Five of the candidates in Thursday’s Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election took part in a well-attended hustings meeting in Delph this afternoon. At times, the debate was the most intense we’ve seen in the campaign so far.
Proceedings at the Millgate Centre were delayed by the presence of the BNP’s Derek Adams, who took to the stage and refused to leave until he was escorted away by the police. Once he was off the premises, chairman Bob Rodgers began with a question about parking matters in the local village.
Liberal Democrat Elwyn Watkins, who lives in the centre of Delph, said the issues surrounding speed limits, safety and pedestrian crossings in the village were “quite complicated,” adding that he felt it was “primariliy a parish council and borough council issue.” But he promised to do what he could if elected to reach a solution.
Debbie Abrahams of Labour criticised the councils for not being able to resolve the issues, and praised the work of the local Delph Traffic Group which has carried out surveys on the matters. She said she’d “like to bang some heads together” if she became our MP, to get things sorted.
Conservative Kashif Ali said he was “broadly sympathetic” with the Traffic Group’s proposals for a 20mph limit and a crossing outside the school, and said it was “scandalous” that the local councils “haven’t acted on the local surveys.”
Green candidate Peter Allen told the audience that it wouldn’t be too surprised to learn that his party supported traffic control measures, and he went on to criticise the lack of crossings in Grasscroft. UKIP’s Paul Nuttall said his party’s policy was to allow local people to force local referenda on such issues, if they can collect enough signatures demanding one.
The issue of the scrapped Saddleworth School building, which has featured prominently throughout the campaign, was raised once again. Mrs Abrahams, who has described the government’s decision to end the project as “a travesty,” praised Labour’s record in office, during which time she said they delivered “smaller class sizes, better pay for teachers, and improved educational facilities.”
But Mr Watkins criticised the last government, accusing it of going on a “trolley dash” in its last months in office, and making promises it couldn’t keep: “There never ever was any money for Saddleworth School,” he said.
Mr Ali agreed about unfunded spending promises, adding: “Saddleworth does need a new school, but it’s a luxury you can only afford when the public finances are under control.”
Mr Nuttall described the debate over school building as “fiddling while Rome burns.” He called for a return to selection and grammar schools in a bid to halt what he called falling standards. However, Mr Allen said the Greens were in favour of no cuts to public spending, and went on to slam Private Finance Initiatitive projects, of which Saddleworth School would have been one, as “expensive” and “lacking accountability.”
Some of the feistiest exchanges of the afternoon came next, as a question about whether the would-be MPs would put the constituency above their party in Westminster turned into a discussion about the increase in tuition fees.
Mr Watkins was heckled as he defended his position that he would have voted in favour of the proposals for the sake of the coalition government, despite his own opposition to tuition fees. He also stressed other aspects of the measures, including a better deal for part-time students and more apprenticeships.
Mrs Abrahams said the people of Oldham East and Saddleworth would always be her first concern, while Mr Ali said his first move if a conflict arose would be to try to change his party’s view, but that he would always go along with the opinion of his constituents.
Mr Nuttall would be the only UKIP MP at Westminster if elected, and said that would make him an “independent voice” for our area. Mr Allen would join Green MP Caroline Lucas in parliament if he’s successful, and said he was “proud to stand on the Green Party’s manifesto,” and that he would do what he could to implement those policies.
The coalition government’s plans to give GPs and health professionals a lot more power in the NHS were also hotly debated. Mr Ali described it “as a continuation of something that’s been happening in the NHS for 20 years, even more local decision-making.” Mr Watkins broadly echoed that view, saying that he agreed with the principle of having health professionals taking more decisions.
Mr Nuttall drew a few gasps and jeers from the crowd when he called for more of a “free market approach” to the NHS, which he described as a “monolithic hangover of days gone by.”
Mrs Abrahams, who works in public health herself, said she had experienced “despair and poor morale” among colleagues over the proposals, adding that “the BMA doesn’t want it, and most GPs don’t want it.” Mr Allen then quoted some comments made by Mrs Abrahams herself when she quit her job as Chair of Rochdale Primary Care Trust in 2006 over increasing private involvement in the NHS, adding: “We don’t want privatisation!” That led to one of many warm rounds of applause Mr Allen received during the debate.
Before the debate began, BNP candidate Derek Adams, who was holding a sit-in protest on the stage because he hadn’t been invited to take part, had to be escorted away by the police. Although he had a few cheering supporters with him, he was roundly booed by the rest of the audience as he was led out.
Later, the BNP published the phone number of the Millgate Centre on its website and asked its supporters to phone up and complain about the incident. The people who run the centre have asked Saddleworth News to make it clear that it had no role in putting on the debate, and has no political affiliation. The decision to exclude the BNP was taken by organisers from the Delph Community Association.
Nick Watts from Uppermill was also in the audience, and he’s written his view of the debate on his Urban Haze blog here.
A total of ten candidates are standing in the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election. You can get in-depth interviews with Labour’s Debbie Abrahams here, BNP candidate Derek Adams here, Conservative Kashif Ali here, Peter Allen of the Greens here, Pirate Party UK candidate Loz Kaye here, Stephen Morris of the English Democrats here, UKIP candidate Paul Nuttall here and Liberal Democrat Elwyn Watkins here.
The other candidates are David Bishop of the Bus Pass Elvis Party and Nick “The Flying Brick” Delves from the Monster Raving Loony Party.
Polling day is on Thursday. Lots of other senior politicians have been campaigning in our area in recent weeks, and you can read and listen to David Cameron’s interview with Saddleworth News here. You can hear from Foreign Secretary William Hague here.
An interview with the Deputy Prime Minister and Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg is here, while a chat with Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable is here. You can hear from Labour leader Ed Miliband here, here and here, and a conversation with Shadow Chancellor Alan Johnson here. UKIP leader Nigel Farage spoke to Saddleworth News here.
To read full coverage of the by-election so far from Saddleworth News, click here.