left to right: Tony Tomkins (Ind), Jack Dromey (Lab), Rev Gerard Goshawk (chair), Robert Alden (Con)
On the day when the Brown Bigot Bungle dominated the news agenda, three of Erdington’s General Election candidates faced the public at a local hustings, and not a single question about immigration surfaced.
Around 80 people gathered in Six Ways Baptist Church under the watchful eye of an unnecessary local policeman, to hear Robert Alden (Conservative), Jack Dromey (Labour ) and Tony Tomkins (Independent) answer pre-submitted written questions from the public which were read out by the Reverend Goshawk before all candidates gave their answers, while another churchman, Reverend Nigel Traynor, timed them and indicated their cut-off points with a green, amber and red light. It was a stifled debate, observed some members of the audience, after the event. The television leaders’ debates have done their utmost to avoid genuine audience participation, and politically correct paranoia has seeped through at a local level too.
Some of the questions had more than a whiff of parochial self interest; others invited candidates to concur with competing levels of compassion on unopposable topics. What about MPs’ expenses? An absolute scandal and a disgrace… they all agreed. What about charities ?…. a very, very good thing, they all agreed.
Just occasionally, the genuine differences, and political passions broke through the straightjackets. Perhaps most clearly on the question about young people and anti-social behaviour. The question was on behalf of a woman whose Nan was so disturbed by local youths that she felt afraid to leave her home.
Tony Tomkins advocated a tough, zero tolerance attitude towards crime. Jack Dromey said that if you gave the youths hope, they would be on her Nan’s side. And Robert Alden said that, if the woman would like to speak to him afterwards, he would see whether they could help her Nan for the future. The radical, the socialist and the sympathetic Tory.
In brief, Jack Dromey’s vast trades union experience has prepared him well for public address. His tone is part hectoring, part sermon, but generally assured, informed and convincing. “If this were X Factor,” observed Tony Tomkins, “I would vote for the silver-tongued Jack Dromey.” But Tony Tomkins’ pitch is that politicians abandon their local loyalties and vote with the big party as soon as they get to Westminster. As an independent, he would have no strings attached.
Tony Tomkins was the surprise package of the evening. Few people knew of him, but the mythical clapometer showed that some -though not all- of his answers won new friends.
Robert Alden has packaged himself as a local MP. “I’m standing her because I live here,” he told his audience. He has a track record of working for Erdington as a local councillor. He lacks the hard edge of the 1980s Tories. Nicely unambitious, genuine, neighbourly but not streetwise.
Each of the candidates had qualities, but most of the audience at local hustings have come, paradoxically, because their political opinions are deeply embedded. Few floating voters walked into the church last evening. And few will have left having experienced any Road to Damascus moment.
After 70 minutes of the written questions formula, the Reverend allowed questions from the floor for the final quarter of an hour. One, on mental health provision, came from Gerry Bermingham, a man who had served as an MP (for St Helens) for 18 years. It was nice to have a question from someone who had actually been in Parliament, observed one of the candidates. At the end of the evening, the retired MP observed wryly that the successful candidate won’t have such an easily controlled audience in the House of Commons.
Where were the other five candidates? Some not invited; others not available. “The absent are always in the wrong,” wrote the churchman Thomas a Kempis around 550 years ago. He would have given a pat on the back to the candidates who turned up, to the audience who listened, to the Reverend Goshawk who chaired the show with meticulous fairness, and to the Reverend Traynor who did the job of the fourth official on the touchline. Football match, it wasn’t. Polite British democracy, it was.
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keeping time: Reverend Traynor