TIME TO TALK: The panel (from left) Conservative Councillor and Erdington parliamentary candidate Robert Alden; Alison Gavin, Green Party candidate for Meriden; Arjan Singh, of the Lib Dems; Keith Rowe, of UKip, candidate for Northfield
TWO BLACK-led community groups in Birmingham are among the first off the blocks to hold a good old fashioned pre-General Election hustings in the city where everyone from Ukip to the Green Party had a chance to have their say.
Organised by Birmingham Empowerment Forum (BEF) and Black Women in Politics – a cross-party initiative – political hot potatoes such as immigration, tuition fees, tax evasion, the banking crisis and lack of engagement with the African Caribbean community, were thrashed out at Laurel Road community centre in Handsworth.
In the spotlight on the panel was Birmingham Ladywood Labour MP Shabana Mahmood, Erdington Conservative councillor Robert Alden, Keith Rowe, UKip candidate for Northfield, Arjan Singh for the Lib Dems, with Alison Gavin representing the Green Party.
There were mutterings, however, when the meeting began late as people waited for Mahmood, who then left half way through after apologising that she had two other commitments that same night.
Arjan Singh probably provoked the most amusement of the night when he was asked why Nick Clegg had so publicly been against putting up tuition fees before the last General Election, yet agreed to the largest increase once in office.
Singh said: “When that promise was made Nick Clegg did not envisage being in office,” to much laughter from the floor.
Throughout the debate the discussion returned repeatedly to immigration, with panel chairman Desmond Jaddoo accusing UKip of being a party with one manifesto – immigration.
UKip’s Rowe insisted his party had policies for everything, but stressed they did not want to see a continued open door policy with Europe in order for it to be a level playing field for those wishing to enter the UK from outside Europe. He said being an EU member was costing £55 million a day which was crippling the county economically.
But Mahmood, whose Ladywood constituency is 60 per cent non-white, said she had “problems with UKip’s rhetoric” and said the party was “sowing the seeds of division when only immigrants from the EU were being seen as a problem.”
PROBLEMS: Shabana Mahmood, Labour MP for Birmingham Ladywood
She later defended her party when chairman Jaddoo put it to her that Labour had turned its back on the African Caribbean community and were recruiting far fewer black candidates.
Mahmood stressed that Labour reflected the ethnic make-up of the UK more than any other main party, adding that MPs like Diane Abbott has “bashed open” that door for others to follow.
She said: “I’m proud of our record but politics is a tough sell. The impact on personal lives can often be a bit too much for people – when entering politics people often have difficult decisions to make.”
While a comment from the floor won a round of applause when one woman said bankers had caused the country the most damage, rather than immigrants.
On the thorny issue of tuition fees, Alden, who is also standing as Conservative MP for Erdington, said he disagreed with his party on the fees increase, saying that the UK needed to change the way that university works.
“It’s immoral to saddle kids with debts before they have even started work,” he said. “In countries like Germany, only 30 to 40 per cent go to university with the majority going into vocational careers.”
There was anger from the floor on the amount of investment coming into Birmingham, which many believed was not being distributed fairly, creating a massive inequality. People demanded more accountability from both the city council and the government.
Alden added: “Birmingham needs to stop trying to be like London, focussing on too many grandiose projects making “a gold plated city centre.”