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Election / Debate ‘limited’ as few candidates take part in Althing election hustings

From left to right: Alistair Carmichael (Liberal Democrats), Tom Wills (standing in for the SNP), chairman Andrew Halcrow, Coilla Drake (Labour). Photo: Hans J Marter/Shetland News

ON THE night party leaders answered questions from an audience on national BBC television, some of the candidates standing for the Orkney and Shetland seat in the upcoming general election did likewise in Lerwick Town Hall.

The Althing debating society had again invited the community to its traditional general election hustings – the third in in just four years, an astonishing number for a supposedly fixed term parliament – and around 30 people, many of them party activists, followed the call to grill the candidates on Friday evening.

Sadly just two, plus one substitute, did show up, limiting the width of the debate somewhat although Tom Wills, standing in for SNP candidate Robert Leslie, was in a combative mood repeatedly challenging Lib Dem candidate Alistair Carmichael on his past record as MP for the Northern Isles.

Labour candidate Coilla Drake, meanwhile, stood out with her heart-felt and often very personal contributions, and for telling the audience that there were many good reasons to vote for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour and that the outcome of the Orkney and Shetland context was neither a foregone conclusion or a two horse race.

The Conservatives’ Jenny Fairbairn, the Brexit Party’s Robert Smith and independent candidate David Barnard were not represented.

There was a broad ‘social democratic’ agreement – with some variations to the left and the right – that Brexit was bad and needed to be overcome urgently to allow the country to tackle the real challenge society was facing: climate change.

This required investing heavily in insulation for leaky homes, renewable energy and new, cleaner ways of transport such as electric cars, and generally reducing the amount of energy we are consuming. Labour wants to nationalise the national grid while the Lib Dems favour innovation purchase agreements to help bring tidal and wave power to market.

The question whether Scottish independence was the solution to all that played a role but not a dominant one, simply because the different positions were already well known and had been heard hundreds of times before.

And so the panel faced questions that very much centred around social security and the welfare state, such as how was one supposed to live on the state pension, in-work poverty, the pros and cons of Universal Credit and was it a good idea to consider the introduction of a universal basic income to help overcome poverty.

Carmichael came under fire for his role during the Tory/Lib Dem coalition (2010 to 2015) when he voted in favour of the changes to the pension age for women born in the 1950s – a move he has now acknowledged as a mistake and one which was taken on poor advice from Whitehall officials.

He said that had he known what he “knew now, I would not have voted for” it – and he added that he now had a track record of supporting the WASPI women who are fighting to have these decisions overcome.

Wills called his conduct “betrayal” while Drake said: “Just because you have been given advice, you don’t have to take it.”

She revealed that she was one of those who would lose out. “I am not getting a pension until I am 67, and when I get it, it is peanuts,” Drake said.

Asked about the financial difficulties many people were facing in times of austerity, Carmichael defended the introduction of Universal Credit which replaces six separate welfare benefits with just one, but called for it to be better funded (the Lib Dems say they would put an extra £6 billion into it) and better administered.

With regards to austerity he said there had been “difficult choices” to make in government, while both Wills and Drake were in agreement that there had never been any need for austerity, with the Labour candidate calling it a “politically motivated” ploy to make the rich richer and the poor poorer.

All three could agree that the first past the post voting system did not produce a properly representative parliament at Westminster; Wills said the Scottish Parliament was the model of how it should be done, Carmichael advocated proportional representation combined with a federal system that would decentralise power, and Drake also spoke up for proportional representation while highlighting the importance of people having an MP they could contact.

The most challenging question of the night came from Caroline Henderson who asked the panel a question no-one had expected, and one that all three had some difficulty in answering: ‘What do you consider the main flaw in the party you represent?’

After initially not being sure how to respond, Wills said he felt the ‘national’ in the SNP’s name was often use to “smear” the party as nationalist, while he felt it was more ‘internationalist’ and social democratic in outlook.

Having had the chance to think about his answer for a minute or two, Carmichael said Liberal Democrats had the tendency of “overthinking things” and conceded that the party’s policies sometimes lacked the “soundbite clarity” of easily understood decisions.

Drake said Labour was a “broad church” which she felt was both a strength and a weakness. The party was known for it long discussions, long meetings and complicated decision-making process.

As time ran out, chairman Andrew Halcrow allowed one final question which required a one line answer: ‘Would you press the nuclear button?’

Drake: “Never press it.”

Wills: “Never press it”

Carmichael: “If you have nuclear weapons you can only say you would, whether you would or you wouldn’t.”

After taking polls at the start and end of the night on whether folk had decided on who to vote for, following two hours of discussion hardly anybody in the audience had changed their mind as to their voting intentions on 12 December.

More information to all six candidates standing in the general election can be found on our Meet the Candidates page here.

General Election - 12 December 2019