Ten days before the general election, I attended a debate at St Mary’s College between four parliamentary candidates: Victoria Atkins (Conservative, Louth & Horncastle); Claire Thomas (Liberal Democrat, Kingston upon Hull West & Hessle); Diana Johnson (Labour, Kingston upon Hull North) and Mike Hookem MEP (United Kingdom Independence, Great Grimsby). It was not my first experience to the latter two and neither was it my first experience with Look North, as I previously presented a segment as part of BBC School Report in 2011.
Peter Levy appeared to host the event. Before filming began he led a practice debate on the issue of whether or not The Great British Bake-Off would survive its transition to Channel 4. The general consensus was that it would struggle.
The debate proper began, with the usual topics – the National Health Service, social care and immigration.
Victoria Atkins insisted the NHS was critical and said her party were spending an extra £8bn over the next parliament. Levy wondered how these spending pledges were compatible with caps on VAT and Income Tax. Atkins said they were a low tax party which would create a strong enough economy. Claire Thomas said the Liberal Democrats would increase income tax by 1% in order to pay for the difference. Diana Johnson suggested increases in corporation tax on big businesses, prompting an audience member to ask how that would be defined. Hookem suggested diverting £9bn from the Foreign Aid budget. He highlighted the amounts currently sent to China and North Korea. He then had a heated exchange with another audience member who claimed Paul Nuttal had spoken in favour of privatising the service. Hookem assured us that privatisation was not and had never been UKIP’s policy. When asked about the recruitment of general practitioners, Atkins pointed to the £20k “Golden Hello” given to new GPs in the area by Lincolnshire County Council.
The discussion neatly transitioned to social care. Hookem said new legislation should be brought in to integrate care with the health service. Atkins took some flack for her party’s manifesto difficulties. She praised her leader for having the gall to tackle what she described as a great challenge. She was then criticised for her earlier comments on low tax, which a questioner said meant poor public services.
The next question was from a student, a Conservative supporter disappointed with his party’s rhetoric, who asked if the Manchester attack would lead to more stringent background checks for migrants from problem countries. Johnson said she believed all markets should be regulated including that for immigration. Hookem suggested an Australian-style system and highlighted his time among the Calais “jungle” speaking with British lorry-drivers who feared for their lives. He said we needed immigrants with useful skills but that we had enough low-pay low-skill workers already. Atkins insisted there was no “silver bullet” to solve the problem. Theresa May’s record as Home Secretary was noted for her failure to restrict movement in line with Conservative election pledges. Claire Thomas rejected the assumption that immigration caused terrorism. Atkins reminded us that the Manchester murderer was born in Britain – though Hookem remarked that he had recently gone for training in Syria. The panellists were then asked who would stay or go after Brexit. Hookem was clear that all legal immigrants from before the referendum could stay. Johnson said that to guarantee their rights would send a good message in negotiations.
Victoria Atkins said that the way to get the best deal in European negotiations was to have Theresa May as prime minister. She highlighted Jeremy Corbyn’s weaknesses in controlling his party – many, including Johnson, had resigned from his frontbench after the referendum. Thomas and Johnson dismissed any suggestion of May as a strong leader, instead calling her a weak and wobbly character who had gone back on manifesto pledges. Hookem invoked his experience on European committees to say that “they don’t want us to leave” and that parliament should have swiftly repealed the European Communities Act 1972. His rant was curtailed, however, as the debate had run out of time.
After the debate had ended there was some milling around to talk to the candidates off the record. I persuaded Hookem to pose for a photograph to use on his Wikipedia page. Sadly the low light and movement of several people in the background meant the picture was rather a blurry mess. I got a candid shot of Atkins which likewise suffered.