The Durham Candidates Debate: An Assessment

The election debate held at Durham Students’ Union last week was a chance for students to listen and ask questions to the candidates for the City of Durham constituency. The debate was reasonably well-attended, with DSU President Dan Slavin commenting that it was the most students he had seen in the DSU since the Freshers’ Fair. The majority of candidates standing attended the event, with the exception of the Labour candidate, and incumbent MP, Roberta Blackman-Woods, who sent a representative in her place, and the UKIP candidate Liam Clark. No explanation was given for Clark’s lack of attendance, though it was mooted that it may have been down to UKIP’s unpopularity amongst a predominantly left-wing audience. The debate was split into three key areas which had been highlighted as important to Durham students: education, the economy and Europe and immigration. After each candidate made some general points upon a topic, it was the students’ turn to ask the questions, which varied from university intake to productivity in the economy. Here is the low-down on how the candidates performed, to make that decision on 7th May a little easier.

Labour – Helen Goodman (standing in for Roberta Blackman-Woods)

With Ms. Blackman-Woods being unable to attend, the candidate (and previously incumbent MP) for Bishop Auckland, Helen Goodman, filled her place. By far receiving the biggest applauses from the audience, Goodman came across as a natural and experienced politician in comparison to some of the other candidates, although a few of her tactics (such as repeatedly saying each questioner’s name) felt a little forced. Her main points included the abolition of the bedroom tax and the lowering of tuition fees to £6,000. Ms. Goodman was the best speaker at the debate, although her attendance felt a little pointless given that she is not the candidate that students can vote for.

Conservative – Rebecca Coulson

In terms of facts and figures, Ms. Coulson was the most prepared candidate at the debate, whilst also being the youngest person there. She argued in a clear and concise manner on the issues discussed, but her focus on statistics meant that she came across as impersonal and removed from the audience. Arguing the Tories’ position that university fees should remain at £9,000, due to the fact that only those that can afford to will have to pay it back, Coulson held her own on a topic particularly sensitive with students.

Liberal Democrats – Craig Martin

Although not as confident or well-informed as the Labour or Conservative candidates, Craig Martin came across as likeable and the most ‘normal’ person present at the debate. A science teacher from County Durham, Mr. Martin argued competently on the issues without being particularly memorable. While jokingly referencing the party’s past actions on university fees, Martin defended the party by emphasising their positive contribution to the coalition government and reminding voters that Labour also broke their promises on university fees. He also argued for the mutual benefits of having a student body including a sizeable international contingent.

Green Party – Jonathan Elmer

From his strong background in environmental work, Jonathan Elmer seemed knowledgeable about his party’s environmental ethic. However, he sometimes became jumbled; at first he said that university spaces should be offered in relation to job demand, but later stated that university should not be about jobs but the development of the person. Whilst some good points were made, such as his emphasis on the Green Party’s alternative stance on taxes, Elmer did not perform as well as the three other party-affiliated candidates and would have benefited from making clearer arguments. Despite this, Elmer appeared to be receiving the second best responses from the audience, suggesting the Green Party is in good favour with students.


Reminding people that there is more to the election than party politics, two independent candidates were present at the debate. John Marshall performed the better of the two, beginning with an amusing anecdote about falling down an air vent in the DSU in his younger days. A comment about the university’s over-spending on the Palatine centre suggested he had done his research and went down well with the audience. However, his repeated references to mining and the war seemed irrelevant, suggesting he was out of touch with the student body and not fully understanding of their needs and desires. Although he seemed genuine in his attitude towards politics, his focus on his own personal experiences was a little heavy-handed for the university debate.

Jon Collings, the other independent candidate, was much less confident; he appeared very uncomfortable and looked as though he’d rather be somewhere else. Collings gave brief answers to the questions posed, at one point saying no more than that he didn’t know George Osborne’s policy on the matter. His comments were met with titters and noises of sympathy from the audience.

With less than a week until polling day, the time for decision-making – for those who haven’t already done so – is fast running out.

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