What we learned from the Wirral West election debate

All the candidates in one of Merseyside’s more contested seats went head to head in a live audience debate.

The debate was held at West Kirby Grammar School on the Wirral and featured all five candidates who are running to be MP in the constituency of Wirral West.

The seat was previously held by Labour’s Margaret Greenwood who has stepped down ahead of the general election being held on 4 July.

Wirral West has been held by Labour since 2015 who took from the Conservatives bucking the trend of it being a seat that followed national trends. However, boundary changes bringing in Conservative voting areas like Heswall and Clatterbridge could shift things in their favour.

In fact some analysis by the Electoral Calculus suggests the Conservatives would have won the seat in 2015 and 2019 if the new boundaries had been introduced for those elections. Polls this time however expect Labour to easily win.

The debate was chaired by former BBC Radio presenter Sheila McClennon and featured questions from members of the public on big elections on topics like trust in politicians, sewage, the environment, and whether young people can have hope for the future.

Not everyone is on the same page on tackling climate change

The environment came up a few times during the debate. While they were broad consensus around the issue of sewage with different approaches to stopping the issue, there was some disagreement from Reform UK which prompted both boos and applause from the public.

Reform UK candidate Ken Ferguson said, “I may be about to make myself the most unpopular person in the room,” arguing the UK contributed far less to global carbon emissions compared to China. He said, “The fact we make ourselves poorer to signal our virtue that we are tackling climate change, all we are doing is exporting the manufacturing of our goods, our steel plants, our industry to somebody else.”

The Green Party’s Gail Jenkinson said even if people questioned climate change was real, changes would lead to cleaner air. She said the party would look to bring in an import and export tax on carbon as well as a requirement items have a 10-year warranty.

Labour’s Matthew Patrick said it was “an existential threat” and argued a Labour government would show leadership on the issue with plans to insulate homes, create the publicly owned GB Energy, and a ban on fracking.

Conservative Jenny Johnson said her party had massively increased renewable energy supply quoting figures of 7% in 2010 to nearly 50%, though these do not include nuclear power. She got applause when she said the issue “isn’t just about the UK and what we do”.

She said there “needs to be a focus on economic growth while protecting the environment as well”. She said people needed to think more about production from “cradle to grave” such as the costs of cars, adding, “All too often with some discussions, we are too simplistic and many of the issues we are discussing are complex.”

The Liberal Democrat’s Peter Reisdorf called for a move away from energy sources like biomass and said it was a global crisis, adding, “They need to do more. I am hoping that in the future we will be able to bring further international changes that will bring about a reduction in emissions.”

How do you solve a crisis like the cost of living?

The cost of living is one of the biggest issues on people’s minds. Labour said the issue had come up across the constituency including in more affluent areas like West Kirby as well as places like the Woodchurch Estate.

He said Labour would provide stability in government which would reassure businesses and would help more people get into work by tackling NHS waiting lists. When challenged on why Labour wouldn’t scrap the two-child benefit cap, he said, “We have taken the very difficult decision. I think people, many people will recognise that the economy and the situation we are in makes these difficult times.”

He said Labour would look to remove the cap once the economy was in a better position and argued their promise of free breakfast clubs would help relieve child poverty.

The Greens and Reform said they would scrap the policy. Green candidate Ms Jenkinson said this would be paid for out of a tax on the wealthy but also argued “you do not need growth to get out of poverty”. She claimed the tax could also be used to fund services like leisure centres, the NHS, and libraries.

Reform’s Ken Ferguson said they would lift the tax threshold to £20,000 and argued for a need to increase the working-age population and scrapping the cap would help, adding, “I want to encourage them to have as many children as they can.”

When challenged on this by debate chair Sheila McClennon that “you want more people, you just don’t want them coming here,” Mr Ferguson said Reform was not anti-immigration but there had been an “explosion” in population under the Conservatives. Reform has said it “will freeze immigration
and stop the boats”.

Labour’s Matthew Patrick and the Greens’ Gail Jenkinson during the debate

Conservative’s £2094 Labour tax claim didn’t go down well with voters

The loudest heckling from the audience came when Conservative Dr Johnson said Labour’s plans would see people’s taxes go up by £2094. This figure was originally quoted during a televised debate by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak who said it was based on analysis by civil servants.

