The Pendle branch of Engage organised a highly successful husting’s, bringing together the three main prospective parliamentary candidates from Pendle.
The hustings is a part of Engage’s, ‘Get Out & Vote’ national campaign which is designed to galvanise the Muslim community to participate fully in the general and local elections 2010.
This is believed to be one of the closest fought elections in living memory as there is a real potential of a hung parliament.
The campaign which is designed to tackle voter apathy and the importance of the community getting involved in the election process. Engage has focused on 50 constituencies across the country, where the Muslim population is decisive.
The Pendle Hustings event was full to capacity attracting over 200 people with many not able to get in.
The lively debate saw the prospective parliamentary candidates eagerly going head to head on key issues and party policies. The range and depth of the questions were profoundly challenging and thoughtful both from the chair and the floor.
Questions ranged from local, national and international issues, allowing for a diverse range of opinions to be aired and a detailed scrutiny of policy to be conducted.
An initially sceptical Gordon Prentice (Labour candidate), gave his reaction to the event saying on his personal blog; “A sparky and lively hustings at the Silverman Hall this afternoon, expertly chaired by Jonathan Steele of the Guardian. The organisers, Mohammed Asif, the Chief Executive of Engage, and Waqaus Ali teed things up perfectly with the event running, more or less, to time.”
Mr Prentice also praised the performance of his rival Andrew Stephenson as solid. The Labour candidate acknowledged that the Engage ‘Get Out & Vote’ Campaign “is making a difference”.
Gordon Prentices full comments can be found at http://gordonprentice.com/index.php/component/content/article/1-blog/132-all-about-faith- Andrew Stephenson was also full of praise for Engage referring in particular to Edmund Burke’s quote "All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing." He said the organiser’s had done a great job.
The husting’s was covered by Islam Channel, 813 on Sky Digital and will be aired to potentially over 2 million British Muslims.
The day began with a short introduction by Waqaus Ali the programme convenor and Engage Chief Executive Mohammed Asif who had travelled up from London.
Mr Asif stressed the importance of political participation.
He mentioned how the event aimed at bringing the candidates from the three main parties together on one platform to allow for a closer scrutiny of policy. This would allow people to make a more informed choice as to who they should cast their vote for.
The event was chaired by veteran Guardian journalist Jonathan Steele who is well known for his international correspondence in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr Steele was joined on the stage by the three candidates, Anwar Afzal of the Liberal Democrats, Andrew Stephenson of the Conservatives and veteran MP Gordon Prentice of Labour. The candidates were given a brief opportunity to say why they should be elected to represent Pendle.
Lib Dem’s Afzal Anwar emphasised his local credentials as a born and bred citizen of the borough and therefore having knowledge of the area’s needs. He also attacked Gordon Prentice’s 18 year record as an MP.
Conservative Andrew Stephenson tied his credentials in with a national outlook of a Conservative government and how real change and a plan to get the economy moving again was in the best interests of Pendle. He also made a pledge that under a Conservative government there would be a greater preservation of the health service and the Conservatives would stop the proposed removal of the baby ward from Burnley to Blackburn.
Labour Gordon Prentice highlighted the fact that he was standing in his fifth election and commented how this was the toughest one yet.
The veteran, MP emphasised his secular outlook on the world and also asked people to look at his voting record as an MP. Having voted against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq Mr Prentice reminded the audience that in him they had a man who is straight with people and not in pursuit of any particular agenda.
Among the issues raised were -Employment and Jobs in Pendle, -Media Distortion of Muslims Nationwide -Civil Liberties -The escalation of the Afghanistan war into Pakistan -Education Candidates Challenged.
The candidates were also forced to defend the policies of their respective parties with Andrew Stephenson coming in for particular scrutiny over controversial views expressed by members of the shadow cabinet such as Liam Fox, Michael Gove and George Osbourne.
He also faced criticism for the comments of Conservative councillor Benson Smith who had referred to the problems of Colne’s degeneration down to ‘too many pakis and takeaways’ in 2009.
Mr Stephenson pointed out how Councillor Smith had apologised and undergone race awareness training to reflect on his remarks. He also stated that he did not believe Mr Smith to be a racist and if any future incidents occurred Mr Smith would be instantly expelled from the Conservative party. Mr Prentice meanwhile was said by the Lib Dem candidate Afzal Anwar to be compromising Pendle’s prospects for austerity by consistently going against the grain in reference to his open opposition to many Labour policies within the commons.
Mr Prentice defended Labour’s record in investing in the area and in reference to his record in the commons said he did not apologise for his stances and was not prepared to be anyone’s ‘yes man’.
Afzal Anwar was also pulled up by local residents who asked what he was doing in his claims of a grassroots campaign in utilising and advancing female activists, and what did he have to say for the relative failure of the Lib Dem controlled council and the lack of investment in Nelson.
On the latter issue Mr Anwar said he could not account for the lack of investment because he was not a local councillor. As the event came to a close, many more eager hands were raised with questions but the Chair; Mr Steele had to close the debate.
He reminded the audience about the importance of making each vote count. In this tight general election, Pendle is deemed as one of the close marginal constituencies in the country, with only 5,000 votes separating the three main parties in the previous election.
Event organiser Waqas Ali said, “I am very pleased at the successful outcome and attendance at this event. A valuable platform was provided for local people, predominately young Muslims some of whom hold an apathetic world view, to freely walk in here and comfortably engage in a healthy debate – that for me is absolutely priceless.
"This will be the first of three elections, where I will be making an informed choice and I will be encouraging others to do the same. I must congratulate and thank all the volunteers, friends and candidates for their valuable time and effort”.