Election hustings causes row as Tory candidate declines invitation

Church of the Ascension in Torrisholme. Picture: Google Street View
Church of the Ascension in Torrisholme. Picture: Google Street View
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Rivals tore into the man who will defend his Morecambe seat in the general election after he “declined” to attend a public Q&A.

David Morris, Conservative candidate, did not attend a hustings in Torrisholme on Tuesday evening – the only absentee of the five candidates battling for the Morecambe and Lunesdale seat on June 8.

Steve Trainor, host of the event at the Church of the Ascension, said Mr Morris “declined the invitation” and the Tory’s absence was mentioned many times throughout the night.

Vikki Singleton, Labour candidate, accused Morecambe’s MP for the past seven years of “refusing to engage with the electorate, refusing to put Morecambe on the map and taking credit for things he hasn’t done”.

Lib Dem candidate Matt Severn said Mr Morris’ absence was “the main thing anyone should take away from tonight” and UKIP’s Robert Gillespie said Mr Morris “had done nothing for Morecambe”.

But Mr Morris’s spokesman said today, Wednesday: “We told the organisers two weeks ago that David could not make this event, and they should have informed the public of this when publicising the event.”

Also during Tuesday night’s Q&A session, UKIP candidate Robert Gillespie was taken to task by a member of the audience after he uttered the word “Jesus!” to emphasise a point he was making.

Mr Gillespie said sorry for the “slip of the tongue” after the woman said she found it “offensive to take Jesus’ name in vain” at a church.

Mr Severn also thanked foreign doctors and nurses for saving his wife’s life in reply to Mr Gillespie saying “I want my country back”.

The Lib Dem also described US President Donald Trump as “an orange Muppet”.

And Green candidate Cait Sinclair had a heated exchange with an audience member over her tolerant views on dealing with terrorist extremism.

The hustings, held in front of around 90 members of the public of varying political viewpoints, began with opening speeches from the four candidates.

Vikki Singleton said she wanted to see good quality housing, better transport links, an energy hub near Heysham Port and a hub for small businesses in Morecambe.

Mr Gillespie attacked both the Conservative government and the previous Labour administration, and said Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron didn’t understand democracy by backing a second referendum on the European Union.

The UKIP candidate also said that he wanted to see Morecambe Town Council – not Lancaster City Council - receive government cash to spend on Morecambe. He also said he wanted to see taxes cut for small businesses.

Cait Sinclair said she felt that nobody during the election campaign was talking about the environment. Mrs Sinclair also said the Greens would bring an end to austerity.

“When you prune a plant you prune it from the top and not the roots,” she said.

“We are the roots of society. When you make cuts at the bottom, you weaken the plant.”

Matt Severn said he backed a third nuclear power station at Heysham and giving the British people a second referendum on the EU but not on membership, but instead on the terms of a deal to leave. Mr Severn also gestured to an empty chair, put out to symbolise the absence of David Morris, and said “the Conservative view is represented by that chair, and that’s the main thing anyone should take away from tonight”.

All the candidates then took questions from the audience.

The four agreed that they were against the controversial process of fracking for shale gas which has been approved by the Conservative government.

Robert Gillespie caused a stir when he said UKIP would give local people “referendums” on important decisions such as fracking. A member of the audience said “we don’t want referendums all the time” and said elected members should make decisions on behalf of the people who vote them in. Mrs Singleton then accused Mr Gillespie, who described himself as “a coach driver, not a politician”, of “political inexperience”.

The panel was then asked about if they welcomed ‘tactical voting’ to stop the Tories. Matt Severn described US President Donald Trump as “an orange Muppet”, using his rise to power as an example of what happens when people are given limited voting choices. Mr Severn said proportional representation would be a fairer electoral system.

Cait Sinclair said the current government was an “elected dictatorship” and, in a rare show of solidarity with UKIP, said it was unfair that Mr Gillespie’s party got four million votes in the 2015 general election but had only one MP.

