East Thanet election hopefuls – or some of them – under the spotlight at Margate hustings

The candidates at the hustings in Margate Photo Daniel Esson

By Local Democracy Reporter Daniel Esson

Many spent the warm and bright Kentish evening of June 20 watching England draw with Denmark at the Euros.

A lucky few of us however were packed into general election hustings to watch aspiring parliamentarians put their case to the people – well, some of the people – of East Thanet.

The event was held at Olby’s in Margate – a charming “soul cafe” near the Turner Contemporary.

The constituency has been dismembered and reassembled in the most recent boundary review. The Isle of Thanet used to be two constituencies – North and South. However, it’s now East Thanet (comprising mostly Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate) and Herne Bay and Sandwich (taking in part of Margate, Birchington and Westgate).

Former South Thanet MP Craig Mackinlay returned to parliament in May following a shock battle with sepsis which saw him undergo the amputation of his arms and legs.

However, on the day of his comeback the election was called, and days later he announced that given his current health, he felt it would be impossible to campaign. As such, the Tories put up Helen Harrison for the seat.

Labour’s Polly Billington is the favourite to win the constituency on July 4 under the most recent research from YouGov and the poll of polls, Electoral Calculus.

On a neighbouring street, I saw a picture advertising the apparent candidacy of one Rick Astley for the seat – pledging to never “give you up, let you down or desert you”.

Despite being hosted in the downstairs concert room of the restaurant, there was no impromptu gig from the man himself, though many more explicitly political forces were well represented.

There are eight candidates in East Thanet, but not all were present.

Paul Webb, of Reform, was in attendance, as was Steve Roberts, of the Greens, the aforementioned Polly Billington, of Labour, and the independents Paul Holton and Grahame Birchall.

The Conservative candidate, Helen Harrison, fresh from her October defeat in the Wellingborough by-election in Northamptonshire, was not in attendance.

Nor was Liberal Democrat man Jai Singh, or the third independent for the seat, Mo Shafaei, though all were invited.

Asked why Ms Harrison did not attend, a spokesman for the East Thanet Conservatives Association said: “Helen is attending hustings in Ramsgate, Broadstairs and Margate over the next two weeks so residents in all three towns can hear from her directly. Helen’s been knocking on doors and speaking to voters every day since she was selected as our candidate.”

Mr Singh said he was unable to attend due to a prior family commitment.

The event was hosted by Social Enterprise Kent CIC, and was focused on the parties’ positions on the voluntary sector, and community and social enterprises.

Hosted by Jo Verney of the Future Economics Alliance – which stresses the importance of the voluntary sector – this event was subdued and civilised, especially by the standards of local politics.

Most questions had a focus on the voluntary and charity sector, for which all candidates expressed their praise.

In a recurring theme, local Green candidate Mr Roberts (pictured) early on in the night argued for how Green policy will benefit local charities and volunteer organisations.

The Green Party will scrap VAT on “cultural activities”, he stated. “That lowers the price of everything from music tickets to tickets here at Olbys. That makes it more viable, makes it more accessible for everybody.”

He also stressed the Greens’ plans for a wealth tax. However, this provided an early opportunity for Labour’s Ms Billington to come out swinging.

“We need to be realistic about things like this – if you vote for a wealth tax that won’t happen because the Greens won’t get in, you will get a Tory government,” she said.

Reform’s Mr Webb stressed that charities and voluntary organisations are “taxed to death for everything they do” and the only way to support local charities is “to lower taxes for everybody from the working person to businesses”.

Local independent Mr Holton also praised the role of charities in the UK’s ailing economy, arguing “they prop up against a lot of the failings and misgivings of our government for the past 14 years now”.

The emotive issue of local poverty and foodbank usage was also raised, with the Greens’ Mr Roberts saying: “Foodbanks are a disgrace, honestly we should be ashamed of ourselves as a society.”

Mr Webb argued the solution to poverty was not more state support, but lower taxes: “It’s quite simple really, we need to give people the opportunity to keep the money they earn.”

He added his support to his party’s policy of raising the income tax payment threshold to £20,000.

Low tax arguments were a staple of his throughout the night; he later said: “Pretty much everyone’s talked about giving money back to people, how about we just don’t take it from them in the first place?”

Mr Holton made a point that as a child his family used both foodbanks and clothing banks, adding he felt the situation in the “last 14 years has got absolutely ridiculous”.

The constituency includes Cliftonville West – one of the most deprived wards in the country.

Water pollution and environmentalism were also hot topics.

“I’m a surfer myself – the hair may be a giveaway – so I see this up close,” said Mr Webb on questions of water quality.

Mr Holton criticised the country’s water infrastructure and stresses placed upon it by “overdevelopment” in Thanet – nodding to the issue of local housebuilding, which was mentioned only in passing throughout the evening.

