|Year 2005 No. 55, April 25, 2005||ARCHIVE||HOME||JBBOOKS||SUBSCRIBE|
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More than 50 people attended a lively General Election public debate at the weekend [Sunday, April 24, 2005] to which all parliamentary candidates for the two seats in South Tyneside were invited.
The Sunday evening hustings event at Westoe Road Baptist Church Hall, South Shields, was sponsored by the ecumenical group Churches Together in South Tyneside, and attended by people of varied religious and political faiths.
It was chaired by the Anglican Bishop of Jarrow the Right Rev John Pritchard, who said the meeting was organised because one of the main worldly goals of Christian belief was to foster flourishing communities.
The Bishop said it was worrying to churches generally that political disengagement in Britain had reached such a low point that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds [RSPB] now had more members than all the main political parties put together.
The candidates attending the event were: the South Shields candidates Nader A-Naderi (Independent), David Miliband (New Labour) and Stephen Psallidas (Liberal Democrat); and the Jarrow candidates Alan Badger (UK Independence Party [UKIP]), Stephen Hepburn (Labour) and Bill Schardt (Liberal Democrat).
The two Conservative candidates for the seats Richard Lewis (South Shields) and Linkson Jack (Jarrow) did not attend. Also missing was Roger Nettleship (Safeguard the National Health Service, Jarrow) who sent apologies because he was attending the national conference of the health section of public service union Unison.
Debate between the candidates at the meeting prompted by challenging questions from members of the public was politely controversial and wide-ranging.
Issues discussed included: local council housing; asylum seekers; Make Poverty History; Britain's relations with Europe, the USA and the wider world; visions of education for the future.
On the issue of immigration/asylum seekers, it was pointed out that the candidates for South Shields present at the meeting Mr Psallidas, Mr Miliband, and Mr A-Naderi represented between them a good cross-section of the generations of immigrants to Britain who continue to enrich its national life.
The most controversial topic of the evening was the war in Iraq, following on from reports in that day's Sunday papers that the New Labour government had covered up official legal advice that the original US-U.K war-plan might be illegal. [eg, Mail on Sunday, Observer, 24.04.2005]
The Bishop of Jarrow remained a fairly impartial chair of the South Tyneside meeting, despite having himself been quoted in the Mail on Sunday that day [24.04.2005, page 5] as saying: I want to re-state my objection to the war as ill-conceived there were no weapons of mass destruction, no United Nations backing and it was probably illegal. Tony Blair made a mistake. We all make mistakes but some people's mistakes matter more than others.
Mr Miliband said that you should not believe everything you read in the newspapers and denounced the Mail on Sunday report on the questionable legality of the war as untrue.
But Mr Miliband was challenged himself by the anti-war Independent candidate Mr A-Naderi over claims Mr Miliband personally made to the local Shields Gazette before the war that he had overwhelming evidence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction [Shields Gazette 15.03.2003].
Mr A-Naderi said it was now an established fact that there were no WMD, and suggested Mr Miliband should now take an opportunity to own up in public to his mistakes on that matter otherwise why should anyone trust his words on other matters?
Mr Miliband declined to respond to that challenge directly and instead continued to maintain: I think that at all stages it is vital for governments to act in accordance with international law.
Asked by the Rev Caroline Dick, of Churches Together, what should now happen in Iraq? and how long British troops should remain there? the candidates whether pro-war or anti-war all voiced general respect for British service personnel obeying government orders, and gave the following personal answers:
Mr A-Naderi (Independent, South Shields) said it was a false assumption that there would be mayhem in Iraq if occupying troops withdraw soon. He said the American- and British-led occupation could be ended almost immediately, if a properly functioning United Nations organisation was created to act as neutral facilitators in a truly independent Iraq.
Mr Miliband (New Labour, South Shields) said voting in favour of the war had been the most difficult decision I have had to make in my political career. He claimed the recent elections in occupied Iraq had started a long walk to freedom there, but declined to set a date for the withdrawal of British forces, suggesting they might have to stay in Iraq for an indefinite period.
