THE punishing schedule of pre-election hustings in Hampstead and Kilburn is beginning to take its toll. Two, at least, of the pack of five candidates contesting these events have asked for future Q&As not to run longer than an hour, where possible. They have given the same answers to the same questions, every other night, for a few weeks now and can recite what all of their rivals will say on any given issue, with the exception, of course, of UKIP’s Magnus Nielsen’s unpredictability. Sometimes they are facing the same people who were at other hustings, asking the same questions, and are becoming acutely aware that there are few undecided minds to play for. And yet, if the candidates, for any moment, were thinking of missing one of these debates, the threat of an empty chair on the stage remains strong.
The regularity of these rendezvous is not just a war of attrition, however. The fact each candidate knows they have another set of evening dates ahead of them in the next month, events at which they will have to share tables together and say hello and goodbye nicely, means they have become all very pleasant to each other. It’s as if they don’t want to bring the big weapons out, because they know the person they are bazookering will be sat next to them again 24 hours later. Someone in the Conservatives joked that the nicey-niceyness of it all was because everybody was suffering ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ after days and nights bolted together. Without fail, the candidates come out afterwards, grin or fake-grimace, and say something along the lines of ‘I thought that was probably a draw, wasn’t it?’
It means that while on the television, you see this national fight-to-the-finish drama between Labour and the Tories, often fired by sharp, cutting words and fuming faces, on the panels of Hampstead and Kilburn there is a cricket pavilion gentleness to the disagreement. Don’t come to these events, expecting rockets and flares. It doesn’t zip to and fro. At very few of the hustings so far, have the candidates been invited to come back on points, so instead the questions are handed to them, they each take a turn at answering them without challenge, and then the next question is asked. Repeat.
Of course, this is a natural way of doing things on a local level when the queue of questions is so long – there were about 80 people at these hustings, and a fair few questions already submitted in advance. To bob to and fro on a single question, a la Question Time or Newsnight, might be more watchable and possibly more revealing, but it would limit the number of punters who got to ask their question. The balance is a tricky one to navigate.
At the Tricycle, there was however a similar lack of bite between these rivals who are supposed to be fighting for the future of the country, which given the way the polls and predictions lie in this constituency will delight Tulip Siddiq’s campaign. That’s because she is not being drawn into any controversy at the hustings, there are no real head-to-heads or pressure points, and for each hustings that is ticked off without a swordfight, or a clanger, she is another day closer to the Commons. She can talk about growing up in Hampstead (her own blog said she moved here when she was 16) and the protest she organised against the Iraq War at uni without too much stress, before outlining her council career which includes saving three libraries now being run by volunteers. For those Labour doubters who thought she might be a bit lightweight in the fight, she has the gameplan down to a tee.
The panel of five can also deaden the debate (and the risk for the frontrunner), as we might see on Thursday’s national seven-hander on TV. The Green candidate here Rebecca Johnson gave very long answers, almost as if she wants to compensate for her party’s fight for publicity. The minutes expire very quickly, and Tulip was rarely stretched beyond a sticky moment where she was asked about money spent on refuges, as in women’s refuges, and gave an answer about spending on refugees.
In the end, time had gone so quickly that the cinema’s owners had to be asked to extend proceedings by another half hour. Again, this disappeared with long, unchallenged, answers about Ttip contracts. The answers, as interesting as they may have been, will have not won new votes, or lost anybody any ground.
They are all back on the pitch tonight in hustings organised by the West Hampstead Life blogsite. It should be one of their largest encounters, but is anybody ready to take a risk?