Candidates face off in passionate political debate at Blackpool hustings

Students at the Blackpool Sixth Form hustings
Students at the Blackpool Sixth Form hustings
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Political candidates vying for a Blackpool seat in the upcoming general election gathered for a passionate debate in the hopes of winning over the town’s youngest voters.

But one politician left an empty chair at the hustings at Blackpool Sixth Form College on Wednesday.

Left to right: Scott Benton (Conservative), Chris Webb, (Labour), and Gordon Marsden (Labour).

Left to right: Scott Benton (Conservative), Chris Webb, (Labour), and Gordon Marsden (Labour).

Paul Maynard, Conservative candidate for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, failed to appear at the six-man debate, which was attended by fellow Tory Scott Benton, Labour’s Gordon Marsden and Chris Webb, Independent Andy Higgins, Liberal Democrat Bill Greene and the Green Party’s Duncan Royle.

They discussed party promises, the economy, climate change and the looming shadow of Brexit with students at the hour-long meeting, which was organised by the college’s politics club.

Mr Maynard told The Gazette he did not attend was because he had a meeting with Chancellor Sajid Javid ‘to demonstrate the value of the Enterprise Zones in our local area and to make the case for further inward investment and regeneration’.

He said: “I have, of course, already had an opportunity to meet with students at Blackpool Sixth during this election campaign. They were able to question not only myself, but also the Secretary of State for Education on issues which are important to them.”

Left to right: Duncan Royle (Green Party), Bill Greene (Lib Dem), Andy Higgins (Independent), student Oskar Galazka, Scott Benton (Conservative), Chris Webb, (Labour), and Gordon Marsden (Labour).

Left to right: Duncan Royle (Green Party), Bill Greene (Lib Dem), Andy Higgins (Independent), student Oskar Galazka, Scott Benton (Conservative), Chris Webb, (Labour), and Gordon Marsden (Labour).

Blackpool South candidate Mr Benton clashed with Labour rivals at the hustings in an argument over Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Mr Benton said the party was ‘embarrassed’ by Mr Corbyn and branded him ‘the most unpopular opposition leader we have ever had’.

But Mr Webb said: “Compared to Boris Johnson, I’d have Jeremy Corbyn any day of the week."

Each candidate was given the chance to express their key goals to students.

Duncan Royle, Green Party candidate for Blackpool North, said: “The number one priority is climate change. We are going to invest £100bn a year to transform our energy system, so that we are carbon neutral by 2030.

“Climate change is the one thing we would take more seriously than any party. There’s no point in arguing about Brexit if there’s no planet to do it on. The greatest gift we can give to future generations is a planet that’s liveable.”

He also backed the party’s pledges for more investment in further education and the abolition of university tuition fees.

Lib Dem Bill Greene took a hard-line stance against Brexit, saying: “Primarily, we are standing to stop Brexit. The social and economic impact that it will have is that all the other things we need to do, there just won’t be the money for.”

Mr Benton, however, said: “In 2016 we had a referendum and the people of this country voted to leave the EU. As democrats we have a duty to implement the will of the people, and that’s why I’m standing in this election - to get Brexit done so we can finally talk about fighting climate change, better support for our schools and the NHS.”

Mr Webb, who hopes to become the first Blackpool-born MP, said: “This past decade the Conservatives have been in power, we have been the NHS decimated. A&E at Blackpool Vic is now among the worst in the country for waiting hours. Nurses now staff corridors to look after patients.

“Job opportunities for young people are at their lowest, with zero-hour contracts the norm.”

Mr Marsden, Labour candidate for Blackpool South, added: “We know the price of Tory austerity. It comes through in the way disabled people are treated, It comes in the way that people can’t get decent jobs, It comers in the way that young people have to take on huge debts if they go to university. We have an education system that blocks off challenges and decisions rather than gives them. £3bn has been cut out of further education in the past three years.”

Andy Higgins, an Independent standing in Fylde, called for the first-past-the-post voting system to be scrapped and replaced with proportional representation.

“Of the 650 seats in this general election, 400 of them will not change colour. The margins are that enormous, a lot of people’s votes don’t count. Proportional representation means that if a party gets 10 per cent of the votes, they get 10 per cent of the seats,” he said.

After the hustings, Blackpool Sixth Form student Amy Shuttleworth said: "It was very informative for students, especially those of voting age. We feel privileged that they valued the college enough to come and represent themselves and speak to everyone and show that they do actually care about our opinions."

Fellow student Oskar Galazka said: "I think it has given young voters a good show of what's on offer. This will have cleared up some misconceptions we have had about some political parties."

Teacher Peter Wright said that David Brown, Brexit Party candidate for Blackpool South, had been invited to the hustings, but he had told the college he had a radio interview at the time and was not able to make it.

He said an invitation had been sent to Mr Maynard, but he did not respond.