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265 people pack St Mary’s Church at heated Islington South and Finsbury hustings

PUBLISHED: 23:26 21 May 2017 | UPDATED: 13:29 22 May 2017

Gazette hustings for Islington South and Finsbury in St Mary's Church. From left: Alain Desmier, Jason Charalambous, Emily Thornberry and chair Ramzy Alwakeel. Picture: Polly Hancock

Gazette hustings for Islington South and Finsbury in St Mary's Church. From left: Alain Desmier, Jason Charalambous, Emily Thornberry and chair Ramzy Alwakeel. Picture: Polly Hancock

Archant

Candidates for Islington South and Finsbury clashed with each other – and the audience – at a heated hustings in St Mary’s Church tonight.

Arranged by the Gazette and chaired by editor Ramzy Alwakeel, 265 people crammed into the Upper Street church to watch incumbent Emily Thornberry (Labour) debate with her counterparts for next month’s general election.

Predictably, Alain Desmier (Lib Dem) took just seconds to attack Mrs Thornberry over her Brexit stance in his opening speech.

Islington South and Finsbury voted by 72 per cent to remain in the referendum last June. But Mrs Thornberry, despite also campaigning to remain, voted to trigger Article 50 to leave the EU in Parliament.

And Mr Desmier roared: “Our MP has failed us.” It received the biggest cheer of the night from the audience.

Alain Desmier immediately laid into Emily Thornberry at the Gazette hustings for Islington South and Finsbury in St Mary's Church. Picture: Polly HancockAlain Desmier immediately laid into Emily Thornberry at the Gazette hustings for Islington South and Finsbury in St Mary's Church. Picture: Polly Hancock

The debate that followed centred on eight questions from Gazette readers. And in the first, about the candidates’ Brexit stance, Mrs Thornberry said it was important to follow the national “leave” majority, saying: “Frankly, our party does as it’s told.”

It was echoed by Jason Charalambous (Conservative). Mrs Thornberry nodded her approval at his comments – the first and last time of the night.

Benali Hamdache (Green) accused Labour of “going missing in action”, calling for a second EU referendum. Meanwhile, Pete Muswell (Ukip) said the 28 per cent who voted to leave had been forgotten.

The second question focused on the UK’s first past the post electoral system. And Mr Charalambous was actually booed by the crowd when he hailed its virtues of “strong and stable government”. Apologising, he sheepishly said Prime Minister Theresa May’s “buzzwords are ingrained in my head”.

Emily Thornberry at the Gazette hustings for Islington South and Finsbury in St Mary's Church. Picture: Polly HancockEmily Thornberry at the Gazette hustings for Islington South and Finsbury in St Mary's Church. Picture: Polly Hancock

Mrs Thornberry followed: “We have a system where people know who their MP is. Most people know Emily, their MP. Some people don’t like me, but they know who I am.”

But Mr Hamdache said: “People are fed up with our broken system of safe seats.”

The atmosphere in the audience was already heated. And it boiled over during answers to the third question about education funding in Islington’s schools.

Mr Muswell called out a heckler, instructing him: “If you’ve got something to say to me, say it afterwards.”

Pete Muswell at the Gazette hustings for Islington South and Finsbury in St Mary's Church. Picture: Polly HancockPete Muswell at the Gazette hustings for Islington South and Finsbury in St Mary's Church. Picture: Polly Hancock

But the candidates soon turned their attention on each other. In a question about housing, Mr Desmier pointed to the Lib Dems’ record of building council homes while in control of the town hall in the 2000s. Mrs Thornberry sarcastically mouthed: “Wow.”

And when it was her turn to speak, she said: “If the Lib Dems hadn’t [subsequently] sold off so many homes in Islington, our lives would be much easier. Let’s not forget that. They sold off everything they could for short-term gain.”

There was, however, a tender moment during a question about whether euthanasia should be legalised. Mr Charalambous gave an emotional account of his nan’s “amazing” end-of-life care when she had dementia – and that he couldn’t support assisted dying.

Mr Desmier, who earlier almost fell off his chair disagreeing with one of Mr Charalambous’s comments, put an arm round his shoulder.

Jason Charalambous at the Gazette hustings for Islington South and Finsbury in St Mary's Church. Picture: Polly HancockJason Charalambous at the Gazette hustings for Islington South and Finsbury in St Mary's Church. Picture: Polly Hancock

In the past six months, three Islington schools have been placed into special measures after being labelled “inadequate” by Ofsted. And Mr Hamdache blasted the Ofsted reporting system.

He said: “Ofsted is a broken system and one day to visit and assess a school’s performance is not right. It puts so much pressure on teachers.” Mr Desmier added: “We need to re-focus Ofsted to long-term outcomes, rather than a political vehicle for the acadamisation of schools.”

There was an opportunity for questions from the floor once the reader’s questions had been dealt with – and 15 people queued up to quiz the candidates.

One told Mr Charalambous of the Conservative government’s disability allowance cuts: “I’m getting fed up.” Mr Charalambous flapped at an answer, but said he would discuss the issue after.

Benali Hamdache at the Gazette hustings for Islington South and Finsbury in St Mary's Church. Picture: Polly HancockBenali Hamdache at the Gazette hustings for Islington South and Finsbury in St Mary's Church. Picture: Polly Hancock

Mr Hamdache, meanwhile, said: “The indignity many people have to face makes me so angry. This is the most terrible and obnoxious part of the Tory agenda. Mrs Thornberry added: “It’s disgraceful – and should never be forgotten.”

Another man derided Islington North MP Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. But Mrs Thornberry countered: “I think Jeremy Corbyn is a good and decent man. He offers us hope and an alternative to this dreadful government. This is not a presidential election, which is what Theresa May wants to do. It’s about what politicians can do to make lives better.”

Even Mr Muswell expressed his admiration for Mr Corbyn: “He sticks to his convictions – even if I disagree with them.”

But Mr Desmier, swinging the question towards blocking Brexit, said: “We have no opposition. Islington South needs to elect someone who is going to fight every single day for our EU nationals.”

There were 265 people counted at the Gazette hustings for Islington South and Finsbury in St Mary's Church. Picture: Polly HancockThere were 265 people counted at the Gazette hustings for Islington South and Finsbury in St Mary's Church. Picture: Polly Hancock

How well do the candidates know their constituency?

Not all of the night was this heavy. The Gazette began the debate on a lighter note: a quick, mischievous quiz about the Islington South and Finsbury constituency.

There was one question for each candidate, drawn from Mr Alwakeel’s measuring jug from his kitchen – he doesn’t own a hat.

Mr Hamdache (what is the northern boundary of the constituency?), Mrs Thornberry (where is Fabric nightclub?) and Mr Charalambous (what is the famous pie and mash shop in Chapel Market?) passed with ease.

But Mr Muswell, who lives in the St Luke’s Estate, was asked what day the Gazette’s print edition comes out. He confidently answered Friday. This is incorrect – it comes out on Thursday.

And Mr Desmier was asked where the annual May Day rally starts. He said Islington Green – it is in fact Clerkenwell Green.

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