Carmichael absence leaves just Labour and SNP candidates at hustings
The late withdrawal of Liberal Democrat candidate Alistair Carmichael through illness meant last night’s Althing hustings debate consisted of just two candidates.
Danus Skene (SNP) and Gerry McGarvey (Labour) were left to slug it out, or as someone later put it, to indulge in a “love in”, with neither of the Tory and Ukip candidates present because of prior commitments.
Chairman Andrew Halcrow briefly introduced the pair, in “one of the most interesting General Elections in recent years”, and asked them each to tell the audience why they deserved to be returned to Westminster.
Mr McGarvey went first, immediately saying he did not want this hustings evening to be a “traditional one of bickering. He wanted to hear what the people wanted.
“It’s important that you see the man who you may decide to vote for, or the man who you would consider voting for,” he said.
Mr McGarvey explained a little about his background, and how he got interested in politics, initially when working in Liverpool.
Not surprisingly he had a go at former Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and the “way she destroyed communities”, something he witnessed first-hand when he worked in Sunderland.
“Politics is not sexy, and not glamorous,” he said. “It’s primarily about sitting around tables and trying to sort out problems, [explaining] why you want to make a difference, and help people. That’s what I want to do.
Mr Skene began his speech by quoting Jonathan Wills, once a former Labour candidate himself, who has changed his colours somewhat over the years.
“Jonathan Wills said on a previous occasion, when a candidate didn’t turn up, it was like having a fox hunt without a fox.”
But there would be three further occasions to have a go at the fox, he added.
“I hesitate to speak about myself,” Mr Skene said. “It’s a brave thing to do. I prefer to go into the aspects of what this election is all about … austerity, fairness and good government.”
Any thoughts of prosperity under the coalition Tory/Lib Dem government received a stark message, and an attack on former Chancellor George Osborne.
“If you are in a hole it’s a good idea to stop digging, but also a good idea not to throw away the ladder that will get you out of the hole.”
Austerity was not a good way of recovery from the recession, Mr Skene said. It was better to invest in infrastructure and jobs and not retreat further.
On fairness, Mr Skene said he was “going to have a little dig at you Gerry”.
One of the great shames in the last 30 years was the “move towards Thatcherism”, which continued and mildly accelerated under the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown years.
He got on to the subject of “food bank Britain”, which a million people were dependent on, including a “significant number” here in Shetland.
“That’s the world that the coalition goverment have led us into. It’s not acceptable!
“We hope to go in strength to London [and] hope to provide a backbone for a Labour party.
“There are real signs that British politics is changing, because of a massive disillusionment about what’s going on in Westminster.”
Mr Halcrow explained there would be 10 minutes for questions from the floor, then the traditional cup of tea and then more questions.
First to have a go was local Labour activist Susan Bowie, who asked Mr Skene about full fiscal autonomy for Scotland, and what would the SNP do to fill the “black hole” of £7.6 billion.
The money would be borrowed, came the reply, but Irvine Tait countered by saying that borrowing would be “very, very difficult”. He added that the deficit was a “UK hole” and there were “problems right across the UK” and that was what the Labour party was about.
Robert Sim wanted to know why the SNP was growing so rapidly as a party. “Why do you think that’s happened?” he asked the candidates.
“It’s exciting times,” replied Mr McGarvey. “It has forced the Labour party to rethink itself and make itself more appealing. I personally welcome that. It was a humdrum situation and my party found itself in a moribund place.
“The landscape has fundamentally changed and I would argue changed for the better. That’s why we have 80 people in here tonight.”
Mr Skene said the “genuinely very healthy process of the referendum” involved a lot of people.
“I don’t think anybody foresaw this explosion of membership. [But] the reaction to the referendum was a mixture of guilt, anger and frustration.”
Some people had told him they only switched to voting no after the Brown intervention, he said.
“The tectonic plates have moved,” Mr Skene said, a statement which caused Mr McGarvey’s eyebrows to raise somewhat. “People have had enough of it being done to us. They want control of their own actions.”
Andrew Harmsworth, described by someone sitting nearby as “the only Tory in the village”, lightheartedly drew people’s attention to the drinking utensils being used by the two candidates. Both were pink, which maybe suggested something, while Mr Halcrow’s was blue. Was he a secret Tory, perhaps?
The country was on the road to recovery under the coalition, Mr Harmsworth said, which contrasted sharply with the Labour party which had “bankrupted” the country.
“Getting rid of the Tories seems to be the most positive thing coming out of the SNP. But if you have a growing economy everybody benefits.”
Wealth did not necessarily come from the top down, Mr Skene replied, adding that he grew up in a Tory household but had never voted Tory in his life.
Perhaps with a hint of his former life as a Labour candidate, Mr Skene said he didn’t particularly blame Gordon Brown for the financial crisis. The situation was not a Labour concoction. It would also have happened under a Tory government.
Mr McGarvey obviously agreed with that sentiments. “This mantra that we are picking up the mess left by Labour is a myth,” he added.
Someone needed to comment on how close the two candidates were getting, and Ouaine Bain was just the person. Leaving aside the love-in, she asked, what was Mr McGarvey’s view on the presence of Trident in Scotland.
Mr McGarvey said there was a place for a nuclear deterrent as a “necessary evil”, given the circumstances the country found itself in as a member of Nato. It was “an integral part of our membership”, he said, and “these are the strings that come attached to it”.
Would Labour consider a coalition with the SNP, asked Steve Davidson, reflecting on a hot current topic.
Mr McGarvey said if the situation were to arise it would be very difficult to form a coalition with a party which “had spent a lot of effort trying to dismiss the Labour party.
“Vote SNP to get Labour. I can’t understand the logic of that,” he said. “If you want Labour you vote Labour. If you want SNP you vote SNP. If you want to vote for anybody else Hell mend you!”
One of the last points was made by one of the youngest members of the audience, 14-year-old Kieran Thomson.
He said: “In a world where terrorists are killing people, is there any need for Trident. Surely that will do more damage than any terrorists.”
Mr Skene said Trident was irrational, unusable and not of any military advantage.
“There’s no point in going around the world complaining about other countries getting one when you have one yourself. No Trident! End of story!”