If the candidate hustings at Sutton Grammar School didn’t quite set the political world alight, it wasn’t for want of sheer worthiness. The venture itself was a thoroughly worthy one, and all of the candidates appeared to be motivated by decent, worthy intentions. So worthy that they seemed to dislike disagreeing amongst each other too much lest it seem a little, well, unsporting. And yet, despite all this worthiness, there wasn’t much of consequence said either.
All of the candidates told us they would fight to preserve and improve St. Helier Hospital at a cost of £290 million or more. This is an essentially worthy aim and one that I suspect no self-respecting Sutton candidate would want to deny. But if these sorts of promises are being made across the country, you can begin to see why none of the major parties is keen to indicate what cuts they are going to make to solve the budget crisis. Promising money is a whole lot easier than telling hard truths about cuts.
It was, perhaps, hardly surprising that incumbent MP Paul Burstow and his Tory challenger, Philippa Stroud, were the most fluent. The Green candidate virtually gave up the ghost at the very start and never really recovered it, even if he did make one of the few memorable remarks of the evening when he admitted that the Green Party in Sutton was not particularly healthy. A refreshing burst of honesty. The UKIP candidate was also never going to win any prizes for public speaking, and seemed to be aiming for the disaffected Tory voter. If you like grammar schools, want to leave the European Union, dislike immigration (especially for ‘gay African immigrants’) and don’t trust America, then this guy’s your man. As for the Labour candidate – well, actually, she wasn’t there. Her name’s Cathy (I know this because her loquacious stand-in kept saying “And Cathy would say…” when he remembered that he wasn’t actually the candidate himself). She couldn’t come because, despite the invitation going out in January, she had a long-standing prior engagement with International Women’s Day. Her stand-in was her agent, who had only woken up to the need to have someone attend when he read about the event in the Sutton Guardian and realised it might be quite a well attended one. So he spent much of the day badgering the student organiser, Charlie Edwards, and railroaded his way onto the panel this evening. He was an engaging chap, and keen to tell us about his own past campaigns. But I’m pretty confident that if he hadn’t been on the panel we would have managed an extra ten questions minimum.
But to what end? These were all decent people, motivated enough to put themselves up for election, and trying to serve their community. Despite a question from the former local Conservative Chairman which seemed to accuse Paul Burstow of engaging in personal attacks in his literature, they all seemed to be thoroughly committed to being nice to each other on stage. Paul Burstow has been a well respected MP, and you get the impression Philippa Stroud would be as well if she gets the chance. And yet for all this, parliamentary though our system may be in theory, it is increasingly presidential in practise. Whatever the virtues of local candidates, it is the national leaders and their manifestoes which will decide this election, and on these issues there was little illumination tonight in Sutton.
NB - The event's organiser, Charlie Edwards, has also blogged on the evening, and includes more detail on the different candidates' policy positions than I have done here, in a full and fair account.
[Photos by Chris Schofield]