St Peter and St Paul, Botley

St Peter and St Paul, Botley

Of the six Parliamentary candidates lined up in front of the altar of St Peter and St Paul, Botley, it’s probably fair to say that only two were serious contenders to transubstantiate into the MP for Oxford West and Abingdon in less than a month’s time: the Liberal Democrats’ Layla Moran, and the Conservatives’ Nicola Blackwood (MP from 2010 to 2015).

Historically, the constituency has always been a two-horse race between these two parties. From 1983, when the seat was created, to 1997, the seat was held by the Conservatives, with the SDP, later the Liberal Democrats, in a reasonably close second place. It was then held by the Liberal Democrats from 1997 to 2010, when the Conservatives narrowly retook the seat with a majority of 176. Labour has never won more than 17% of the vote here; similarly the Greens, despite having fielded candidates here since 1983 – an unusually long period for this party – have never won more than 4% of the vote.

Lord Aschroft’s polls last summer reaffirmed the historical situation, suggesting that, despite the Liberal Democrats’ eye-wateringly sheer decline in national popularity since 2010, Oxford West and Abingdon remained a contest that the Lib Dems could plausibly win, and where Labour, the Greens, and UKIP posed no significant, direct challenge to Nicola Blackwood’s prospects of continued employment.

The candidates seemed well aware of all this, too. Blackwood, naturally enough, frequently referred to her accomplishments over the past five years, but it was only Moran who repeatedly used the phrase ‘as your MP.’ At the other end of the scale, UKIP’s candidate, for unexplained reasons, did not attend the hustings, and the Socialist Party’s Mike Foster arrived – admittedly breathlessly and due to work commitments – five minutes into the proceedings.

Hustings audience

Far more than 176 people attended (Nicola Blackwood’s majority in 2010)

The event began with opening statements from each of the candidates. Blackwood described her “guiding principle” as “listening to her constituents” and said that it had been “a tremendous privilege to be your MP.” She drew attention to her work on securing extra investment for the A34, which, running from Bicester to Winchester, makes up the western part of the ring-road around Oxford – the road also divides Botley in two. Blackwood also mentioned the work she had done on the Oxford flood channel and on reducing youth unemployment.

Nicola Blackwood

Nicola Blackwood, Conservative candidate at the Botley hustings

Sally Copley, Labour’s candidate, introduced herself by referring to her Methodist upbringing and her current employee-cum-parent status: “I’m standing because I want to see more working mums in Parliament… I was raised a Methodist, and I still have those values.” She also pointed out Labour’s “manifesto is fully costed.”

Labour's candidate, Sally Copley

Labour’s candidate, Sally Copley

After his semi-self-asphyxiating entrance, Mike Foster, from the Socialist Party, set out his fundamental disagreements with capitalism, and his desire for wholesale change over incremental reforms: “We say reform can’t be of lasting benefit because society is structured to benefit the few… I’m not here to advocate particular reforms, I want a new system of economics.”

The Socialist Party's Mike Foster

The Socialist Party’s Mike Foster

Layla Moran greeted the audience by thanking them for their perseverance in attending: “There was a great fire at the Randolph [hotel], so I’m glad you could get through the traffic.” She described what initially got her into politics: “In Britain, despite all our wealth, a child’s [educational] outcome is more linked to its birth than any other developed country.” She also mentioned her upbringing – among other countries, she has lived in Belgium, Greece, Ethiopia, Jamaica and Jordan – and the effect of that on her politics: “What ties us together is humanity, and politics is always local.” She finished by affirming her desire to focus on her constituency: “As your MP, I will be there from the beginning… I will follow your lead.”

Liberal Democrat Layla Moran

Liberal Democrat Layla Moran

Helen Salisbury, from the National Health Action Party, spoke passionately about the problems in the NHS, reserving particular disdain for the Health and Social Care Act (2012): “The party was formed after the disastrous Health and Social Care Act, which threatened to destroy the NHS.”

