How hustings could bring politics back to the people

‘Public grilled candidates in open debate’, was the headline in the local newspaper, following a successful and lively election hustings on the themes of Brexit and democracy in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk.

Over 120 people crammed themselves into the local Quaker meeting house to press candidates from the floor. The questions covered four issues common to all party manifestos: the economy, Brexit, public services and immigration. Of course, the usual suspects of party organisers and faithful attended, but more than half of the people in the audience were non-affiliated and looking for answers, including around 20 sixth-form students.

Historically, election hustings were rowdy and sometimes violent affairs, rare occasions (and regrettably this is still the case) where politicians came face to face with their voting public. In the 1960s, I can recall being dragged by my mother to a smoke-filled hall to hear Tony Benn, the then candidate for a Bristol constituency, take on all comers, shouting, bellowing and arguing for comprehensive education and against the Common Market. Nowadays, hustings are much more sedate and likely to be organised by church elders. In fact, the Electoral Commission now gives ‘regulatory guidance’ on how to run a hustings event, indicating how stage-managed they’ve become.

As a group of local residents, we were concerned that the democratic spirit of the Brexit vote would get lost in this election, in all the bureaucratic splitting of hairs over costs, policies and the delivery of services. So we found a venue, emailed the candidates, arranged the publicity and planned the event as @brexitburysteds. We aimed to get all the candidates engaged in a public discussion about the issues that matter.

We also wanted to challenge the stale format of modern hustings. The Churches Council advises vicars and church leaders only to take questions sent to the organisers before the meeting, or written out on entry at the door. This takes away any flow or spontaneity and gives total control to the chair and candidates. Instead, the chair at our hustings took batches of questions on each topic from the floor, and this helped keep the meeting moving.

Passions rose on several occasions during the evening. The first contentious issue was the lack of any plan by any party to kickstart a real economic revival – to bake a bigger cake so there is more to go around. The second was the issue of democracy: the Tory candidate declared herself and her family to be firm Remainers, but said that democracy trumped her individual view and so she supported Brexit, even if it meant walking away from the negotiations with no deal. The final issue was immigration – a debate which got particularly interesting.

As a means of putting parliamentary candidates to the test, hustings are all we’ve got. Let’s make them more open, more frequent and more in-depth (I wish we had held four two-hour sessions on each theme). At a time when the political parties are becoming increasingly distant from voters, hustings could be an important part of reinvigorating British politics. At the next election, don’t wait for the local vicar or headteacher to organise your local hustings – set one up in the name of democracy and freedom!

Tony Pierce is a planning and development consultant working in the public sector.

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