“The only solution to stop Southern Water from dumping raw sewage into our seas is to bring them back into public ownership,” argued Mr Roberts.

Keen not to be outflanked on eco credentials, Ms Billington said: “I’ve been an environmentalist all my life.”

Though she did not mention renationalising water firms, she slated them openly for their poor environmental record, adding: “We can take those people to court, make them face criminal charges, force them not to have their bonuses.”

Local independent candidate Mr Birchall made a point of reiterating his key policy priority numerous times, that “80% of local taxes go to Maidstone – to Kent County Council” so we should leave the clutches of county control – a ‘Thexit’ you might say.

Responding to a question on arts and culture, he said: “We have to spend more locally from the arts in our Thanet schools. The only way this will happen is for we in Thanet to take control of our schools and funding and the only way that will happen is to leave KCC.”

Grahame Birchall

On another question, he stressed: “Thanet needs to be responsible for its own economic development, which is why Thanet needs to separate from Kent County Council.”

He argued for Thanet to become a mayoral authority with a directly elected mayor, with no connection to the county council – the upper tier authority in the rest of Kent.

Thanet secessionism from Kent however is a niche cause – he received applause for his criticism of the current government but it seems doubtful the Isle’s independence will be the key issue at the election.

In a summing-up statement at the end, Mr Birchall said: “My campaign is not something that’s going to end after this election, unlike some of the candidates here who are probably going to take the four years to recover.”

Given the limited success of independent candidates for Parliament around the country, the cause of Thanet secession may have a long slog ahead of it.

“I used to be a journalist for a very long time and I enjoyed it until I realised that I was reporting on injustice every day without doing anything about it, that’s why I got into this game,” said Ms Billington.

“This is not about how you feel, this is about how you wake on Friday, July 5.”

Mr Roberts from the Greens, presumably in reference to Labour’s ‘Change’ slogan, implored the room: “Now is not the time for compromise – now is the time for real change, which is why I urge you all to vote Green.”

Mr Holton (pictured) said: “I’m not here for the fame or the fortune, I don’t even want a cabinet post if I get in.”

In a similar vein, Mr Webb said: “All these professional politicians that you hear from every day of the week, they’re all telling you what they think. How about we listen to what the people want for once?

“The only way we are really going to save broken Britain is if you vote for Reform because nothing else has worked in the last 30 years.”

The main recurring theme throughout the night was contempt for the Conservative government and the state of affairs in Thanet under their reign.

Despite their differences, every candidate was met with varying degrees of praise when they slated the incumbent government, especially on the favoured topics of the economy and environment.

Reform UK candidate Paul Webb

Mr Webb, who spent the evening attacking the Conservatives from the right, received applause when he noted the current government’s representative “couldn’t be bothered to turn up”.

He got further applause when arguing “this Tory government has absolutely wrecked pretty much everything in this country in the last 14 years”.

He did however prompt a rare heckle of “rubbish” when, on the topic of benefits and disability-related spending, he said money needs to go to ”the right people who deserve it”.

As with all such events, people who already had a political corner to fight were overrepresented.

The undecided voters of East Thanet did not seem to be in attendance.

The event may have seemed so civilised, and heckling so minimal, because nobody present was batting for the Tories.

If the Conservative candidate Helen Harrison attended perhaps the mood would have been more febrile.

Would a different audience be any less incensed by the state of the country and the county? It seems hard to believe. With the state of the national polls and the vibe in the room that night, the question doesn’t seem to be who will claim the seat, but how badly the Tories will lose.

32 Comments

  1. Well.
    I haven’t voted in a General Election this century, but I will be voting for Paul Webb (no relation).
    I think that all the parties are in for a far bigger shock than they even imagine in their worst nightmares. Reform is not just going to take votes from Tories. It’s going to take most of the pro-Brexit Labour voters crosses too. They can all see that Westminster has ignored their wishes. Brexit needs completing and, it will be.

    • How does Brexit need completing, and what will it give to the people of the UK when it has been completed?
      So far, by any metric you choose, it’s been an unmitigated disaster.

        • Never mind what’s happening in Europe. We’ve left it.
          How have we, the UK nationals, benefitted?
          Has the NHS benefited to the tune of £350M a week, as Boris’ Bus said it would?
          No.

    • I met Paul Webb ( Reform UK) in Ramsgate on Friday – what a lovely chap! He works all around Thanet as a professional phototographer and has a real passion for the area. Lots of people came up and shook his hand saying they were voting Reform. Really hope he wins the seat – he’s got my vote.

  2. I’m voting Reform, but I’m happy with anyone getting in who aren’t Tories or Labour. Someone else deserves a chance. Neither Helen Harrison nor Polly Islington live anywhere near Thanet and are just using us to pump-up their respective party MP numbers. Labour out. Tories out.

