Back To Uni For Parliamentary Candidates

PPCs quizzed by students in pre-election debate

The four prospective parliamentary candidates for Hammersmith went head-to-head in a lively and sometimes acrimonious debate at Imperial College on Wednesday (March 17).

Andy Slaughter MP for the Labour Party, Shaun Bailey for the Conservatives, Merlene Emerson for the Liberal Democrats and Rollo Miles for the Green Party took questions from a student audience on major issues such as the economy and education – before a war of words broke out between the two main candidates.

On the economy and how to tackle the huge budget deficit, the candidates gave their respective parties' positions: “The Government strategy is to ensure the recession is well and truly over,” said Slaughter. “Growth is the main way we will get rid of the deficit so we don't want to cut too early. We don't want a deficit, but it is only by borrowing that we have had the largest unemployment drop since 1997, which was announced today. The EU did say they want Britain to cut quickly but we want sustainable cuts. We have the second lowest debt of all the G7 countries and that is because Gordon Brown, when he was chancellor, paid off the debt. Most of the world thinks Gordon Brown has led the world out of recession - he is a colossus on the world stage economically,” said Slaughter, drawing laughter from some members of the audience for his final comment.

Bailey said the Conservatives' priority was to pay off the debt quickly: “We have to make a difference between the deficit and the debt,” he said. “We spend more now on servicing the debt than on education and the debt needs to be paid down quickly or it will grow - the EU agree on this. We need to be in a position where people want to invest here.”

Portrait of Merlene Emerson. Emerson, meanwhile, focused on liquidity in the money markets and the flow of capital to struggling small businesses: “It's not just cuts, what's critical is timing. If we make too savage cuts, that would be disastrous. We are in unprecedented times. We have pumped millions into banks and the answer lies in getting the banks lending again - that is the key. Cuts are not the only solution,” she said.

The Green Party candidate was critical of both the Government's plan to pay off the deficit in four years and the Conservative Party's plan to hugely reduce the size of the civil service: “We have only just paid of the Second World War debt – I don't understand why we are burdening ourselves with paying off a massive debt in four years. Labour will not be able to do it. The Government keeps coming up with targets but they are never met. The Green Party is a social party and public sector workers are extremely important. If you look at the number of disabled people, people with special needs who are employed by the public sector, the public sector does have a role to play,” said Miles.

When it came to the details of what exactly should be cut, some candidates were more specific than others. “We want to do away with all the quangos, get rid of ID cards and Trident,” said Emerson. “The Greens would cut Trident, government advertising, which is a complete waste of money, and look into government procurement. Governments pay much more to contractors than the private sector does. We would look into that and save money there,” said Miles. Bailey said the Conservatives would focus on bringing down the government wage bill. “The Labour government has made the public sector massive so the first cut is that we will do a pay freeze on the civil service, we will stop recruitment,” he said, adding that ID cards would also go. Slaughter was more vague when it came to saying precisely where the axe would fall: “A combination of cuts and increases in taxation. The way we will cut is in a way that does not attack those most in need - you will have to wait until the budget to get the details,” he said, accusing the Tories of wanting to cut front-line services. “You are a young audience – people here don't remember how it was before 1997 with people waiting on trolleys in hospital corridors. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Tories reduced this country to rubble.”

On education, there was a surprising level of agreement among the candidates over the supposed 'dumbing-down' of A-levels and suggestions that the International Baccalaureate, with its broader curriculum, would be a more suitable qualification: “A-levels are not a very good way of testing people at 18 – they are too narrow and inappropriate. I think the IB would be better,” said Slaughter. Miles, who was educated in France, agreed: “We live in an international world and we need to compete. That's why the City is full of French and Spanish bankers – they are better educated. When it comes to A-levels, if people have too much choice they go for easy subjects. I am in favour of the IB.” Bailey and Emerson had some reservations over the IB programme, which requires students to study six subjects, instead of the usual three or four at A-level: “The Baccalaureate is not appropriate for all children. One size doesn't fit all. We should seek guidance from employers. We can't keep changing the system - we need stability, we need wide choices,” said the LibDem candidate. “A-levels are so discredited that employers are now ignoring them,” said Bailey. “The IB is quite broad – I wonder at what point you get to make a choice (about which subjects to take)? Maybe a modified version of the IB?” he said.

