Continuing our series in which Jane Wenham-Jones meets the candidates, this week: Labour…
THERE is a framed cartoon by Giles on my writing-room wall that my grandmother cut out of the Daily Express in 1980.
The intervening years have turned the newsprint brown, but it still clearly shows a teenager propped up on her bed amidst detritus and chaos, perusing an article entitled “MPs at 18”.
Her mother stands just inside the door with mop, vacuum cleaner and a long-suffering expression. “First thing she’s going to do when she’s an MP,” the caption reads, “is straighten up the whole world.”
I saw the joke, but was still convinced I had the answers. Along with the duffle coat, the badges, and the marching shoes. In grouchy middle-age of course, I have come to view anyone under 30 as a mere whippersnapper, and have made my share of the jokes about South Thanet’s Labour candidate’s recent progression from short trousers.
They have probably been unfair. At the only hustings I have been to – the memory of which still brings me out in hives – the 25 year-old Will Scobie acquitted himself well, proving to be better informed, more eloquent and (mercifully) more engaging than several of the older panellists.
So I set forth to meet him and his opposite number in North Thanet, Labour candidate Frances Rehal, with an open mind. We gather in The Arch, the fab new bar set into the cliff opposite Ramsgate Harbour, where I get confused and kiss Chris Clarke, the press officer (he looks startled) before Will appears behind him.
Young Scobie does look very youthful indeed, but he’s been a local councillor for the past four years, and is firm and clear on what needs to be done, saying: “For the first time in 20 years, we finally have people coming to invest in Thanet. What Frances and I can do to help to push that is about banging the drum for the area, making it clear that Thanet is a beautiful place to live and work.”
At 60, Frances Rehal has not been in politics before but has a lot of experience she feels will be relevant. She’s been a health visitor, a manager in the NHS with responsibility for child protection, and was the director of the first Sure Start programme in Kent.
“Thanet needs jobs,” she tells me. “High-skilled jobs.” She is concerned with how we can help those currently in school “who perhaps aren’t the highest achievers”, and when Will starts banging his drum for the proposed Parkway station and reduced journey times to London – “if we can get it down to 56 minutes, it will transform the area” – it is the young she is thinking of. “If I were elected”, she tells me, “I would see how we could get reduced fares. You need to have a pretty high level of skill to get a job in London that pays enough to commute.”
Will has worked as a “transfer manager” in a local language school and chimes in to remind us that good connections with the capital will lead to a lot more foreign students coming our way, which is “big money at the moment”.
Will has toiled in a working men’s club too, which he loved because “I love talking to people and there was always football on”, but it also taught him about working long hours for little financial reward and being forced to rely on tax credits. “We’re a low-wage blackspot here”, he says sombrely. “Labour’s big push is to make sure we can transform that.”
Frances is also earnest on this issue, proposing “a process where people are upskilled as they get older”. Will is right there with her, saying: “One in four people leaving school in Thanet aren’t able to find a job. My vision of the welfare state is for it to be a hand up, not a hand out.”
There is nothing here that anyone with a heart could possibly decry, but how confident would they be that, in practice, they could make a difference? I tell them that Nigel Farage claimed he’d be a good MP for Thanet because he had “a powerful voice”. Did they think they could say the same?
“He would be an embarrassment for the area,” says Will immediately. “What has he done as an MEP?” enquires Frances. When I push the point, Frances is keen to remind me about her past experience at Sure Start, saying she ” laboured at many national conferences”, but Will is our man for the soundbite.
“We have a record of delivery,” he declares. He regales me with the tale of his one-man fight against the easyJet slogan “We’d rather be in Malaga than Margate”, saying: “I saw this and started a social media campaign, which within six hours had got them to withdraw that. I then spent the next three days going on TV talking about Thanet and all the wonderful things that were happening locally. I took something that could have been a disaster locally and turned it into something good.” The reason he could do this, he emphasises, is because “I’m based here in Thanet, I’m responsive and I know the area”. In this, he highlights the difference between himself and the Ukip and Tory candidates for South Thanet – “they don’t have local links”.
“So you’re saying, you’re both hands-on,” I suggest helpfully.
“We’re hands-on,” agrees Frances. “We’ve been encouraging people to come together, to create a new Thanet. It’s the responsibility of those of us in public services, including politicians, to identify common issues.”
Will is adamant that he would continue what he’s been doing throughout his time on the council: “Volunteering on Christmas Day to feed the homeless, picking up dog poo in Cliftonville…” ( I am grateful for this – someone sure needs to do it – could he extend his remit to Ramsgate too?) He is not deterred by my asides, adding: “It’s not always about speeches, and nice media interviews. It’s hard graft most of the time, and that is what you’ll get from me.”
Verdict: Thin on laughs. Big on social responsibility.
Also standing: Party for a United Thanet.
Name: Grahame Birchall (South Thanet)
Age: “Late middle”
Political experience: Previously been a Labour councillor for Whitstable. Also stood as an Independent and Conservative.
What’s the most important thing you would do for Thanet?
Get rid of TDC and take Thanet out of KCC. Once this is done, I will stand down and allow ‘normal politics’ to resume by way of a by-election.
iPUT is a political party that is not interested in exercising power, only in acting as a catalyst to rapid change.
The big dream:
For the people of Thanet to be set free from KCC and such a malign, unaccountable and secretive system of government.
To turn Thanet into the Riviera of the South East, the European destination of choice.
Name: Cemanthe McKenzie (North Thanet)
No of years in politics: None
What’s the most important thing you would do for Thanet?
Create a Unitary Authority for the isle of Thanet. An elected leader would head a hybrid system which involves community groups, town parishes and localised councils.
The big dream:
The majority vote! Which will indicate a vote of no confidence by the people of Thanet in their structure of local government.
Thanet North: Piers Wauchope, Ukip, Roger Gale, Tory, George Cunningham, Lib Dem, Ed Targett, Green,
Thanet South: Craig Mackinlay, Tory, Nigel Farage, Ukip, Russ Timpson, Lib Dem, Al Murray, FUKP, Ian Driver, Green, Ruth Bailey, Manston Airport Independent, Nigel Askew, Reality Party, Tim Garbutt, Independent, Graham Birchall, Independence Party for a United Thanet, Prophet Zebadiah Abu-Obadiah, Al-Zebabist Nation of OOOG
Watch out for Mike on the Election Flipside – coming soon!