On Monday 25th November, Royal Holloway Politics and International Relations Society proudly hosted Runnymede and Weybridge candidate hustings. With a strong student and public turnout, candidates from the Green Party, the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Labour and an Independent made their way through audience questions. The Green Party candidate, Benjamin Smith was unable to attend, however Green Party Councillor Michael Brierly stood in answering with honesty and consistency. Our very own President Joshua Trood expertly chaired the event, holding the difficult task of controlling the audience and candidates alike. A mostly calm evening, the hustings housed a range of questions from social housing to honesty, support for those on zero hour contracts to, of course, Brexit. Conservative candidate Dr Ben Spencer, came under fire for not living in the constituency. Liberal Democrat candidate Cllr. Robert O’Carroll had a clear focus on climate change as the primary issue of our times, when discussing Brexit, he equated the feeling of change he had at the referendum result, as the same feeling he had finding out about the 9/11 terrorist attack. However with the other pressing issues raised, Cllr. O’Carroll lacked enthusiasm. Independent candidate Lorna Rowland, originally a prospective candidate for the Brexit Party, provided an impressive CV from business strategist and transformation expert, to a consultant physiotherapist. Rowlands stance on the EU was definite, Britain must leave. Rowland had also notable clarity on all other issues raised, most popular among students was Rowlands stance on the complete outlawing of zero hour contracts. Not unsurprisingly Cllr. King for Labour promoted an end to the casualization of contracts, himself offering relatable first-hand experience of the injustices of such contracts. Dr Spencer presented the Conservative stance on zero hour contracts, focusing on extending employee rights to those on all types of contracts. When questioned more by the audience on zero hour contracts, Dr Spencer stated that people should be wise about what jobs they want. This statement was met with disgruntlement, this claim did not resonate well with many students who are unable to find employment that is not on a zero hours basis. This seemingly implies the unsettling conclusion that Dr Spencer believes, the job market is currently working at a take it as you please basis for low income workers. Cllr. Michael Brierly offered to the audience what he could with honesty, stating the Green Party believes universal basic income will create job competitiveness, leading to a decrease in zero hour contracts.
Brexit, to no surprise, was a key issue addressed by all candidates. An audience question, that sources say where raised by none other than Rowlands campaign manager, also raised issues of important truths, with Dr Spencer having to explain two months of missing tweets prior to the EU referendum. As it transpired Dr Spencer believed in the importance of remaining within the EU. Dr Spencer had another disregard for the importance of honesty on social media, when confronted with the controversial Conservative twitter handle change that has made headlines, Dr Spencer spoke of it as supposedly tongue and cheek, stating it was still obvious who the twitter handle belonged to. Back to Brexit and Cllr. King relayed Labour’s stance on supporting a second referendum once a Labour deal with the EU has been reached, with the choice to vote for the deal or to remain on the ballot. Cllr. King also used this opportunity to state and reinforce that he will support remain if there is another referendum. Cllr. Brierly of the Green Party also promoted a second referendum but offering on the ballot the current Conservative deal or remain, a seemingly no nonsense approach that could appease uninspired Conservative Remainers. Also offering some humour to the debate, Cllr. Brierly speculated to the origins of Brexit as coming from two waring Etonian egos, which raised laughs from the audience. Cllr. O’Carroll reinforced the need for a peoples vote, also highlighting problems of the Union brought into the light by the 2016 EU referendum. However Cllr. O’Carroll, whilst supporting his party, did call into question the parties competence by insinuating the party will suffer at the election. Independent candidate Lorna Rowland presented an array of anti-EU facts, quoting predictions by scholars of the near future crash of the EU’s economy. The Brexit debate was of course of keen interest to the audience, all candidates used their time to reinforce manifesto pledges and personal stances.
With a wide student audience came questions over student debt, Independent candidate Lorna Rowland promoted her stance on scrapping university fees and in responding to an audience question, promoting the increase in vocational training. Labour’s Cllr. King had a concise answer reflecting his recent time as a student at Royal Holloway, the abolishment of student fees, a review on interest rates and stressed the priorities of university investments. Green’s representative for the evening discussed the disparity in fees between his brothers, one getting a grant and no fees, the next brother no fees and himself a £3,000 yearly tuition fee. Cllr. Brierly linked this to the disparity of payback abilities between graduates and promoted Green’s policy of scrapping fees and wiping student debt. An ambitious task of clearing student dept was met with contempt from the audience, and with no plans on how to go about doing so, left the audience disillusioned. Conservative candidate Dr Spencer stated that costs should be shared between the state and the public and Liberal Democrats Cllr. O’Carroll did not offer a clear stance on university tuition fees but did highlight the need to recognise interest rates as graduate tax. There were no surprising offers by any candidate in addressing student debt and tuition fees, the clarity in most answers however will at least enable accountability to fulfil their election promises.
