The Guildford Election Hustings, the Good, the Bad, and the Really Bad By Irene García and Peter Ferguson

On the 20th of November 2019, the University of Surrey hosted a hustings for the 12 December 2019 General Election. This was organised by the Politics Department, Politics Society and the non-partisan voter registration group, Vote For Your Future. On behalf of The Stag, Irene García and Peter Ferguson attended the event in order to observe and participate. Below you will find our review of the night and each candidate’s performance. For the purposes of the article the authors have not written in the respective editorial capacity and the views expressed do not necessarily express the views of The Stag.

To help evaluate the candidates’ performances, we scored each of them out of 10 for their overall performance. This will be based on their responses to certain questions, their presence on stage, credibility and depth of their policies. We will also include results from the polling conducted by the Surrey Politics department that showed audience support for each candidate before and after the hustings.

Anne Milton - Independent: 7/10

Anne Milton is the incumbent MP for Guildford and Cranleigh, previously representing the Conservative Party, she is now standing as an independent candidate. Overall, Milton provided a strong performance and adequately defended her involvement in the Conservative Party and Government over the past 9 years, while also providing sufficient defence for her resignation. Facing political threats from both the left, right and centre, Milton faced a difficult fight, even more so as the incumbent MP, yet she came out of it relatively unscathed and popular as shown by the Surrey Politics Department’s polling.

At times Milton displayed a distinct lack of policies, specifically pertaining to Brexit, and limited herself to stating that she would be happy to work with parties whose policies she agreed on. Whilst ability to cooperate is an important aspect of governing and being a politician in general, it begs the question of just how much Anne Milton thinks she can get away with by displaying no originality whatsoever.

Although her performance wasn’t particularly note-worthy at the start of the hustings, her balanced responses resonated with the audience as the evening progressed. In fact, Milton was performing quite well until Peter asked their question: “Do each of your parties candidates or independents believe that austerity does cause preventable deaths and if so then why should we continue austerity and why should we have suffered it in the first place?”. Milton’s response was quite frankly appalling, provoking audible disagreement from the audience, as she tried to justify 120,000 preventable deaths. Milton recognised that there was more to the global financial crisis than inter-party disputes but it certainly left a bad taste in our mouths when she quoted Liam Byrne’s (former Labour Chief Secretary to the Treasury) ‘There is no money left’.

Anne Rouse - Labour: 8/10

Anne Rouse wasn’t always vocal during the debate, but where she spoke it was passionately and in a relatable manner. Evidently, her strategy was effective given her victory in the post debate polling, which placed her in first place with 34% of audience support. Rouse managed to state at least one of her party’s policies in each of her responses, something that cannot be said for every representative on-stage. Her answers were confident, genuine and for the most part succinct, comfortably placing her at the top of our list. Indeed, her commitment to holding landlords accountable for the conditions of housing in which students live got her the first applauded answer of the night, with the audience effusively agreeing with her message.

Keeping Rouse away from a perfect score is her borderline excessive heartfelt approach to refer to issues affecting the country and Guildford specifically. Although we have no reason to doubt the sincerity of her message, the repetitiveness of words like ‘heartbreaking’ could be seen as off putting and calculated hyperbole.

Furthermore, when asked about barriers to mental health care on university campuses like ours, Rouse’s answer: “It would be good to have a GP surgery based on campus” left us wondering whether she was unaware of the fact that there already is one, although it is currently at maximum capacity, or if it was a case of poor wording when talking about increasing funding for the centre.

Zöe Franklin - Liberal Democrats: 5/10

Zöe Franklin entered the hustings with the strongest standing. The Liberal Democrats are perhaps the most active party in canvassing Guildford and have a reputation as the tactical vote against the Conservative Party. The Guildford demographic is perfect for a Liberal Democrat win: a 2016 remain seat, with a large student body in a well-off area. Unfortunately, the debate did not provide the swell in support that the Liberal Democrats were perhaps hoping for, with Franklin’s performance plateauing at adequate. The trouble with entering any political debate as a candidate in a strong position is that you have ground to defend and little to gain unless you are able to exceed the already high expectations of your audience. Zöe Franklin did not exceed expectations. As an individual candidate she was ideal: a long term local resident, involved in the local community and a familiar face on the doorstep, but this was not reflected during the hustings.

