Published: 30 April 2010
by JAMIE WELHAM
A PACKED Emmanuel church hall in the Harrow Road saw Karen Buck and her Conservative rival Joanne Cash go head to head at the first and only Westminster North hustings this week.
They wrestled with questions on economic policy, care for the elderly, spending cuts and the future of the police force in the two hours which, apart from a flare-up over a perceived lack of ethnic minority representation on Conservative campaign leaflets, passed off more civilly than many people had predicted.
It is no secret there is no love lost between the two women, who are locked in a fierce fight for the knife-edge seat that is receiving publicity across the country in the run-up to May 6.
Ms Buck has held the Regent’s Park and Kensington North seat since 1997, and has a notional majority of around 3,000 votes since a boundary change replaced core Labour wards in Kensington and Chelsea with Tory strongholds in Hyde Park and Bayswater.
A four and a half per cent swing to the Conservatives would turn it blue. And with the Nick Clegg bounce seemingly splitting the “progressive vote” and a “David and Goliath” funding gap in favour of the Consertavies, Ms Buck faces and uphill task on Thursday.
The pair were joined on the panel by Liberal Democrat candidate Mark Blackburn and Jasna Badzak from the UK Independence Party, who despite valiant efforts were little more than a sideshow.
The incumbent MP said she was “proud” of her achievements with the support of the police in cleaning up nearby Prince of Wales junction from the blight of drug dealers when challenged over the need for police community support officers (PCSOs). Making a play for the floating voters in the room, Ms Buck used the “I’m one of you” tactic, telling the audience she had lived in the area for more than 20 years, and that her son was a student at nearby Paddington Academy.
She said: “In the history of the world there has never been a place like London today. And despite our differences it works pretty well. What we need is more grassroots action.
“Things like the neighbourhood forums and the Paddington Development Trust, which have been a massive success around here. These are the kind of things that need to be protected from cuts.”
Ms Buck must hope her much-vaunted reputation as a great “constituency MP” and the fact that she emerged relatively unscathed from the expenses scandal will insulate her against Conservative advances based on the national picture.
Speaking to voters, it’s hard to find people willing to knock Ms Buck. She has a scrapbook of local triumphs including stopping a number of nursery school closures, securing money from central government for the council for numerous voluntary projects – no mean feat for an authority still tainted by the ghost of Shirley Porter – and an open-door policy for constituents struggling with housing and welfare problems.
But Ms Cash, who lives in nearby Westbourne Park, has been upping the tempo. Despite a number of potentially damaging turns – a snap resignation and reversal in February and comments that canvassing was “like a ghastly cocktail party” – rather than imploding her campaign has gone from strength to strength.
At the hustings she said she couldn’t compete with her rival on political experience but that her career as a barrister had demonstrated it was in her “DNA to stand up for people”.
She added that a Conservative government would “let you decide” to put more police on the street, and said too much money was wasted on bureaucracy.
“We need more doctors, nurses and teachers living in Westminster because at the moment it is a place for the very rich or very poor,” she said.
“We also need an overhaul of the current benefits system because even for me with a university degree, it is almost impossible to fill in all the forms.”
On the question of care, Ms Cash said the Labour government had been guilty of “serious neglect” and that there was a “lack of support” for elderly people in the area.
She added: “I fought to keep Garway Road GP surgery open and I will fight for better care in Westminster.
“I think this is one of the areas where the Labour government has massively failed.”
Ms Buck pointed the finger at Conservative-controlled Westminster Council, adding that the elderly would be even more vulnerable under a Tory government.