Tonights General Election hustings in Airdrie was the first to be held in the town for many years and was long overdue. The right of the electorate to cross examine candidates is a key feature of our democratic system and it was hugely disappointing that SNP candidate Neil Gray refused to take part. I was not alone in holding the view that Neil Gray was extremely disrespectful in boycotting the hustings; Independent Councillor Alan Beveridge who organised the evening read out Mr Grays whiny refusal which cited his concerns that the evening would be quite partisan, and with that the hustings was underway.
Last minute chair Peter Winnie introduced himself and then the candidates were given five minutes to give their pitch. Ewan McRobert of the Lib Dems led off with his reasons, Brexit being the primary one, while not seeing the irony in the fact that his opposition to a second independence referendum would deliver Scotland a future outside the EU. Labour’s Helen McFarlane cited her experience in the NHS as one of the reasons to support her; claiming that the “wool wouldn’t be pulled over her eyes”. She was very positive about Jeremy Corbyn and his manifesto, but I was concerned that her party nationally and locally have been working to remove Jeremy Corbyn; the Scottish leader Kezia Dugdale is anti Corbyn, as are numerous Airdrie members and councillors. Oh, and she was strongly against a second referendum. Finally we had Jennifer Donnellan, the Conservative and Unionist candidate who opposed another referendum, backed Theresa May as the strong and stable leader needed for Brexit negotiations, attacked the SNP’s obsession with independence, their inability to get on with the day job, their record on education and health, and oh, yes, she did she mention she was opposed to another referendum?
I was allowed to ask the second question of the evening and used the opportunity to make a point: given that health, education and the like were devolved, could we actually stick to reserved issues during the discussion, and by and large the audience and the candidates obliged, with questions ranging from Brexit to ethical foreign policy and the international arms trade to workers rights and the anti-trade union laws.
Candidates were also questioned about how they would make Airdrie a better place to live and work, and a crucial question which none could adequately answer was surprisingly simple: ‘If there was a policy which your party implemented which was directly detrimental to the town and people of Airdrie, would you oppose it?’ No one could give a satisfactory answer. Over the course of the two hours it became apparent to me that while likeable, the Lib Dem candidate was a complete lightweight, with some knowledge of party policy and no knowledge at all of other areas (he was unable to say whether the Lib Dems opposed or supported renationalisation of the railways, while his personal opinion seemed to be to oppose it).
The Tory candidate was strong on opposing a second referendum, but was utterly bereft in other areas and was even laughed at for her inability to answer questions on subjects such as Tory policy on selling arms to Saudi Arabia. If this is the quality of George Osborne’s former special advisors it’s no wonder he failed time and time again to meet his own targets. At one point she was asked by an audience member who was in receipt of Unicersal Credit if she would join him tomorrow at his next foodbank appointment. After looking to a colleague in the audience she declined. Not a surprise. Labour’s Helen McFarlane came across as the strongest of the candidates; knowledgeable, experienced and confident. Credit must be given to her in answering the penultimate question of the night. She could have joined in with Tory criticism of the SNP for their management of the SNHS; instead she rounded on UK Tory policy of creeping NHS privatisation in England, and over the piece if there were only three candidates then she would walk it.
There are however four candidates. Neil Gray refuses to put himself up for public scrutiny, and nion is to Airdrie what Theresa May is to the UK: a poor public debater who won’t allow himself to be subjected to fair and open scrutiny by the general public. Can he read a pre-prepared statement in Parliament: yes. Can he explain policy, and debate it with ordinary voters? No-one knows. To my knowledge he has NEVER had to. In a way his absence was a probably a blessing as the other three candidates were put under more scrutiny than they otherwise might have been, but his refusal to debate won’t be forgotten in a hurry.
My apologies must go to the last minute substitute chair Peter Winnie. His inexperience as a chair did show through and I was rather rude to him for his refusal to allow people to come back in to make follow on points or to have something clarified. While he admitted this was a first for him, he certainly can’t be accused of being unfair or biased, and credit must go to him for presiding over an informative and enjoyable hustings.