On a balmy summer evening a week before the poll, the electorate of Tiverton and Honiton lined up expectantly to pack out the by-election hustings at the Tiverton Community Arts Theatre at Tiverton High School.
As they queued across the courtyard, a number of local activists unfurled a substantial banner – 18 metres (60 feet) wide! – which read ‘THE PARTY’S OVER PRIME MINISTER’.
Not only did this attract the attention of the assembled regional and national media, but it prompted a variety of reactions from the attendees, ranging from shaking heads and raised eyebrows to nodding approval and raised fists of solidarity. There was also the polite, although grammatically contentious, suggestion that there should be a comma before the words ‘PRIME MINISTER’.
A less polite reaction came from a particularly enraged Conservative district councillor who began to interrogate the activists present, demanding to know who they were campaigning for. Apparently confused by the response: “no particular party”, he was then disgusted by their clarification: “anyone but the Tories” and “we just want Johnson gone”. He asked them why they did not support Johnson and acted as if surprised when they cited incompetence and corruption.
This feigned confusion, disgust and surprise was quickly followed up by a failed attempt at manufacturing personal offence and outrage. Missing the point in the same bizarrely egocentric way as the #notallmen cohort, that ranted away self-indulgently in the wake of the #metoo movement, he began, loudly and aggressively, to ask each of them in turn if they thought that he was personally corrupt. A bizarre, but nevertheless entertaining spectacle to kick off the evening’s politics.
Once all were seated, the hustings began in earnest with a heartfelt appeal from Adam Wishart, convenor of the grassroots campaign group ‘Fund our Tivvy High’. The £40m sum, long required to replace the brilliant but crumbling school which was hosting the proceedings, was a topic on which the candidates were soon questioned.
In the chair was an astute and able alumnus of Tiverton High School, George Parker, Political Editor of the Financial Times. Once the candidates had been given a chance to introduce themselves, he posed that very question from local resident Sue Riley. What would they do to secure that much needed and much overdue funding?
First to respond was the Liberal Democrat candidate, Richard Foord. The former Army Education Officer reminded those assembled that the Conservatives had not only been promising funding for the last twelve years, but they had promised a visit from their Education Secretary back in 2010. The Education Secretary at the time was Michael Gove. Gove did manage to visit Devon – but visited, and then funded, the school in Illfracombe, a marginal seat. Strangely, he never made it to the safe seat of Tiverton and Honiton.
Next up was Gill Westcott, the Green Party candidate. Formerly a smallholder, primary and secondary school teacher, Gill pointed out that south west schools don’t get their fair share of levelling up funding. She linked the importance of funding new school facilities to the importance of the effective provision for the other needs of young people: youth services, future food supply resilience, heathy eating, public transport, public healthcare and protection of the environment.
Liz Pole, the Labour candidate, was keen to point out that the 5,000 houses being built around Tiverton were going to bring in £350m in profit for the house builders, explaining that more should have been taken from the profit margin of £70,000 on each house built, to go directly into funding the redevelopment of Tivvy High. She emphasised that the £1m that had been spent on repairs to the school was an example of a “government of bad investments”.
Last to answer, hoping to represent the government that had thus far failed to stump up the promised funding, was Helen Hurford, the Conservative candidate. Ms Hurford, who left teaching in 2019 to start her own beauty business in Honiton, was asked by the chair if it had been revealed in her recent discussions with the Prime Minister whether Tivvy High had secured funding.
Ms Hurford began in a combative tone, saying that she’s “not the MP” and therefore wouldn’t be “privileged to that information”. She continued by stating that when multiple ministers had recently visited the constituency she had been “lobbying left right and centre” and would back the replacement of the school “a trillion thousand percent”.
In case you’re wondering what that commitment looks like expressed numerically, it’s 1,000,000,000,000,000 per cent. Fifteen zeros worth of dedication.
Ms Hurford continued to deploy the quarrelsome tone, insisting that she was “The only person at this table who will work with the government to get that funding. Not moan, or bitch, or go back to 2010, when it was a coalition by the way. It wasn’t just a Conservative government. … I won’t be going to Westminster to play party politics.”
The next question came from local resident Molly Furness who asked: “In light of the resignation of two ethics advisors in less than two years, what is your personal view on the moral character of Boris Johnson?” The question itself resulting in a spontaneous, hearty round of applause, laughter and cheering.
Liz Pole replied succinctly, that people had had enough of “brazen lies” and the Prime Minister’s “brass neck” and that she’d heard from plenty of lifelong Conservative voters that, due to Johnson’s deceit, they wouldn’t vote Tory again.
Gill Westcott expressed her concern that the Prime Minister “might be seen as one bad apple”. She further expressed her concerns that Johnson was voted into his current position by members of the Conservative Party when his lies were already widely known; whether that be the £350m on the side of a bus or the lies that got him fired from jobs in the media. She questioned what it says about the party that it has just confirmed his position in the recent confidence vote, and what this tells us about the state of British politics.
Helen Hurford began by coining a new word, saying that the resignation of the ethics advisors was “very Westminstery”. She went on to say that her understanding of the resignations is that they were over “a commercially sensitive issue”. Speaking over the moans from the audience elicited by that explanation, she added, sharply: “that’s what I’ve been told, thank you very much!”
She suggested that the Prime Minister “was honest in relation to the pledges that he makes.” Claiming that she “wouldn’t have a business and … certainly wouldn’t have a house, if it hadn’t of been for the grants that were administered”. Further confusing the roles of Prime Minister and Chancellor she highlighted the government’s pledge to support the cost of living with a £37bn package. Then the Prime Minister’s “support and leadership” with regard to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Various audience members began calling out “Shame, shame, shame” at this point, to which Ms Hurford retorted: “It is very easy to stand on the sidelines and attack and be aggressive, and what I’m hearing on the doorstep is that people are fed up with it, they’re sick to death of it.” When the chair reminded Ms Hurford that the question was about the Prime Minister’s character, she answered with “I have no concerns that his pledges are honest”.
