WHILE the leaders’ debates have caused a political avalanche, on a local level these clashes are a time-honoured part of the election race.
Over the past few weeks, there have been several hustings in Solihull and Meriden. Last Sunday, the Solihull News went along to a debate at Light Hall School.
Making up the panel were five of the six Parliamentary candidates - the BNP had been invited, but not replied.
Facing the audience (from left to right) were Maggie Throup (Conservative), John Ison (UKIP), Lorely Burt (Lib Dem), Sarah Merrill (Labour) and Neill Watts (SAMRA).
Over 100 people had turned out for the event - most of whom where middle-aged or elderly, but there was a few young voters dotted around the hall.
Richard Wise, from Shirley Residents’ Association, opened proceedings - welcomed candidates onto the stage and the debate got underway.
Each candidate was given a minute to answer a question - cut to 30 seconds as time began to run out.
On the economy...
Ms Throup - Insisted that saving needed to begin straight away to get the economy moving, also attacked Labour’s proposed National Insurance increase.
Mr Ison - Said that the UK economy had suffered at the hands of EU law. He said that the party would introduce a 31 per cent flat tax.
Mrs Burt - Felt the economy was very fragile at the moment, said the Lib Dems were the only party to have costed their plans. The party has identified an annual £15billion in savings.
Ms Merrill - Warned that cuts to public spending this year would hit people on low incomes - like caterers and cleaning staff. Said that investment was needed.
Mr Watts - Explained that it was crucial to get more people back out to work. He works at Birmingham Airport, which he identified as very important to the local economy.
VERDICT - The three main parties each have their own strategy for when and how to make cuts. The Tories believe we should start this year, the Lib Dems and Labour are in favour of beginning further down the line.
And of course there are differing views about where the savings need to be made.
This difference in opinion about how to get the economy back in shape was the main focus of this weeks’ leader’s debate.
Ms Throup - Spoke highly of Britain’s capabilities and said it was important to encourage new jobs in this sector.
Mr Ison - Wanted to see more support for small and medium enterprises and also called for more apprenticeships to be introduced.
Mrs Burt - Argued that Labour and Tories had been in the thrall of the banks and that it was time to get back to making things.
Ms Merrill - Said that she’d seen lots of government investment during her time with the union Amicus. Also stressed the importance of green-technology.
Mr Watts - Emphasised the importance of putting more money into manufacturing and said it was imperative that Land Rover remained in Solihull.
VERDICT - All the candidates were in favour of increasing support for the manufacturing industry.
This is a particularly important issue for the West Midlands - where many firms have closed down or gone abroad.
Reference was also made to the recent Cadbury’s take-over and the fact that lessons had to be learned.
Ms Throup - Said that Britain should be proud of supporting genuine refugees. Argued the case for a dedicated border police and said that an Australian-style points system should be introduced for economic migrants.
Mr Ison - Pointed to the UN Convention, which said that asylum seekers should be housed in the first safe country. Said there needed to be tougher action on immigrants who abused the system.
Mrs Burt - Told the audience that Lib Dems would reintroduce exit-checks and a National Border force - criticised the system delivered by past governments.
Ms Merrill - Spoke out against claims that Britain was being swamped with immigrants who wanted to claim benefits. Argued that immigration figures had fallen.
Mr Watts - Felt that genuine asylum seekers should be supported, but the country needed to distinguish them from those who were coming here for a “free ride”.
VERDICT - Organisers received more questions on this issue than any other and it’s obviously a provocative issue.
Sarah Merrill slammed claims that this country let anyone in and that people were coming here to abuse the system.
Her words kicked the debate into life - with some of the audience applauding, while others shook their heads. It’s clearly something that people feel strongly about.
On hung parliaments...
Ms Throup - Argued that the country needed an outright majority and felt that a hung parliament would bring uncertainty and financial troubles.
Mr Ison - He said that UKIP would form a coalition with Tories, because there needed to be referendums on Europe.
Mrs Burt - Said the Lib Dems were going for every single vote, but denied the party were “kingmakers” - that power lies with the voters, she said.
Ms Merrill - Didn’t think the Labour government should form a coalition, but said that the country was moving away from a two-party system.
Mr Watts - Joked it would be difficult for him to form a coalition government, but said he would work with other independents if elected.
VERDICT - Britain could be heading for its first hung parliament for over 30-years and speculation is rife about what this will mean for the country.
Lorely Burt’s comments about the power resting with the voter earned a round of applause.
Ms Throup - Stressed that the borders needed to be secure - to prevent drugs getting into the country. Also felt that not enough people committing serious offences were getting jail sentences.
Mr Ison - Said that his party would make police more directly-accountable and allow residents to set policing priorities.
Mrs Burt - Talked about Lib Dem policies to increase the number of police officers and make police authorities directly-elected. Also referred to her experience working as a deputy prison governor.
Ms Merrill - Disagreed that crime was on the increase and said that the number of offences had fallen. Felt that tackling social issues, like unemployment and social security, was vital.
Mr Watts - Believed that society needed more respect and more police on the streets - said that offenders should serve full prison sentences.
VERDICT - Interestingly the question on tackling crime came not from a nervous pensioner, but a pupil from Light Hall School.
There was quite a wide spread of ideas about how each party could tackle offenders.
Ms Throup - Paid tribute to the armed forces and said that the conflict was to break the operations of the Taliban and Al-Quaeda.
Mr Ison - Said there was a lot of confusion about why troops were in Afghanistan and pleaged that UKIP would establish a tactical aim.
Mrs Burt - Lib Dems would save money through Trident and fighter-jet funding and put the cash into the Afghanistan mission.
Ms Merrill - Agreed there were strong reasons for being in the Middle-East, but thought that other NATO countries should supply their fair share of troops.
Mr Watts - Praised servicemen, but said that too many had been killed in recent months and it was time for a tactical withdrawal.