Aside from primarily student based issues, a member of the public in the audience asked questions regarding migrants arriving via boats to British shores, when there are many Britons, such as the large homeless population, that deserves priority. Initially candidates and many audience members were shocked by the question in hand, however impressively all candidates supported the intake of refugees and migrants. Dr Spencer proudly stated that migrants made this country great, mentioning no controls the Conservative government wishes to instate on migrants or refugee quotas. Cllr. O’Carroll also pressed that there is a responsibility to look after those that have crossed treacherous seas, stating that people do not travel here in a dingy to live in a one room bed and breakfast. Lorna Rowland did highlight her desire for a need to control economic migrants but in no way condemned incoming refugees. It must be noted that Rowland wants refugees settle in the first safe state they reach and does reject EU refugee quotas. Green Party’s representative Cllr. Brierly recalled his own family’s history as immigrants to the United States and reinforced that Britain should not sacrifice its ideals in supporting refugees, also highlighting austerity increased homelessness and this does not equate with assisting refugees. The candidate for Labour stressed social housing should not be sold off and should remain social, with time limits in place there was no opportunity for Cllr. King to reply regarding refugees.
The final statements by candidates reinforced their manifestos and visions for Runnymede and Weybridge. Rowland reinforced that it was not a safe seat, a glimmer of hope perhaps for any candidate other than Conservative. Cllr. King reiterated that Labour was on ‘your side’, using the opportunity in the closing statement to show the failure of the Conservatives, arguing NHS waiting times were lower under Labour and reiterating his remain stance on Brexit. Cllr. O’Carroll and Cllr. Brierly both stressed the importance of green policies and holding individuals account on green initiatives. Dr Spencer pressed equality of opportunity for all, seemingly calling to the students in the audience that the Conservative Party can offer a strong economic future and, of course, concluding with ‘Get Brexit Done’. The evening was full of important questions and integral answers, the audience created a lively atmosphere and were not afraid to show their enthusiasm, or lack thereof, for candidates.
By the end of the opening statements, it was clear which candidate was most popular with the audience, and myself. Cllr. King spoke with clarity, confidence and persuasion. Cllr. King, who holds many positions on various Runnymede council committees as well as seats on outside bodies such as Deputy for the Heathrow Community Noise Forum, was able to reinforce every statement made with facts and personal experience. Having been a student at Royal Holloway it was clear he had many allies among the audience, yet in no way portrayed himself as overtly confident in a setting he was familiar with. I had hoped for some inspiration from the Liberal Democrat’s Cllr. O’Carroll in order to secure a half hearted vote to lower a Conservative majority, however these hopes were swiftly diminished within the opening minuet with a lack of charisma and, well, ability to speak to the crowd, which did not put him in good stead for speaking in the House of Commons if elected MP. Conservative candidate Dr Spencer did not appeal to me prior to the event, but I attended with an open mind as Dr Spencer seemingly sat towards the centre of the Conservatives political spectrum. It is as if however, the Conservatives do not understand the implications of picking candidates from thin air and far away lands and arriving them in Runnymede and Weybridge would not appeal to the residents of, Runnymede and Weybridge. As a Conservative stronghold however, this did not slow him down. Dr Spencer’s appeasing knowledge on mental health and strong Conservative stance on Brexit drew favour from the audience despite two months of missing tweets and his somewhat ridiculous ‘tongue and cheek’ comments on the Conservative twitter handle. Cllr. Brierly for the Green Party’s sense of humour certainly held him in favour when tasked with questions he simply could not answer, he came out well from the hustings. I hoped as much could be said about the ever persistent Green Party itself, but there was no such luck. Lastly but certainly not least, the one female Independent candidate Lorna Rowland changed and challenged perceptions. Entering the hustings I did not think much of an Independent candidate but her seemingly well collected mannerisms, apart from calling out audience members who had trolled her on twitter, and array of facts which we were told to go and look up, made her a challenging opposition.
The five different personalities which showed themselves at the hustings proved to me who was worth my vote, I truly believe Cllr. Robert King deserves a seat in the House of Commons, his clarity in speaking, response to audience questions in a thorough manner and the odd crack at the Conservatives made him likeable and his experience made him feel trustworthy. Although I feel somewhat dismal about the chances of Runnymede and Weybridge turning red, I know I can laugh that the Conservative candidate does not believe in leaving the European Union, nor understands the basic geography of his potential constituency.
Written By Sarah Tennent