Conservative candidate Maria Hutching’s came out of her corner fighting on Sunday to confront Lib Dem front runner Mike Thornton over claims that he is campaigning to protect local countryside from development.
Polls are suggesting the election is a two horse race between Thornton and Hutchings and the two rivals were joined by four other candidates on stage at Wyvern College.
The hustings – organised by St Thomas’s Church – are unusual in that they form part of a community church service. Even more unusual this year is that one of the more prominent members of the congregation, Danny Stupple, is actually standing as an Independent candidate ensuring the support of a somewhat partisan home crowd.
Thornton, Hutchings and Stupple were joined by John O’Farrell the Labour candidate, Diane James for Ukip and Gavin Marsh who represented the TUSC candidate Daz Proctor
The 200 strong audiences who were invited to text in their questions to the chair and the most requested would then be posed to the candidates. This resulted in a flurry of notes being passed around the audience by furiously texting activists anxious to supply their candidate with a favourable question or to promote a question hostile to a rival.
Predictably perhaps, almost the first question was:
“Are the Eastleigh Borough Council plans for building on green field sites flawed?”
The council’s local housing plan which would involve 5,000 new homes being constructed on greenbelt land is certainly a contentious issue and conservatives have been frustrated with Lib Dem literature claiming that Mike Thornton had campaigned to save green space when he had actually voted in favour of the local plan as a councillor.
This was the cue for Mrs Hutchings to rise to her feet, point accusingly at Thornton and angrily demand that he admit that he had voted for the local plan and the construction of houses on the greenbelt.
Thornton was momentarly stunned by the dramatic gesture and for a split second resembled a man who had just been struck in the face by 25lb frozen halibut, before recovering sufficiently to splutter:
“Of course I voted for it.
“Why would I not admit to what is a matter of public record?”
“ It was a very difficult decision but there are 4, 700 houses going into brownfield sites.
“This is a plan is not fantastic for everybody – certainly I’d rather have more green spaces”
It’s perhaps worth mentioning that the two candidates have previously clashed over the local housing plan.
Last July Hutchings spoke from the public gallery during a Council debate as one of a number of speakers making representations to the council.
Mike Thornton ,in his role as a councillor, told the packed Council chamber that he respected the views of all the speakers with the exception of Maria Hutchings whom he had found to be untruthful – which at the time had left her fuming.
On Sunday she was able to return the slight by accusing him of being untruthful over the housing issue.
By this point Labour candidate, John O’Farrell, was beginning to look uncomfortable.
After all he had come down from London to contest a sleepy shire constituency on a platform of raising living standards only to discover he had apparently stumbled into the middle of a tribal blood feud.
Clearly frustrated he made he made a brief valiant, appeal
“This is a local authority issue and we’re talking about standing for Parliament now “
“I’m surprised ho w much of the literature from the conservatives and Liberals has been about local authority issues. I’m not standing for the council I’m standing for Westminster”
Following the fiery exchange the sound of phone keypads being repeatedly pressed reached a crescendo and resulted in a hand grenade of a question being lobbed firmly at Hutchings.
Are Eastleigh schools adequate to prepare pupils for University?
Maria Hutchings had been widely reported in the press as saying that she wanted a private education for one of her children to help them train for a medical career.
The Liberal Democrats seized the opportunity to point out that Mike Thornton’s daughter had attended the local state school – Wyvern – and was now studying to become a Doctor.
In the event Hutching took the question head on and clarified her position on local schooling.
“I think schools in Eastleigh are absolutely excellent .My husband went to state school. I went to state school my eldest daughter went to state school, my second child went to state school – and Harriet in January – we put her name down for Wyvern or Wildern. I think that proves what I think about Eastleigh education.”
The Ukip candidate seemed to cut rather a stern and forbidding figure onstage – a marked contrast to her chatty and convivial demeanour on the doorstep and in interviews.
She looked and sounded every inch like a Conservative candidate – even the Daily Echo seems to have become confused and named her as ‘Maria James’ in one story.
“My name Diane James not Dianna” she began – presumably to eliminate any possible confusion with the late Princess of Wales.
She answered all questions briefly and precisely and unequivocally.
Gay marriage – she would not have voted for it and never will. We need to call an end to immigration and leave the EU. The other parties are lying to you.
After the Hustings two people both described her to me as ‘Scary’ but the ’Iron Lady’ tag never seemed to hurt Maggie Thatcher so maybe Ukip are right when they say they have a candidate who will appeal to Conservative voters.
Both Danny Stupple and Maria Hutchings told the audience they were opposed to gay marriage on faith grounds while John O’Farrell pointed out legislation would not be binding on Ministers. They could not be compelled to perform same-sex ceremonies if they did not want to.
Mike Thornton talked about his faith as a Christian and a separation between spiritual and secular marriage in an evasive answer to the gay marriage question in a style reminiscent of Chris Huhne’s response to a question on abortion at the same hustings in 2010.
It was left to Gavin Marsh of TUSC to make the case for Gay Marriage.
It takes a brave man to face a Church congregation and tell them you think they are wrong:
“ I certainly am in favour of this being enacted I think it is a very progressive, common sense and an egalitarian issue and I think it’s a mark of a forward looking democratic society.”
Danny Stupple is well known around Fair Oak a former governor of Wyvern Schoo,l a local businessman and a prominent figure in the local Christian community.
He seemed to have more self confidence than the rest of the candidates put together.
A practised public speaker he used his time to promote his ‘family values’ message to the audience in particular his belief that ‘real marriage’ is heterosexual.
