On organising local politics debates – Sawston’s example


A textbook example on how to do it – in Sawston, Cambridgeshire.

Anyone can organise one of these. For the purposes of elections, the term husting is often used.

Local (to me) blogger Chris Rand wrote a guide at http://www.chrisrand.com/blog/2016/09/organise-local-council-hustings-event/ aimed at those of you looking to organise one for local council elections.

Lessons from Sawston – positive ones.

Earlier this evening I filmed what I thought was a very good example of how a local hustings or political debate should be run and chaired once everyone was in the room.

A competent chair

Sawston’s fortunate to have the Rev Bruce Waldron, Minister at the Sawston Free Church in the chair. Public speaking kinda comes with the role of being a minister of religion. Ideally you want someone who either possesses that natural ‘reassuring authority’ with people or who can establish it very quickly. Local broadcast journalists and teachers/lecturers are others I’ve seen chair events well.

Time-keeping for questions and responses

One thing that kept the 90 minute event flowing was Rob Grayston with one of the church bells – one of the little ones.

That’s all it takes to keep people to time. Compared to things like horns and whistles, the small bell seemed to be the least intrusive and least oppressive. The quiet chiming was just enough to caution speakers that time was pressing and to bring their comments to an end – without blowing ear drums out.

Briefing your audience

At the start and in the opening questions, Rev Waldron set out clearly why everyone had gathered in the room – ie to meet and cross-examine the candidates who had put themselves forward for election as the new mayor for Cambs & Peterborough. Important given that this is an historically unprecedented role for our part of the country. His opening questions as chair covered the very basic, high level questions that might have been on the minds of a number of people who had not heard about the new mayors – adverts for the elections of which now seem to be plastered across every other phone box in town – we still have a fair few around these parts. The opening Qs included:

  • Where did the policy for a mayor come from?
  • What powers will the mayor have?
  • Why have you put yourself forward as a candidate?

It was then up to audience members to ask issue-specific questions. The answers to the first three questions from the chair also framed the exchanges that were to follow.

Having a decent sound system

Microphones are essential once you get beyond a classroom-sized audience – not just from a filming point of view but also so your audience can hear you. Note that even if you think your voice is loud, it doesn’t necessarily carry. People who are hard of hearing need you to use the microphones.

The other thing is that when one speaker uses a mic and a follow up speaker does not, it creates more work for me when editing, as the volume of the speakers are noticeably different on the camcorder’s internal microphone. Furthermore, we’re seeing more examples of smartphone users filming short video clips. A sound system makes audio for them much more clear.

Microphone technique.

Look and learn

Personally I’d like to see local political parties doing more on public speaking training for their activists and potential candidates – offer the training long before asking them to stand. It takes time to get used to speaking into a microphone. Teaching them how to do so in the middle of an election campaign is not the best time to start learning. In Cambridge there is a public speakers’ club where people can hone their public speaking skills.

Announce somewhere to go collectively (and indicate who is taking people in that direction)

Chances are you’ll have more than a few people who don’t know each other but will want to continue the conversation somewhere. Having one or two designated people to go to whichever watering hole for post-event chats helps bring those people into any follow-up conversations or activities.

There were a number of other things they did:

  • Ensured the event was filmed
  • Ensured someone was live-tweeting from the event
  • Took photographs of the event
  • Had a donations box for costs and also for one of the church’s charities
  • Invited local news and broadcast journalists – in this case Julian Clover of Cambridge 105 turned up and interviewed the candidates afterwards.

There were just over 40 people there, of which around a third seemed to be party-political supporters.

You can see a playlist of videos from the Sawston hustings here.


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