Hustings – aiming for a 0-0 draw

June 27, 2024

Last night I went to Trinity Church in Gosforth. Not because of some sudden religious impulse, but to watch the general election hustings for Newcastle North.  The topics were public transport and climate change.

It’s a novel experience for me to be an observer at these things. If I’m not on the stage, I’ve usually been coaching or supporting one of the people who is. But this time, I genuinely wanted to gauge the calibre of the seven people who want to represent me in Parliament.  Four points stood out.

Firstly, Labour’s Catherine McKinnell, Conservative Guy Renner Thompson, and Reform’s Deborah Lorraine were invited but didn’t show up. That’s pretty contemptible. You want to pass laws that affect me, but can’t even muster the energy to speak to voters and journalists in the middle of an election. None of the three had said they had an emergency. Imagine applying for a £93,000 job and not even attending the interview. That said, given the track record of Labour, Tories and Reform, it’s questionable how honest the answers would have been anyway.

Secondly, the four that did attend all seemed to be pretty genuine people.

Martin Everson, retired archaeologist, standing for the SDP. It does have a link to the old SDP of David Owens and Shirley Williams, but these days is UKIP Lite. Anti-immigration, climate deniers, protectionist. But without the nasty edge you get hanging round Reform. Every answer circled back to archaeology. Or palaeoarchaeology. At one point we got onto Norse settlements in Newfoundland. His most interesting answer: his favourite flavour of crisps is the ones with the little blue bag of salt. That’s one thing I can agree with.

King Teare, PhD student in democratic engagement. Dressed in a big yellow robe and sporting a crown, in an ironic statement on democracy. His answers all referred to democratic deficit. Fair point, but you can’t just say, “I’ll ask the public” for every answer. Representative democracy requires preparation and knowledge. You have to lead as well as listen.

Aiden King, doctor and former Lib Dem Mayoral candidate. I was truly shocked when asked about renewable energy he didn’t mention his plan to build a giant windfarm.

Sarah Peters for the Green Party, another doctor, managed to be accurate and relevant at times. On several occasions she actually answered the question the panel were asked. Although to be fair to the others, this was a home game for her.

Thirdly, the standard of answers was mostly awful. Now, that’s probably a bit harsh, since I’m someone who writes books on policy proposals and economic analysis for fun. And being eloquent under pressure is not easy. But these are not random people in a pub quiz, they want to make our laws and spend our money.

Their opening statements were stream of consciousness, full of umms and aahs, and couldn’t keep to time. Aiden King literally stopped mid-sentence “and in Ukraine specific…” What that had to do with public transport I have no idea.

Afterwards, As Leon, my 18 year old who’s voting in his first general election said, “Well, that was entertaining in ways it probably shouldn’t have been.”

Most answers were cliché heavy. “This is really important. That needs fixing. We must stop the other.” Big wish lists, basically. No plans for how to deliver it, what the challenges would be, and how to overcome them. In their defence, they were all substantially better than Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer, the current and next Prime Ministers. At least these four told the truth and behaved with dignity.

It wasn’t that what they said was bad. Well, some of it was. Martin Everson answered a question about oil drilling in the North Sea by saying he used to watch the Good Life and wanted to own cows.

It was what wasn’t said. The climate emergency is on course to decimate the global economy and force the migration of over a billion people. As Caroline, my wife said, “Where was the emotion?”

There was no passion. Probably not because they don’t care. I’m sure they do. But because Britain’s political discourse is insipid. There are no great orators to rouse the heart. No insightful thinkers to stimulate the imagination. Our national leaders go into debates hoping to get a 0-0 draw. Default behaviour is stick to your party line like it’s a life buoy in a storm.

Fourth, and finally, the real issue wasn’t mentioned all night. System change. Everyone, Green candidate included, accepted the default framing. That dealing with the climate emergency is a trade off between how much we spend, and who pays for it. But this is not a zero-sum game. It’s cheaper to fix it than to ignore it. That means ending the rentier economy. Where our society is geared up to making very rich people even richer, and some wealth trickles down. And our political and journalistic class enable the status quo, or are court jesters acting as a safety valve. There are some notable exceptions that prove the rule.

King Teare made the last closing statement. At the end of this speech, he paused, thought, and spoke from the heart. “The problem with political parties, is all you get is groupthink.”  Right at the end, the most insightful thing anyone said all night.