In an election forecasted to be as close as this one, it would be a mistake to understate the significance of marginal seats such as Watford. With demographics representing that of the entire country, the outcome of the Watford constituency often mirrors the results of the general election; the party achieving victory in Watford being the party that ultimately achieves the most seats; a pattern entrenched since 1979. This is the due the demographics of Watford mirroring those of the country closely providing this bellwether phenomenon. In an election forecast to be tighter than any in memory, it is no surprise that Watford is shaping up to be a nail-biter.
In a hustings event at Watford Boys Grammar School, challengers Mayor Dorothy Thornhill (Liberal Democrats), Matthew Turmaine (Labour) and Nick Lincoln (UKIP) were invited along with incumbent Richard Harrington (Conservative) to address the school in a Q&A format. With Harrington’s margin of victory under 1,500 votes in 2010, the 150 odd students eligible to vote potentially being all important seat swingers come May.
After the five minute introductions I learnt that Harrington defied his working class background to become the first in his family to achieve a degree - and own a pair of shoes; Thornhill defied her dad’s understanding of gender roles, pursuing higher education and becoming teacher; Turmaine grew up locally, committing his first ‘crimes against fashion’ at the Oceana nightclub in Watford; and Lincoln shockingly was dissatisfied with the state of the European Union.
Tuition fees became the first item on the agenda, with a student probing Turmaine for Labour’s views on the controversial subject. ‘We will cut tuition fees’ Turmaine replied instantly, declaring that £6000 per student is enough for universities to fund themselves. After he alluded to the Lib Dems reneging on their promise not to raise tuition fees, Thornhill responded that Labour were the party to introduce the concept of Top-Up fees, and that unlike the Conservatives and Labour, the Lib Dems wanted to cap the Browne Report. Questions were extended to the floor again, resulting in a student addressing Tory policy in regards to the NHS. He asked Harrington ‘Can you protect the Watford Health Campus?’
Without hesitation Harrington dispelled the myth the Labour press team had worked hard to instil, that the Tories were not to be trusted with the Health Service. The Conservatives along with the Lib Dems have ring fenced the NHS from cuts clarified the Tory candidate. He candidly explained how he had introduced five new wards to Watford Hospital and that much more needs to be done in regards to the NHS, specifically addressing mental health issues. Representing UKIP, Lincoln was the next to speak on the subject, volume ever rising as he attempted to dispel the rumours of UKIP NHS privatisation; conversely he described UKIP’s plans to invest £3 billion more into the NHS. Turmaine hit the Labour talking points nicely. ‘We built the NHS in 1945 and saved it in 1997’, introducing Labour’s plans to introduce 20,000 more nurses and 8,000 GP’s into the service. After the hustings, I questioned Turmaine further on this subject. ‘When nurses have to work such long hours for such little pay in such poor conditions, how do Labour intend to find 20,000 more nurses? He explained that the process would not be an overnight one, and work schemes need to be put in place, furthermore that an independent board should review and set nurses payments.
After Lincoln quickly dismissed a question alluding to UKIP being a racist party (‘we don’t see skin colour’, ‘it’s not about race, it’s about space’), attention turned to foreign policy. Harrington affirmed his belief in NATO, Trident and the international balance of power whilst explaining that the panel were far from experts in foreign policy - a refreshingly sincere answer to hear from someone in Westminster. Harrington explained to me after the hustings that he went 52 years without being in Westminster and doesn’t consider himself among the usual Westminster crowd. Turmaine commended Miliband's stance on Syria and explained how energy dependency on Russia affords them power, that we should circumvent Putin with renewable energy. Emphasising the changing nature of defence spending due to the development of modern warfare, Thornhill also raised the question of policy towards nationals leaving to join ISIS.
To the excitement of the room, a student then proceeded to grill Turmaine on Labour’s stance towards zero-hour contracts. ‘I’m on two zero-hour contracts, my jobs would be under threat’. Turmaine almost coyly explained that sometimes zero-hour contracts are useful, that Labour would only get rid of ‘unfair zero-hour contracts’ and that reform was necessary. The room were far from sold, a follow-up question probing into how Labour would reform the contracts. Tangentially Turmaine took to explaining the importance of demand and growth to ‘keep the phone ringing’ for people on contracts. In the opinion of the students it appeared that Labour are on the wrong side of this argument.
The hustings was concluded with an attack on UKIP’s anti-Europe policy, volume of the room ever increasing. ‘The UK trades an excess of $400 billion with the EU, 52% of our total trade. How do you expect us to move forward without the EU’. Lincoln following the usual UKIP soundbites explained ‘we will continue to trade with European nations even after we leave the EU’; when we gain a WTO seat we can negotiate with BRICS countries and that we need to leave the EU because ‘it’s causing havoc’.
Although these candidates were vying for a close Watford seat, with candidates sporting traditional party rhetoric, much of the debate translated to the national race. The Green Party were notably absent due to logistical issues, but the image was clear: there are five parties with a chance of winning seats in England; the left and right represented by UKIP and Greens and the centre by the Tories, Labour, and Lib Dems. Despite all the lamentations of commentators and pundits, there are five distinct choices heading into May. Harrington and the Tories represent the calm and collected ‘we’re on the road to recovery’, Turmaine and Labour offering a distinct opposing option for the electorate, seemingly offering to usher in a new epoch of Keynesianism. Thornhill is a wildcard; where the Lib Dems are struggling nationally, she is thriving. Does she represent the resilience of a party which could well be acting as the kingmaker again? Just as nationally this election is too close for even Nate Silver to call, the winner of Watford is anyone’s guess. Can Harrington hold on to his seat? Can the Tories hang on as the largest party? For the later to occur, the chances are that they must hold on to their seats.