Helen Sainsbury, representing the NHA Party

Helen Salisbury, representing the NHA Party

The Green Party’s Larry Sanders, in his drawling New York accent, focused primarily on his opposition to austerity in his opening statement. “The other parties have put themselves in a corner with this austerity business. It’s unnecessary… Any academic says austerity is nuts.”

New Yorker and Green candidate Larry Sanders

New Yorker and Green candidate Larry Sanders

The first question fielded by the audience was on whether it was sensible, as various Oxford councils have proposed, for houses to be built on the parts of the city’s green belt. Such schemes are part of a controversial plan to build 100,000 new homes in Oxfordshire.

“It’s a hot issue,” said Blackwood. “It’s been in my inbox non-stop for the past eighteen months.” Blackwood pointed out that house prices in central Oxfordshire are the most expensive in the country compared with average incomes – last year Lloyds reckoned the house-price-to-earnings ratio for Oxford was 11.25, against a 5.8 national average. “Hospitals are wasting money on recruiting temporary staff [because staff don’t have the money to live here permanently.” However, Blackwood eventually concluded, “We should not build on green built, or places without the infrastructure… Residents must decide where housing goes.”

Sally Copley similarly drew attention to the huge problem that housing prices pose for Oxford. “A friend was renting a converted garage for £800 a month.” But ultimately she disagreed that green belt could not be used for building. “We should use brownfield first, although that’s harder in Oxford… We have to be careful, but I’m really sorry we have to nibble into it [greenbelt].”

Mike Foster cautioned that building on green belt “must not be driven by financial motives, but by what people want.”

Layla Moran, who has campaigned against house-building on the greenbelt, unsurprisingly objected to the idea. “The plan [to build 100,000 new homes] is completely out of proportion for what Oxfordshire needs… There has not been a county-wide greenbelt review; until that happens, it’s undemocratic.” She finished by saying, “As your MP, I will be a strong voice for putting these sites back into the greenbelt, and protecting them for the long term.”

Helen Salisbury said, “Not unless there are exceptional circumstances… If we carry on there’ll be no green spaces left.”

Larry Sanders also expressed fundamental disagreements with the plans. “They’ve come up with this idea we need 100,000 new homes. But there is no sense crowding everything into one part of the country… The Green Party is calling for half a million new subsidised homes to be built. Otherwise we can’t deal with the housing crisis brought about by both [Labour and Conservative] governments.”

The next topic to be raised – a familiar enough refrain in Scotland, but less so in England or Wales – was whether or not to retain a nuclear deterrent.

Larry Sanders said that in the current fight against Islamist terrorism “I’m not sure Trident would help much, it’s irrelevant. And it’s expensive – somebody will make a lot of money out of this. I won’t go so far as my Socialist friend, but I can’t see any other reason for this.”

Nicola Blackwood expressed her preferral for multilateral disarmament, but warned against doing so too rashly given the instability of much of the world. “I never thought in 2010 I’d be voting on intervening in Libya and Syria… I never thought I’d see an imperialist Putin and a China that spends 10% of its budget on defence.”

Sally Copley gave two answers. “Labour is committed to keeping Trident and will conduct a defence review,” she said. “But my personal position is I’m deeply opposed to renewing Trident.”

Mike Foster said, “Nuclear weapons are in the interest of the elite. We want a world where there are no states and no divisions, so there would be no weapons.”

Layla Moran said that the UK needs to take the lead on multilateral disarmament, but needs to do so slowly. “The nuclear deterrent is not going to solve the current instability in the world,” she said. “My parents live in Egypt – I’ve seen it.”

Helen Salisbury suggested the money spent on Trident should instead be “put to something useful.”

The next question was on what legal provision the candidates would put in place, such as conscience clauses, for registrars and priests who oppose same-sex marriage.

“No one should force anyone to marry anyone they don’t want to marry,” replied a bemused Helen Salisbury. Larry Sanders similarly misunderstood the question: “I share Helen’s view. So many things are going wrong in society but this is one of the nice things.”

After the question was repeated more clearly, Sanders replied, “I’m not sure we need legal provision. A gay couple won’t want to be married by someone who doesn’t want them there.”