However, it later emerged in a letter by Treasury permanent secretary James Bowler had said MPs should not be quoting the Treasury as the author for the analysis. The cost of the Conservative’s calculations are also spread over four years.

This figure prompted a strong reaction from the audience as well as people shouting “lies”. Some said Dr Johnson should have been able to finish with calls to “let her finish”. It was a tough audience for the Conservatives with plenty of criticism of the party’s track record too from all of the other candidates throughout the debate.

During the discussion on the cost of living, Dr Johnson said the government had a good record of getting people into work and highlighted the furlough scheme which supported businesses, arguing work helped get people out of poverty.

She pointed to further plans to reduce National Insurance contributions in the future as well as the reduction in April from 10% to 8%, adding: “It is very important that those people in work are able to keep more of their money”.

All candidates think the NHS is in a bad place

Labour’s Mr Patrick said it “is on its knees” while the Liberal Democrat’s Mr Reisdorf said it was in “a terrible state” pledging his party would spend billions on the National Health Service. Mr Reisdorf also called for social care to be higher up on the agenda.

Conservatives’ Dr Johnson cited her position teaching in healthcare leadership at the University of Liverpool and argued tackling issues wasn’t just about money but also leadership and workplace culture. She said she would apply her experience and “bring it down to the local level”.

The Greens pointed again to their wealth tax and called for issues like bed blocking to be tackled through reforming social care. Reform said they would end training caps, offer basic tax relief for frontline workers, and calls for an inquiry into excess deaths following the pandemic.

The B word

The dominant issue of the 2019 election, Brexit naturally came up during the debate. Labour said it would re-negotiate with the EU arguing “a better deal is possible”.

Liberal Democrats’ Peter Residorf drew applause when he said “Brexit was the worst thing that happened in politics in our lifetime.” He said his party would look to rejoin the EU citing his affinity with Europe due to his family ties to Belgium. The Greens said they would also rejoin calling Brexit “a white elephant”.

However Conservative Dr Johnson said the British people had voted “in absolute droves” and getting Brexit done hadn’t been easy citing opposition from lawyers, within Parliament, and criticised Labour leader Keir Starmer for trying to block it.

She said it was “very myopic” and “unfair” to blame all economic issues on Brexit citing global supply chain issues and the war in Ukraine. Though she didn’t campaign either way, she said, “On the side of democracy, the people voted to leave and it was right that we left.”

There was some applause from members of the audience when Reform’s Mr Ferguson talked about how the Brexit Party had stood aside candidates to help the Conservatives win in 2019. He said, “Boris Johnson let us down terribly badly,” adding that wouldn’t happen this time around and “the Tories need to be destroyed”.

Oliver Spiby and Evan Page, the debate’s two fact-checkers

We didn’t learn much according to the debate’s fact-checkers

Oliver Spiby, 19, although a member of the Conservative Party said he was still undecided about which way to vote and felt nothing was addressed by the candidates, adding, “I thought it was painful beforehand and it was painful after.”

One of the questions during the debate was about how politicians can offer hope for the future for young people. He said, “We didn’t really learn that much from them,” adding, “I didn’t really know what they wanted to change. They talk about reducing waiting lists but that seems like something everyone wants to talk about.”

Evan Page was also fact-checking and will be voting for the first time. While he said he hadn’t engaged with politics before, he added, “My general feeling is this has been the worst general election campaign for me and there is no real discussion of policy. I feel that has happened here.”

He said a debate last year ahead of the 2023 council elections had been far more informative and worried about upcoming tax cuts warned by the Institute of Fiscal Studies. He said, “I think the country is screwed for the next decade. I do not think we have got much hope.”

PartyCandidate
 Reform UKKen Ferguson
 GreenGail Jenkinson
 Conservative and UnionistJenny Johnson
 LabourMatthew Patrick
 Liberal DemocratsPeter Timothy Clifford Reisdorf

Image: Wirral West election debate. All images credit: Ed Barnes

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