I spent this evening at the Hackney Unites hustings for the London North East GLA constituency at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston.
Hackney Unites is a local pressure group which has grown out of the Hope Not Hate initiative, formed by the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight. Following a split in Searchlight in 2011, Hope Not Hate has continued as a separate body, and now finances Hackney Unites newspaper, which is currently being distributed across the borough.
The hustings came with a very fixed format. Firstly we had speeches from Hackney Unites Chair John Page, then Hackney Unites employee Andrea. After the starters came the main course. The politicians selected to attend the hustings followed the format that has dominated media coverage in London – Labour, Lib Dem, Conservative and Green. Not invited, despite outpolling the Greens both nationally and in London were the UK Independence Party, nor were the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition selected for the top table. Both deserved a hearing.
Those who made it were the incumbent – Labour’s Jeanette Arnold, the Tory’s Naomi Newstead, the Lib Dems Farooq Quereshi and Green Caroline Allen. Those attending were invited to submit written questions, which were handed to Hackney Unites Jane Holgate, which were then shuffled into an order based around a preliminary discussion of the subjects the audience felt important. Questions were read out, and each politician given one minute to answer.
This format soon brought problems. Hustings means different things to different people, and what we most certainly did not have here was a debate. Politicians give politicians answers, and without the chance for the audience to come back on what was stated, events soon became stilted. For example Conservative Naomi Newstead claimed to be opposed to tuition fees – a somewhat unusual position for a Conservative politician, and certainly not one that appears in her election literature. This was the first time I had seen Labour’s Jeanette Arnold (perhaps best described as a poor man’s Diane Abbott) more impressive on a personal level were Lib Dem Farooq Quereshi and Green Caroline Allen. Interestingly Ms Allen rarely missed an opportunity to speak of Green MP Caroline Lucas, whilst barely mentioning the Green’s fluffy Mayoral candidate Jenny Jones.
As the meeting wore on, frustrations grew at the lack of real debate. One man who wanted to make a verbal contribution was repeatedly told by Chairman John Page to write it down, when it would have been far easier in such a small meeting to let him speak (at its peak I counted 47 present, including the candidates) It is also the case that not everyone is as confident at writing political views as they are at speaking them, and London North East – as with any constituency – will include people who may not be able to read and write as well as others. Eventually after several calls for order from John Page, and a description of developments as “disgusting” the guy was allowed to ask his question “Why is it we never see you again when you get elected?”
This provoked a rambling answer from Ms Arnold that seemed to centre on how rarely she misses important events in the Greater London Assembly – which was not of course the question posed. Things got difficult when the Conservative candidate justified cuts, leading to anger in the audience, and calls from John Page for the audience to show some respect. Tactically, this was a big mistake – people have very little respect for the three main parties now – respect has to be earned, and the one thing the British political class has not done in recent years is earn our respect.
Sitting in the audience was ‘Hackney heroine’ Pauline Pearce, who came to fame arguing with anti-social elements during the August 2011 riots in Hackney. Pauline is standing for the Lib Dems this month, and clearly had come along expecting a debate, and to be able to cross-examine the candidates. When told to ‘show some respect’ by John Page, she announced she would leave – at which point the meeting boiled over. A dozen walked out – including nearly all the black people in the audience – and those remaining seated were treated to the bizarre spectacle of the tiny Jane Holgate trying to shepherd towards the door a black guy who must have been a good 15 or 16 stones. Pauline Pearce’s closing words were “You’re staunch Labourites”, whilst John Page accused the big guy of attending the meeting to disrupt it. With all that said, the door was closed behind those who had walked out.
The rest of the meeting was a bit of an anti-climax, although even here Hackney Unites inflexibility remained. With formal questions finished at 8.45pm, the meeting could have been thrown open to the floor – assuming the room had been booked until 9pm. Instead, the event closed, more with a whimper than a bang. The bang of course, had happened already.
So what to make of it all? Well debate needs to happen. This was an example of how an attempt to structure a meeting in a particular way, with only particular candidates, can blow up badly in the faces of those with a particular agenda. It does not have to be like this………..
For the record the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition have a public meeting in Hackney on Tuesday 1 May at 7pm at the CLR James Library in Dalston. The campaign website of the UK Independence Party, whose Mayoral candidate is Lawrence Webb, can be viewed here.