Stupple advanced the main argument advanced by all independent candidates – which is that politicians vote with the party whip even if it does not reflect the will of their electorate. Only an independent candidate is free to speak his mind.
After the hustings finished it was difficult to find a member of the audience to talk to who didn’t support Danny Stupple but Eastleigh News still gave it a go.
First was Kelvin (full name supplied) a young married with a young family to support.
“I quite liked Diane (Ukip). Normally I support the Conservative party really but after listening to everyone today some of the answers that Dianne gave impressed me.
“I was surpised by the Lib Dem, I thought he would be a bit more enthusiastic and positive”
Kelvin said his top concerns were “Housing and family”
“I’ve got a young family and I would like to be able to buy my own property. At the moment we currently rent which is ok for now but house prices at the moment mean it’s not realistic to buy our own home. It’s not feasible .My main concern is what is going happen in the future in terms of housing and house prices “
“I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t understand how house prices can keep rising, maybe the breakdown of family life and immigration has something to do with that”
“ I would like to see more houses built and maybe more affordable housing at the same time but I would like to think consideration would be put into place in terms of transport and flooding I’ve noticed problems with flooding in Hedge End. It feels like the place floods a lot.”
Richard (full name supplied) was one of many people I spoke to who would be voting for Danny Stupple:
“I have known for Danny for the best part of 10 to 12 years now. He is a good honest man. I believe in the same things he believes in.
“I used to vote Liberal but you don’t get what you’re voting for. Like Danny said, they are controlled by the party machine but an independent candidate can stand by what they say.”
“My main issue is education provision particularly for children with special needs but also the whole family ethos.”
Another Stupple supporter – who did not wish to be named – told me Mike Thornton would be her next best choice.
“I liked the Liberal Democrat and what he stood for and also for being a local person. I believe we have problems with education and poverty. There is real hardship in Eastleigh.”
“We (the Church) support food banks in Eastleigh. We had over 200 people through the doors over Christmas. Last week there we had 67 people. They don’t believe you can change things with a single vote”
One young couple – both Stupple supporters – told me they had also been impressed with ‘the Daz guy'(TUSC).
“What he was saying is true. We didn’t cause the economic crisis why should we pay for it?”
Finally Julie (Full name supplied) gave me her run down on the Candidates.
“Maria Hutchings was probably the best candidate – she definitely was the better of the two women. She is local, she obviously campaigns a lot and she spoke well – she stumbled over a couple of things -but she was the only one who bothered to stand up to speak.”
“The Ukip candidate looked too serious – a bit like a headmistress – and she never smiled.”
“Out of the men I liked the trade union candidate best. He seemed the most passionate in what he was saying. The Lib Dem seems a nice man but he was a bit vague and woolly. The Labour man looked like he knows he hasn’t got a hope round here well – no one is going to vote Labour round here not Horton Heath – unlike Danny – he has a lot of support here.”
Danny Stupple – Independent
“Something has happened to our society. I know, deeply know the realities of local life, I really do. In its mechanisms. In the way it works. I think there is something much more radical. I don’t think we have a choice. I don’t think people realise what is about to happen in the world. Whatever the parties promise they are being dictated to by a machine. Because freedom arises from you. It comes from the grass roots back to Westminster everyone i s answering from Westminster. That is my great frustration. We have got no choice. In my opinion we have to spend less, the world is about to change.”
Gavin Marsh for Daz Procter – TUSC
“Eastleigh is a constituency of many contrasts. There are parts of the constituency which have been shielded from the worst parts of the recession but there are also parts of the Eastleigh constituency particularly the town centre, which are among the top 20 % percent of wards for deprivation. But where is the voice for those people who are losing their jobs, facing a squeeze on living standards bring priced out of education or seeing their public services failing? What we have is a cartel in Parliament of the major political parties who have tried to sell an illusion that the economic crisis that we face is our responsibility when it was in fact caused by financial mismanagement”
Diane James – Ukip
“Eastleigh has a huge opportunity to actually make politicians wake up. They can stop burying their heads in the sand they can stop adopting an ostrich approach and wake up and smell the coffee. Unless we pull out of the EU a large majority of the issues we face every day of the week in every aspect of what we do will not go away.”
John O’Farrell – Labour
“I grew up in the Thames Valley but I hope people will vote on the basis of what they stand for what their philosophies are whether they are from a certain political party. People feel that their living standards are been squeezed, they are feeling that they are paying a lot of money in tax they are paying a lot of money on rail fares. It feels like a contract has been broken.- if you work hard you will get on. A lot of people round here voted Liberal Democrat to keep the Conservatives out – what happened was that they voted Liberal Democrat and they put the Tories in. Now I am your trail offer MP. You can try me for two years and if you don’t like me you can get rid of me.”
Maria Hutchings – Conservative
“ I am so embedded in the community. I’ve knocked on doors for months and years. Why vote conservative? The overarching issue that concerns people is the economy and it is the Conservatives that have frozen council tax, kept mortgage rates down, freezing cost of fuel. We were left an awful legacy by the Labour government and we are getting this country back on its feet.”
Mike Thornton – Liberal Democrat
“I am absolutely determined to stay in touch with all of you. I try that desperately as a councillor I’m constantly walking and talking to people and sometimes get abuse down the Anglers where I have the occasional pint. We get castigated on the housing issue but I’m just determined to provide houses for my daughter for when she returns here from university. I’m also determined that the green spaces are maintained between the communities so Fair Oak doesn’t become West End and West End does no become Hedge End. We need to that with a proper long term plan I stand by our local plan even if it makes me unpopular because we need to do it right.”