Mr Psallidas (Liberal Democrat, South Shields) said he opposed the war and that Britain should be working within the United Nations to ensure a complete withdrawal of its forces from Iraq by the end of this year.
Mr Schardt (Liberal Democrat, Jarrow) echoed this Liberal Democrat party view, and added a personal opinion that democracy could not be imposed anywhere by military force.
Mr Hepburn (Labour, Jarrow) said he opposed the war and had voted against it in Parliament, but now, as a practical politician, accepted the government line that the troops might have to stay in Iraq for an indefinite period.
Mr Badger (UKIP, Jarrow) said he too had opposed the war from the start, but did not now believe a rapid withdrawal was possible.
Representatives of parties not standing in the South Tyneside seats, including the Green Party and Respect, also voiced anti-war opinions.
Members of the public not attached to any party or church group also made telling contributions to the meeting on this subject and others.
The meeting ended with thanks from the Bishop to all who had turned up and a warm round of applause to the Churches Together for organising the event, which was joined in by most present on the night.
* After the 90-minute meeting, Mr A-Naderi's electoral agent Philip Talbot said that the Independent candidate had more than held his own against the main party challengers for the South Shields seat.
He said: Nader is not a professional politician, but gave an excellent account of himself and showed how ordinary independent-minded people can more than hold their own alongside party politicians.
Meanwhile, no impartial observer nor even his own New Labour supporters could honestly maintain that the sitting MP Mr Miliband and government minister who is sometimes touted as a future prime minister excelled himself at this meeting.
A reasonable judgement of the overall performances of the specifically South Shields candidates on the night is that Nader was the most impressive candidate, followed by Mr Psallidas, with Mr Miliband in third place and with the Tory candidate Mr Lewis fourth because he did not even bother to turn up.
I would add that an impartial observer would perhaps be justified in maintaining that, overall, Stephen Hepburn, the Labour candidate for the Jarrow seat, probably gave the best political hustings performance of all candidates for the two seats present on the night.
Mr Talbot thanked the Churches Together movement on behalf of Mr A-Naderi for putting together the one joint public meeting being held in South Tyneside during the General Election and echoed the Bishop of Jarrow's worries about general public political disengagement.
He also wondered, in passing, why the main South Tyneside local newspaper the Shields Gazette had apparently decided not to fully report to this well-intended, well-attended and well-informed public event.
On Friday, April 22, Peace and Justice in East London, a local community-based organisation which brings together people of all faiths and none, held a successful anti-war vigil in Ilford. Over 25 people turned up to take part in the vigil to demonstrate their opposition to the warmongers' agenda of war and fear mongering. Based on a theme of defending peace and justice, there were readings from the Bible, the Quran and from the works of figures associated with the struggle for peace, including Martin Luther King Jnr and Mahatma Gandhi. Many passers-by stopped to voice support for the stand taken by those on the vigil, to take part in discussion with them and to help with the distribution of the leaflet which had been produced for the event. This clearly showed the deep opposition of millions of people to the warmongering course to which all the so-called major parties are committed.
The leaflet below was distributed during the event.
Reject the politics of fear and vote for a just and peaceful world
Politics has recently been dominated by the policies of fear. Fear of attacks with weapons of mass destruction, fear of terrorism, fear of the stranger in the form of refugees, asylum seekers, travellers and Roma. In other words fear of the other.
Time after time the intelligence at the heart of these of fear has turned out to be faulty from the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to the ricin in the recent long running 'ricin terror trial', neither of which actually existed.
Yet still we are asked to trust our politicians in their assessments of the threats facing us and to approve policies which divide communities, lead us into war and assault our hard won human rights.
We do not have to allow ourselves to be victims of this campaign of fear. In recent years members of Peace and Justice in East London have extended the hand of friendship to vulnerable people from all faiths and none in our society and gained so much from their friendship.
Together let us
Oppose any new rush to war
Protest against the politicians' new anti terror powers based on unseen intelligence
Reject any detention without trial
Reject wildly inaccurate statistics on immigration
There is another way of living where all are honoured and respected.
At this election let us vote for parties which care about all human beings of whatever race, colour or creed.
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