies the party whip,” commented Rees-Mogg, who is well known for his rebellious tendencies, particularly on Britain’s membership of the European Union.
At the conclusion of the debate, Foreman was extremely pleased with the proceedings, with a number of the audience coming up to meet him at the end to pledge their support to his campaign.
A gathering also surrounded Rees-Mogg to ask further questions- including me. I asked whether the TV debates, which had started the night before, took the attention away from these local hustings.
“There has to be a balance, we don’t have a presidential system… But people also know that they are indirectly voting for a Prime Minister, so it’s important that the leading figures of any party get reasonable exposure.
“I think at the last election, the debates took over the whole thing, and that meant other issue didn’t get looked at- it basically became a beauty contest. It reminds me of the Monopoly prize- you’ve won second prize in a beauty contest collect £10- and that’s not really how an election should be run.”
With no such Monopoly style give-aways from the engaged audience, and plenty of probing of the candidates’ responses, the overall debate was a well-mannered affair.
It turns out that, on this occasion, Inspector Barnaby was not required after all.