Opinion: Hyperbole and much of what you’d expect as MP candidates speak at REC hustings

REC Hustings, 20 June 2024 (l-r) Matt Lansley of Reform, Mohammad Yasin of Labour, Henry Vann of the Liberal Demcrats, Pinder Chauhan of the Conservatives, Ben Foley of the Green Party. Image: Bedford Independent
REC Hustings, 20 June 2024 (l-r) Matt Lansley of Reform, Mohammad Yasin of Labour, Henry Vann of the Liberal Demcrats, Pinder Chauhan of the Conservatives, Ben Foley of the Green Party. Image: Bedford Independent

It was a packed room at Rothsay Education Centre (REC) last night (20 June) as five of the candidates hoping to be Bedford & Kempston’s next MP faced questions from local people.

Hosted by the REC and chaired by Prof. Colin Talbot, the hustings were certainly less explosive than the debates we’ve seen on TV lately. With that, I felt we did get to learn a lot about each candidate’s priorities for our local area.

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In fact, former political journalist and journalism academic Kate Ironside said: “It was an invaluable opportunity for the candidates to set out their stalls to voters face to face. These moments are precious.

“Face-to-face contact beats any leaflet shoved through the letterbox or social media post. And it was clear from the packed audience at the Rothsay Education Centre, that the voters were keen to bombard the candidates with questions – and to get the answers to the issues that mattered to them.”

All seven candidates had been invited but we’re told only five RSVP’d. These were, in order of their seating (l-r)

  • Matt Lansley , Rerfom UK
  • Mohammad Yasin, Labour
  • Henry Vann, Liberal Democrats
  • Pinder Chauhan, Conservative
  • Ben Foley, The Green Party

Not attending were:

  • Tarek Javed, Independent
  • Prince Sadiq Chaudhury, Workers Party

Manifesto opener

First up, each candidate had three minutes (which seemed a lot longer) to talk about why they’re the right choice for Bedford & Kempston.

No real surprises here about what any of them were saying, naturally each claiming to be a better choice than the rest.

While the audience listened intently, you could hear murmurs of frustration as the same old political hyperbole was spouted out, “Vote for me and I’ll give you what you want”.

Each candidate promised better policing, better health care and generally a better life for everyone as they parroted their national manifesto.

None of them used their opening statement to focus on Bedford & Kempston issues fully, aside from telling the audience what their connection to Bedford was and how long they’d lived here.

A point that seems to have become more important than whether a candidate is likely to get things done or not.

Pre-submitted questions, chosen by chair Prof. Talbot meant the candidates had been briefed beforehand so they could each provide a minute-long response to each question, or that was the plan.

Some candidates claimed to have not received the questions or likely didn’t see them, and so while some had carefully pre-prepared statements others had to think off the cuff, each did a good job regardless.

National issues such as social care, transgender issues, policing, and health were covered well, and you can see what each party promises on these by reading their manifesto, as each candidate seemed to simply tow the party line.

Things got interesting when candidates were asked about local issues. EWR, mental health provision, water quality and business.

Universal Globe at theme park. Image: Universal Destinations & Experiences
The possible theme park coming to Bedford was something most candidates were taking credit for. Image: Universal Destinations & Experiences

It’s no surprise that some candidates claim to be the sole reason behind Universal Studios possibly coming to the area and that they’ll be the only candidate who will actually make it happen.

The irony here is that most, if not all of them (or their party), have played a part and if they just said that perhaps local people wouldn’t have to roll their eyes so much at the usual political BS many of us are so tired of.

Either way, everyone agreed that ‘if’ Universal comes to the area it will be nothing but a good thing, and it’ll see £billions of investment in the area.

Concerns over the environmental impact were raised but as Ben Foley, Green Party pointed out, “it’s better people have a theme park here than fly thousands of miles to visit one”.

East West Rail

EWR has been a hot topic since we first covered the options for an east-to-west rail route through Bedford in 2019.

Read: East West Rail reveal five route options for Bedford to Cambridge line

Conservative candidate Pinder Chauhan is the only candidate to have said we should accept the chosen Route E and instead fight for the best compensation we can for those affected.

