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Are Eastleigh's by-election candidates the worst ever?
THERE IS something of a democratic car crash about a by-election.
We all know that democracy is flawed as a system of choosing governments, but generally it is spread around so much that the imperfections are diluted by the sheer scale and majesty of millions of voters making their mark.
A by-election, however, concentrates the act of democracy down to one small geographical plot, one tiny island so to speak, where all the nation’s political bigwigs are drawn to ply their trade, where the effect is less majesty and more emperor’s new clothes.
For this we should, perhaps, be grateful.
Certainly, as we enter the final – thank heavens – stages of the Eastleigh by-election we can consider just how naked democracy can become.
In all this, as the borough and its long-suffering residents undergo the onslaught of the political and media worlds, there is little chance for the poor candidates to hide the odd foible, the longforgotten rash comment, the well-hidden skeleton at the back of the closet. Every word, every gesture, every pose is torn apart under the gaze of the voracious appetite of the national media, ever eager to cheer the un-picking of some scar.
So it is with all this in mind, and writing in this last End of the Week before votes are cast on Thursday, I turn to the candidates themselves at the heart of this tumult.
Perhaps, just maybe, all elections offer the voters such a disappointing cast of characters to choose from. It may be the case that only because of the intensity of the Eastleigh spotlight that we see all.
But then again we may just have unearthed quite the most unfortunate group in a long time.
So, from a purely personal point of view, let me then turn thoughts to those on the hustings...
Maria Hutchings: CONSERVATIVE
TORY candidate Maria Hutchings cannot breathe easy.
Her comments regarding the unsuitability of local schools to educate her son towards his wish to become a doctor seemed like a slap in the face for the local educational world, one where the children of Eastleigh constituents get their education.
The fact mother-of-four Mrs Hutchings already has children attending local schools makes the comment all the more strange, if not rash.
For large parts of the campaign it has appeared as if Tory controllers were reluctant to permit their candidate to even speak to the media.
Her schools remark would appear to underscore their concerns. But yesterday she held firm on comments unearthed from 2011 that called for parents of convicted youth offenders to do time next to their offspring, and her opposition to gay marriage unearthed from her Twitter feed.
And yet silly comments regarding the fact the family Christmas tree is still on display, leaked one presumes to make Mrs Hutchings appear wacko, began to look like nasty bully tactics by her opponents’ camps when it emerged that two of her children are autistic and one child enjoys the
presence of the gaily-lit tree.
If Mrs Hutchings appears at times out of her depth in this most ferocious and febrile of campaigns, then the Tories only have themselves to blame for pushing her forward into the circus.
Mike Thornton: LIBERAL DEMOCRAT
ON the face of it, Lib Dem candidate Mike Thornton has a huge advantage over his rivals.
True there is the need to outrun the memory of the recently departed – towards a prison cell no
doubt– previous incumbent in the post, former cabinet minister Chris Huhne.
But, despite the fact Mr Huhne showed a contempt for honesty that you would think should be a trademark in a politician, I do not believe the local electorate is likely to punish his would-be successor from the same party.
A look at the borough council with its massive Lib Dem majority reveals more than a little inherent support for the yellow hue.
What is more likely to undo Mr Thornton is his stance on a firm promise to keep the bulldozers away from Eastleigh’s green spaces, while at the same time voting through the Boorley Green plan to do just the opposite.
The creation of 1,400 new homes in the teeth of local opposition would seem to give some credence to the Lib Dem’s detractors that they speak one line but act out another.
To be fair, the argument that the borough desperately needs new homes is a fact. It’s just that it seems silly to have planted your flag on green issues when you knew it was likely to be mown down by a mechanical digger.
John O’Farrell: LABOUR
IF Labour’s minders had done their homework on their candidate John O’Farrell’s past and already knew of his penned attack on former Tory PM Margaret Thatcher in which he waxed lyrical on how he wished she had been killed by the IRA Brighton bomb and fantasised about slaughtering her himself with a machine gun, then they were blind or reckless in letting his name go forward.
In fact – and I hesitate to consider how anything could be considered more obscene than wishing death or violence on someone – even worse to my eyes was the fact Mr O’Farrell also wrote how he wished Britain had lost the Falklands War.
Putting to one side the fact defeat had brought about downfall of the vicious Argentinian fascist dictatorship that had been murdering its own people, to lose the war the British armed forces would have had to lose the fight, which meant losing the lives of many more men and women.
Is that really what Mr O’Farrell would have preferred?
That Mr O’Farrell was until recently employed by the BBC as a comedy script writer on Have I Got News For You says all about their research also – or perhaps they knew of his writings and just didn’t care. You decide.
We learnt this week also that Ed Miliband’s first choice for the Labour candidate at Eastleigh was local girl done good Fiona Phillips.
As her last local appearance saw her verbally attacking her now 80-year-old former headmaster
without giving him the chance respond and labelling a city shop keeper a “Jimmy Savile-type character”, again with no evidence, we have mercifully been spared that reality TV extravaganza.
Diane James: UKIP
AND then we turn to UKIP candidate Diane James who, no slow build-up here, launched her campaign by promptly laying the blame for a lot of crime on people from Romania.
As platforms for election go it was right up there with France’s hard right nationalist party whose leader Marie La Penn confirmed her connections with UKIP in the week.
But then Mrs James is hardly alone with such slurs.
At least one major national newspaper labelled Romanian citizens as criminals too and should shoulder blame for giving credence to such dangerous rubbish.
I need spare no more time on this candidate.
And the rest:
FOR the rest they are a colourful bunch. There are real issues. Doctors do not march through
the region in support of Dr Iain Maclennan, candidate for the National Health Action Party
unless they are concerned.
As for the Elvis Loves Pets and Beer, Baccy and Crumpet candidates… well, I could be convinced.
Perhaps then what we are seeing here is a once in a generation opportunity to witness democracy reduced to its clawing, biting worst.
Under normal circumstances the only spotlight falling on candidates in a general election would be the local press, and even then this paper would have some ten battle grounds to cover.
But Eastleigh, with its fight to the death between coalition partners, a Labour Party wishing to show its mettle and UKIP determined to draw blood, is at the centre of a national political maelstrom.
In such conditions the candidates are treated to the kind of scrutiny reserved usually for party
leaders. Little wonder they appear wanting.
I almost pity them.
Had such probing spotlights been turned against Mr Huhne maybe we would all have seen his
failings long before he was caught in the glare of the speed camera flash.