Sunday, May 02, 2010

The Mid Derbyshire Hustings

This election is a bit of a first in our part of the world, as we're part of the brand new seat of Mid Derbyshire. In truth it's something of a weird amalgamation, bringing together the former industrial town of Belper and its surrounding villages with some of the northern suburbs of the city of Derby itself. The two areas have very little in common, Derby being culturally part of the Midlands and Belper seen by some as the first Northern town in England.

Electorally speaking, the boundary shuffle has interesting implications. By removing the solidly Tory-supporting suburb of Allestree into Mid Derbyshire, the Boundary Commissioners have turned Derby North into a three-way marginal which is being seen as one of the bellweather seats in this election. In the past fortnight, it has been visited by all three main party leaders, with Messrs Cameron and Clegg both in town on Friday.

We won't be getting that sort of attention here in Mid Derbyshire. The Tory candidate, Pauline Latham, is going to win, and having honed her political skills across 23 years in local government dating back to the days of David Bookbinder, I have no doubt that she will prove to be an excellent constituency MP.

But even though the result is something of a foregone conclusion, it was good to hear what the various candidates had to say for themselves at last Friday's hustings organised by Churches Together in Duffield, particularly in relation to their own personal values.

Joining Pauline on the platform at Duffield Methodist Church were Derby city councillor Hardial Dhindsa for the Labour Party, political virgin Sally McIntosh for the Lib Dems and businessman Tony Kay for UKIP. The British National Party candidate, Lewis Allsebrook, and the Monster Raving Loony Party's R.U. Serious gave it the swerve.

This being a largely Christian audience, it did not take long for a question about abortion and euthanasia to come up. Forget sorting out the economy and cleaning up politics - for quite a few people I know in Christian circles locally, getting more people into Parliament who will defend the sanctity of human life is really the touchstone issue.

Pauline answered, very honestly, that although she did believe in the sanctity of life, "I do also believe women have the right to choose an abortion." Hardial woffled a bit while basically agreeing, and Tony sidestepped it by saying that, as he and his wife have never had children, it had never really come up as an issue.

But mother-of-three Sally struck a different note, revealing she had been offered an abortion as a first resort by her doctor at the start of her third pregnancy. "It shocked me because it wasn't something I would ever want to do." She went on to say that the balance had swung "too far in the direction of choice," and that she supported lowering the age limit for abortions from 24 weeks. "To abort children who are viable scares me very much."

If that probably won Sally a few votes from this largely pro-life audience, Pauline will have scored highly on her response to the next question, which focused on plans to build thousands of homes on greenbelt land in the new constituency - an issue which affects Belper in particular.

The town's essential character is that of a wheel with five spokes radiating from the centre - Bargate, Openwoodgate, Far Laund, Mount Pleasant and Cow Hill, each of them surrounded by a 'tongue' of green open space. Yet much of that open space will be built on over the next few years if planners have their way.

Said Pauline: "We don't want Belper to join up to Heage. We don't want Little Eaton and Breadsall to join up with the city." All the other candidates seemed to agree, although in Hardial's case, it begged the question whether he's told his own government that.

Speaking to me after the meeting, Pauline told me that her first act if elected will be to try to block a planning application for the new homes in Belper that is due to be decided later this month. With local reporter Laura Hammond also in attendance, expect to see this story in the Belper News soon.

Another issue high on the audience's agenda was 24-hour drinking, with all the candidates moreorless agreeing that Tony Blair's attempt to create a "cafe culture" in the UK had been an unmitigated disaster, although Pauline fought shy of a suggestion that Derbyshire could become a pilot zone for new, more restrictive drinking laws.

The meeting meandered somewhat towards the end. In truth the debate format was rather static, and gave no opportunity for people from the floor to ask follow-up questions.

Tony Kay at least saved his best till last. In response to the final question - "Given that MPs are so reviled, why do you want to be one" - he replied: "Well, if I did want to be an MP I wouldn't be standing for UKIP."

His party, UKIP, may well finish a distant fourth in this contest. But in the contest for laughs on Friday night, he won hands down.

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David Boothroyd said...

Mid Derbyshire is known as 'the rabbit' because on the map it looks like one - facing to the west.

Alfie said...

Ahhh, local people in England expressing their real concerns at plans by the centralist Labour state to concrete over vast swathes of English green belt with huge housing estates....

Interesting to note that in England, (thanks to his new England-only planning laws, obviously) Gordon Brown can airily commit to building 3 million new houses, 20 new nuclear power stations and new nuclear dumping facilities - yet in his own constituency and country of Scotland, he can't even get a lean-to built..

What a joke.