It was never going to be an easy night for John Thurley in a room full of hostile students, but the UKIP candidate for the Sheffield Hallam constituency illuminated the room with his complete lack of understanding of the majority of issues that were presented.
The opening remarks from the panel were much as predicted. Shaffaq Mohammed (Lib Dem, Central), Natalie Bennett (Green, Central) and Paul Blomfield (Labour, Central) each presented Brexit as the central issue, with their own relevant party spin, whilst Dr Gordon Gregory (Conservative, Heeley) put the focus onto Jeremy Corbyn. Thurley however opened with a spark: “I’m 70 years old, they’ve ripped me off” he said. Who’s they? The audience wondered. “The banks, the Rothschilds” answered Thurley telepathically reading the room.
We started with a round of the political blame game. First Blomfield said it was the Tories’ fault for not rejuvenating Sheffield jobs, then it was Labour’s before that according to Thurley, then it was Thatcher’s fault for getting rid of the steel in the first place, and somewhere along the way it was somebody’s fault for choosing to build Hinckley Point C with what Thurley termed “inferior” Chinese steel. Mohammed then took the novel approach of blaming the council (Labour) for cutting down the trees and arresting pensioners, but it turns out it was actually the Lib Dems’ fault for running the council at some point in the past. Bennett said they were all right and reeled off what will surely be the entire Green manifesto as the solution. Gregory concisely agreed, but chose to focus on the pollution caused by diesel cars, sideswiping Bennett in one fell swoop.
Student issues then took centre stage. Whilst the majority agreed tuition fees were bad, Thurley took a novel approach as to why. “You are going to create the wealth that the older people need,” said Thurley, sure in his belief that the baby boomers are only true descendants of Adam, “but they’re ripping you off.” ‘They’ were the government this time, and the least ‘they’ can do is provide a free education to the millennials who will be surrendering their earnings to Big Brother and Classic FM listeners.
Immigration next. Mohammed, Blomfield, Bennett and Gregory all agreed that overseas students shouldn’t be counted towards immigration figures, the latter risking destabilising the entire Conservative regime with his act of dissent. Cue Thurley. “You wouldn’t want someone coming into your home saying ‘I’m going to live with you,’” said the UKIP candidate, singling out a chap in the audience, “they could be a murderer.” “My dad is a German doctor,” replied that Britain-hating Trotsky-loving avocado-eating hippy on the front row.
“I haven’t got an answer” for the NHS said surgeon Gordon Gregory as the person most qualified to talk about the NHS. Shaffaq Mohammed, who hasn’t got a medical degree nor works in a hospital, trumpeted the Lib Dem policy of raising tax by 1p in order to fix the NHS. Dr Greg remembered he does know about the NHS and pointed out that this would only pay for a year of operations. Bennett warned the UK about adopting the American model. ‘No one is suggesting that’ said Dr Greg.
“My lady friend is a staff nurse,” Thurley begun. Blomfield facepalmed.
Thurley had been quiet on the NHS until that point. “My lady friend is a staff nurse,” he began. Blomfield facepalmed. Thurley was undeterred. “I’ve got my tax return here” he announced, before turning to the “waste”, “corruption” and “backhanders” in the NHS in a complete non-sequitur. “They’re getting cases of whiskey, they’re getting vouchers, they’re getting holidays, they’re getting conservatories” he wailed. “Make those allegations in writing” said Blomfield. ‘He’s dead’ said Thurley. Presumably in some unfortunate accident involving a bottle of Glenfiddich in Saint Tropez.
The debate moved on to targeted questions and Bennett was forced to defend the Green’s anti-GM stance, announcing she wasn’t going to get geeky about soils, before getting geeky about soils. Mohammed turned his fourth consecutive answer back to Brexit, Blomfield asked him when the Lib Dems’ second referendum would be, and Mohammed deferred to the Conservative in a move straight out of 2011.
Blomfield was forced to defend Corbyn despite being originally an Andy Burnham fanboy…
Blomfield was forced to defend Corbyn despite being originally an Andy Burnham fanboy, before Thurley returned the debate to Brexit. “These two gentlemen at either end,” he said, waving his arms in the direction of Blomfield and Mohammed, “said 70% of people in Sheffield Central voted for remain. There are no figures available.” “I’ve got the figures,” said Mohammed, almost apologetically. ‘So do I’ said Dr Greg, before handing Thurley his phone with them on screen.
But there was still time for Dr Greg to turn the 21st century into the 19th. “The Conservative Party has always been a free trade party. Right from the start when you had the anti-corn law league,” he reminisced, “Mr Cobden and Mr Bright of Manchester campaigned so that the poor could get cheap food,” in what was the forerunner to their present day policy of sending nurses to food banks.
In their closing statements there was more politics in sepia. Blomfield harked back to 2015 when a Labour vote would have made a better world. Thurley referenced the Victorian era before delivering his own penny dreadful proclaiming that Sheffield is “really bad for crime” before an escaped workhouse urchin in the audience corrected him by saying that Sheffield has the lowest crime rate of any big city in the UK.
“There are no jobs on a dead planet,” said Bennett, lowering the tone. ‘Vote Green, get Labour in Sheffield Central’ she said, encouraging a classic splintering of the left. Dr Greg jumped forward to the 1970s in glorious technicolour, before Shaffaq Mohammed ended proceedings by reminding us that Brexit is a thing (as if we’d forgotten).
In the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire, only the left can realistically win. It showed.