The Election @ After Nyne: Heat at the Hustings

culture magazine

After Nyne’s Election Correspondent Josie Anne Gray reports from Grimsby 

The heat is on in Grimsby with the election only three weeks’ away and the candidates hitting the campaign trail hard. Grimsby Minster played host to a hustings on Wednesday 15th April with the full panel of candidates present. In 2010 Victoria Ayling, standing for the Conservatives lost by only 714 votes to the incumbent Labour MP Austin Mitchell.

With Mitchell’s retirement and Ayling switching her allegiance to UKIP the election campaign is tense and close. National eyes are on Grimsby and the debate on Wednesday was followed by a live broadcast from the BBC Radio 4 The World Tonight programme with David Eades chairing a panel that excluded TUSC, The Green Party and the Independent in an on-air debate on the key issues that have defined the tone of the campaign in this region; immigration, renewable energies and economic decline.

The hustings was lively with a range of thoughtful questions covering subjects as diverse as food banks and Sure Start centres to economic policy, the treatment of immigrants and of course renewable energy. It was telling that each member of the panel in turn lauded the success of the renewable industry in the region and commented on the growth in employment opportunities and the potential for further jobs and skills.

Then it came to the turn of Victoria Ayling. In her typically grandiose and dismissive style she proclaimed man-made climate change to be a con, a giant conspiracy cooked up by mysterious corporations and government to make a lot of money out of duping the public. Her dismissal of the science and research behind climate change theory is breathtaking.

Referring to the ‘climate change fascists’ behind the ‘con’ she was met with derisive jeering from the audience. It seems inexplicable that someone so woefully and perhaps wilfully ignorant can have gained such traction in a town that is reliant on European funded initiatives for its economic development; a massive part of which is in the renewable sector. This prospective MP for Great Grimsby is effectively saying that should she be elected, she would end this ‘waste of time’ investment. And what is her alternative plan?

Tragically the UKIP plan for Grimsby is its undeliverable promise to return the town to its fishing hey day by leaving the EU and establishing fishing grounds based on the Norwegian model. It seems to have escaped UKIP’s attention that fishing these days is largely carried out on enormous industrial scale trawlers and that DEFRA agreed quotas and territories cannot be swept aside because UKIP will it. Fishing was a hard and dangerous job; more dangerous than coal mining. It’s hard to understand UKIP’s romantic sensibility regarding fishing. One wonders if they have the same aspirations for the old mill and mining communities and if so what those aspirations say about their attitudes towards the progress of the working class.

Victoria Ayling met further derision when she tried to turn the question about food banks into a question about immigration, making the ludicrous claim that Grimsby is ‘swamped’ by migrant workers who have saturated the job market therefore causing the poverty faced by many in the local population. Grimsby is 95% white British but this fact seems to be irrelevant in UKIP’s determination to paint the town as ‘flooded’ with immigrants who are here for spurious reasons including health tourism.

Ayling lowered the tone further during a question on the treatment of migrants when she had the temerity to suggest Grimsby is full of houses stuffed with migrants refusing to fill in census forms so we can’t possibly even count them to properly assess the damage she imagines they are doing. She did have some support from the audience, from a lone clapper and from Neil Hamilton, who looked wan and embarrassed and relieved at the end of the night when the whole thing was over.

Every other member of the panel came across as decent, upright and knowledgeable. Steve Beasant for the Liberal Democrats is a man who has served his community in the East Marsh area with unstinting commitment and genuine honour. A modest man from a modest background, his compassion and concern for others is exemplary.

He talks about his constituents as people facing real challenges and his motivation for standing for parliament is based on his desire to serve. Beasant is particularly proud of the transformation of Freeman Street with its many European grocery stores. He praised its cosmopolitan character and the work ethic of the shop keepers, Polish, Asian and British who work long hours in that community.

Val O’Flynn standing for TUSC is a knowledgeable, articulate committed socialist. Her grasp of economic principles is impressive and she is able to deliver her arguments with conviction. She is a principled defender of the rights and dignity of the working class and has a flair for figures and statistics that marks her out as atypical to the stereotype of the tubthumping ‘loony left.’

The Green Party has an outstanding candidate in Dr Vicky Dunn. Her local credentials, intelligence and knowledge mark her out as a credible candidate. Her sense of humour and self effacing manner make her endearing and approachable to the electorate. In the same way that Natalie Bennet is plain speaking and cuts to the heart of the issues, she delivers sensible answers to questions.

