The Hon Emily Benn, who once distinguished herself as being “a Benn, not a Bennite”, made it clear at last night’s Croydon South Posh-Off debate that she’s not Ed, nor Ed. And she doesn’t much care for some of the decisions that Tony (that’s Newman, not her mother’s former boss, Bliar) and the Labour leadership at Croydon Town Hall have made in their first six months in charge, either.
When it came to the show of hands at the end of the evening, Chris Philp, the Tory shoo-in for the Croydon South constituency, was the comfortable “winner” of the first Coulsdon and Purley Debating Society event of the election year, but not before his Labour opponent made it very clear that she intends to be very much her own person in the forthcoming campaign.
Benn, a Croydon councillor since May, used the platform she was given in front of what can politely be described as a “mature” audience in the usually Conservative-inclined Old Coulsdon to disassociate herself from some of the decisions of her party leadership on the council, talking of them making “decisions I do not always agree with”.
Benn’s slim chance of upsetting Philp’s 16,000 inherited Conservative majority in Croydon South come the General Election on May 7 was given a hospital pass before she had even been able to begin her campaign when Tony Newman, the council leader, presided over the announcement that Purley pool will have to close within weeks of the electorate going to the polling stations. Benn told her audience last night that she will “try to find alternatives” to the Purley pool closure and other recent council decisions.
Having distanced herself from Labour’s Town Hall leadership, next Benn, not unlike her famous grandfather did on occasion in the past, chose to distance herself from her party’s national leadership, too. “It is not Ed Balls or Ed Miliband who is on your ballot paper. It is Emily Benn who is on your ballot paper,” she said. It was not clear from the audience whether this would encourage them, or deter them from, voting for Labour.
In a part of the borough where Labour came fourth in last May’s local elections, Benn will be pleased that the motion in favour of Labour’s economic policies went down only by 25 votes to 36, with eight abstentions. Such a 40 per cent-plus vote share would likely see Benn home to victory in a first-past-the-post election when there is more than one candidate. The debate organisers’ regular format did not allow them to include in the event candidates from UKIP, the LibDems or the Greens last night.
In line with the national debate, these local voters seemed unmoved by the detail of economic policy, but they warmed up decidedly when Benn spoke of the NHS and her experiences of visiting the accident and emergency at Mayday which was operating at close to breaking point when her 91-year-old grandmother had a fall.
Tory millionaire Philp was a strong performer in the debate, exhibiting a self-assuredness that can only be bolstered by being the 50-1 odds-on favourite to hold the seat for the Conservatives. And let’s face it, he can hardly be worse as a local MP than the absentee expenses-claimer, “Sir” Tricky Dicky Ottaway. Can he?
Philp and his wife’s own experiences of the NHS in delivering their very premature twins (born at 25 weeks) demonstrated the Conservative candidate’s apparent respect for the NHS. But as a former adviser to Andrew Lansley, Philp’s assertion that the former Health Minister’s reorganisation of the NHS had saved “billions” did not seem especially persuasive.
Philp spoke of the government’s “compassionate cuts” – yes, seriously – and tried to present himself as a moderate Tory. In the ultimate act of compassionate Conservatism, Philp interrupted his speech to give a woman, coughing and struck down by the heat in the very crowded room, his glass of water.
Benn spoke against the coalition government’s liberalisation of the housing market, where “permitted development” allows office blocks to be changed into very small flats without the necessity to secure council planning permission, a permission process that would usually demand better housing standards.
Philp’s own personal interests see his business involved in the finance of some office-to-residential transformations. He argued, without backing permitted development per se, that it delivered urgently needed new housing.
And neither candidate did anything to undermine the Posh-Off characterisation of the event. Philp volunteered to the audience that both he and Benn had attended the same south London grammar school. Benn reminded the voters that both had been to Oxford.
Benn said that being an Wallington old gal had put her off wearing green jumpers for life. Philp said he would not allow himself to be seen wearing a green skirt. Oh, how we laughed.
Audience participation saw local LibDem community activist Gill Hickson reminisce as to how her party came second in the Croydon South seat at the last General Election and Labour activist Charlie King express concerns that the redistributive principle in British politics now sees “the poor give to the rich”.
One call from an audience member for the speakers to offer something more visionary, “to offer something more strategic”, liberated the two guest speakers to depart from the fusty discussion about economics.
Benn, 25, spoke of those in her peer group who “have not fulfilled their potential” and sought an economy run like Germany’s, with worker participation and better apprenticeships, patients free to control their own spend available from the public purse on the treatment of their own choice, and public policy based both on “economic efficiency and social justice”.
Philp spoke of favouring a “safety net” for the needy and a desire to rescue 5 million people from benefits. He did not support the principle of redistribution of wealth. He recalled 1976 when Denis Healy had to go to the International Monetary Fund to argue his case that Labour cannot be trusted with the country’s finances. Benn’s reply was to look forward in hope to 2076.
But as one audience member in the Old Coulsdon Centre for the Retired interrupted: “We’ll all be dead by then.”
Coming to Croydon
- David Lean Cinema, Mr Turner, Jan 8
- David Lean Cinema, Leviathan, Jan 13
- Norwood Society talk: Penge, the making of a suburb, Jan 15
- David Lean Cinema, The 78 Project Movie, Jan 15
- David Lean Cinema, Hannah Arendt, Jan 20
- David Lean Cinema, The Imitation Game, Jan 22
- South Croydon business breakfast, Jan 24
- David Lean Cinema, Night Will Fall, Jan 27 (Holocaust Memorial Day)
- David Lean Cinema, Kon-Tiki, Jan 29
- Soul Symphony Community Choir taster session, Feb 3
- Norwood Society talk: Crystal Palace and Dulwich, Feb 19
- Amy Wadge and Luke Jackson, Stanley Halls, Feb 28
- Norwood Society talk: Charlies Dickens in Norwood, Mar 19
- Norwood Society: Balloons and airships at Crystal Palace, Apr 16
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