General Election 2017: North East Hertfordshire Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green candidates have their say at Baldock hustings

PUBLISHED: 10:45 31 May 2017 | UPDATED: 15:09 31 May 2017

General Election hustings for North East Hertfordshire at Baldock's Methodist church: Labour candidate Doug Swanney, Green Tim Lee, Baldock Society chairman Chris Gomm and Liberal Democrat Nicky Shepard. Conservative candidate Sir Oliver Heald was not present. Picture: Cei Whitehouse

General Election hustings for North East Hertfordshire at Baldock's Methodist church: Labour candidate Doug Swanney, Green Tim Lee, Baldock Society chairman Chris Gomm and Liberal Democrat Nicky Shepard. Conservative candidate Sir Oliver Heald was not present. Picture: Cei Whitehouse

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The three candidates challenging Conservative Sir Oliver Heald for the North East Hertfordshire seat in the June 8 General Election had their say at a hustings in Baldock last night.

Labour’s Doug Swanney, Liberal Democrat Nicky Shepard and Tim Lee from the Green Party spoke and answered questions from about 40 people at the town’s Methodist church in Whitehorse Street.

The hustings – organised at short notice and described to this paper as “almost impromptu” – opened with moderator Paul Burgin reading a statement from the agent of Sir Oliver Heald, who has held the seat since its creation in 1997.

Sir Oliver is set to be at the hustings in Royston on Friday night, but was absent yesterday – something the statement called “most unfortunate”. Voters with questions for Sir Oliver were urged to call him on 01462 684348 or email office@nehertsconservatives.org.

Mr Lee spoke first for the Greens, promising a green economy working for all with protection of the NHS and environment. He also pledged to remove university tuition fees and improve education, and spoke in favour of a basic universal income for all citizens.

He summed up these policies as “a new, simpler and more humane way of thinking – policies for both the many and the few”. The former Liberal Democrat member added that it was not a waste to vote for the Greens, as a better performance for them would help influence the other parties.

Mrs Shepard – originally from Michigan, and taking part in her first hustings – said she felt strongly about the “so many people pushed down”, and that she wanted “to be a voice of the voiceless”.

The country was at a crossroads, she said, with so many people worried about education, the NHS and their families – and she was standing for the Lib Dems because “Britain is fundamentally a good country, and people want a great NHS and homes they can afford”.

Mr Swanney, who grew up in Glasgow and works for the Methodist church, opened by saying he was proud and found it “exceptionally moving” to represent Labour.

He said he shared the aim of the Methodist church “to work for a better world”, adding: “I don’t believe Britain needs to be like this – it doesn’t need to be one of winners and losers. It needs to be for the many, not the few.”

Questions were then taken from the floor, with topics ranging from education and the railways to foreign policy topics such as the Simpol pledge and defence issues like the renewal of Trident.

On Trident, Mrs Shepard said she had been inclined to not renew, but that with developments such as Donald Trump’s election as US President “we need to be considered a strong player, especially in the event of a hard Brexit”, and so need a deterrent – though she stressed that it was not a long-term solution.

Mr Lee said Green policy was to cancel Trident and that his personal view was against either nuclear weapons or power, while Mr Swanney said he shared Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s position on working towards unilateral disarmament while renewing Trident per party policy.

Answering a mum’s question about school funding, Mr Swanney called education cuts “one of the greatest scourges in society”, adding that “talking to headteachers and seeing the pain on their faces is a real indictment”.

He said Labour were to only party to pledge to reverse the cuts – a claim disputed by both Mr Lee and Mrs Shepard, who said their parties did so as well. Mrs Shepard also rejected the suggestion of an audience member that the Lib Dems would cut education funding, albeit less than the Conservatives.

Moving to university tuition fees, Mrs Shepard said the Lib Dem policy was to renew grants for those unable to afford further education, and that abolishing tuition fees was financially unsound.

Mr Lee countered that the Greens would fund free university for all by scrapping Trident, and even promised to pay back existing student loans.

Mr Swanney challenged Mrs Shepard’s vision of ‘free at point of use’ university education, citing the rise in tuition fees over the past two decades. He said Labour would abolish them.

Asked about the railways, Mr Lee said they should be owned co-operatively so everyone would profit when the firms did well. Mr Swanney, who said he used trains every day and was lucky to have “30cm in front of my face”, called for renationalisation, to much applause.

Mrs Shepard said improvement did not necessarily have to come through renationalisation, but that she was fundamentally opposed to public money going into a private firm that pays shareholders.

The meeting concluded with Mr Burgin urging all present to gain something from this most important of elections.

Cei Whitehouse, who intends to vote Labour, told the Comet afterwards: “I think all the candidates spoke well, but for me Doug Swanney showed real gravitas and a genuine understanding of the problems faced by the UK.”

Mr Lee tweeted: “So tonight’s hustings was fun! It was great to meet Doug and Nicky – they are both great.”

The hustings was streamed live on the Comet’s Facebook page – watch above or at facebook.com/thecomet24/videos/10155494845041929.

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