The opening speeches of each candidate set the tone for what was to come. Norsheen basically regurgitated the Tory party manifesto, substituting 'Britain' for 'Stoke'. She was full of how Labour's let down "our families, city, and community". Voting for change (i.e. her party) will see action on debt, regeneration, work toward making Stoke Britain's most family-friendly city, etc. etc. Matt's opening dwelled on how the SP campaigns week in, week out and not just at election time. If elected, he planned to take only the average wage of a Stoke worker and that he, like any other TUSC candidate, would use parliament as a platform to fight against the attacks to come on the public sector. Tristram's introduction focused on regeneration. He argued that elsewhere regeneration has concentrated on infrastructure and pretty buildings, but real regeneration requires investment in people. The opening of Sure Start centres and new schools and colleges are a step in this direction because, ultimately, investment from outside will come if the work force is better educated.
I don't want to spend time on the nitty gritty of every question, so I'll stick with those that will be of most interest to readers. Like many towns and cities devastated by the hurricane of deindustrialisation a great deal of the local economy is dependent on the public sector. One comrade asked if cuts here in Stoke could derail the regeneration process, and ultimately benefit the BNP? Matt replied we needed more public sector jobs, not less. If cuts were to come the axe should come down on trident and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Cuts would further fuel the racialisation of Stoke's problems. Tristram conceded the latter point, but added that no one would invest in a BNP city. This is a serious issue because, ultimately, the solution to Stoke's problems lies in more businesses and more employment. Pressed on Labour's records, he flagged up the coming 50p tax band and the possibility of global taxes on bank transactions. He said that, unfortunately, the City has the county over a barrel because of the proportion of GDP it provides. If taxes hit the finance sector any harder, he believed there was a danger of reducing overall receipts. Norsheen stuck with the Tory line on efficiency savings, but seemed to think cracking down on public sector fat cats (i.e. top earners) would save three billion!
On schools and academies, Brother I from the trades council asked if candidates thought schools should be democratically accountable as opposed to being at the beck and call of private sponsors. Looking at the record of academies he said 59% of them are currently in the 'challenged' category. He also asked if candidates would promise to vote against the "free schools" in Sweden that Cameron is threatening to introduce in this country. Bro I said these lay claim to 'parent power' but are in reality fronts for multinational companies. Completely oblivious to what he had just said, Norsheen thought free schools were a wonderful idea because it gives parents power. Matt said he was opposed to the creeping privatisation of schools - instead of winding down state schools and shoveling money into the academies' gaping maw why not redeploy that cash in more democratic, accountable schooling? Tristram thought there was nothing wrong in principle with outside groups getting involved in schooling, such as FE and HE institutions, but he would draw the line at evangelical and fundamentalist groups.
Brother A from the SP used his question to return to regeneration. He said he had a Sentinel centre spread special on regeneration ... from 1983. Given that we're still talking about it 27 years on, the growing gap between rich and poor, and that a decade of economic growth has passed Stoke by, what hope for it? On the issue of cuts, he said whoever gets in after the election will be trying to make workers pay for the crisis. This means massive levels of struggle, much of it directed through the trade unions. So which candidates are for repealing the anti-trade union laws? Once again Norsheen must have misheard the question as she dwelt exclusively on encouraging new jobs and tackling the benefits culture. Tristram disputed A's claim on the wealth gap but conceded the government could have probably done more. However, he maintained a lot had been done considering the context of globalising capitalism. He said the decline of manufacturing has been a common feature among most Western countries and argued it wasn't the government's place to roll back the automotive processes that have made many jobs redundant. On unions Tristram thought labour laws had gone far enough, but wouldn't necessarily be positive about rolling them back. He did however criticise the recent court decisions against Unite and the RMT. Matt felt the boom contained the seeds of the bust in its lop-sided character, and while there has been a bit of trickle down and a raising of living standards, the rich have accelerated well in advance of the rest. He would like to see a massive rise in the minimum wage, on which he'd lived on most of his adult life.
Summing up, Tristram welcomed the PCS-sponsored hustings and thought the political ecology of the city could do with more meetings like it. But on the election, there is a choice on May 6th - and that's between the "repugnant figure" of the BNP. Even if they don't win, a significant vote will damage the Potteries. The only credible alternative to this is Labour. Norsheen said that the contest in Stoke was open, and that the Tories were the only united party focused on the city. Lastly, Matt said he was addressing the meeting as a fellow trade unionist. There were battles ahead and the labour movement need to be ready for them: a voice in parliament would greatly aid this process.
Overall the hustings was well worth it. It was a shame it hadn't attracted wider publicity or drawn in the other candidates, but nevertheless many thanks to the PCS comrades who organised it.
In front of a trade union audience a Tory can never expect an easy ride, so even though it's doubtful she won many (if any) votes at least Norsheen's presence was appreciated. I thought Tristram acquitted himself well. He didn't try and hide his position on cuts and the deficit, which would have been tempting in front of this left audience. Instead he spoke plainly. For this (at least from chatting with PCS activists afterwards) he went down well, even if it wasn't what the comrades wanted to hear. I think Matt turned in a good performance too - I can't remember another occasion where two representatives of the main parties had to respond seriously to socialist critiques and positions.
This hustings was very much a debate about policies, which itself is a refreshing change from the policy-lite farce of the general election campaign.