By Erdington Local election news team
On Sunday, 27 February, candidates running in the Birmingham Erdington by-election got the chance to battle it out on the first election hustings – held at the GRS Lions Club, Church Road, Erdington.
Sitting in front of a packed house, with all 120 seats filled with politically engaged locals, nine of the twelve MP hopefuls and party representatives answered questions asked by Erdington residents and registered voters.
Organised by Erdington Local and Churches Together, the event was the only Erdington by-election hustings to invite all candidates to attend, with others refusing to include independent or ‘fringe’ candidates.
The Erdington Local and Churches Together hustings were chaired by Rev. Emma Sykes from St. Barnabas Church and Ed King, editor of Erdington Local.
All but the Monster Raving Loony Party and the Militant Bus Pass Elvis Party had representation, although stand ins were sent by both the Labour Party and the Christian Peoples Alliance (CPA). Tommy O’Rouke (The Peaky Blinders / Independent) withdrew last minute due to food poisoning.
Labour candidate Paulette Hamilton was unable to attend due to family arrangements, needing that Sunday to help organise her father’s funeral – who died unexpectedly at the start of her campaign. Preet Gill MP (Labour, Edgbaston) stood in for Paulette Hamilton, with the Labour Party confirming her availability on Friday, 25 February.
The CPA’s candidate, Mel Mbondiah, is a pastor in Walsall and “Sunday is a difficult day for her”, according to her campaign agent and CPA leader, Sid Corlde – despite having told Erdington Local during their campaigning on Erdington High Street the day before the party were worried about questions over LGBT issues.
Originally planned for Saturday, 26 February, the date was moved to the Sunday as no suitable venue was available on the day before, with many candidates and others involved in the event also unable to make the Saturday.
The first to formally decline, there had been no response from the Labour Party about either date as other candidates confirmed Sunday as the preferred option. Whilst the CPA showed an initial interest in both dates, the party pulled their candidate at 10:30pm the day before the hustings.
Neither the Labour Party nor the CPA requested a different day or time in order for their candidate to attend, with both parties opting to send a party representative as a stand in.
After a brief introduction, where the CPA stand in, Simon Brookes, awkwardly opened by admitting his own party’s candidate should have attended the hustings herself, the candidates and representatives took questions from selected local community groups and institutions.
Co-founder of the Erdington Community Volunteers, Jo Bull, wanted those hoping to become Erdington’s next Member of Parliament to explain how they would increase mental health provision and the availability of immediate care.
Finding herself “very much out of my comfort zone” standing in a room full of people and political candidates, Jo’s question garnered a supportive round of applause from the room and a volley of answers from the people on stage – with Lee Dargue (Lib Dems) recalling his own struggles with depression and highlighting the absurdity of metal health support ‘by appointment only’.
The Crisis Café at the Beechcroft Centre on Slade Road, a well-known and used service for local residents struggling with mental health issues, will still only see people pre-arranged and during limited opening hours.
Next to stand up was Stephen Hughes, Chair of Short Heath Fields Trust (SHFT) whose two year fiercely fought battle against Birmingham City Council resulted in a suspension of plans to build an estate on the Perry Common/Stockland Green parkland.
Following a question to all candidates about their commitment to “save and protect green spaces” such as Short Heath Playing Fields, Mr Hughes wanted clarification from Ms Gill – standing in for Paulette Hamilton – what “credence” her answers had on behalf of the absentee Labour candidate.
Determined to get this point nailed down, Mr Hughes highlighted how “Ms Hamilton repeatedly has refused to meet with our group; she is the only candidate not to come down (to Short Heath playing fields) and answer questions.”
Ms Gill responded by saying Paulette Hamilton would take over the good work done by the recently deceased Jack Dromey MP in saving the fields, which immediately irked audience members and Mr Hughes alike, who simply responded: “…it wasn’t Jack Dromey who saved the playing fields it was Short Heath Fields Trust and our community that stopped the houses being built.”
And then Ms Gill uttered perhaps the most important sentence of the night, she said: “Paulette (Hamilton) wants you to know she will get a commitment from the cabinet not to build on the playing fields.”
A statement which would mean a victory for Short Heath Playing Fields Trust, Councillor Robert Alden (Conservative) scented an open goal and ran in saying: “Councillor (Paulette) Hamilton had voted for houses to be built on the land several times as she is part of the cabinet which wanted the estate built.
“She has voted against Erdington at every opportunity.”
Mr Hughes was delighted with the commitment, he agreed: “We saved the playing fields, but we need the cabinet to say they will never build on the land.
“Preet Gill said she was speaking on behalf of Paulette Hamilton and that promise to get a commitment from the cabinet is now on the public record, I just wish she (Hamilton) would have said it herself.”
Trying to cram in as much as possible, each candidate had been allocated one minute to answer questions.
But as the evening wore on answers got longer and strayed further from the point, in some cases totally ignoring the original question.
After an initial question about what the candidates would do to improve the outside perception of Kingstanding – which got lost in translation for most of the panel, apart from independent candidate Michael Lutwyche and the Conservative’s Robert Alden – Gary Byrne, Vice Principal of Kings Rise Academy, asked what each candidate would do to help him improve and “tweak” his curriculum internally to benefit the children in Kingstanding.
