I estimate that about 150 people turned out to hear four of the five candidates answer questions under the chairmanship of Will Hutton (@williamnhutton), political economist and journalist (Observer, Guardian) and principal of Hertford College. The speakers were Larry Sanders (Green), Chaka Artwell (Ind), Anneliese Dodds (Lab) and Kirsten Johnson (LibDem). Suzanne Bartington (Con) had been invited but did not attend; instead she was out campaigning in Hinksey Park.
I won’t try to repeat everything that was said – I couldn’t anyway – but I’ll mention a few of the points and try to give an impression of how the evening went.
After brief introductions the first question was how much the UK should be prepared to pay to continue being able to trade with Europe. No-one really answered the original question but it gave the candidates an opportunity to explore their positions on Europe more widely, including the matter of a second referendum. In line with the LibDem manifesto (published the next day), Kirsten Johnson wants a referendum on the final deal before it is enacted. Anneliese Dodds’ position was a little more nuanced – before the referendum she campaigned for Remain but promised to abide by the result. She now says she would feel ‘hypocritical’ if she held out for a second referendum although she remains passionately pro-Europe and wants the UK to get the best possible deal.
Larry Sanders’ position is firmly in line with Green policy – he is opposed to Brexit and will fight to try to make sure it doesn’t happen. Chaka Artwell had already declared his position in his introduction; he wants the UK ‘out of Europe’ but ‘ruling ourselves’. But he also wants ‘free trade with them’.
On the next question, the rights of EU immigrants living in the UK, everyone agreed that their rights should be protected. Anneliese Dodds (who is an MEP) gave an EU insider’s analysis of why the idea of British citizens being given some form of EU citizenship post-Brexit was a non-runner.
It was the same with a question about the car industry and the Mini plant in particular. Every speaker said everything possible should be done to protect jobs, with Larry sanders being strongest about the inevitability of job losses if we fail to stay in the single market.
There was more, but the final question for which I have a note was about Brexit’s impact on Oxford’s scientific and research work. Once again everyone recognised its importance and wanted to protect it as far as possible, with freedom of movement for scientists essential. There was general concern about the future of Culham in this context, and over the government’s apparent determination to withdraw from Euratom. (This is an important issue but not one I intend to go into here.)
Artwell was the only one of the four wanting the UK ‘out of Europe’. He would save money by abandoning the UK’s nuclear weapons, and instead spend it on rebuilding manufacturing industry in the regions where it has most declined.
Sanders tended to take a broader, longer-term view in his contributions. He spoke strongly about ‘austerity’ being a political choice, and hopes to see a time when people reject the political agenda of successive governments and move towards a fairer, less unequal society.
The main conclusion I draw from the meeting is that pro-Europe voters in Oxford East have a problem deciding who to vote for. There’s precious little difference on this issue between the Lab, LibDem and Green candidates. Sanders would pull the plug tomorrow if that were possible but supports the public having another say when the full implications are known. Johnson (as per the LibDem manifesto) wants the negotiations to go ahead with a second referendum when the exit terms are known, with the option to stay in the EU. I found Dodds’ position less clear – passionately pro-Europe but accepting that Brexit is going to happen. In saying this she is, I think, following Labour’s manifesto, but given her obvious strong feelings whether she would maintain that position come what may (pun intended) it’s not possible to say. If Brexit happens they all want things to be as close to what they are now – protected rights, unimpaired access to the European market, reciprocal rights for citizens, and so on.
One last thing to mention. When the chairman was taking questions and comments from the floor someone in the audience asked “How can we send a message about how disgusted we are that the Conservative candidate isn’t here this evening?” The chairman asked for a show of hands – did people agree? The response was overwhelmingly ‘Yes’. Did anyone disagree? No hands raised.