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Polite hustings held in St Albans Abbey

06 December 2019

Paul Handley goes to an orderly hustings in Hertfordshire

Arun Kataria/St Albans Diocese

The St Albans candidates (left to right): Simon Grover (Green); Rebecca Lury (Labour); Anne Main (Conservative); Quintin McKellar, who chaired the evening; Daisy Cooper (Liberal Democrat); and Jules Sherrington (Independent)

The St Albans candidates (left to right): Simon Grover (Green); Rebecca Lury (Labour); Anne Main (Conservative); Quintin McKellar, who chaired the eve...

MAYBE it was the cathedral setting. Behaviour in the St Albans Abbey hustings last week was exemplary. As in Exeter, there was just one outbreak of noisy disapproval; other than that, members of the large audience contented themselves with loud applause when they agreed with someone, and silence when they were unimpressed or bemused, which was quite often, with maybe just a little sarcastic laughter. The speakers listened attentively to one another, without interrupting. The Canon Chancellor seldom had to ring his two-minute bell.

St Albans has been a Conservative seat for the past decade. It used to return a Labour MP, but the rise of the Liberal Democrats split the opposition vote. The sitting MP, Anne Main, knows that she would lose were the opposition ever able to work out how to vote tactically.

At the last election, the Liberal Democrat candidate, Daisy Cooper, took a clear second place, but, once again, her chance to overtake Ms Main could be undermined by votes going to the impressive Rebecca Lury, bused in from south London by Labour, and Simon Grover, a popular Green Party local councillor.

The fifth lectern in the Abbey was taken by Jules Sherrington, an inventor, who is standing as an Independent. The audience struggled to work out what sort of political platform he was standing on: pro-Brexit, but willing to listen to the electorate, but opposed to a second referendum, but keen to find a balance. . . It came across as a strong bid for the “None of the Above” vote.

Arun Kataria/St Albans DioceseDaisy Cooper, easily the most popular with the Liberal Democrat-leaning audience

Brexit came up early, naturally enough, with the predictable wrangle about whether a second referendum was anti-democratic (Main) or “a bit more democracy” (Grover). Ms Cooper danced carefully around her party’s pledge to rescind Article 50, to keep the UK in the European Union. This was not an anti-democratic move, she insisted, since her party could implement it only if they swept into power: i.e. with a mandate to do it.

The incidence of booing came, paradoxically, when Ms Main said something irrefutable about Brexit: if MPs had reflected the views of their constituents faithfully, Brexit would have been done and dusted by now. It was a sore point: Ms Main, a firm Leave supporter, represents a constituency that voted 63 per cent Remain. There was sustained applause for the teenager who asked: “How can I trust you with my first vote if you won’t listen to the people you represent?”

Then it was on to the climate emergency. “Convince us that you understand,” the questioner challenged them. All the candidates were well prepared for this, the only difference between them being the speed at which they thought that changes could be effected, and which number of trees they plucked from the air. A local issue united them all: the seemingly unregulated expansion of Luton airport.

They were asked about trust, votes for 16-year-olds, and how they rated their own party’s performance in government (“Nine-and-a-half out of ten”, Ms Main said, to scoffs from the audience). The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire, Quintin McKellar, who chaired the evening, somehow managed to combine pre-asked questions with offerings from the floor, and keep everything to time.

He had begun the evening with a show of hands, which revealed that a good 90 per cent of the audience had already decided their votes. He did not ask for whom, but Ms Cooper would be home and dry if the election were decided by a clapometer. When Professor McKellar asked the undecideds at the end of evening to indicate whether they had made up their minds, almost all of them had.

There was one other thing of note. Jo Swinson was quoted in a hostile question about the Liberal Democrat voting record during the Coalition; and Ms Main went into automatic pilot during her summing-up, warning twice against a “Corbyn-led Labour government”. Apart from that, there was no mention of the party leaders. They were not missed.

Click to read exclusive pieces from Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn, and Jo Swinson

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