“It [EWR] will connect us to the science parks and to Addenbrookes because you know, getting to Addenbrookes is a nightmare from Bedford and it will give us greater connectivity, more opportunity, and more footfall into our town centres and more investment too.”

Labour’s Mohammad Yasin called for a review of the whole East West Rail project, saying the current plans with home and bridge demolition are going to cause “chaos”

Liberal Democrat Henry Vann said that East West Rail Co had treated local people “shamefully” and that four tracks are all that is needed, so homes do not need to be demolished.

He did warn though that we need to be careful that Bedford Borough isn’t overlooked again, and instead “we get 1700 new lorries on our roads”.

Reform UK says the line is great for the area, The Greens are against the demolitions but support the principle of the ideas behind the lines.

Mental Health

Labour blames the Conservative government and the Conservatives blame the Labour MP (surprise, surprise) for the decline in mental health provision in Bedford & Kempston.

Everyone watching considers selling a kidney so they can afford to ‘go private’ and get the counselling they need to cope with all this arguing.

Many believe mental health provision in Bedford & Kempston is not satisfactory for all ages, and it’s something that needs to be improved quickly.

Ben Foley (Green Party) says promises to increase mental health support need to be “backed up with real money”. He says whether it’s Labour or Conservatives in power, there will be cuts.

“We need to increase funding for the NHS as part of that to make sure that mental health is brought into parity with physical health.”

Matt Lansley of Reform UK spoke of his own experiences with seeing young people struggling. He stopped short on saying what they’d provide via the NHS and instead suggested, “we need outside experts in schools that children can talk to”.

Conservative Pinder Chauhan also spoke of her own experiences with one of her children needing mental health support, “Every single school and GP should be able to recruit mental health practitioners into their practices,” she said.

Liberal Democrat Henry Vann blamed NHS bureaucracy and the current government for not lifting barriers to secure more mental health in the area, something Ms Chauhan rebuked.

Mr Vann added, his party would have a “mental health professional in every primary and secondary school.”

Mohammad Yasin from Labour also pointed to the need for mental health support in schools. The 6,500 teachers they are planning to recruit will be “trained to tackle mental health” from an early age.

“When we come into power, we’ll make sure that we release the money to start the construction of the mental health [unit] in Bedford,” he said.

Water quality

Water Quality, and in particular the cleanliness of our River Great Ouse was another point of concern.

Ben Foley of The Green Party spoke first here and he didn’t hold back.

“Water privatisation has been an absolutely unmitigated disaster,” he said angrily, “Greens would renationalise the water companies and invest £12 billion in water and sewage construction.”

River Great Ouse. Image: Bedford Borough Council
The quality of the water in our River Great Ouse is a concern of many. Image: Bedford Borough Council

Pinder Chauhan (Conservative) focussed more on her concerns over flooding than water quality, but did say that there needs to be more regulation of how water companies release sewage into waterways, instead of it being banned.

“If we banned companies from doing that sewage would be coming into our homes,” she said.

Liberal Democrat Henry Vann echoed others in saying that the profits water companies had given their shareholders needed to be stopped. “We would stop that so we could properly tackle this, as the infrastructure currently stands it needs a huge amount of investment.”

Mohammad Yasin (Labour) says regulators need more powers to block payments of bonuses to water company shareholders, “We will impose automatic and severe fines for the wrongdoing of companies who are polluting our rivers,” he added.

Reform UK’s Matt Lansley also echoed the rest of the panel and even said he was aligned with the Green Party candidate on this issue.

He said water companies have the perfect business model, being paid to provide what is a “commodity every human needs to survive straight into every home and business in the UK.

“I’m normally pro-free market. For Anglia Water to be in 6.6 billion in debt is a disgrace,” he said.

Final question

Prof. Talbot did a valiant job of keeping everyone on time, and he saved what, for me, was the best question until last. “If your party was elected, what do you think future generations would think about your government?”