With candidates proffering a volley of education based analysis and rhetoric, Mr Byrne became so frustrated at the Green candidate, Siobhan Harper-Nunes, who said she had sent her children to “alternative education”, he eventually sat after declaring the panel were “just not answering the question.”
Claire Westmacott, a volunteer from Bethany Foodbank, asked what the candidates would do for people leaving hospital care without food – but only after making the point she too had asked Paulette Hamilton (Labour) to visit her organisation but had been met with silence.
Jack Brookes (Reform UK) jumped on the question to ask his own to the audience, and the world beyond: “Do you want to freeze to death or starve to death? We need to start fracking; we have 50 years of gas under our feet.”
An ecologically questionable stance unpopular with the crowd, Mr Brookes’ comment also prompted Lee Dargue to demand “…where?”, before looking at the floor as if there was a gas field under the Church Road venue.
Having the timing and confidence of a stand up comedian, the Liberal Democrat also earned a hearty laugh from the audience by saying: “this is the cleanest mic in history” when handed the freshly cleaned microphone, which was being constantly wiped with special sanitiser throughout the evening.
However, it was not just jokes coming from Mr Darge, whose often clear and direct responses earned favour with the Erdington crowd – in an area historically underrepresented by the Liberal Democrats. With the local elections only months away, it led many in the room to wonder how the traditionally placed ‘third party’ will fare on 5 May.
Mr Lutwyche, who also grew more and more popular with the crowd for his straight talking and fiercely local approach, got a round of applause for saying nothing sickened him more than seeing a politician posing in front of a foodbank.
However, as the issue rolled down the panel, none of the candidates succeeded in giving a proper solution to the original question about those leaving hospital going home to starve.
Pastor Rasaq Ibrahim (Redeemed Christian Church of God, Erdington) asked what the candidates would do to stop street crime on Erdington High Street. In September 2021, Pastor Rasaq helped bring the nationwide Street Pastors service to the area – resulting in significant success on Erdington High Street and filling some of the gap left by cuts to community policing.
Several of the politicians reached into their bag of statistics to bolster their arguments but could often be contradicted by each others ‘facts’ and figures. Labour’s complaint Birmingham has lost 1,000 policemen under the Conservative Government was met with a Conservative statistic they had put hundreds of coppers back on the beat.
And with a Labour Police and Crime Commissioner and a Conservative Home Office, both main parties could easily blame each other for rising crime.
However, one statistic truly ridiculed by the audience was the assertion from Christian Peoples Alliance representative Simon Clarke, that 94% of prisoners were criminals without fathers; when heckled about the number he retorted the statistics included the American prison system.
But the issue so many people wanted answering was left until last, and Stockland Green resident Chris, who lives in an area blighted by HMOs and badly managed exempt accommodation, delivered it perfectly.
He wanted to know how the Conservatives and Labour would solve the problem when several of their councillors in Birmingham are HMO landlords themselves.
Prompting Robert Alden (Conservatives) and Lee Dargue (Lib Dems) to publicly clarify neither they nor their family had profited from HMOs, the question got a rowdy shout out from one audience member saying that other candidates vying to be Erdington’s next MP could not say the same.
However, the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) candidate, Dave Nellist, who had joined in the hustings via Zoom as he was self-isolating and recovering from Covid, saved his best interjection till last.
In response to the question about HMOs, and Ms Gill’s declaration the Labour run Local Authority was having its hands tied by a Conservative Government, Mr Nellist offered actual examples of what could be done:
Mr Nellist said: “Go to Newham, a Labour run council in London, and see how they have solved the HMO problem by compulsory purchasing these properties… but Birmingham Council will not do this, why not?”
Proper old school politics, answering a question with an actual answer, the room applauded Mr Nellist ardently.
As the clock raced past the allotted two hours debating time, the chairs of the Erdington by-election hustings began to call the event to an end.
A full and engaged room, crammed with both pertinent points and empty rhetoric, the debate over Edrington’s future had raged – with every seat in the house taken by a concerned local resident looking for the best candidate to represent them in Westminster.
As people were asked to leave the venue with the spirit of democracy and not politically tribal anger, the last words spoken through a microphone surmised what had brought all these people out on a Sunday evening, with one of the evening’s chairs reminding the room: “…and don’t forget to vote on Thursday.”
Polling day for the Birmingham Erdington Parliamentary by-election is on Thursday, 3 March.
The 12 candidates contesting the seat are: Cllr Paulette Hamilton (Labour), Cllr Robert Alden (Conservative), Dave Nellist (Trade Union and Socialist Coalition), Lee Dargue (Liberal Democrats), Michael Lutwyche (Independent), Jack Brookes (Reform UK), Siobhan Harper-Nunes (Green), Thomas O’Rouke (Independent), Mel Mbondiah (Christian People’s Alliance), Clifton Holmes (Independent), David Laurence Bishop (Militant Bus-Pass Elvis Party), The Good Knight Sir NosDa (The Official Monster Raving Loony Party).