As we approach the final days of what seems like the longest election campaign in history, I am finding myself regularly in the company of the five people also seeking to represent Ealing North in Parliament.
The practice of holding hustings is less prevalent today than once was the case. When my Labour predecessor, Bill Molloy, stood for election in this constituency in 1964 he held at least one public meeting and often also a hustings every night of the week but in this campaign although I have had several community meetings, I’ve only been on the same table as my opponents on about half a dozen occasions.
Hustings are a delightfully old fashioned practice that probably reached its peak in mid Victorian England when candidates would use the opportunity to vie with each other in terms of what bribes could be offered an enthusiastic electorate.
Meal tickets were routinely issued by Parliamentary candidates up until the end of the nineteenth century and I find that there are still people who expect me to buy a round for prospective voters even though “treating” has long been illegal.
The Tory who stood against me in 2001 actually reported me to the Returning Officer as he had spotted me paying for someone’s ice-cream on a hot afternoon on the Drayton Bridge Estate. Apparently even that constituted "treating" although I thought it a rather pathetic thing to do and Ealing North obviously agreed as my majority rose to 12,000 in that election.
Hustings during this election in Ealing North have almost all been arranged by churches and I am personally very grateful to the likes of Greenford Baptist, St Nicholas Perivale and St Barnabas in Northolt for going to so much trouble to ensure a little more democracy during the election. I was also really impressed by Bazil, Evelyn and Raheem at Greenford High School for organising the best attended hustings to date and for ruthlessly interrogating the candidates who accepted the invitation to attend.
By now the six of us have come to know each other fairly well. We are not quite at the stage of making each other’s speeches; although their words are becoming fairly familiar to me. I freely admit that some of the questions have been very difficult to answer and certainly a few of us were seen to be squirming in our seats as members of the audience unleashed their inner Paxman.
Although all but one of us will be thrown out of our local equivalent of the Big Brother House on May 7th a certain camaraderie has grown up between us and whilst we are very much opposed to each other politically I think that in most cases a little respect has grown up between us.
That does not mean that we will rein in our blows for the remaining hustings nor that we will in any way cease to make the best possible case for our and our parties’ political beliefs.
Winner takes all is a fairly brutal system and whilst it is probably better than the pure proportional representation of a system that would remove any link between an MP and his or her constituency, I personally believe that the alternative vote in single member constituencies could be the way to improve democratic participation and to answer the old question of ‘what is the point’ in voting Labour in Surrey or Tory in County Durham but this is a debate for another day and right now all my energies are being spent on seeking to win Ealing North and to see my party in power nationally.
No one knows what the result will be on May 8th but for the sake of the National Health Service, employment security, a move away from the scorched earth austerity that certain ideological hard right wingers are pushing, a house building programme, a reduction in student tuition fees, an energy bill freeze, an end to exploitative zero hour contracts, a rise in the minimum wage to £8 and 25 hours free childcare per week, I hope you will forgive me for saying that my money is on the person in the red corner and I hope that I am back in Parliament in May, both to represent my friends and neighbours in Ealing North and to work with Ed Miliband to prove that there is a better way and that Labour has a better plan.