FOUR of the five candidates bidding to be the next MP for Barrow and Furness faced each other on Thursday as local students quizzed them in a Question Time event ahead of next week’s crunch General Election. The hustings event – the only one of its kind to bring the main parties together locally – was organised by Furness College staff at its Rating Lane campus.
Local Democracy Reporter Ellis Butcher went along
ANYONE expecting a political slug-fest or a student union shouting match at the Barrow hustings on Thursday would have left the Rating Lane campus hugely disappointed.
For well over an hour, the politicians jockeying for the top job in town dutifully kept their heads, while the packed theatre of students kept their questions polite, orderly and respectful.
It’s possible they had all been disarmed by four immaculately-behaved pupils from Barrow’s Victoria Academy who lined the seats of the front row with headteacher Caroline Vernon.
Political front-runners Simon Fell for the Conservatives and Labour’s Chris Altree sat side by side and seemed to bond.
The Brexit Party’s Ged McGrath was paired next to Liberal Democrat Loraine Birchall and got on famously. Chris Loynes of the Green Party was unable to make it due to work commitments, despite the climate being a major cause for concern around college corridors.
All in all, the hustings was a model of civility despite a set of fair but testing questions on issues ranging from mental health, a shortage of NHS dentists, deficiencies in student transport and the future of Barrow’s high street.
But it was a left-field question from student Taylor Nelson that had the panel at its most human and off-policy.
Taylor asked why, in this day and age, would any of the panel want to be an MP?
Labour’s Chris Altree said for too long politicians had been ‘parachuted’ into seats from outside the area and this needed putting right.
“I think we need to restore trust in politicians by electing more people from the areas where they are from – they are the people who want to live, work, retire and die in the places that they live,” said Mr Altree.
Simon Fell for the Conservatives admitted that standing for parliament, as he has now three times, could be ‘miserable and abusive’ both on the doorstep and online.
“Your motives are always questioned when actually you are just trying to stand up and do the right thing for an area you really care about,” said Mr Fell.
“I’ve seen the difference a good local MP can make. How they can use a system to fix your life and make it better.”
Liberal Democrat Loraine Birchall told how she had experienced death threats, horrendous sexual remarks, been spat at in the face and pushed off doorsteps.
“It will not stop me from standing and representing the views of this area, or fighting for the rights of young girls, women, ethnic minorities and everybody who lives in this constituency,” she said defiantly, drawing a thunder of applause from the gallery.
Brexit Party candidate Ged McGrath said candidates had to have a ‘thick skin’ if they stuck their heads above the parapet.
“There are a number of facets to being a good MP – helping people resolve issues when they are at the end of their tether and cannot go anywhere else is really important work,” said the sub-post-master from Millom.
The constructive atmosphere in the bustling lecture theatre was not lost on a delighted Andrew Wren, principal and managing director of Furness College, who co-chaired.
Afterwards, he said: “I think the candidates answered very well and it’s quite clear they can work together to make a difference.
“Today has been a bit of a contrast, perhaps, from what our students have seen in Westminster recently where there has been much more animosity and confrontation. I think that today was a really positive model.”
Student Rebecca Knott, aged 18, of Dalton, acted as the co-chair and agreed that it had been far ‘more respectful’ than the politics on TV and social media.
“I thought it was amazing,” said Rebecca, who is in her second year studying politics, the only college for miles around where she can do so.
“The candidates answered the questions truthfully and honestly and there wasn’t the usual jabbing at each other which was amazing,” she said.
“It just shows the maturity and I really liked that.
“I was so glad so many people attended.”
Politics tutor Caroline Buckley said: “It shows young people are engaged in politics which is really healthy for democracy and shows democracy is alive and well in the Furness area, particularly given the current climate where everyone is battered by Brexit.”
To top and tail the event, students were asked to raise their hands if they would vote remain or leave. Remain overwhelmingly came out on top. Asked which party they planned to vote for, Labour was the overwhelming choice across the student body.
The last word went to the four mini MPs from the Victoria Academy – Connor, Caleb, Isobel and Amelia.
They declared the hustings event: “Amazing and inspiring.”
Asked who impressed the most, they replied: ‘Labour and the Brexit Party’.
NUCLEAR DETERRENT RESURFACES
NO hustings event in Barrow and Furness would be complete without the multi-billion pound defence question.
But student Finlay Mardel had a humdinger up his sleeve – asking the panel if defence or the environment was their main priority?
College principal Andrew Wren said there was a ‘nervousness’ about the nuclear deterrent under Jeremy Corbyn.
A ‘principled man’ but a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament for ‘many years,’ said Mr Wren.
Labour’s Chris Altree replied: “We don’t live in a presidential-style democracy, so every MP has a say and Jeremy Corbyn can’t come along and rule it out. It needs an act of parliament. I would not be standing here on a Labour ticket when my Dad and my cousin work in that shipyard, would I? The deal is done. Jeremy Corbyn signed off the Labour Party manifesto which retains our commitment to the deterrent and two percent of GDP on the defence budget.”
The Conservatives’ Simon Fell said: “The one job of the Government is to keep the people who live in the country safe and secure, whether that’s Dreadnought and the Astute replacement, police on our streets or protecting the environment. I think we are uniquely placed here to do both (defence and the environment). Our local economy is so dependent on the shipyard and the work there but we also have the single largest offshore wind farm off our coast and an opportunity here to be a centre of renewable energy in the UK.”
The Lib Dem’s Loraine Birchall said: “I won’t choose between the two, they get equal priority. I think it’s possible to do both. Trident is going ahead and we will never stop that. We have made pledges of 80 per cent renewable power by 2030 and carbon neutral by 2045.
Brexit’s Ged McGrath: “Defence for this country is very important but the world has huge environmental challenges. It can’t all be green energy, the wind doesn’t always blow, the sun doesn’t always shine, we have to include nuclear in that mix.”
IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT BREXIT
BREXIT has dogged the country for three years and five months – more than 1,200 days.
Student Aaron Dunn asked: “Do you believe that this is the Brexit election?”
Simon Fell said it was not a single issue election but Brexit was the biggest issue on the doorstep.
He said: “There’s a huge amount of frustration and apathy about the role of politicians.
“People’s trust in politics is in the toilet. If we lose thousands of people who will never vote again, the risk is it lets in the extremists who peddle very appealing stories to get a hold in politics – that’s a dangerous path to go down.”
Chris Altree said Brexit was not the top issue and that the NHS and schools funding was higher up the agenda.
It was ‘absolutely wrong,’ he said, to say the 2019 election is only the EU stalemate.
Mr Altree: “We have had three years now of a Conservative government which has had a majority even with its bribe to the DUP – they could have got a Brexit deal done. It’s ridiculous that we should rush through a deal that sells out this country to Donald Trump.”
Ged McGrath said: “We voted on whether we wanted to leave or remain in the EU. Three and a half years ago people debated this in homes, schools, colleges, workplaces – they didn’t take the decision lightly and they made it against the advice of the establishment who were actually telling us we should vote to remain. For democracy to work in this country we have to deliver it.”
Loraine Birchall said another vote was needed because large swathes of the voting population had changed.
“This is about your future,” she said.
“You and everybody aged over 18 now have an opportunity to have your say.
“The other thing for me is that a lot of people who want to stop freedom of movement are using migration (as an excuse) and are racist.
“There is an underlying theme of nationalism that is actually racism.
“I am proud of our country but I will not have people bullied and intimidated out of it.”
This article, which was originally in The Mail, is reproduced on our website with the kind permission of the author.