Theresa May accused of hiding from public at activist-filled event
Jeremy Corbyn has criticised Theresa May for speaking at a Leeds community regeneration project to a crowd of Conservative activists, rather than users of the building who said they had left for the day before she arrived.
The prime minister spoke to around 150 cheering Tory activists gathered at Shine, which houses small businesses in the local area. Corbyn accused May of “hiding from the public” by speaking only to her activists. Richard Burgon, the area’s Labour MP, said the prime minister had missed an opportunity to speak to users of the project, who include female former prisoners.
“She won’t take part in TV debates and she won’t talk to voters,” Corbyn said. “Refusing to debate Labour in this election isn’t a sign of strength, it’s a sign of weakness. What is she afraid of? Voters deserve to know what political parties are offering.”
One staff member based in the building, who did not want to be named, said he had been looking forward to hearing May speak, though he said he was not a Conservative supporter.
“I found this deeply disappointing. I had no plans to vote for Mrs May but I’m well aware of the positive effect that seeing a speech in person from such a powerful, motivated public figure can have,” the staff member told the Guardian. “I had a similar opportunity with both David Cameron and Gordon Brown when I worked in radio and it was very inspiring.”
Instead, he said, the visit occurred when none of the occupants were in the building, apart from some staff supervising the event. “There were no locals in the building other than some Shine staff and an invited congregation of well-dressed Tories,” he said. “Harehills as a community was not represented or addressed.”
Theresa May among her audience at Shine. Photograph: Anthony Devlin/PA
The centre, which has an event space, cafe and art gallery, trains and employs people with previous convictions, with a programme focussed on female prisoners. A local initiative, it is housed in a former derelict Victorian school building on one of the inner-city suburbs’ main roads.
Harehills, the suburb where the centre is based in the north-east of Leeds is an ethnically diverse, working-class area, with a high Pakistani and east European populations. Burgon has a 12,000 majority, and the Leeds East seat was once the constituency of the former Labour chancellor Denis Healey.
“As one of the poorer and more diverse areas in Leeds, I’m sure the residents of Harehills would have appreciated being involved,” the staff member said. “Instead Mrs May spoke exclusively to a hand-selected bunch of the party faithful.”
Todd Hannula, Shine’s founder, said the event was a private one held after hours, and that guests were only those the event organisers had invited themselves. “We didn’t even know it was going to be Theresa May until five hours before she arrived,” he told the Guardian.
Hannula said there was no opportunity for people who worked at Shine to get tickets or get on to the list to attend the speech. “It was a standard political event. When David Cameron came to Shine it was the exact same thing, it was a private event, not any sort of community thing,” he said.
Shine, Hannula emphasised, did not host the event, just hired the space out. “Our visitors have included dignitaries from all over Europe, senior cabinet ministers when Gordon Brown was in power, and all of them have paid to use this space … We’re a venue, we can’t turn people down.”
In a statement on Facebook on Friday, Dawn O’Keefe, Shine’s co-founder and managing director, said: “Shine has been celebrating diversity and the vibrant culture of Harehills for 10 years … All visitors pay for meeting space in Shine and we do not seek out, bid for, or otherwise host any political parties.”
The prime minister has previously said she would refuse to do TV debates with Corbyn and other party leaders. May said she believed in campaigns where politicians “actually get out and about and meet the voters”.
“I’m disappointed that Mrs May’s visit has been portrayed as some noble deed, rather than a self-serving campaign stop – but then that’s what elections are about, I guess,” the staff member said.
Burgon tweeted that he would be keen to come to listen to the views of the centre’s staff one lunchtime during the campaign.
The reality of a Theresa May ‘visit’. For what it’s worth, I’d be more than happy to come down to chat & hear staff’s views one lunchtime… https://t.co/MD4rmALCSr
He told the Guardian: “It seems Theresa May didn’t really visit Harehills. Instead, like a medieval monarch, she simply briefly relocated her travelling court of admirers to town and then moved on without so much as a nod to the people she considers to be her lowly subjects.”
Of 4 that tweeted about the Theresa May event & I could find information on 3 were Cons. Members & all not from #Harehills (1 says Leeds) ? pic.twitter.com/8hAlIRDy5F
In her speech, May called on voters to back her party “in the national interest” rather than stick with their traditional loyalties. “I know this city is one of the places that people call a traditional Labour area,” May said. “But here – and in every constituency across the country – it may say Labour on the ballot, but it’s Jeremy Corbyn that gets the vote.”