KEN TOWL finds there’s not much recreational fun in this electioneering lark, as he attends last night’s set-piece hustings
Having tried my hand at canvassing at the weekend, I thought I would really throw myself into the democratic melee by attending a hustings, the traditional meeting that candidates of yore used to make direct contact with voters before the internet, television or, for that matter, radio existed.
Last night, one was being held in the oddly named Recreational at the recently refurbished, but as yet unfinished, Fairfield Halls.
Indeed, the redundancy of the format was revealed at the beginning by the compere, one Colin Stanbridge, a former chief executive of the Croydon Chamber of Commerce.
Barely had the candidates taken to the stage when we, the audience, were asked to put up our hands if we had already decided who we were going to vote for. There was fewer than 200 in the room, with plenty of empty seats, but of those of us who had bothered to turn up, my estimate is around 90 per cent put our hands up. And the rest, I guess, were lying.
Let’s face it, these days, only political nerds, party members and close family make the effort to go to a hustings. The crowd will be as partisan as a BBC Question Time audience but, like knocking on doors and dishing out cut up strips of the electoral roll, it is how we have always run elections in this country and no one seems to have noticed how pointless it is.
Each of the candidates got to make a short introductory speech and they were warned to avoid using soundbytes. The audience laughed and prepared to scrutinise them all for the usual suspects.
The opening speech came from Sarah Jones, the Labour incumbent in Croydon Central. She was confident, occasionally passionate, at times almost schoolma’amish in her demeanour. She managed to avoid saying “For the many, not the few”. Clearly, she was saving that for later.
Mario Creatura, attempting to regain the seat that his former boss, Gavin Barwell, had lost for the Conservatives in 2017, followed and explained to us, rather superfluously I thought, that all the politicians on the stage wanted to do what was best for Croydon, but they all had different ideas about what this involved. Essentially, he was describing democracy.
As Creatura’s couple of minutes drew on, he looked more and more like he was desperate to go to the toilet. He was trying to contain a “Dither and delay” and a “Get Brexit done” that really, really wanted to come out. Right at the end, he could resist it no more and a big loud, “No more dither and delay! Get Brexit completed!” burst out of his mouth, so desperate was he to avoid the proscribed soundbyte. Palpably relieved, he sat down.
Next was the amiable Simon Sprague, who told us that he had only become involved in politics this year. Though he had had only a few short months to climb the greasy pole, he had clearly impressed the local Liberal Democrats enough for them to give him a practice run in a seat he couldn’t win. The LibDems came third in 2017 with less than 2 per cent of the vote. He was, to his credit, as free from cliché as he is from hope of winning.
Esther Sutton was at once measured (self-described as small) and forceful. She said that this should be a climate change election, that time was running out, which may have been carefully recycled Green Party soundbytes, though the compere allowed them to pass.
She was followed by the contrasting figure of Peter Sonnex, a rubicund gentleman, ex-military and ex-bus driver for whom the dismissive term “gammon” appeared to have been invented. He actually appeared quite amiable, if perhaps a little misguided.
In a room full of people wasting their time, he was wasting his the most, his schtick that we should respect democracy (he meant the 2016 EU referendum) was repeatedly eclipsed by Creatura’s assertion of precisely the same point. He, also, was unable to contain an eruction of the term “New politics”, for which he immediately apologised and, perhaps, blushed. It is never comfortable to have an eruction when standing in front of an audience.
Candidates spoke, with few surprises, on issues such as safety on the streets, the phantom Westfield development, health and, of course, Brexit, and answered questions from the audience, all of which had been designed by their authors to favour one or other of the candidates. It was mostly polite and good-natured, thanks to the very first questioner failing to set the tone by jabbering on and on and then barracking Jones when she tried to answer him. A man shouting down a woman does not play well in Croydon these days.
An exchange on the use of unacceptable language in politics, prompted by a question from the floor on street harassment of women, led to a criticism of Boris Johnson that generated a lot of applause. Sprague said that the Prime Minister had managed to criticise him as a “tank-topped bumboy” and had made unacceptable comments about people from ethnic minorities.
A later question from the audience piqued a little interest from a flagging crowd. Some guy asked why Labour supported Stormzy, given that he promoted violence in his lyrics, and then added a gratuitous dig at Diane Abbott. This was a badly-thought-through ploy. Stormzy is Croydon’s equivalent to the Queen Mother. You simply cannot criticise him.
Jones knew this and got a round of applause for stating that Stormzy was a Croydon hero. Even Sonnex pushed back at the questioner, asserting that Stormzy was a Christian and therefore A Good Man.
Each candidate had a “minute to win it” speech at the end, though this was interrupted by a Green activist who demanded they all speak for an extra minute on climate change, because the topic had not been asked about from the chair or the floor. This was not granted but the point had been made, and Sprague and Jones managed to shoehorn a couple of green references intro their closing appeals for votes from their own invited supporters.
I came away musing that the evening, like a crossword puzzle or a jigsaw, had served no purpose but it had been fun.
Perhaps it was apt, after all, that it was held in a place called “The Recreational”.
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The general lack of enthusiasm for this election is striking. There is not a single election poster up in my road and, driving to Beckenham recently, I noticed hardly along the road. .