As the five main challengers for Government clashed in London last night, the University of Bath held an equally definitive debate as six candidates vying to take the Bath constituency in May gathered to face the student body one last time.
In a heated debate, it was the Liberal Democrat candidate, Steve Bradley, who presented himself as a clear winner, even where his often negative – even aggressive – demeanour was ill-received by the audience. Ben Howlett, the Conservative candidate, presented himself a worthy adversary to Mr Bradley, but the detail and humour exhibited at his hustings in March quickly sizzled out as the night went on.
The evening began in a packed University Hall with a Bath-centric introduction from the candidates. No candidate excelled, with UKIP’s Julian Deverell pleading for students to look past the anti-UKIP narrative and focus on policies and Mr Howlett offering an early crowd pleaser of ‘better transport’. A forgettable performance from Ollie Middleton (Labour) was overshadowed by the “radical alternative” promised by the Green’s Dominic Tristram, who earned the first applause of the night.
Questions on the NHS and the economy allowed for Mr Bradley and Mr Howlett to demonstrate the knowledge accumulated through a tough campaign in a seat seen as vital for both parties come May 7th. Joint attacks by both parties on what Mr Bradley called Labour’s “collective amnesia” severely weakened Mr Middleton’s arguments, before the two candidates turned on each other.
Mr Bradley quickly reminding the Conservative candidate that the lower tax threshold has been a Lib Dem policy for years, whilst Mr Howlett fiercely defended the 45p tax rate as the most pragmatic means of ensuring everyone pays accordingly. Keen to shoot down the student-friendly Green party, Mr Bradley ridiculed the party’s promise of a Citizens Wage, yet it was an attack unlikely to woo young voters committed to the values of the party who – much to the glee of some – stated “the wealthiest should pay more, as the poor pay the price of the mistakes of the banks.”
It was Lorraine Morgan-Brinkhurst, a Liberal Democrat-turned Independent, who offered the most interesting dynamic of the night, holding to account the Lib Dem, Conservative and Labour candidates.
Interjecting at times, Ms Morgan-Brinkhurst evoked disillusionment in her former party as one which had betrayed their ideals, defending her move as the only way to maintain her principles. An objection from Mr Bradley that her move had been spurred by political motives was passionately revoked by the Independent, her condemnation of the party earning one of the loudest applauses of the night. It was the Liberal Democrat’s defensive rebuttal which hampered what was an otherwise stellar performance from the candidate.
If the first half of the debate was filled with a relatively detailed discussion on national policy, the second half allowed for a passionate display of opinion, as immigration, climate change and housing brought Mr Tristram into the fray. The softly-spoken Green candidate denied suggestions his party was unrealistic and delivered an impassioned rejection of the narrative of hatred towards immigrants. Mr Bradley’s claim that climate change was the biggest threat to society resonated well with a crowd bemused by Mr Deverell’s denial of a ‘climate agenda’.
Whilst Mr Bradley has presented himself as both charismatic and amusing, his efforts to put down candidates tarnished an otherwise knowledgeable candidate; his zinger on Mr Tristram’s “brain freeze” over housing was met with a distasteful silence by the audience. Equally, in a debate surprisingly free from ‘Lib Dem-bashing’, his reactiveness to Ms Morgan Brinkhurst proved unpopular to a crowd sympathetic to the Independent’s apparent principled standing.
Mr Howlett has offered the best performance at hustings and brought an element of that to the debate, but in the second half – where values often trumped policy – he was quiet, undermining a firm defence of Conservative policy early on. Meanwhile, the reverse was true for Mr Tristram who allowed himself to stand morally superior on issues including fracking and climate change.
The losers of the night were Mr Middleton, whose adamant towing of the party line failed to appeal to an audience distrustful of ‘politics as usual’, and Mr Deverell, whose deliberately careful responses meant substance was often lacking.
However, as the election draws closer, students have been demonstrated with an interesting choice in a constituency filled with candidates delicately balancing the fine line between principles and pragmatism.
Special thanks to the University of Bath Politics Society for organising the debate and to CampusTV for recording it. The video will be available online shortly.