The by-election candidates from the three largest parties appeared on stage together for the first time last night. Education dominated the hustings event at Denshaw Village Hall, with debates over tuition fees and the scrapped new Saddleworth School leading to the liveliest exchanges.
The event was organised by the Oldham Chronicle, and chaired by its editor David Whaley. But there was a bit of early embarrassment for the paper when Liberal Democrat Elwyn Watkins mentioned the in-depth coverage of the campaign offered by this website in his opening remarks.
Mr Watkins stressed that, if he’s elected, he’ll have good access to Lib Dem ministers in the coalition: “You’ll have seen from Saddleworth News over the past couple of months that we’ve had minister after minister coming up.” He said the old argument about not voting Lib Dem because they would only ever be in opposition didn’t apply: “We’re in government now,” he said.
Saddleworth School’s hoped-for new building at Diggle was part of the last government’s Building Schools for the Future programme, which was scaled back in the summer by the coalition. Conservative Kashif Ali said: “Labour promised a new school, but no money was set aside for it. The whole programme wasn’t viable, it was wasteful.”
Labour’s Debbie Abrahams described the government’s decision as “a travesty.” She claimed the cuts were “ideological and nothing else” and said the BSF scheme had made “a significant contribution” to many areas across the country.
Mr Watkins described the promised new Saddleworth School as “an election con” from Labour. He added: “Now we’ve got our hands on the books we know ministers promised schools that they couldn’t deliver. There was never the money for Saddleworth School, and Labour knows it.” All three candidates said they would campaign for a new school building if elected.
There was also some sparky discussion on the increase in tuition fees, as Mr Watkins defended his position on the subject. He told Saddleworth News last month he would have voted with the government had he been an MP for the sake of the coalition, but said he was opposed to fees in principle and would campaign to get them abolished if elected. Last night he re-stated that view, and emphasised that part-time students would no longer have to pay fees upfront, and that the government had prioritised apprenticeships.
Mr Ali said he too was “not sympathetic” to the principle of tuition fees, but added he felt they were needed “to bring the public finances under control.” He also pointed out that the government had ruled out uncapped tuition fees, as was suggested by Lord Browne’s review of university funding. Mrs Abrahams said that Labour’s proposal of a graduate tax would be fairer, because graduates would pay on the basis of their income.
Fairness was a word Mrs Abrahams used regularly, and in reponse to a question about council cuts she said: “We were committed to halving the deficit over four years had we been in charge, but the cuts need to be fair.”
Mr Watkins said: “Unless this government took the necessary steps, we’d be bankrupt and the cuts would be a lot worse.” Mr Ali commented: “Some services will be affected, that’s undeniable.” He called on Oldham Council to “look at more creative ways to tighten its belt” and mentioned issues including marketing, branding and back office functions.
Angela Fordham, the landlady of the Golden Fleece in Denshaw, asked about help for small businesses and pubs. Mr Ali pointed to the government decisions to cut corporation tax, establish regional growth funds and not increase National Insurance, and when challenged on Denshaw directly he admitted he was “concerned” about the village, which is now without its Post Office and shop.
Mr Watkins said the government was looking at tackling issues to do with pub tenancies. He also highlighted the issue of cheap supermarket booze, as well as drinks promotions at some Oldham bars, saying: “I would not go drinking in Oldham town centre.”
After that, the candidates discussed policing and crime. Mrs Abrahams said police cuts were an example of “another broken promise” from the Conservatives and Lib Dems. But Mr Watkins hit back, saying that while the overall number of police was going to fall, more officers were being freed up to get out of the office: “Next year there will be more police on the beat, not less.”
Mr Ali criticised the last government for allowing too much bureaucracy in the police force: “Under Labour police were chasing targets not criminals.” He went on to explain that he has been a victim of crime at his Higginshaw home: “I’ve had to have grilles on some of my windows, I live with this.”
There’ll be another hustings meeting, also featuring the Green and UKIP candidates, in Delph on Sunday.
A total of ten candidates are standing in the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election. You can get full 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 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 Conservative Chairman Baroness Warsi is here.
To read full coverage of the by-election so far from Saddleworth News, click here.