Magic dragon Puffles roasts MEP over inflammatory posters at European Parliament elections hustings in Cambridge
Me and Puffles went along to the hustings organised by Cambridge University’s European Society. This was our first face-to-face meeting with politicians following the announcement of Puffles’ candidacy for the Cambridge City Council elections – encouraging you to take the digital democracy challenge.
It was a reasonably full room – over 50 people in the audience which for a Saturday morning is normally unheard of. The panel of five candidates contained four of Puffles’ Twitter followers – Andrew Duff of the Liberal Democrats (a recent follower), Vicky Ford of the Conservatives, Richard Howitt of Labour and Rupert Read of the Greens – all long time followers. As far as I am aware, Stuart Agnew is not on Twitter – and indicated he had not heard of, nor knew what Puffles was.
Can we have instant fact-checkers please?
The Faculty of Law for me is the most unhelpful place to have political debates because it seems to have been designed to have no mobile phone signal. Not good for those of us who are not members of Cambridge University who therefore lack easy internet access there. The reason why this was an inconvenience was that all of the panellists reeled off lots of statistics. Without the ability to fact-check, it was much harder for the audience to hold them to account.
Stuart Agnew of UKIP started off. Had he kept to the tone of what he started with, he might have fared better than he did. It was interesting to hear how he got into politics and how he showed that you can have a long career in other things before going into politics. All the more important given the unpopularity of ‘professional politicians’ going through the PPE Oxford (such as this lot) – researcher – special adviser – safe parliamentary seat – minister route. It was all down hill from there though.
Vicky Ford (who has sparred with Puffles before) and I were trying to contain our laughter at some of the points Mr Agnew made, with audible gasps of disbelief from other members of the audience from his points. It was interesting that Mr Agnew was followed by Andrew Duff of the Liberal Democrats – at the opposite end of the spectrum as far as EU integration is concerned. Bravely overcoming a stammer, Mr Duff tried to make the case for EU Federalism, though I got the feeling the audience were not quite convinced by the content of his arguments.
Ms Ford then spoke I felt quite eloquently about the Conservative Party position, even though it’s one I don’t agree with politically. I also felt she made a reasonably consistent attempt to keep the focus on jobs and growth, while avoiding sparring with Mr Agnew.
Richard Howitt was up next for Labour – as with Ms Ford, a long time Twitter follower of Puffles. As well as disagreeing with each other, it was also clear that they don’t get on personally either. Mr Agnew and Mr Duff on the other hand, while being at different ends of the political matrix said they got on splendidly despite their political differences. What was good about Mr Howitt’s speech was that it was the first time I had heard a Labour politician talk about issues that EU institutions are best placed to solve. The Labour shadow cabinet has been deafeningly silent.
Rupert Read spoke for the Greens, reminding the audience that in 2009 he came within a whisker of becoming an MEP. Mischievously, local Green Party activists (who were also running a stall outside Cambridge Guildhall) placed election flyers on all of the tables. None of the other parties that I saw did the same – and their student societies will probably be kicking themselves for it too.
Daggers at dawn between Conservatives and Labour
Personally I don’t think the personal animosity between Mr Howitt and Ms Ford does either of them any favours. For me (and I know them both, having spoken to them on numerous occasions and followed them on politics for a few years now) the impression the public get is not one that matches what I know of them. It’s all too easy for Mr Howitt to come across as being dismissive of a woman talking politics to him – even though I don’t believe for one moment he’s sexist. At the same time, it’s all too easy for Ms Ford to be seen as making the disagreements personal, which changes both the tone of her voice (higher) and pace of her speech (faster) – thus reducing the impact. Again, I know this is not ‘normal’ Ms Ford because when we’ve had discussions and disagreements on politics and policy, she speaks in calm and measured tones and is able to make a compelling and reasonably logical argument. (Even if I happen to disagree with it).
The moderator, Gary O’Donoghue (Chief Political Correspondent, BBC Radio 4) then threw a direct question about whether UKIP is racist or not. Funnily enough, the same issue was then discussed on Radio 4 later that day.
The debate was around the poster campaign (see here) described as racist by their opponents. Mr Agnew made the case that his party were concerned about numbers rather than ethnicity – before going onto what felt like some slightly clumsy remarks about race, followed by some comical remarks about climate change. To be fair to Mr Agnew, he said that the rise of the far right across Europe was “deeply worrying” – before trying to analyse why this was (and ultimately blaming the Eurozone’s policies). Ms Ford quickly hit back sarcastically about Farage and conversations with extremist politicians in Europe.
The other four candidates tried to respond, going after the parties that UKIP aligns itself with in the European Parliament, and the dangerous and divisive nature of this sort of politics. The thing is, I felt that none of the candidates were able to land a really powerful verbal blow, the sort that Mr Agnew would struggle to respond to. If there was one thing I was waiting for one of them to do, it was to pin Mr Agnew down on how such inflammatory rhetoric impacts on individuals and communities – and to get him to acknowledge this and take some responsibility. But it didn’t happen. Hence I chose to intervene at and on this point.
The dragon roars
The first thing I did was to pull out the letter I got from the council confirming Puffles’ candidacy for the Cambridge City Council elections on 22 May. If you look at the summary of candidates on the council’s website, you’ll notice that for the Coleridge ward that Puffles is standing in, there is no UKIP candidate. I mentioned this to the audience and then told Mr Agnew that his party was going to get fewer votes than Puffles the dragon fairy. He had no idea who or what Puffles was – but unfortunately for him, all of the other panellists being on Twitter, (& all four of whom follow Puffles) do. The audience laughed.
