The Thursday before last, Durham’s newest political society, Model Westminster, launched its term with an ambitious attempt to recreate the time old classic, Question Time, with local councillors as panellists. Labour’s Carl Marshall, Liberal Democrats’ Amanda Hopgood, and Conservative’s Richard Bell represented the political spectrum here in county Durham. The event had the potential to be a real insight, for students, into the issues of our beloved city as well as the surrounding countryside and towns.
Listed to start at 7pm, we arrived a few minutes early at “Alington House”, tucked away, unnoticed by most, on the North Bailey. The site is ideal for the kind of event Model Westminster held, and I couldn’t recommend this relatively unknown hall enough for those wishing to hold similar addresses or debates – the set up was excellent, with all the apparatus and organisation ready for a crowded audience. However, by ten-past, only two other people had joined us, by half-past, representatives of the Society still outnumbered the audience and the event finally kicked off. It really wasn’t the kind of atmosphere which the Question Time we know and love thrives on. A forest of hands, clapping, booing, cheering, interruption and jostling are the tenets of an exciting, feisty political panel show, all of which were absent at this undersubscribed event.
Model Westminster’s version of David Dimbleby also left something to be desired. The chairman tried too hard to emulate the great man when trying to orchestrate audience participation and the response of panellists. Several times he interrupted questioner and panellist, cutting them off when they held the floor for more than thirty seconds. If there had been a few dozen questioners waiting in turn, one could understand the need for brevity, but given there were only half a dozen of us, it seemed quite unnecessary and hostile, especially given the event only lasted for an hour, and not the prescribed two hours.
However, criticism aside, the content of the discussion was informative, insightful and constructive. This was in large part thanks to the same chairman who did excel in the prepared questions and his marshalling of the panellists through prompts, encouraging the wide-ranging discussion.
On the question of their relationship to Westminster, all three councillors chimed in unison over the lack of accessibility. Richard, the Conservative councillor, remarked how the “screen of civil service” stood in the way of fluent dialogue between Ministers and the counties, especially since the only way to contact Ministers is through the bureaucrats. Amanda and Carl, the Lib Dem and Labour councillors, agreed with this sentiment, pointing out the major problem of geography; Durham is a long way from London. This affects both Durham’s relationship with the government and the councillors’ relationship within their own parties. They are not simply on the peripheries of England, but, in the north east, county Durham is subsidiary to Tyneside and Teesside when it comes to investment. Similarly, there seemed to be broad support for the devolvement of the budget and a resentment about the expectations of central government in relation to their budget.
Confronted with Brexit, all three nodded to the idea of rational optimism in the years ahead. Amanda, however, and true to her party, came down with a storm of caveats, particularly the hole in funding she expected, diminishments in trade, manufacturing and a greater sense of insecurity. Richard was more broadminded, and, representing a farming community that voted leave, was upbeat about our future and ability for the government to fill the gaps themselves, without direction from Brussels. Carl told us he tries to put on a brave face and get on with the job as a naturally optimistic fellow, despite his reservations on the national decision.
Turning to their day-to-day jobs as councillors, each in turn reflected on the usual complaints they received at their surgery. Bin collection, potholes, schooling, building planning, welfare and environmental issues all came up as typical problems they had to deal with. It all seemed fairly run-of-the-mill, local government operation and similar to any other part of our island. The emphasis, particularly from Amanda’s point of view, was on community – getting involved, creating a sense of neighbourliness and corps d’espirit in an insecure world.
In response to the greatest challenges he faced, Richard provided the interesting analogy of being a student. A council is given certain powers and money, yet is constrained by the parent political body, Westminster, in its execution. The budget and direction of government shapes the constraints of local councillors, which, I think, is actually how it should be. A rudderless ship with unlimited resources is a disaster waiting to happen. On the point of limited resources, Carl claimed this was his major objection. The £209 million cuts since austerity, he argued, had affected his constituents and wider council’s effectiveness in providing what his constituents demanded.
This was just a brief snapshot of the discussion, indicative of the wide scope the Model Westminster Society intends to provide at their events. The crying shame were the hauntingly empty chairs around me, reflected in the early remission of the event, and the slightly flat response when the chair asked for questions. Better advertising would significantly help the growing society, particularly if they asked the Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem student groups to rally the troops for their own councillors at such an event. This Thursday, their panel discussion on capitalism is in the Kingsgate bar at the Student Union, I just hope their advertising scheme has pulled in the crowds.