On more general education issues, Slaughter pointed to the money the Government had poured into the school system and rejected criticism over education targets: “I'm not an absolute fan of testing at every age but targets are important – without them you can't measure. I've visited fantastic Surestart centres, we have got additional teachers in classes and new school buildings. Schools are now getting facilities that are as good as in the independent sector and this incentivises students. Outputs have gone up dramatically – we have never been better educated. That is the reality.”

But the Conservative candidate questioned how well the current education system was preparing children for real life: “The school curriculum now is too dense, it doesn't produce rounded people, our schools don't always produce people who can take life on. Your ability to be educated is about your emotional state - if you don't have a good start, you are constantly playing catch-up,” said Bailey, adding: “Educated people live longer, have happier lives, spend less time in jail.”

After the economy and education, one Imperial student wanted to know what issue the candidates would break ranks with their respective parties over: “I would rebel against any areas I feel strongly about or any areas that my constituents feel strongly about,” said Slaughter. “For example, Heathrow expansion, which ticked both boxes and which I resigned from my Government position over.” Bailey said he would rebel over an aspect of prison policy: “Iain Duncan Smith, who is a friend of mind, thinks people in jail should be able to vote. I don't,” he said. For Miles, rebellion would come over the issue of vivisection: “The Green Party is against the testing of drugs on animals - I disagree. Humanity comes first and if new medicines are being tested on animals, that's okay.”

The issue of MPs' expenses reared its head in an indirect way: were MPs paid enough, the students wanted to know? “In some ways it is a demanding job, it is incredibly hard work and very rewarding. I think it should be reasonably remunerated. The salary is probably about right,” said Slaughter, currently the MP for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush. “As a youth worker, £65,000 sounds like an awful lot to me,” said Bailey. “But for me to house my family in Hammersmith on £65,000 would be tough. I think the expenses scandal was about people not being paid enough,” he added. Emerson suggested she thought the salary was high enough: “We probably need an independent body to decide on their salary – MPs should not be making that decision. But they went into the role wanting to serve their community - they should not be motivated by money,”, while Miles took the opposite view: “I think MPs are underpaid,” he said. “It's an important job and £65,000 is not much compared to other jobs, for the responsibility of representing your constituency. But MPs should not be able to have a second job.”

So far, so civil. But when the issue of Lord Ashcroft's donations to the Conservative Party came up, the tension rose. “Ashcroft shows a corruption in the political process. All the money spent on Shaun's glossy leaflets – it's money that should be funding schools and hospitals,” said Slaughter. The Labour MP and former Hammersmith and Fulham council leader says Ashcroft gave over £42,000 to the Hammersmith Conservatives in 2004/5, something he says was instrumental in the Tory Party's ability to win local council elections in 2006.

But Bailey staunchly denied that he had received any money from Ashcroft, who has a non-dom tax status and does not pay UK tax on his earnings abroad. “Lord Ashcroft gave me nought pence,” said Bailey. However, he said he had received money from the wife of the venture capitalist, John Nash: “Caroline Nash, who is not non-dom, gave me money for my campaign, but my biggest fundraiser is Andy Slaughter. Most people who support me do so because they want to get rid of him.”

In a counter-attack, Slaughter accused local H&F councillor Greg Smith, who was in the audience, of being Bailey's “puppet master”, drawing an angry response from the Conservative candidate: “I am nobody's puppet – Greg works for me, I don't work for him,” said Bailey.

Slaughter finally conceded that he and his Conservative opponent had never really spoken to each other: “I neither like nor dislike Shaun, I don't really know him,” he said. “This is only the second time we have appeared together and I have tried talking to him but he has been averse to talking to me. We disagree very firmly on policies. I have read what he has written and I find his stuff very socially illiberal but I believe you should be able to put your arguments forcefully – you need to be tested. He (Shaun Bailey) needs to step out of the shadow of those in Hammersmith who are far-right Conservatives.”

The other two candidates appeared unimpressed by the accusations and counter-accusations: “Leaflets though your door attacking the other party are not on,” said Miles. “Vote for your convictions. I know I won't get elected but I want to give people in Hammersmith a chance to vote Green and send a message to parliament that people are concerned about green issues.”

“This is why we need a fresh start,” added Emerson, “because of this Punch and Judy politics.”

Yasmine Estaphanos

March 18, 2010