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10 December 2019updated 08 Jun 2021 9:38am

Conservative candidates accused of avoiding election hustings

By George Grylls

Much press attention has been focused on Boris Johnson’s decision not to do a set-piece interview with Andrew Neil on BBC One. However, just as important to his constituents in Uxbridge and South Ruislip was the Prime Minister’s avoidance of local hustings. It appears that Johnson is merely setting an example for Tory candidates across the country.

Huntingdon, Hartlepool and Harlow are just some of the constituencies where the Conservatives have been accused of avoiding local debates. There is no precise data on the overall scale of the evasion, but Extinction Rebellion, which has organised climate hustings across the country throughout the campaign, has so far counted 70 Conservative no-shows at their events (by comparison only one Labour candidate — Diane Abbott — has failed to appear). What is striking is that Tory candidates battling in marginal seats seem to be particularly reluctant to appear before the electorate.

Take for example Mary Wimbury. She is the Labour candidate for Wrexham  — a Tory target where 59 per cent voted for the UK to leave the EU. The Conservative candidate Sarah Atherton pulled out of Wrexham’s only scheduled hustings an hour before they were due to take place. 

“The only conclusion I can draw is that the Conservatives don’t want scrutiny of their policies,” said Wimbury.

“It’s disrespectful to people. If you want to be the voice of Wrexham in parliament, you can at least turn up and be your own voice in front of local people.” (Sarah Atherton declined to comment for this piece). 

The evasiveness of Tory candidates is not restricted to Labour-Tory marginals. Angus, in Scotland, is a close-run fight between the SNP and the Conservatives.

“We’ve had two hustings — one last week where the Tory candidate turned up but she didn’t do very well,” said Dave Doogan, the SNP candidate. “Then there was a hustings on climate change and the environment last night to which she didn’t turn up.”

“We believe it is now Tory party policy to avoid hustings that are going to be difficult,” said Doogan. (Kirstene Hair, Conservative candidate for Angus, could not be reached for comment).

Meanwhile, at the other end of the country, Lewes is a target seat for the Liberal Democrats where they are trying to remove incumbent Tory MP Maria Caulfield.

“She went to two hustings in the first week. Then after that nothing. She has not been very visible at all,” said Oli Henman, the Liberal Democrat candidate for Lewes.

Last week Caulfield chose not to attend a debate on the climate emergency, sending a district councillor in her place. The councillor was found scaling bins at the back of the school in an attempt to get away from the event early.

“If the Conservatives’ own candidates can’t be trusted to give their message — that’s a pretty sad state of affairs,” said Henman. (Maria Caulfield could not be reached for comment).

With the advent of smartphones, local hustings have become an easy way for Tory candidates to embroil themselves in scandal. At an event in Broxtowe, one prospective Conservative MP said that food bank users struggle to “manage their budget” and in Hastings, another Tory candidate argued that people with learning disabilities should be paid less than the minimum wage. Meanwhile, cabinet members Dominic Raab and Matt Hancock were booed, heckled and jeered by their constituents when they appeared at local events. All incidents were captured on smartphones and shared widely. Perhaps it is little surprise, then, that other candidates are shirking public appearances.

In some parts of the country, local press, which often helps organise hustings, has helped to expose the reticence of certain Tory candidates. Cornwall Live has documented how two prospective Conservative MPs in the county — Sheryll Murray and Scott Mann — have refused to attend hustings. Meanwhile, the Havering Daily has publicised the issue in Dagenham and Rainham.

“The (local) Conservatives refuse to do anything. They refuse to engage with any media inquiries whatsoever,” said Jon Cruddas, the Labour candidate who, along with all the other candidates, did attend the Havering Daily’s hustings. “They are desperately trying for the campaign to be all about Boris Johnson and ‘Get Brexit Done’. They are fearful of people localising issues.”

This strategy is particularly remarkable in Dagenham and Rainham given that Conservative candidate Damian White is leader of the local council.

“He’s worried about having to debate issues other than Brexit, more specifically his local record — we’ve lost 1,000 police officers from the streets, he has abolished free parking, there has been over-development,” said Cruddas. He refuses to engage on any of these things even though he’s leader of the local authority.”

(Damian White could not be contacted for comment for this piece).

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