Getting beyond the hype of the leaders’ debates, local hustings offer a snapshot of on-the-ground views. They also show that while some people may be glued to the TV, and others who conduct their political lives on a virtual basis, there are many who go out to public meetings and engage in the debates directly.
In Manchester Withington – where the LibDems overturned a big Labour majority in 2005 – hundreds of locals quizzed all seven candidates on a range of issues. Most interestingly for us, Labour hopeful Lucy Powell broke with Labour policy on Trident, saying she would vote to scrap it. She also added – I don’t know on what basis – that she ‘would not be surprised’ if Labour scrapped the replacement after a spending review in the next parliament if they were returned to power. Let’s hope she’s right.
Sitting MP John Leech, whose party rejects Trident replacement and wants a review of nuclear options, pointed out that Labour would clearly replace it, irrespective of Ms Powell’s views. Nevertheless, Lucy Powell’s position underscores a trend apparent in CND’s online lobbying. Currently 126 Labour candidates are very sensibly going against party policy and saying they would not vote for Trident replacement.
Meanwhile in Barrow, where Trident subs are built and the workforce is keen for the replacement work, the story is rather different. Candidates were asked by local paper North-West Evening Mail ‘Is the Trident replacement a bargaining chip for forming a coalition in the event of a hung parliament?’
The LibDem candidate managed to answer the question without mentioning Trident at all, which is some feat – but one can guess why. The Conservative said no – there was total commitment to maintaining the nuclear ‘deterrent’. But Labour, defending the seat, was most gung ho on the issue, saying that renewing Trident is non-negotiable. In fact, I think he is getting a bit ahead of himself, because numerous government statements make it clear that the decision can be reversed in the years ahead. He also attacked the Tories for being softies on nukes, as apparently last week Ken Clarke expressed interest in the kinds of alternatives to subs being raised by the LibDems.
What is now abundantly clear is that candidates do not just follow party policy. Clearly they may well be motivated to divert from party policy on the basis of their conscience and good sense – presumably this motivates much of the anti-Trident sentiment. But clearly electoral expediency has its place too. This is very sharply demonstrated on a related issue: in Copeland, the constituency that includes Sellafield nuclear power plant, the LibDem candidate has controversially broken with his party’s anti-nuclear policy to back nuclear new build there. I’m afraid one can only assume he is motivated by the ballot box, rather than some damascene conversion to the benefits of nuclear power.