Oldham East and Saddleworth sketch: Laughter matters at hostile hustings

Laughter, rather than applause, is a better barometer for success at the hustings events taking place up and down the length of the country.

By Alex Stevenson

In the Labour-Lib Dem marginal of Oldham East and Saddleworth, the key question for candidates was whether they were laughing with you – or at you.

Sunday’s event took place in the middle-class haven in the hills that is Uppermill, Saddleworth. The Greater Manchester conurbation lurks out of sight to the west. Here all is peaceful and calm. The biggest political dispute is over whether they are in Lancashire or Yorkshire.

In the red corner, immigration minister Phil Woolas: an old hand, a veteran of the terrible Retreat from the Gurkhas of ’09, so much a member of the government his arguments are constantly propped up by the weight of experience (or weighed down, if you disagree with him).

In the fluorescent orange corner, Elwyn Watkins: local Lib Dem campaigner, a man who likes “a pie and a pint”, every inch the challenger (as much against his party’s policies, it would emerge, as against Woolas).

Some present might have been uncomfortable that they have to share their MP with the very different, very deprived estates of east Oldham. So Elwyn began ingratiatingly by telling Saddleworth dwellers he had bought a house in Delph, a local village.

“I believe you need at least three generations to be a proper Delphonian, but at least I’ve – ah – made a start,” he said. The audience’s reaction was unclear. They appeared to approve because he had moved to Saddleworth rather than Oldham. But the village of Delph was not the village of Uppermill – was he really a local? Any negative impressions may have been underlined by the revelation that his “pie and a pint” are best enjoyed over a game of rugby union, not rugby league. “Shame!” a voice cried. This was going to be a tough crowd.

Watkins did his best. He performed especially well when it came to the advent of Saddleworth’s first Tesco supermarket, which is already being built. “If Saddleworth folk had had a chance of deciding, it wouldn’t have stood a chance” of getting planning permission, the Lib Dem said. Tesco threatened “everything we hold dear”. The feared impact on the local high street (mostly gift shops) was enough to make one shiver with horror.

This hyperbole prompted the Woolas grimace, an extremely effective facial expression which has quelled opposition backbenchers in the Commons for years. But the minister was forced to defend the centralised planning regime while making clear he didn’t like it, as the session erupted into a free-for-all. When the furore had settled down it was observed it felt like three questions for the price of one had been asked. “Better than Tesco’s!” Woolas quipped. How they laughed.

After some partisan exchanges on the economy, attention turned to the question of asylum. This proved slightly thornier for Elwyn than the others. He stated, without being prompted, that he would like to see those granted asylum in Britain who then break the law packed off back home “to their oppressive countries”. Woolas grimaced with delight as he deployed his governmental experience. Those defending “civil liberties” tended to find the European Convention on Human Rights and the Geneva Convention rather useful, he suggested.

“We need to change it,” Watkins said decisively. “You want to change the European Convention and the Geneva Convention?” Woolas asked disbelievingly. Watkins replied, quickly but clearly: “Sure, I’d rip it up.”

Woolas could vaguely be heard pledging to telephone Nick Clegg after the meeting. But it was difficult to hear what he was saying, because of the prolonged shocked laughter which followed. Watkins’ attempt to clarify the situation prompted an audience member to stand up and shout that he was being “outrageous”.

The audience was again persuaded to respond with mirth at the peak of an exchange between the pair on the NHS.

Their arguments about the best way to cut the number of managers in the NHS did not at first seem like it would lead to humour. Woolas had suggested devolving power locally required more managers; Watkins said he had failed to understand management. Woolas, accusing Watkins of “Daily Mail populism”, asked whether, under Watkins’ NHS, devolving power would mean 450 different primary care trusts using 450 different kinds of IT systems.

“This is something the management would have to sort out,” Elwyn replied, to which the audience collectively guffawed derisively. It takes a lot to make the middle classes guffaw, but this was undoubtedly what was happening now. Watkins looked a little upset. “You’re the one trying to be populist now,” he added gloomily to Woolas. The minister’s grimace had been replaced by a very satisfied grin.