On Tuesday night Clare College politics society held a Question Time style hustings with five candidates for the Cambridge constituency at the general election, chaired by former Tory MP and Clare alumnus Matthew Parris. Present were the candidates of the three main parties, the Greens, and Martin Booth for the Cambridge Socialists, who are standing as part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. Perhaps inevitably, questions were wide-ranging and candidates were not really given enough time to do them justice. It was clear that the Green and Socialist candidates were on the left, with the Tories and Labour on the right and a LibDem falling down the hole in the middle while trying to please everyone.
Tony Juniper for the Greens argued for a “different kind of economics.” This meant investment for the creation of green jobs, higher taxes on the wealthy and a Tobin Tax. Nothing there that a Socialist candidate would necessarily disagree with, but Martin went much further than Juniper when dealing with some key issues. Martin called for the meaningful nationalisation of the banks, to be run genuinely democratically as opposed to carrying on private sector practices as RBS are at the moment. He also argued that combating climate change necessitated a challenge to the capitalist system.
Implicit in this is the question that the Greens, as a party, need to face. If their “different kind of economics” is not socialism, is not aimed at giving decision-making power in society to the working class majority, then what is it? A nicer form of capitalism? If so, how will it work? How would the Greens challenge the power of big capital?
Martin very much stressed the need to mobilise people to achieve our goals, whether this be in the defence of public services or the fight against climate change. Juniper, an experienced lobbyist with Friends of the Earth, called for this or that law to be enacted. But he seemed to have no strategy for action in the (very likely) case that the political class lets us down.
Daniel Zeichner is Labour's candidate. His contributions were heavily critical of the “fantasy politics of opposition world.” I can well believe that Zeichner is not a New Labour hack right now, but he said nothing to indicate that he wouldn't become one if elected to Parliament. His answer on Afghanistan was particularly telling, as he came out with some crap about the threat of Al-Qaeda and the possibility of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal falling into terrorist hands if Western troops left, that could have been a press release from the darkest days of the Bush Jr. White House.
Zeichner said that a few years ago he pushed for Labour conference to adopt a policy of building more council housing, and that doing so cost him dear in terms of progress within the party. That this perhaps tells us a lot about the state of the Labour Party itself, was apparently lost on him.
One question, “Do you think Britain is a broken society?”, indicates how difficult it can be to put a socialist message across in circumstances like these. The question reminds me of the Day Today sketch on “Tightening up the law” or “Soul Reversal.” Seeing as the question is centred around a meaningless phrase, any answer given is meaningless. "Society is broken." "180 degrees should be the average soul reversal for a football match." And so on. Martin did a good job in limited time of trying to explain how phrases like this are used implicitly or explicitly to blame the poor in society for their own problems.
“Broken Society” is, of course, a Tory-Tabloid chestnut. Nick Hillman, for the Conservatives, came out with a few more of these, most notably that “violent crime is going up,” without giving any real statistics. He also dismissed a recent poll showing that most Tory candidates don't care about global warming with the rather unconvincing pearl of wisdom that “every party has fringes.” He also reassured us that he hasn't taken any money from Lord Ashcroft, but defended the latter as a great contributor to the Cambridge community because he provides funding to ARU. This is worth looking into; maybe he owns it, along with Belize.
It remains to be seen how far the extent of the LibDem candidate to mark out territory distinct from the other two main parties is successful. He came out against tuition fees, which the LibDems were equivocal on before they realised that scrapping this pledge would gut their student vote. He seemed to be off message, saying that there would be no drastic spending cuts under the LibDems. presumably just “savage” ones, then. He also called for the quick withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, which is something I've never heard from Clegg et al.
Despite this, there was little between the main parties' candidates. Juniper was impressive, but Martin was the only panel member to get across any ideas about a totally different political or economic system, and the need to involve people in grassroots political campaigning.
Read Martin's own take on the evening here.