Nicola Blackwood, who voted against the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 over concerns about religious freedoms, began by expressing her support for equal marriage, “We must have equal rights for marriage.” She then explained her legal concerns over the bill, “I would have wanted a complete separation of church and state ceremonies – then there would be no risk of vicars and imams being interfered with… We are still in need of reform in this country.”

Sally Copley began by saying, “I’m not a lawyer, so I’ll talk about principles.” She referred to her opposition to Section 28 and her participation in a Stonewall group in 1997 that lobbied on gay rights. “State-sanctioned discrimination leads to low self-worth… It’s not okay for the state to discriminate.”

Mike Foster said, “We reject the whole framework of marriage and the legal system… My personal view is that it’s entirely up to two adults.”

Layla Moran said, “The legislation as it stands has legal protections.” But she also expressed dissatisfaction with the current legislation: “There are loopholes, still, in who the bill applies to. A gay couple in a civil partnership, where one goes through a gender reassignment operation, suddenly has no more civil partnership.”

Questions on electoral reform on potential coalition agreements were then fielded. Blackwood favoured first past the post and said she “wouldn’t touch UKIP with a barge-pole,” as well as their being “obvious problems with the SNP.”

Layla Moran, referring to the failure of the AV referendum, said, “For now we’re with first-past-the-post.” She then brought up her party’s “diametrical opposition” to UKIP and also said, “We’ve ruled out the SNP – they’ve spent the last two years talking about ripping the UK apart.”

Rather than reform of the first-past-the-post system, Sally Copley focused on reform of the House of Lords and proposals to give sixteen and seventeen year olds the vote. She ruled out coalitions with the SNP or UKIP and said the Conservatives and Labour would not work together.

Larry Sanders favoured an Additional Member System, which is essentially a combination of first-past-the-post and PR. “We’ll work with any progressive party,” he said on potential coalition arrangements.

Helen Salisbury supported moving to PR, describing the AV referendum as a “disaster” that was “not a good representation of the public’s view.” On coalition arrangements, she suggested that “all three major parties have a poor record on the NHS. They believe the markets will help – I want to put this down to ignorance rather than wanton destructiveness.”

Mike Foster favoured forms of democracy should vary in accordance with what local communities want. “I can’t imagine any other parties would want to do a deal with us: the others fundamentally agree with how society is run.”

The candidates were then invited to give brief closing statements.

As in his opening statement, Larry Sanders focused on his opposition to austerity. “Austerity is a myth,” said Larry Sanders. “The newspapers are owned by tax-avoiding millionaires – all three major parties have fallen for it.”

Nicola Blackwood highlighted her achievements over the course of her time as an MP, including funding for the A34, flood defences, and apprenticeships. “I’ve taken on Tory ministers and Tory councillors [on behalf of Oxford West and Abingdon,” she said.

“The Lib Dems cannot claim to be an alternative to the Conservatives,” said Sally Copley before highlighting Labour’s manifesto policies on banning zero-hours contracts, reducing tuition fees, repealing the Health and Social Care Act. “I’d cherish the opportunity to be your MP – I’ve lived here ten years and I love bringing up my children here.”

Mike Foster said, “We should change the cause of society’s problems. Goods and services needs to be run according to need. The current system is holding us back from reaching our potential.”

“The Lib Dems took a difficult decision in 2010: there was no choice. Lib Dems and Labour were eleven seats short of a majority,” said Layla Moran. She then focused on the Lib Dems’ desire “to ask the rich to pay a little more, to clamp down on tax avoidance, and not to institute deep cuts.” She also dwelt on the NHS: “We’re committed to finding £8 billion the NHS has asked for… And it’s time for a proper parity between mental and physical health.”

Helen Salisbury described “how very betrayed many of us felt by the coalition. The Tories are planning £12 billion of welfare cuts but they’re not saying where… We need to go back to a publically accountable, publically provided health service that answers your needs.”

As if the chair of the evening had been expecting more rumbustious interventions from the silver-haired crowd, he finished by thanking everyone for remaining calm: “It’s been a great evening, and I didn’t have to stop any heckling. Thank you.”