Vote for us! We’re slightly better than the others! (Or: An evening at the Quaker hustings)

Lindsay Northover, a Liberal Democrat junior minister, began her remarks at a Quaker-organised hustings event yesterday by commenting on how few people go to hustings these days. Leaving the event an hour an half later, my main thought was “I’m not surprised”.

The Religious Society of Friends had done a good job of organising the event, the first of three to be held in Friends House, the Quaker central offices opposite Euston station. While the Green and UKIP candidates stood out, the representatives of the three traditional parties blurred into one, their views largely indistinguishable. No wonder so few people go to hustings if the message you hear is “Vote for me! I’m slightly better than the others!”.

If you had shut your eyes at this event, it would at times have been difficult to guess which party you were listening to. For example, have a guess at placing the following quotes:

  • “We’re an internationalist party.”
  • “We’re a strongly internationalist party. We look outwards.”
  • “We’re a generous nation and a generous people.”

The first of those was from Lindsay Northover for the LibDems. The second was from Jeremy Lefroy, speaking for the Tories (insert your own joke here). The third was from Gavin Shuker, Labour’s Shadow International Development Minister.

When it came to issues of war and peace, comments included:

  • “We will meet our obligations… our obligations on defence.”
  • “NATO has kept the peace in Europe for sixty years and beyond.”
  • “We need to defend the country. We’ve provoked the Russian bear.”
  • “We are committed to retaining nuclear weapons.”

The first and second of those were from Tory MP Jeremy Lefroy, the third from UKIP’s Pete Muswell and the last from Gavin Shuker for Labour. Shuker began his answer by saying that the Conservatives, Labour and the LibDems were “all committed” to nuclear arms, as if this unanimity meant it wasn’t an election issue. In reality, it shows the distance of mainstream politicians form public opinion, shown consistently in opinion polls to be anti-Trident.

Lindsay Northover said that the credit for delaying a decision on Trident renewal lies with the LibDems, which is probably true. She said vaguely that the LibDems are “coming down the ladder” on Trident. But as the Green Party’s Sharar Ali was quick to point out, Northover failed to say that the LibDems would vote against Trident renewal, let alone oppose the building of nuclear weapons generally.

When it came to immigration, the questioner focused on asylum-seekers in detention, particularly children. Can you match the comment to the party?

  • “It’s abhorrent to me that children should be detained.”
  • “The system doesn’t take into account that these people are human beings.”
  • “[Ending child detention] would have my vote every time.”
  • “Nick Clegg is strongly opposed to child detention.”

The first comment was from UKIP’s Pete Muswell (does Nigel Farage know about this view?). The second was from Jeremy Lefroy (he’s right, but has he told his leader David Cameron?). The third was from Gavin Shuker (this was a glimmer of hope; let’s hold him to it). The last one, of course, was from Lindsay Northover for the LibDems, who seemed to be missing the point (if only Nick Clegg held a position where he could do something about it; Deputy Prime Minister, for example).

This frustrating evening of political uniformity would have been even more unbearable were it not for the different perspectives offered by the Greens’ representative, Sharar Ali, the party’s joint deputy-leader. Ali began by framing progressive ideas in relatively mild language, and to be honest was a bit rambling, but he seemed to become emboldened as he realised that he had a largely left-wing audience. He was soon drawing applause for condemning Trident and poverty. One of his last comments was an attack on the invasion of Iraq, when, he said, “We should have brought the country to a standstill!” The more radical audience members clapped vigorously as the UKIP candidate frowned severely.

UKIP’s Pete Muswell is the party’s candidate for Islington South. He described himself as “working class” despite owning his own business. He seemed to represent the more humane and rational wing of UKIP, by which I mean that his views were extreme, irrational and jingoistic, but slightly less so than some of his UKIP colleagues. He struck me as someone who is genuinely compassionate on a personal level. The  ability of some people to combine personal decency with support for the nasty, vicious and murderous policies never ceases to amaze me.

Muswell said he was nervous because it was his first big hustings, but I thought he stood out on the panel for the quality of his delivery, as he sought to address questioners directly and by name in a way that the others largely didn’t. Nonetheless, his views were abhorrent.

The most outrageous moment came when Muswell talked about the overseas aid budget, a UKIP hobby horse. He began by saying, “I consider myself to be, as a Christian, a good Samaritan”. He said that the aid budget should be for going “to the aid of innocent people” but that the needs of British people should take priority. No-one pointed out that the point about the Good Samaritan in Jesus’ parable is that he was a Samaritan, who was racially and religiously different.  Jesus told the parable in response to the question, “Who is my neighbour?”, implying the very opposite of the idea that charity begins at home. If UKIP had been in charge at the time, the Good Samaritan would not have even been there, as he would have been arrested at the border as an illegal immigrant.

Muswell then went on to say that the aid budget should be lowered because people are going hungry in Britain. He added that spending on aid “is frankly leaving old ladies starving in their flats”. This from a man who wants to spend £100bn renewing Trident nuclear weapons.  You might have thought that our money was being swallowed up by tax dodgers, banks that got bailed out or arms companies receiving massive contracts. If we follow UKIP, it seems that the people who are really to blame are Ebola victims in Liberia. This is a party that has turned victim-blaming into a political philosophy.

As Sharar Ali pointed out, “We have the vote and we can act beyond the vote.” A general election is an event in democracy. But it is only one small part of democracy, only one way in which we can influence the world and seek to make things better. After my experience yesterday, I’m extremely grateful for that.

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