Hustings in Sidmouth, Devon, 18 June: full report

Photo by Noel Jenkins 
This image was taken from the Geograph project collection. See this photograph’s page on the Geograph website for the photographer’s contact details. The copyright on this image is owned by Noel Jenkins  and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

“I haven’t prepared anything and if you want to know about our policies, I suggest you look at our website.”

Well, this was a first: surely the whole point of hustings is to act as a shop-window for the candidates?

On this showing, the Reform candidate for the Honiton and Sidmouth constituency seemed to be employing a novel approach.

We were at the hustings in Sidmouth on 18 June, when there were six candidates present: Jake Bonetta (Labour), Vanessa Coxon (Independent), Hazel Exon (Party of Women), Richard Foord (Lib Dem), Simon Jupp (Conservative) and Paul Quickenden (Reform UK). The Green Party’s candidate Henry Gent was unable to attend but submitted a written statement, which was read out to the audience.

The candidates were invited in turn to introduce themselves and it was soon obvious that in some cases we might be no better-informed afterwards than before. The Independent candidate’s first sentence was that she was very tired because she’d been looking after two young children and she was, she said, “going to wing it”. That didn’t augur well. She seemed sincere and very well-meaning, but wasn’t able to tell the audience how she might be able to help further the interests of constituents if she were elected.

The Party of Women candidate warned us that she would be going to use some bad language and there was a detectable frisson of excitement amongst the audience, but the ‘bad language’ turned out to be no more than anatomical vocabulary. Her manifesto depended on her abhorrence of the notion of people transitioning from one gender to another, especially if it involves surgery. Although to begin with there were some murmurs of agreement, as the evening progressed (it ran late, some candidates apparently unable to be concise), the majority of the audience became increasingly impatient with her single-issue approach. The woman sitting in front of me actually covered her ears at one point!

The Reform candidate is by his own admission new to politics. It shows. To stand for a party without appearing to understand at least some of its policies is unforgivable, I feel, and to appear at hustings without having made any preparation is just rude. From where I was sitting, I could see a couple, clearly fans of Reform UK when they arrived, who applauded the candidate loudly at first but whose expressions became increasingly baffled and disappointed at his responses.

Perhaps Richard Foord, the LibDem candidate, spoke a little less fluently at first than did some of the other candidates, but I think he sounded more genuine. His opening gambit was one of the most striking moments of the evening because it met with pin-drop attention: referring to the mantra of “change”, he said there should be a change to “a government of integrity and honesty”. This was the statement which seemed to land best with the Sidmouth audience. A former army major, he was the LibDems’ spokesperson for defence in the last parliament and he has the advantage over all the other candidates when he speaks of his public service, having completed tours of duty in Iraq and Kosovo. This too seemed to meet with tacit approval amongst the ‘traditional-values’ Sidmouth audience. 

Since the by-election in 2022, when Foord spectacularly overturned the majority of the long-standing Conservative, Neil Parish (of ‘tractor porn’ infamy), he has certainly been a very visible, extremely active and hard-working MP, and he reminded the audience that he has spoken in Parliament many times to press for the interests of his constituents.

The Labour party candidate Jake Bonetta spoke well – albeit at some length – and was thoroughly prepared; and despite being an astonishingly young candidate (he is only 21), he seems mature beyond his years and also has some impressive experience: during the pandemic he set up a surplus-food distribution network in Honiton, which has gone from strength to strength. He is obviously seriously committed to Labour ideals and seems determined they should genuinely operate on a local basis. On a question about the UK post-Brexit, he remarked that a Labour government would not seek to rejoin the EU “in its first term”:the inference is clear.

The Conservative candidate Simon Jupp was elected as MP for the former ‘East Devon’ constituency in 2019. He spoke fluently but – in my opinion – rather too glibly. He appears urbane, but some of the tactics he has employed in the campaign are underhand: soon after the election was called, anyone searching the internet for “Richard Foord” was deliberately directed to Jupp’s website instead, because Jupp’s campaign had purchased the domain names. When a reporter asked Jupp about this on camera, he said it was not his fault but had been done by someone on his campaign team…

Given that Jupp appeared to have slightly more support in the room than his LibDem rival, the audience reaction was interesting when he answered a question about whether, and how, the UK’s relationship with the EU could be improved. When he said there had been “Brexit benefits” for the area, there were gales of laughter! He then trotted out the deceit (part of the Rees-Mogg playbook) about it only having been possible to get the Covid vaccination programme underway quickly because we were a sovereign country outside the EU. Many in the audience clearly knew this is not true. (I was later reminded by my friend Celia that she and her husband in Devon had waited a good fortnight longer for their first vaccination than her younger sister and brother-in-law, who live in that well-known EU country, Denmark.) 

One question, not surprisingly, was how the NHS can be repaired. According to the Party of Women candidate this could be achieved, apparently, by halting gender transition surgery, and stopping the purchase and display of “Pride” rainbows and other symbols. Reforming the NHS was mentioned by other candidates – without much detail – but answers inevitably focused on the threat of closure to a wing of Seaton hospital. Here, the LibDem candidate has been very active but the Conservative candidate seems now to be trying to compensate for his inaction while Seaton was outwith his former constituency: in election material he has claimed to have been ‘blocked’ from health steering group meetings, but the steering group have categorically rebutted this assertion.

Other questions were about the nation’s food security and farming – where the Conservative and Labour candidates both failed, I think, properly to address the inadequacy of their parties’ manifestos on this huge and vital topic; education – when the Labour candidate drew laughter by saying that educational experts, not Michael Gove, should decide what is taught in schools; and the climate emergency.

Candidates’ answers to this question led to a breakdown of discipline! Given my cynicism about the Sidmouth demographic, I was pleasantly surprised that the vast majority of the audience clearly – and very vocally – disagreed when the Party of Women candidate responded that climate change is not man-made, but an entirely natural process which has been going on since the ‘Big Bang’.

Next to answer, the LibDem candidate suggested that the Party of Women representative might do better to confine her responses to the ‘trans debate’. This was a misjudgement born, possibly, of exasperation (which by that point, most of the audience seemed to share) and unfortunately the Conservative and Reform candidates made hay with it, referring to free speech “being shut down” and the like. The comment certainly had not landed well and although Foord apologised to Exon off-mic immediately afterwards, I think a public apology would have helped restore the atmosphere.    

The questions had all been submitted in writing prior to the meeting, so perhaps not all were chosen for debate (although the chair seemed to indicate otherwise), but strangely, although we keep being told it is such a huge concern amongst the British public, there were no questions about immigration per se. The subject was mentioned in answers about the NHS and social care, but almost in passing. Perhaps that is more to do with the hustings being in almost totally-white Sidmouth!

Nor was there much comment from the other candidates about the Conservatives’ record of government over the last 14 years, which by any measure has not been very successful. Perhaps candidates believe that to engage in negative point-scoring about other parties doesn’t go down well with voters; but since the election was called, the Conservatives have made so many promises about how they will make things better, that one has to ask why these initiatives have not been put into action before now.

Hustings are an opportunity for voters to participate in a democratic process and – especially when our democracy has been under threat (in the illegal prorogation of Parliament, the unnecessary introduction of photo ID being required to vote, the curbs on legal protest…), we should welcome that opportunity. Even if you’ve not been able to attend any of the hustings, you can still examine the various manifestos.

Please vote! And if you want your vote to really count, please vote tactically. The Lib Dem, Richard Foord, is the tactical vote in Sidmouth and Honiton.