Some thoughts on the importance of finding out who is standing in your area for both the local and general elections
Background reading: How to organise a local hustings – by Chris Rand
The Cambridge Zero Carbon Society organised a rally outside Cambridge Guildhall on 29 April as part of their campaign to persuade Cambridge University to divest from its £370m of fossil fuel investments. Speaking were the three candidates who had announced their intention to stand/re-stand for the city’s parliamentary seat – incumbent Daniel Zeichner for Labour, his opponent in 2010 & 2015 & predecessor Dr Julian Huppert for the Liberal Democrats, and Addenbrooke’s nurse Stuart Tuckwood for the Greens.
Speeches outside The Guildhall
Two years ago, Cambridge was one of the battle grounds between Labour and the Lib Dems – and also to some extent for the Conservatives and Greens in the battle for third place. I turned up to as many events as possible, creating an extensive video playlist here. Over 3,000 people would have attended the over 30 hustings (even accounting for repeat attendees) in Cambridge alone in what was a bitterly fought contest that Mr Zeichner won by 599 votes.
Risks with a tightly-controlled national campaign
Much has been made about the robotic repetition of ‘strong and stable’ by the Conservatives, hence the awkward opening of the interview between Andrew Marr and the Prime Minister earlier on. In Scotland, people are noting of the Prime Minister’s reluctance to meet voters who have not been pre-vetted by the party. With so few opportunities to ask tough questions on policy, and so few opportunities for the general public to meet senior Conservatives, any mistakes that are caught on film are suddenly magnified. What else is there to talk about if the party in power that called the election doesn’t debate policy in the media?
Furthermore, what we don’t know is to what extent the public will start to resent this sort of campaign. It might be a snap election but there are still six weeks to go before polling day. And to think that 24 hours is a long time in politics.
Local hustings as an antidote for tightly-managed national campaigns
I’ve been filming a host of local election debates and hustings of late (see the playlists here) – we have county council and mayoral campaigns in Cambridgeshire. The first parliamentary hustings I’ve spotted is at The Cambridge Junction on 08 May. Which means I get to ask the candidates about my new concert hall idea which I want named after Florence Ada Keynes, complete in time for the 100th anniversary of the mayoralty of ‘The Mother of Modern Cambridge‘.
Actually, the hustings are even more important this time around given the widely-reported weaknesses of the UK-wide parties – real or perceived. Given Labour’s divisions on Brexit, such local hustings are even more important where they have a ‘remain-supporting’ MP facing a strong challenge from the Liberal Democrats – such as here in Cambridge. But that’s just on the Labour-Lib Dem axis. What we also don’t know is how the election will turn out on other political axes – 40 miles north of here in North East Cambs is a constituency where in 2015 over 75% of voters voted for either the Conservatives or UKIP, mirroring vote for Brexit where just under that number voted to leave the EU. What do you do if you are in any of Labour, the Lib Dems or the Greens in the face of those election results?
One of the things the Police and Crime Commissioner campaign hustings taught me was just how different the political cultures are between Cambridge, at the southern end of Cambridgeshire, and Wisbech, at the northern end of the same county. The messages from the Labour and Liberal Democrats’ candidates just didn’t resonate with the audience. Ironically, what the audience wanted was a permanent, visible police presence in the town, and none of the parties could offer this – mainly due to the budgetary restrictions coming from Whitehall. The important thing from my perspective was that what happened at that hustings came as a surprise.
Civic society organisations and their roles as organisers of local political debates
The number of hustings events in Cambridge – along with high attendances, reflects a strong civic society culture. Not everywhere has that. Much as religious institutions may wish to stay out of party politics and/or humanist/secular/atheist groups want to exclude religious institutions from political and state institutions generally, one of the things religious institutions have in local communities are premises – halls in which to host hustings. In Sawston just outside Cambridge, the Sawston Free Church has hosted a couple of hustings recently – including for the county mayor. What helped immensely was having the Minister – Rev Bruce Waldron, a figure known in the village, as chair and as a competent chair too.
Again, the civic dynamics differ from village (Sawston) to town (Wisbech) to city (Cambridge). In a village it might be that a church is the best place to host such an event. In a town in an economically deprived town, a council-run community centre might be the best place. In a city, it might be a large institution with access to a massive conference theatre that steps in. In Cambridge I would like to see far more of the science and technology institutions hosting such political debates – not least so as to encourage more people from such backgrounds to get involved in local democracy.
Personally I’d also like to see more opportunities for multiple conversations before and after the formal exchanges at such events. How you arrange for this I don’t know. Much depends on premises and budgets eg for breakout rooms and refreshments.
Hustings feeding into local news
Having someone there filming the exchanges helps local journalists in established publications such as newspapers and local radio at a time when staff and budgets are stretched. In Cambridge me and Richard Taylor do much of the local filming, publishing the full event for people to go through at their leisure. For those without such activists, it might be worth getting in touch with a local media studies department at a local college to see if anyone is interested in videoing the events for you – & offer to pay them via an appeal for donations or a collection bucket at the end.
Remember that having that permanent video record sitting online means that there is a record people can go back to. In recent years the mere existence of an extensive library of Cambridge meetings has been more than enough for candidates and councillors to be more careful with their remarks. They can’t promise one thing to one audience and say the opposite to another without someone picking up on it.
Hearing the candidates in their own voices
I’ve filmed introduction videos for these sixteen candidates for the county council elections on 04 May 2017.
Town planning researcher Joe Dale, the first of the candidates
What the videos do is help even up the political playing field as far as digital content goes – at a time where the more established parties are still cautious about all things digital. What it also does is enable those with mobility and accessibility problems to hear from the candidates in their own voices. For better or worse, the public will probably have decided which candidates are worth voting for/exploring further in the first 30 seconds of a speech or video.
Pressure on those standing for election – fewer ‘paper’ candidates
One of the things I say to all of the candidates I make these short videos for is that I want them to do well. I want them to come across to the voting public as best as possible so that the public can make an informed decision on all of the candidates at their best. The more competent chairs of hustings have expressed similar sentiment about people standing for election & being cross-examined on platforms.
“These people are offering to do a lot of work for our community in return for very little. Please keep things cordial”
Or words to that effect from Chris Rand at the Queen Edith’s hustings recently. When it comes to a local level, you often get first time candidates who have never stood in elections before. Make the experience too unpleasant and they won’t stand again – not good if the individuals concerned have potential to become great councillors. Especially roles that rely on a huge amount of unpaid work as being a councillor inevitably does.
Over to you.
You can find out who you can vote for in your area via https://whocanivotefor.co.uk/
If none of the candidates impress you in your area, how could people in your area go about improving the calibre of people who put themselves forward for election? Do initiatives such as http://beacouncillor.co.uk/ help?
Thank you for your continued support
As always, I can only continue filming with your support. With my filming of local meetings in and around Cambridge, I aim to bring local democracy to your desktop. Even more important now with the general election coming up. Please consider supporting my work if you can afford it. Click on the ‘donate’ button below. Thank you.