I was particularly struck by her comment to me after the debate about the church. ‘It’s like home turf, we have the same values.’ We spoke about the climate change denial spouted during the debate and she quoted senior Conservative Tim Yeo’s comment regarding the need for action; ‘cutting the budget for low carbon technology now would be like cutting the budget for Spitfires in 1939.’ She concluded by telling me that the local business community see renewable energy as far from being a fad and that they take a dim view of that position.

Victoria Ayling is presenting the election in Grimsby as a two horse race between UKIP and Labour, citing her close result in 2010 as evidence. But in 2010 she was standing for the Conservatives. Marc Jones, the Tory candidate for 2015 disputes her claims. He is a grass roots Tory, concerned about local issues and the needs of the constituents. He has been putting in the hours on the doorstep and told me, ‘I do have a family. They text me occasionally.’ Warm and funny he is acutely aware of the dark effects the coalition government has had on Grimsby’s poorest and he is no mindless defender of the party line.

In this regard he and Melanie Onn, the Labour hopeful have a lot in common. She told me she is far from complacent, that she is out chasing down every vote, speaking to as many people as possible. She and Marc Jones share the same anxieties about what could happen to Grimsby if the town falls to UKIP. Both are savvy, business minded people, in touch with the mood and inclinations of the local business and industry sectors. Both have people centred policies, both robustly stand against low level racist, immigrant blaming. I came away with the sense that in the hands of Vicky Dunn, Marc Jones or Melanie Onn, the town would be safe and its future would be bright and hopeful.

It’s impossible to say that about Victoria Ayling. The nightmare scenario of waking up on May 8th with her as MP is truly disturbing. Not only does she pursue her ridiculous anti-renewable, climate change denying agenda with terrifying gusto, she can’t resist immigrant blaming and playing to the lowest level of the gallery. She loves her little phrase ‘it’s space, not race’ implying that the UK is bursting with immigrants who are all here for nefarious reasons and side-stepping the real shadow that she can’t escape; her infamous comments on ‘sending them all back’ that in truth should have ended her political aspirations.

The hustings was about engaging the community and encouraging debate, which it did, much of it lively. Canon Andrew Dodd shared his delight with me at seeing the people engaged in politics. ‘It was entertaining at times and some of the answers were truly unbelievable, particularly about climate change. It is goods to see Christians engaged in politics. I would have liked a question on international development because that is very important to the church. Also the penny really dropped for me when Val O’Flynn talked about child tax credit and how it is used to subsidise poor wages. The profit from that process goes to the big supermarkets.’

Everyone was left with food for thought after the debate and those of us still hungry stayed to listen to the live BBC broadcast in which once again the consensus between Steve Beasant, Melanie Onn and Marc Jones was telling.

I was expecting to see familiar faces at the Oasis Academy hustings this evening and indeed party faithful were there but with a different cross section of the public. The mood was politer this evening with less heckling. However, one candidate did bare her teeth and practically tell the audience to shut up and listen to her.

Perhaps she was inspired by the example set by her leader when he spat his dummy out on national television last night. It didn’t play well with the audience and she was once again not well received, particularly in the question on oversees aid where once again she displayed her ignorance. She chose to pursue the discredited myths about aid lining the pockets of dictators rather than helping those in need.

This was countered by all of the other candidates who pointed out the role of NGOs in ensuring aid is fairly and accountably distributed. Our 0.7% of GDP commitment to oversees aid is woeful given the broader historical context of British imperialism and more recent disastrous military interventions. Again UKIP chose the simplistic route and the ‘charity begins at home’ argument about poverty in the UK. Charity may begin at home but it doesn’t end there.

The Independent candidate, Gary Calder is passionate about local issues and proud of his non-party position. He shares some of the values of each of the other parties and has local credentials which give him credibility. He is unlikely to poll highly but it is gratifying to see the democratic process giving him his place at the table and his opportunity to speak and to be heard.

The consensus on key local issues between the candidates is fascinating. I would have expected much greater disparity and argument but there seems to be genuine respect between them and a willingness to engage with each other’s positions. The thorn is the purple suited, nonsense-spouting Victoria Ayling.

Too often she lowers the tone and makes ridiculous statements that make her appear unelectable. But power and politics are funny things. Her drive for the former is formidable and she has convinced many in Grimsby that she has simple solutions for complex problems. Let’s hope it’s not too late for the sheep’s clothing to be stripped to reveal the rather nasty wolf underneath.