The highlight of her performance in terms of credibility and clear-cut policies centred around Brexit, which is in general the strongest campaigning point for the Liberal Democrats. Franklin was direct and confident in her rejection of the 2016 referendum, calling for another People’s Vote on the issue.

The rest of the night was met with clunky, empty responses for the most part. There was a glaring lack of plan of action concerning the climate emergency, where Franklin managed to call herself ‘proud’ of her party’s “radical plan” before immediately dismissing the self-imposed deadline of being carbon neutral by 2045 as “not soon enough”. Indeed, the closest she came to being specific was when she expressed the Liberal Democrat’s intention to stop fracking. Her credibility and integrity as a candidate to represent Guildford in parliament also took a hit when she refused to be remotely critical with her party’s leader, a question posed to every candidate. By turning her answer into an attack of Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, Franklin resembled a teacher’s pet looking to be rewarded in class more than a respectable politician.

Angela Richardson - Conservative: 3/10

Whereas other candidates fluctuated between moments of weaknesses and strengths as the hustings went on, Angela Richardson’s performance remained consistently poor throughout the event. At the start she defined herself as a ‘fresh’ personality in the political landscape, but it became clear as the night went on that her ideas and answers were mostly stale. It is not unreasonable to expect a candidate from the party that has been in government for 9 years to provide examples of policies in her response to questions, so Richardson’s promises to investigate and lobby on relevant issues, although sincere, are not enough. Throughout the debate, Richardson did not present herself as the next Guildford MP. It is probably safe to say that at this point her campaign hinges entirely on her doorstep to doorstep conversations, and certainly not on her performance of the night.

Richardson’s approach was consistently underwhelming and quite literally laughable at certain points. However, we will give credit where credit is due. Despite being often devoid of relevant detail, her sincerity was undeniable and nearly always accompanied by understandable personal experience, bumping up her credibility significantly. Richardson was the only candidate to respond relevantly to the first question on what their party’s plan for students in relation to Brexit was. While the answer itself was clearly contentious and polarising, it is rare to find a policy that isn’t. Her tentative reply to Peter’s question about the preventable deaths caused by austerity was at least honest, even if totally unsatisfactory. Her response made it clear that she was visibly uncomfortable at the prospect of anyone suffering as a result of a government policy and she had the decency to not descend into blame shifting with the liberal democrats over the 2010 coalition government’s decisions. Her decision to remain polite and personal was definitely appreciated. Unfortunately politeness does nothing for the 120,000 people who died as a result of austerity, though it does serve to sum up Richardson’s electoral campaign: a concerned citizen with good intentions and rhetoric, but utterly removed from the complex reality of governance, policy and its real world effect.

John Morris - Peace Party: 3/10

John Morris’ contribution to the debate was for the most part, pointless. While it is understandable that all parties be invited to a hustings to speak their part, one has to wonder why someone would even bother standing for the Peace Party. The first part of the discussion was littered with painstakingly obvious attempts from Morris at evading the question, such as when his answer to tackling the climate emergency included the words “I wonder if it can be done as quickly as is being said” and an interrupted anecdote by the moderator concerning him and his bike. Instead, he limited himself to regurgitating his goals and objectives that were devoid of any actual policies. The Peace Party’s presence there simply took time away from other important issues that could have been discussed or debated further.

Morris’ saving grace in the husting was in the latter section where he was actually able to provide useful comment on government education policy using his background in economics. Morris was undeniably clear in his belief that it was not only right but good economic sense for all education to be free to everyone and properly funded. Our approach to education needs to be reevaluated. Morris decried the idea that government investment in education should be thought of monetarily, and that economic profit should not be the aim of education spending. Instead, said profit should come in the creation of good citizens through education. This response was incredibly well received by the audience, perhaps unsurprisingly given its location at a University where people are continually exposed to the effects of the marketisation of education that Morris stands against.

This review, although it also delved into party policies, is meant to provide analysis into each individual candidate’s approach and performance at the hustings hosted by the University. It is not a complete exploration on what each party stands for, nor is it a definitive picture of the Guildford and Cranleigh’s prospective MPs. We encourage everyone who reads this article to research all the candidates and their policies, and most importantly, to cast their vote on the 12th of December general election.