When the laughter following this reply had subsided Mr Foord gave his verdict on the PM. He paraphrased Oscar Wilde by venturing, “To lose one ethics advisor could be regarded as misfortune, but to lose two ethics advisors can only be regarded as carelessness.” adding “If 148 of his own MPs, who have met him, don’t have confidence in him, then why on earth should we have confidence in him as the Prime Minister of our country?’.
The candidates’ answers to the next two questions, about the cost of living and the climate crisis, were much less divergent and much less contentious. However, when local voter, Heather Fellowes, raised the topics of the government’s attempts to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, and the absence of safe routes from anywhere but Ukraine, the hustings became heated once again.
Liz Pole, pointed toward Labour’s commitment to work through the British Council and to restore Development Funding. Plus the need to resurrect our relationships with neighbouring countries and to work better with Europol to clamp down on people smuggling. She decried the Rwanda policy as “unthinkable”.
Richard Foord pointed out that, as a nation, we’d come close to spending £100,000 each on flying five people to Rwanda earlier this week. He condemned the Rwanda Policy as “a disgraceful gimmick”. He pointed toward the framework of the Dublin Agreement for guidance on how to properly manage asylum seekers, and echoed Liz Pole’s observations about resurrecting our relationship with France.
Gill Westcott focused in on the rights of unaccompanied children to be reunited with their families. She questioned why asylum applications take five years to process and whether the Home Office is fit for purpose. She insisted that asylum seekers should be allowed to work and contribute as they are in other countries. She went on to condemn the government’s belligerent attitude and the damage it’s done to our ability to effectively collaborate with our European neighbours.
Helen Hurford described the Rwanda policy as “a very emotive situation”. She stated that her “interpretation of a refugee is fleeing a war-torn country or place where you’re at risk of persecution”. She said the asylum seekers were crossing the channel from France and that last time she visited “there was no war in France.” She insisted that what she was opposed to was people smugglers and she thought the Rwanda policy would “stop and break” that business model.
At this point Ms Hurford was heckled from the back of the room by a gentleman who shouted “All you’re worried about is those backbenchers!” To which she replied “When people are taken to Rwanda, which they will be …!” and that the policy should be reviewed to make sure that people “are treated kindly and fairly.”
The panel was asked by Richard Bunning about the £800m cut to ‘agri-environment’ support in the south west and how this would “punch a £3bn hole in the local economy”, at a time when costs are spiralling and resulting in huge numbers of small family farms going bust.
Gill Westcott highlighted supporting enhanced environmental farming practices such as silver pastures, regenerative farming, agro-forestry and retaining county farms.
Helen Hurford criticised the original CAP saying that it was a situation of more land, more money and that it hadn’t been fair on small farmers. Gill Westcott had to raise, as a point of order and to educate Ms Hurford, that the decision not to support farms under five hectares was an entirely British decision, and other European countries had managed and distributed CAP funds in an entirely different way.
Richard Foord insisted that the basic payment is extended to 2027 as per the prescription of the National Farmers Union (NFU). Liz Pole echoed this support for the NFU approach and quoted its head, Minette Batters, in her criticism of the government as being “government by uncertainty” and that the “government doesn’t anticipate and plan for problems, it only responds to problems when they are staring it in the face and can’t be avoided”.
When asked by local voter, Toby Grey, which philosophers, authors and thinkers have influenced the candidates, their responses were interesting. Richard Foord quoted W B Yeats’ observation that “Education is not filling a pail but lighting a fire”, then expressed his admiration for Paddy Ashdown. Liz Pole cited Charles Dickens and his shining of a spotlight on society’s terrible inequities. Gill Westcott mentioned Ghandi, Margaret Fell – the mother of Quakerism who was imprisoned locally – and the writer and thinker Joanna Macy, in particular what her writings teach us about the responsibility we have to future generations to use our agency in the present to change things for the better. Helen Hurford, despite previously working briefly as a head teacher, pointed out that she “’absolutely hated school” and quoted her grandfather, Frank Pike, who taught her to ”be kind, work hard and give back”.
The final question of the evening came from Cliff Salter who asked the classic “What are your views on legalising cannabis?” The response from the Green, Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates was a unified ‘regulate and decriminalise it’. Ms Hurford took the line that “drugs destroy lives, every police officer tells me that, so absolutely not!”
The hustings ended dead on time, exactly one week and one hour before the polls close on the 23rd June.
Absent from the hustings were the UKIP candidate Ben Walker from Stroud (outside the constituency), who was supposed to be taking part but was unable to attend due to a medical emergency.
Also absent from the stage were the Heritage Party candidate Jordan Donoghue-Morgan from Yeovil (outside the constituency) and the Reform UK candidate Andy Foan from Cullompton.
The other candidate absent from the stage and, for that matter, the school campus, was Frankie Rufolo, standing for The For Britain Movement (an anti-immigration party). Frankie, having stood at the school gate handing out flyers, had been removed from the premises by the school’s safeguarding officer and event security staff; thereby enforcing a longstanding policy of no-platforming anybody representing far-right organisations.
How well each of the candidates will fare, only time will tell.
Editor: Don’t forget that you if you are usually a Labour voter in Tiverton and Honiton but are determined to ensure that the seat ceases to be run by one of Johnson’s Conservatives, you can swap your vote with a Liberal Democrat voter in Wakefield, going to the polls on the same day.
For more details, visit www.swapmyvote.uk