Four candidates were present: Dawn Barnes of the Liberal Democrats, independent Paul Wesson, Colin Bex of the Wessex Regionalists, and Stuart Macdonald of the Greens. David Cameron's absence had been trailed in advance, but the Labour candidate Joe Goldberg had an unavoidable emergency and so was also missing. Cameron and Goldberg were replaced by county councillors from their respective parties, Ian Hudspeth and Duncan Enright. No mention was made of UKIP's Nikolai Tolstoy.
The audience was about forty strong, including several who had travelled to Woodstock from elsewhere in the constituency; I sat next to a leading figure in the local Labour Party, who had travelled down from the distant town of Chipping Norton, eleven miles to the north. Of those on the platform, the substitutes represented their parties as best they could, though it was to be regretted that David Cameron's message reproduced much of what we had already read on his campaign leaflet, and spent too much time addressing Churches Together in Woodstock who had (to their credit) organised the event. Dawn Barnes, effectively the front runner of those present, the previous Liberal Democrat candidate having achieved a narrow second place over Labour in Witney constituency in 2005, was enthusiastic and chatty if cautious, characterizing the more mainstream persona adopted by the Liberal Democrats in recent years. Likewise distancing himself from old stereotypes was Stuart Macdonald, who stressed his party's commitment to ending inequality, using his opening statement to target the present government's poor record in eliminating income disparity, and telling of how he had seen a tooth-pulling in his local pub, as a near neighbour could not afford a dentist.
Paul Wesson and Colin Bex in their ways represented different strands of an old parliamentary ideal, seeking to be spokespeople for local interests holding the executive to account. Wesson, a Carterton councillor of long and varied experience, emphasised the need for negotiation between individual members of parliament to break up the block votes in the Commons. Bex, in contrast, demonstrated an enduring disenchantment with the upper tiers of government which led him to co-found the Wessex Regionalists in 1980 (the party's other co-founder, Alexander Thynn, the present marquess of Bath, was not mentioned). Bex seeks a wholesale restructuring of administration in England which would devolve much power and finance to parish councils and the remainder, to regional assemblies inspired by the archaic notion of an Anglo-Saxon heptarchy, though with a distinct parliament for Cornwall.
After a first question on abortion from a local activist recognised by the chair, questions concentrated on the constitution, the economy, education and the environment. A local Liberal Democrat spoke out against David Cameron's rejection of coalition politics as inherently unstable, citing the success of Germany and New Zealand; Ian Hudspeth made an unconvincing case against coalitions and proportional representation by which he seemed to liken British conditions to those of Greece and Italy as models of chaos. Populist assumptions about the British general election being principally a plebiscite to choose a prime minister were quashed with constitutional correctness by Duncan Enright, and other scenarios explored, with Macdonald and Wesson most creative in their vision for the minor parties and independents, Macdonald seeking to bring 'fresh air' into politics, and Wesson envisaging an independent Witney MP working with counterparts in Wyre Forest and Blaenau Gwent and perhaps also the Northern Irish and Scottish and Welsh nationalist MPs. A question about education brought forward powerfully-expressed criticism of the destructive effects on morale and results in schools from the targets culture championed by the present government from Macdonald, while Barnes stuck to the 'pupil premium' promised in her party's manifesto. Barnes's most effective moment came during Colin Bex's response to a question on the three main parties' honesty concerning the economy: Bex's call for (if I remember correctly) a one-year income tax of 101% on the top 10% of earners was immediately slapped down by Barnes, who pointed out that this would penalize those earning £40000 a year, a sum which she said was modest in much of the south-east of England. Bex immediately moderated his policy to a tax on the top 5%.
After two hours this correspondent decided to seek a Chinese takeaway and not repair with the candidates and substitutes to The Star across the road, where it was pointed out that it would be illegal for them to buy any voters drinks. The Labour and Conservative substitutes sometimes played into the hands of those who would portray them as cosy duopolists; of the two candidates who most impressed, Dawn Barnes could have done with more passion and less recourse to party jargon, Stuart Macdonald with more detail on constructive change. Those who want to allow room for Macdonald would probably be best advised this time to vote for Dawn Barnes. It's a remote possibility, but in the unlikely event that elections are won or lost in bookshops, and if the Liberal Democrat manifesto really is the bestselling book this week at Waterstone's in Witney, David Cameron could do worse than return from Lancashire and cultivate his constituency.