Stoke-on-Trent Central candidates grilled on cost-of-living and declining town centres

Candidates bidding to be Stoke-on-Trent Central's new MP were grilled on subjects ranging from the cost of living crisis to Gaza at a hustings event. The hustings at Staffordshire University came just over a week before voters across the country head to the polls in the general election on July 4.

Six of the eight candidates running in Stoke-on-Trent Central turned up to the event on Tuesday evening, with Lib Dem Laura McCarthy and Luke Shenton, of Reform UK, the only ones who were unable to attend. The audience was made up of more than 100 staff, students and members of the public, with the university's director of communities and commercial engagement Martin Tideswell chairing the debate.

The panel was asked a series of pre-submitted questions on a range of subjects such as the cost-of-living crisis, education, public transport and Gaza, with each candidate being given around a minute to respond. Further questions on other subjects were invited from the audience.

The format, and the number of candidates, meant that the answers were generally limited to broad outlines, with little opportunity for ideas to be challenged or debated. And on many of the issues, the candidates were broadly in agreement - yes to more buses, yes to more doctors and nurses.

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But over the course of the hustings the audience would have been able to pick up common themes in candidates' responses. Labour's Gareth Snell, the frontrunner, seemed the most at ease at the event - as you might expect from someone who has run for Stoke-on-Trent Central at three previous elections, winning on two of those occasions.

In his responses he quoted and expressed his support for various Labour manifesto pledges and linking them to specific issues in the city. These included policies such as the plan to close non-dom loopholes and invest the funds raised in the NHS, and a windfall tax on fossil fuel companies to fund investment in warmer homes - a particularly pertinent issue in the city with the highest fuel poverty rate in England.

Mr Snell, in his closing statement, made it clear that a vote for him would be a vote for a Labour government. He said: "The country has a choice ahead of it. The fact is that our two-party system means there will either be a Labour government or a Conservative government - we can't change that this evening. So I would argue that the Labour party is offering a change at this election. We're offering a credible, costed plan that means we can bring down poverty, and rescue our NHS, build the homes we need and invest in our public services. We can only do that with votes and your support."

Perhaps in contrast to Mr Snell, Dr Chandra Kanneganti, the Conservative candidate was keener to emphasise his own personal attributes, experience and track record, as both a local GP and a city councillor, more than his party's policies. When an international student in the audience asked the panel about the lack of support for people such as her, Dr Kanneganti was quick to highlight his own status as an immigrant to the Stoke-on-Trent and the UK.

Dr Kanneganti also emphasised his personal record when an audience member asked about integrity in politics, in the light of scandals such as Partygate and the ongoing furore over insider betting. He said: "I'm not here to defend those people - they should be locked up. The reason I became a politician was because I want to help people. When I was a GP I saw lots of social problems. Look at my personal track record. Speak to the people in Goldenhill and Sandyford, where I was re-elected with 73 per cent of the vote. Look at my record of delivery, and my personal history as a GP for the last 18 years in practices across Stoke-on-Trent."

But Dr Kanneganti did speak favourably of national Conservative policies such as the decision to scrap HS2 and reinvest the funds in local transport projects. The other four candidates were keen to point out to the audience that they did not have to vote for one of the two main parties.

Green Party candidate Adam Colclough, who has also stood in the seat on three previous occasions, said that he would be a different sort of MP, working 'on the ground' with third sector organisations in the city to improve the lives of its residents. He insisted he would continue to work in the community, regardless of the outcome of the election, as 'the Green Party is in for the long haul, not the photo call'.

He said: "Too often we feel that politicians are distant from us, they don't understand the concerns of everyday people. I do understand the concerns of people in this city. This is where I was born, where I was educated, where I've worked. I will rebuild trust by doing one thing - serving the interests of this city and all its communities, to tackle the challenges we face and talk up the good things we do."

Shelton pharmacist Navid Kaleem, one of three independent candidates running in Stoke-on-Trent Central, said his job meant he was well-versed with the city's health and social problems. He was critical of the record of both Labour and the Conservatives in Stoke-on-Trent, saying the city was suffering from 'politically manufactured poverty', and proposing solutions such as better preventative care to ease the pressure on the NHS.

Mr Kaleem said: "We've got a two-party system - Labour and Conservative. Labour was an anti-racist party before, but not any more. It used to be a party for the working class, but not any more. It's a party that supports genocide. Our Parliament should not be a space for professionals who are going to lobby for another country. Stoke should be their priority. There's a saying: if you always do what you always did, you'll always get what you always got. So on July 4, Britain will have it's very own independents day."

Both Mr Kaleem and fellow independent Andy Polshaw were critical of Labour's stance on Gaza and support for Israel. But unusually, Mr Polshaw urged people voting on that issue to vote for Mr Kaleem rather than him, so as not to split the vote.

Mr Polshaw said he wanted to promote 'a new kind of politics', arguing in favour of electoral and political reforms such as a ban on MPs serving for more than two terms. He was also critical of the donations made to politicians and parties.

He said: "I don't see why any political party or candidate should ever accept money from another business. I know some of it is used for campaigning, but you see it time and time again, that when someone has accepted money, they vote in a way that favours that business or institution. I know donations have to be published, but nobody pays attention to it. I want to stop it - full stop. The only people who should be able to make donations should be individuals - registered voters."

Local businessman AliRom, another independent, was also eager to let voters know that they could vote for candidates other than those from the two main parties, saying that insanity was doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. He said his priorities would be boosting Stoke-on-Trent's town centres and increasing the capacity of the local NHS.

He said: "We need to rejuvenate our town centres. People need parking - why do people go to the Trafford Centre? Because there's free parking there. We need to enhance our transport links. And NHS capacity building is vital at the moment. In the last few years we've taken in so many people in Stoke-on-Trent, but we have more managers working in the NHS than doctors. We need to invest more in doctors."

While the format of the hustings meant that individual topics were not explored in depth, the audience were given an insight into how the candidates differed on key points, and what they would bring to the role of MP. Voters in Stoke-on-Trent Central, and across the country, will go to the polls on July 4.

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