Most political debates that will take place over the coming month will tend to be of two kinds: grand, televised events featuring party leaders, whether of the entire party or of regional subdivisions; or they will be constituency-specific occasions, where the contestants are in direct competition with one another for the same job.
However, the hustings Adam, Claire, and I attended in Edinburgh on Tuesday featured five candidates from four constituencies across the city. Only Sarah Beattie-Smith (Scottish Green) and Ian McGill (Scottish Conservative and Unionist) were in direct competition with each other, for Edinburgh North and Leith, a Labour-Liberal Democrat marginal in 2010. Cllr Ricky Henderson, the candidate for Edinburgh South West, whose MP was Alistair Darling from 2005 to 2015, represented Scottish Labour. Pramod Subbaraman, who chatted to 50for15 back in February, attended in his role as the Scottish Liberal Democrats’ candidate for Edinburgh South. And the SNP was represented by Michelle Thomson, their candidate for Edinburgh West, which was represented from 1997 to 2015 by the Liberal Democrats.
The debate was chaired by Alan Convery, a lecturer in politics at the University of Edinburgh, and was hosted by the English Speaking Union Scotland, an organisation known best for promoting debating in schools.
After opening statements from the candidates, the debate was thrown open to questions from the floor. First up came a plea for clarification about party policies on the so-called bedroom tax. It was a “tough decision,” said Ian McGill. “Every decision on benefits was tough. But what’s been driving us was to make work paid.” McGill confirmed his party would be sticking with the tax.
“You’re just balancing the book on the backs of the poor,” Sarah Beattie-Smith responded. “It’s appalling, and it’s costing the state more by moving the poor to homes that don’t exist.” Beattie-Smith suggested wages need to be higher, not least to increase income tax receipts.
Michelle Thomson also criticised the ‘bedroom tax’, referring to her previous career in property: “There are very few one-bed houses. Councils have had to approach my clients to buy up one-bed houses.” She also criticised the “one size fits all” nature of the tax: “South east England saw a massive rise in property prices and living costs. There were moderate rises in Scotland, but the policy was applied across the board.”
Pramod Subbaraman suggested that it was hardly right for one family to live in overcrowded housing, while others lived with spare bedrooms. However, Ricky Henderson described the ‘bedroom tax’ as “particularly vindictive” and dismissed Subbaraman’s argument as anecdotal: “There’s not enough properties to move people around [like this].”
The next question fielded was on which other parties the candidates would consider working with in the event of needing to form a coalition. Michelle Thomson said, “My driver is to get the best for Scotland, though not at the expense of everyone else… We will not work with the Tories. Their brand is toxic in Scotland.” She added the SNP would work with Labour on a case by case basis, and would also work with the Greens.
Pramod Subbaraman said that the choice of coalition was rightly the public’s, not politicians’: “people choose coalitions by putting whatever combination of MPs in Parliament they want.”
Ian McGill came across as significantly less warm to the idea of coalitions, emphasising that Britain had not necessarily entered a new era of coalition government. The Conservatives and Unionists are “happy with their record on cooperating with the Liberal Democrats, McGill said.
“And the SNP,” he added with a smile, referring to the finishing off of the Callaghan administration in 1979. “We’re grateful the SNP MPs backed the no-confidence motion that ushered in the successful Thatcher era.”
Sarah Beattie-Smith began by calling for a more representative means of parliamentary representation and decried the way “First Past the Post forces you to make tactical choices.” She was also cautious about coalition agreements. “There are lessons to be learned from the Lib Dems on how to do coalitions,” she said, referring to the drop in popularity the Liberal Democrats have experienced since 2010. “If they had gone into a confidence and supply agreement, they might still be an effective opposition.”
The final, briefer, questions were on the parties’ positions on the Human Rights Act, Trident, and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Since the event had to end promptly to allow the audience to watch the televised debate between the leaders of the Scottish Labour, Nationalist, Conservative, and Liberal Democrat parties, chair Alan Convery ensured the candidates’ answers were correspondingly brief.
Ian McGill defended the Conservatives’ position on repealing the Human Rights Act and the renewal of Trident, whereas Michelle Thomson described Trident’s costs as “inexcusable” and attacked what she saw as a lack of transparency around TTIP.
Pramod Subbaraman said there would be no negotiations on the Human Rights Act, and defended Britain’s continued possession of a nuclear deterrent, though not necessarily Trident. “There are so many unanswered questions on TTIP,” he added.
Ricky Henderson said he was in favour of Trident, although admitted it was expensive. “Trade is good, secrecy is bad,” he said on TTIP – hurriedly, as time was running out. Sarah Beattie-Smith proposed scraping TTIP.
The debate was then wrapped up with closing statements from the candidates.
“We need a significant change to the electoral system and how we create jobs and growth,” said Michelle Thomson. “The SNP has ambitions for Scotland and the UK and I intend to be part of that.”
Sarah Beattie-Smith referred to the significant increase in Scottish Green Party membership, and described her party as offering “radical, different politics that put people first.”
Pramod Subbaraman exhorted each member of the audience to “be a thinking voter, not a tribal voter.” He also drew attention to the diversity of the panel, which included two women and one ethnic-minority man: “We’ve got diversity here and we need it in Parliament.”
Ricky Henderson listed various Labour policies, including an end to zero-hour contracts, increasing the minimum wage to £8, and cracking down on tax avoidance. “Labour has a progressive and radical agenda,” he said.
Ian McGill emphasised various aspects of the last five years of Conservative government at Westminster, both economic and social. “The deficit has been halved. 36,000 new businesses have been created in Scotland… But it’s other things, too: it’s equal marriage, it’s the triple-lock on pensions, it’s liberating people to use their pensions as they like.”
Unlike constituency-specific events, several of the Parliamentary candidates that went head to head in an Edinburgh basement in early April could soon be doing so again in the grander surroundings of the House of Commons. On the other hand, to varying degrees, it’s plausible the SNP will gobble up all of these Edinburgh seats come May 8th.