On Thursday evening Ben Howlett, the Conservative candidate for Bath, faced the relatively thinned but nonetheless active student body. An array of issues were addressed in the session and there was a feeling of direct honesty on how he tackled the issues in front of him. Ben took a divisive stance on a number of issues, and instead of evoking hostility and concern he was respected for his independent-minded beliefs.
The introductory five minutes by Ben got off to a repetitive start when he spoke of the over-arching choice between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, as the next prime minister, but this was followed by a sincere emphasis on the value of this constituency in deciding the election – mentioning just how important the conservatives see it (he remarks that this is why a few cabinet ministers have visited in recent months).
After outlining this party message, Ben gave an insight into his formative years: attending Durham University as an undergraduate and then attaining a masters at Cambridge. Having a mother in-and-out of hospital, and then expressing how demoralised he was whilst struggling to get by on minimum wage during the 2008 financial crisis, Ben conveyed an appealing and human side to him in an attempt to empathise with the students.
Moving onto voter participation, Ben outlined his vision for the student union and other bodies to bear responsibility in ensuring people vote, although this appeared to be a more generic answer to a problem at Bath University where only 20% of students are registered to vote in May. Issues, rather than parties, are a core component of spurring younger voter engagement according to Ben and whilst this seemed at first to be vacuous words being spluttered by yet another politician, the informal relationship Ben built with his quips and off-the-hand remarks meant that the audience was more reassured of his sincerity.
Ben touched on a number of local issues with a clear and distinct plan: an A36 link road; re-opened train stations; an Oyster card smart ticketing system and segregated cycle lanes are the main features of his solution to congested traffic in Bath. The lack of questions by the audience on these topics suggests Ben’s plan was both comprehensive and clear; not even Ben’s mentioning of Bath Spa University relocating if Corsham train station re-opened triggered any queries (Ben hopes that departing Bath Spa students from accommodation in town should reduce or stabilise renting price).
Similarly, Ben’s ideas on how to address youth disengagement was well-received by the audience: lowering the voting age in general elections to 16, introducing constituency surgeries up at the university and working with schools and colleges to arrange visits for students up at parliament. Ben’s open disagreement and opposition to some of the conservative party policies caused the students to be more stimulated and invigorated to know more about his agenda; he said he would prefer to “stab David Cameron in the eye, than stab him in the back.” When asked what the first legislation he would table if elected, Ben said a Public Recall Bill: where the public can vote to have their MP removed for serious wrongdoing. Throughout the evening, the underlying message of Ben’s performance seemed to be to gain trust and empathy more than a clear identification with all his policies; perhaps in an attempt to ensure more students vote.
Upon questions being put forward by the students, there was more activity in the audience and students were keen to learn Ben’s perspective on a range of issues from Fox Hunting, to the European Union, to euthanasia. Ben appeared to get by without much, if any, fierce opposition from the audience, and some of his beliefs particularly seemed to resonate. Reform of the current majoritarian electoral system for general elections in favour of a more proportional system; a review of the current drugs law with a view to decriminalising substance use or introducing a licensing system; acknowledging man-made climate change and stating his desire for the UK to take a leading role on addressing this at an international level; and fighting for equality, noting to the audience his homosexuality and citing campaigns and marches he has been on across the country.
Other more contentious issues included Ben’s opposition to giving prisoners the right to vote; his support for the nicknamed ‘Snoopers Charter’ which would require social media sites to store data about its users for a year; failing to clearly outline what he is in favour of a ban on fox hunting; and vehemently believing that the UK should commit to renewing its nuclear deterrent in 2017.
Ben did a fine job at presenting himself as independent of the party machine, knowledgeable on a range of issues, and informally composed in front of the students. Differentiating himself from the party and his acknowledgement that he does not fit the stereotype of a conservative might help to garner support from the student body. With the Greens coming out top on the recent polls at the university with 26% support, followed by the Conservatives at 23%, after Thursday night, Ben left the students impressed and with the collapsed Liberal Democrat vote, he could be the favoured candidate from the student body come May.