  3. We’ve been taken for fools for far too long by the main parties, it’s time for change. The electorate must be heard so for me, it’s time for Reform.
    let’s begin by leaving globalist organisations, the country can be global without them. I’m referring to the WEF and the WHO in particular.

    • Reform plans a two-tier NHS. Those who can afford it will pay into a private health insurance, and benefit from private practice.
      Those who can’t afford private health care insurance (or suffer from uninsureable conditions such as diabetes, MS or cancer) will “benefit” from a catch-all basic service (and even that will be met by private practice).
      It’s an example of a way to make rich people richer, by moving public money into private hands.

  4. This is what happens if you close all the mental health hospitals, they all want to be ‘someone’ they are not quite cut out to be 🙂

  5. Changed my vote a lot over the last few years but no way am I risking more disaster by giving Conservatives another 5 years.
    Worst still would be Reform – who seem to be less well organised than UKIP and they were thick as mince when they took control of TDC.
    After meeting her when she knocked on my door a couple of months ago, I’m voting for Polly Billington.
    She’ll be really good MP and having seen her out and about a few times, she clearly likes it here.
    Vote for Polly!

    • Polly, who lives in Islington, London ( isn’t that the dwelling of a certain Jeremy Corbyn…?) We don’t want a radical far left in Thanet.

  6. I attended this & found Billington rather rude & robotic. The Reform chap was clueless . Green seemed to know what he was talking about & was personable. The two Independents were decent community minded guys. Not impressed that Tory & LibDem couldn’t be bothered

  7. For me the two main parties have moved so close to the centre ground that there is virtually no difference between them. If you compare the two leaders at the last election there was no doubt about their difference’s. Inevitably Labour will win this time because the vote will simply be against the government, but I fear it will just be more of the same.
    Maybe the support for Reform will shake this up a bit in the future. The Greens and Lib Dems must be shocked and upset that they are regularly above them in polls and not far from the Conservatives.
    We will know how true the polls were in two weeks.

  8. what a wonderful thought , the end of these over priveledged eton schoolboys , we have been looked down on for centurys by the ruling classes .i never thought i would see this day and its a cause for celebration , in just a few short years cameron , johnson , and sunak have destroyed the tory party ( hopefully for ever ) its time for change , and with reform and nigel we can change this country for the good

    • You do realise Nigel Farage is ex-public school and was a City trader, I assume? Hardly ‘man of the people’image he likes to project.

      • So what? He mixes with ordinary folk and actually listens to them rather than telling them what HE thinks. Farage is a people’s champion and he LOVES his country, unlike the others who are happy to let us be invaded on a daily basis by people who have no intention of integrating and honouring our culture.

    • Nigel Farage went to Dulwich College before becoming a City commodities trader.
      Keir Starmer went to Reigate Grammar – which at the time was a state school.
      One of them is working class – and it’s not Nigel Farage.

  9. Really enjoyed the evening, was a great turn out, and some really good questions, its not easy having limited time to answer some big issue topics, but hopefully people got the idea of what I am all about but just to extend the reference to something I said: “Mr Holton (pictured) said: “I’m not here for the fame or the fortune, I don’t even want a cabinet post if I get in.” I also said as an Independent Candidate rather than be held to a Cabinet position I would prefer to be with the Constituency working hard. Huge thanks to Kathy, Daniel and the organisers of the event, along with Eli from Olbys

  10. Despite what appears to be an unassailable lead, rather than try to convince the voters of why the Labour Party should lead the next Government they seek to spread fear that a vote for one of the challenger Parties is a vote for the Consersatives as evidenced by the Labour candidates attack on the Green Party at the recent local hustings.

    And why is that?

    Because the Green Party have solid , long term and well thought out policies but above all else have honesty & integrity.

    Shame on them; like the Conservatives, they don’t deserve to be in power.

    The time has come to replace the current voting system with proportional representation to reflect the true voting preference of the general public.

    • Couldn’t agree more Mark. Billington being a parachuted in candidate is bad enough and suggests to me Labour assume it’s a safe way for them to get her in and by extension get her in the future Cabinet, but on top of that she also seems to just be a Manifesto Deliverer more than an actual person with political stances of her own. Her current employment as a Lobbyist for companies like Amazon, Meta etc. is also a massive red flag!

  11. You are so naive! Nigel just said he thought the West helped start the Ukraine war by their foreign policies. 10 years ago he predicted the war and is not at all a fan of Putin. he is a not a Putin sympathiser. Do you really believe the MSM lies and what the Sunday Mail writes? Sunday Mail supports Labour since ages. Not an independent, unbiased publication at all.
    Have a watch of Nigel’s speech in Maidstone on Sunday. Then maybe you will change your mind… Reform Uk website.

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