Vikki Singleton said the only way to get rid of David Morris was to vote Labour.

Then Robert Gillespie said he was frustrated that the only UKIP MP was Douglas Carswell, a former Conservative who Mr Gillespie said didn’t have UKIP in his heart. “Jesus, man!” he said, to emphasise his frustration, which led to mutters of disapproval in the audience and later, the Scot apologised for his language, saying he “didn’t mean any disrespect”.

John Reynolds, a Labour councillor who was in the audience, then asked Mr Gillespie why UKIP pledged to scrap inheritance tax. Mr Gillespie said people work hard all their lives and shouldn’t have to pay the tax and, referring to the foreign aid budget, said: “We are giving money away hand over fist when our own people need it.”

This led to a question on foreign aid. Vikki Singleton said “UKIP would like to blame foreigners for everything” and said it was a “good thing” to give a little back to poorer countries. Matt Severn said he “didn’t believe in throwing money away” but said “if aid helps bring peace to an area, you would hope British troops wouldn’t be needed in a few years to sort it out”. Cait Sinclair said international aid was “prevention” and “reduces some of the problems that (the British government) have caused”. Robert Gillespie hit out at giving “£134m to Pakistan” when “our veterans are on the street” but said some money should go abroad to help people get cleaner water and improve living conditions.

Mr Gillespie was challenged when he said “I want my country back” by an audience member who wanted to know “From whom?” The UKIP candidate said he believed the country was “going down the pan” and that “people are fed up”. This led to a passionate rebuke from Matt Severn.

“When my lovely daughter was born, we had a South African midwife, an Estonian doctor, and my wife’s life was saved by a Nigerian doctor,” said Mr Severn.

“Where are these people going to come from if people like Rob get into power? We need these people so they can save my wife and care for my daughter.”

A question on Brexit led Vikki Singleton to say she believed Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was the best person to lead negotiations to leave the EU.

“Theresa May has said ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ so she is happy as long as she can stamp her feet and be a strong and stable woman,” she said.

“Jeremy Corbyn has said he will do a deal in terms of protecting our workers and businesses.”

Mrs Singleton was also asked by a first-time voter if she thought Mr Corbyn was a strong leader. She admitted she voted for Andy Burnham, not Mr Corbyn, in the 2015 Labour leadership election but then voted for Mr Corbyn in his second leadership battle in 2016. The Labour candidate said Mr Corbyn had “really impressed me over the past few weeks”.

“People say he’s not bolshy but I think we need somebody like that, with a gentle approach,” she said.

But Matt Severn said “I don’t have much respect for Jeremy Corbyn” and pointed out that unlike Mr Corbyn and Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron is from the north of England.

Referring to Mrs May’s refusal to debate head-to-head with Mr Corbyn on Channel 4’s ‘Leaders Debate’ on Monday night, Cait Sinclair said: “Theresa May couldn’t face Jeremy Corbyn so how on earth is she going to face Brussels?”

Robert Gillespie simply said: “I have no respect for Jeremy Corbyn.”

An audience member then asked the panel how they would deal with extremism in the wake of the Westminster and Manchester terror attacks.

Vikki Singleton said Labour would “put police back on our streets” and give money back to local government. Matt Severn said terrorism was “evil” and Saudi Arabia should withdraw its preachers from British mosques. Robert Gillespie said “they are amongst us” and asked why British security forces had a ‘watch-list’ of 3,000 people they were monitoring when “we should stop them before they do something”.

Then Cait Sinclair had a heated exchange with an audience member after she said “we shouldn’t have hatred and prejudice, we should welcome them and stop them from being radicalised in the first place by stopping the discrimination against them”.

The man said “What, so they can blow us up?” and said the Manchester bomber Salman Abedi “wasn’t of British heritage, so wasn’t British”. Mrs Sinclair pointed out that Abedi was born in Britain.

Mr Trainor closed the hustings after almost two hours by inviting written questions for all the candidates, including Mr Morris.