Paisley Methodist Hall: Tuesday
This is the second of these hustings meetings that I have attended. I have asked a question each at these meetings. Do you know how many of those questions have been answered – none! It was a valid question too, about where the cuts are to fall. So why do I go along?
In today’s election campaigns, the door knocking and leafleting seems to be diminishing. Meetings like tonight’s are a throwback to what democracy should be like – as opposed to the glossy election broadcasts we get nowadays. And tonight’s meeting was a heated one. Speaking to one of the participants from last year on the way out, it was put that last years event was much more heated. Last years was a picnic, compared to this years event. The main reason was the presence of Renfrewshire Council’s leader, and the SNP’s candidate for Renfrewshire North (& Gallowhill) Derek MacKay.
MacKay’s stewardship of Renfrewshire council hasn’t been great, there have been unpleasant cuts to services, school closures, and inflation busting price hikes to leisure services with the latest being an inflation busting price rise for use of council run football pitches. There were also a crowd of people intent on asking about the removal of the Death in Service benefit for council workers. There was also Gary Pearson, a local candidate who is campaigning against “Renfrewshire Council’s Illegal housing policy”. The first half, it has to be said was a Holyrood free zone.
MacKay actually handled himself rather well, and looked eager to answer any questions relating to the council (much to the annoyance of the chair and the gaggle of SNP supporters at the front, who wanted to press on with Hollyrood related issues). In this respect he did impress – though he did ignore the shouts about the inflation busting rises in pay for Heads of Service – which with the above cuts is a bone of contention. I can certainly see why friends of Malc rate him highly.
The strange thing is that most of the panellists are not standing in the Paisley seat. Representing New Labour was Stuart Clark, their candidate for Renfrewshire North. He talked about his upbringing “here in Renfrewshire” (actually, here in Glenburn – I think his sister was in my class in school). He talked of the SNP’s cuts against the background of those inflation busting wage rises for the heads of service, and also of the spectre of unemployment, which as a percentage of the population is higher than the UK average (8.1% to the average of 7.8%). When the first question came along, Clark became unstuck when he talked of needing an “energy mix – we cannot afford the lights to go out” in relation to nuclear power. Mackay got a rare cheer with his commitment to no nuclear power stations in Scotland – “The lights will not go out”.
Of the others, probably the best performer was the Lib Dem Andrew Page, again standing in Renfrewshire North. When responding to the Solidarity line about the deficit and it being larger during the Second World War, he quipped that he “does not want to spend 60 years paying the debt off”. That aside, he did not come across as being from the Orange Book wing of the party. Alistair Campbell (no… not that one!) was representing the Tories. Just to show how Scottish he was, he turned up in a kilt and declared that he had “Scottish leanings”. He did concede during the closing statements that he thought Fred Goodwin “should come back to Paisley to apologise”. The 2 for the price of 1 parties were represented by Jim Halfpenny (for Solidarity) and Jim Bolland (for SSP). Both made interesting statements. Halfpenny mentioned the £120 million tax avoidance bill (actually, according to the Red book, the estimate for tax avoidance from companies is around £90 million), while Bolland advocated the scrapping of VAT, which I think is actually illegal under EU law.
The second question, about the cuts in DLA, had all of the parties in agreement. Clark trotted out the Labour line that “We need to be the first line of defence against the Tory attacks (on the poor)”, and with stunning perception told us that “the problem is the Conservatives”. MacKay – “The Westminster Government has the balance all wrong” – thus contradicting a certain blog that has been running a campaign against MacKay (who apparently said the cuts were “about right”). MacKay did disclose a rather interesting piece of information during questions on health & education. Renfrewshire Council pay £15 million “and rising” to service their PFI debt (on a capital valuation of £195 million remember). Considering this, Labour really has a cheek to claim to be the defender of public services – the total estimate of the 2010/11 PFI bill for all councils is £800 million. Money that rather than going to those services is going to various management consultants and fat cat contractors. No wonder Scottish education is going down the drain.
That’s not to say that Clark was defeated in this debate. He held his own, and came across as a left of centre Labour candidate. Whether he is a genuinely left wing candidate, or was pulling the trick that Gordon Brown was a master of (that of appearing more left wing than he was in the company of comrades) remains to be seen. Page clearly thought Clark was on his way to Hollyrood as winner of the Renfrewshire North seat.
The last word though should go to the bold Mr MacKay. When ruminating on Clark’s Send a message to Cameron & Clegg” argument, MacKay replied “Why don’t we have a proper coalition (between Labour & the SNP), one that would scare the Tories”. I’m just off to see if that was a flying pig that just went past.