Hustings report: Spot the plant!

Labour’s Nayra Bello O’Shanahan 

HOST: CRASH (Combined Residents Associations of South Hampstead)

IN ye olden days, did anybody ever write down a codified rulebook for the sport of ‘hustings’? Maybe it would have gone something like this: 1. Make sure everybody gets equal time to answer the questions, 2. Use a mic capable of making an eeeeooo noise at random moments to make sure the crowd has not dropped off, and 3. Stop hidden plants in the audience from getting involved.

At the Crossfield Centre in Fairhazel Gardens last night, the third clause on that list was severely tested as we watched the panel of candidates standing in what has become an intriguing contest in Swiss Cottage answer a question on London’s housing crisis from… Rebecca Shirazi, a Labour candidate in the neighbouring Frognal and Fitzjohns ward.

If you’ve even been half reading these pages over the long slog to election day (thanks), you will be aware that Ms Shirazi has been irritating the entrails out of the Conservatives in their safest ward; it’s got quite spicy and the Tories have accused her of being involved in a plotted ‘takeover’ of the council. First things first: Here she was, in a pink t-shirt with the misquoted Mean Girls slogan telling us ‘on Wednesdays we smash the patriarchy’ and introducing herself as simply Becca.

She asked the panel, like a civilian might or might not have done, whether they believed the council should start acting as a social housing developer. Strangely, Labour’s Leo Cassarani did not answer: Becca, I’m confused, you were at our manifesto launch last night, you know what we want to do on housing. Borrow more money.

As if to playfully punk up the typecast left-winger image set for her on the Tory leaflets, Ms Shirazi had begun this curious episode by explaining that the she was “under 3o, working in the city on a high salary”, but STILL unable to afford Camden’s monstrous property market. She said it was all the failure of the “neo liberal marketing of housing”.

Former Lib Dem councillor Nick Russell

The seasoned former Lib Dem councillor Nick Russell, waistcoat, rich radio voice, standing once more, saw through the whole caper and made a joke about how the question sounded like it had come from a plant. Nobody laughed, because the room was surely full of them. Perhaps half of the room of 60 were members of one of the campaign teams or had some sort of affiliation. Four were actually councillors.

As such, and through no fault of the hosts whose staging of this event should be commended, this was a bit of a training match for the Swiss Cottage candidates, some of whom are new to the scene and will have benefited from some mic time; a bit like a role play game of ‘what I’d say if I’m asked…’ but played out in front of us all.

Nobody shouted ‘stooge’, even though everybody knew what was unfolding. Mr Russell simply looked Ms Shirazi in the eye and answered calmly about how he thought developers had regularly been let off affordable housing commitments in Camden over the years.

Another question came from Katherine Bligh, a former candidate and Labour Party stalwart. She asked about the EU, presumably an attempt to sniff out Tory feeling on Brexit. Calvin Robinson, named on Labour leaflets as being a keen Brexiteer in quite personal but deliberate tactics, was the only candidate not on the stage for the three parties. He had to be somewhere else.

Don Williams and Kate Fairhurst for the Tories

Don Williams, who has never publicly revealed how he voted in the referendum, took the reins with an answer about how councillors would be powerless to do much more than advocate for EU nationals in the area, if they were worried about their future; the it’s not in our remit answer. Dynamite, who could be the longest serving Tory on the council if re-elected next month, may have a point about the limitations local councillors could face on what happens next with Brexit, but his opponents nodded to themselves with a shared story about how he always seemed happier talking about the Conservative war on waste and dog mess.

Cllr Williams was also keen to explain his party’s opposition to the CS11 cycle route, a fault line with supporters of the scheme on the Labour side. All parties, meanwhile, are naturally devastated about the tower block being imposed on the area in Swiss Cottage; the questions on that came from angry members of the public.

The Labour candidates answered that question from their own colleague, Ms Bligh, with fulsome love for everything European. Maybe the set-up, if we can call it that, had not countenanced the generous time allowances for contributions, however. With no stopwatch (click back to the top of the page, and that first regulation in the hustings rulebook), the Lib Dems almost racked up ten minutes as confident debutant Kushal Bhimjiani railed off attacks on both Conservative and Labour approaches to Europe.

Once in her groove, you wondered if she might actually still be there at last orders, as she found one way after another to tell us that the Lib Dems were our only saviours on Europe. The number of combinations was spectacular in itself.

Kushal Bhimjiani 

Even some of the people affiliated to Labour quietly tapped a foot in consensus at some of her points, but a riff about how the country was being held “hostage to 70,000 Conservative members”, who she said held the power to change the government’s course on Brexit, was too much to stomach for the Tories. And 16 million people who voted to leave, came a feint murmur from somewhere in the room.

The Greens declined to appear, the chair said, while the Independents for the Movement said they did not get an invite.

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