Matt Lansley, Reform UK

Reform UK's Matt Lansley. Image: Bedford Independent
Reform UK’s Matt Lansley. Image: Bedford Independent

“I was born in 1992, at the time British GDP was £1.18 trillion and Indian and Chinese GDP combined was £781 billion. So other countries have been ambitiously growing at a rate of 6% a year… I can say the last 30 years have been deliberate mismanagement of Britain.

“In 30 years, if Reform UK gets in, we will create a new global superpower with our own Bill of Rights and flourishing low tax, high growth economy, safe streets, beautiful homes and everybody in gainful employment.

“We’ll be powered by nuclear energy, clean and cheap, and we will be a united society. So, I hope in a few generations they will be proud that Reform UK stood up to the mediocracy of two major parties.”

Mohammad Yasin, Labour

Labour's Mohammad Yasin, Image: Bedford Independent
Labour’s Mohammad Yasin, Image: Bedford Independent

“The people who are in their 30s now, all they’ve seen in their life is Tory chaos and they have lost hope, but this is their time to make a change and bring the Labour government forward.

“We will bring more police officers on the beat to tackle crime, we will make sure we get the biggest investment in generations of Universal Studio will make sure that we can have more GP and hospital appointments.

“That’s what the Labour Party is trying to do, please vote for Labour… We need to get rid of Tories, not give them another chance.”

Henry Vann, Liberal Democrats

Liberal Democrat's Henry Vann. Image: Bedford Independent
Liberal Democrat’s Henry Vann. Image: Bedford Independent

“In the next 30 years, tackling climate change is going to be absolutely critical. We’re all aware of the hotter summers we’re getting. We really need to do that. I would love my party to be seen as the party that solved the climate change crisis.

“Electoral reform to deliver proportional representation, so everyone’s voice is heard and we don’t have people coming up with typical lines about wasted votes, which I find really disappointing actually…

“MPs should be dealing with national issues. Devolution, a government that properly hands power back to local government and local councils to do what they should do rather than using them as an excuse to salami slice public spending.

Pinder Chauhan, Conservative

Conservative's Pinder Chauhan. Image: Bedford Independent
Conservative’s Pinder Chauhan. Image: Bedford Independent

“I’d like to see the country come first and politics come second because I think what we’ve witnessed tonight is actually quite disgraceful.

“What we’ve seen is politicians arguing with one another about who can do best and what’s happened in the past and what they can do better. But actually, we’ve had a huge pandemic that we’ve just experienced and we’ve had a cost of living crisis.

“We have had so much to deal with here. I’d like to see a future where our children are looked after and our elderly are treated with dignity as they grow older, the Conservatives have always taken care of our elderly when it comes to pensions.

“Under Labour, pensioner poverty was the fourth highest in Europe. What you’re gonna see with the Labour government is more taxation.”

Ben Foley, The Green Party

Green Party's Ben Foley. Image: Bedford Independent
Green Party’s Ben Foley. Image: Bedford Independent

“So, in 30 or so years time they would look back with relief that finally the country finally took its head out of the sand, recognised that business as usual was broken and the country couldn’t keep its foot on the accelerator to climate breakdown in the way that the other parties would keep it there.

“Looking back, they’d be amazed how close this country got to failing what it should do to combat the climate and nature emergency until it was too late, only to take the last possible chance to deal with them before they got out of control.

“They will look with pride at the changes initiated in the way that for decades we’ve looked with pride on the founding of the NHS, they’ll struggle to believe how unequal, unhealthy and unhappy a society there was, and how crime-ridden it was as a result.

“They’d be so glad about all of the people who voted Green in this election?”

A lot to digest and certainly more than we can include in a (relatively) short piece for our readers, so we’re pleased to tell you that tonight Bedford Radio will be broadcasting an edited version of the hustings.

You can find them on your DAB radio or online at bedford.radio.

Plus, the REC is also hosting a ’round-up’ session with Prof. Colin Talbot to unpick what was said. That’s being held on Wednesday, 26 June 2024 from 4pm until 6pm.

You can get tickets to that via the REC website recbedford.co.uk.