I then said regarding climate change, me and Puffles had been to a series of talks by a number of climate scientists in recent months from Cambridge University and the British Antarctic Survey (the latter also based in Cambridge). I said that we preferred to trust the advice of the scientists at Cambridge University and the British Antarctic Survey than himself – not least because several of the points he tried to make about climate change had already been comprehensively myth-busted in detail at the workshops and the presentations I had attended – Michelle Cain being one of the finest.
“When I grew up, I had to deal with proper old skool racism, such as ‘Oi! ****** **** go back to your effing country!!!”
Now, when you are a child who has only ever known Cambridge as ‘home’, that sort of abuse is soul-destroying. Remember too that at the time in Cambridge, it wasn’t nearly as diverse as it is today. My school leavers photo from the mid 1990s as probably about ten non-White faces in a year group of 240.
I then spoke of a recent visit to one of the local secondary schools here, where I saw an artwork project done by the children of migrant workers who had come to the UK. They used art to show their experiences of moving to a new country, overcoming the language barriers and dealing with racism, discrimination and prejudice. It was hard-hitting and sobering. I said to the audience that the work hit me at the heart because it mirrored some of my own experiences at the same age in the same part of town – just some 20 years previously.
I then turned to Mr Agnew and said something along the lines of:
“If you cannot turn down the inflammatory rhetoric, take your billboards of hate and get out of my beautiful city!
For the first time in that debate, the audience spontaneously erupted with applause.
To her credit – especially given the recent history of the Coalition’s own ‘Go Home’ vans (see here), Ms Ford then landed the verbal blow that I had been waiting for.
“I believe the posters being put up by UKIP are stirring up abhorrent racism…this is unacceptable”
The reason why this mattered to me was that Ms Ford was saying that such campaigns are unbecoming of holders of elected public office. What perhaps was more surprising for me was that out of all of the panellists, it was Ms Ford of the Conservatives who gave the strongest follow-up in support of my point. It was her who probably read me, my remarks, my tone of voice and body language the best when I was speaking – hence responding in such a way. Personally I would have liked to have seen both Dr Read and Mr Howitt respond similarly, looking at Mr Agnew at the same time.
“How did Mr Agnew respond?”
To be clear, I’m not accusing Mr Agnew of being a racist. I have no evidence to believe that he is. Furthermore, I don’t believe Lib Dem MP Andrew Duff would give Mr Agnew the time of day and maintain his friendship with Mr Agnew if that were the case. The purpose of my intervention was to pressure Mr Agnew as a senior party member to take some responsibility for the decision to run with such an inflammatory poster campaign.
To me, it was clear that Mr Agnew was on the defensive. He made remarks agreeing with Dr Read and Mr Howitt about the exploitation of migrant workers by unscrupulous employers, and that how wider economic migration can destabilise communities in both countries. Dr Read and Mr Howitt made the points that the solution wasn’t to run with the neo-liberal agenda, but to improve the working rights of people across the world. Some of you may be aware of campaigns such as the fashion revolution here, calling out big firms sourcing clothes from manufacturers employing workers on poverty pay in sweatshop conditions.
My Agnew also remarked to me that what his party was doing wasn’t illegal. But my point was that as a holder of high public office, he needed to take some responsibility. I wanted him to show some leadership and say that irrespective of any votes that such a poster campaign may gain for his party, the impact and fallout on local communities simply was not worth it.
Questions from the audience
There were many continental Europeans in the audience – who also asked the majority of the questions. What made this interesting was that they had very different insights and experiences as far as the political cultures they grew up in. On the whole, they were also extremely hostile to UKIP’s policies as well.
I got the impression from the questions they all asked that few of them felt they heard ‘the comprehensive package’ from each of the speakers. I came away feeling the audience felt:
- UKIP – disagreed with many of their policies and rhetoric in principle
- Conservatives – unclear on what sort of relationship they want with the EU, because we’ve not really seen any specifics on their negotiating position or desired outcomes
- Liberal Democrats – unclear on what happens after deciding to stay in: What is their vision for the future of Europe and the EU?
- Labour – unclear what their vision of Europe and the EU is in the future – especially on how the institutions should work together and how this will be sequenced
- The Greens – unclear on what ‘no more economic growth’ actually entails policy-wise – perhaps not helped by fighting a political, economic and media culture that assumes ‘growth is good’.
More women on the panel, and more women asking questions please!
Vicky Ford was right to point out that only one woman asked a public question – despite a balanced audience. It’s something that happens all too often at events I’ve been at – even when panel chairs invite women specifically to ask questions, as shadow minister Maria Eagle did in Cambridge recently. (See here). As a heterosexual male, I’m not the best person to explain why this is, or what to do about it. Hence why I am all ears if you have ideas on how to encourage more women to ask questions to panels at such events.
“Was it a worthwhile event?”
Definitely – though in Q&A sessions (and I’m going to be a bit of a hypocrite here), I’d like to see moderators in principle going for shorter, sharper exchanges with the audience. Sort of like “write your question down and if it’s longer than 280 characters, it gets rejected”.
Personally I’d like to see this sort of event happen bi-annually in Cambridge – if anything just to raise the profile of MEPs and the European Parliament. I’d also like to see such events advertised and made much more widely available to the public. The only way I found out about it was through Facebook following a Cambridge University society. But for many residents in Cambridge without connections to Cambridge University, it might never occur to them to find and follow such societies on social media.
A more diverse audience?
Stuart Agnew was always going to get a hostile reception, so in one sense, fair play to him for going into the lions den. On the other hand, we didn’t get to see Labour, Liberal Democrats or the Greens come under close scrutiny from Euro-sceptics in the audience. I’d guess that had the event been advertised to a wider audience, a few of them would have come along and given an interesting challenge to the three of them.