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What the electoral process has lost with the death of the hustings

2010 April 16
by Paul Vallely

All over Britain in church halls groups of people are gathering together under the Churches Together banner to hold hustings at which all the local candidates in the forthcoming general election are invited to parade their wares and answer questions from the voters in their local constituency.

There is something rather old-fashioned about the process in this internet age. Such meetings are not terribly well-attended, though I went to one this week which had about 150 people from 10 different churches cramming the room. Many of the questions are not particularly well-formed, and some are spectacularly ill-informed. And the quality of response from the candidates can sometimes be of the calibre that would make their spin-doctors squirm uncomfortably in their seats back in national HQ.

That said, having visited a few such sessions recently, it is clear that these old-style platform performances offer something lacking which in metropolitan press conferences, photo opportunities, carefully-crafted party-leader soundbites and all the other paraphernalia of modern electioneering lack. Indeed, a cynic might say, all that flummery is intended to mask the core truths which the hustings expose.

The other old-time electioneering technique which survives is door-to-door canvassing. This is a chastening experience for politicians, for it brings them face-to-face with the impoverished nature of the political process in which they do not just participate but which many of them collude.

The views which they encounter on the doorstep are often so narrowly focused – the lack of a seat in the bus shelter at the end of the road, the fact that the binmen missed their road out three weeks earlier – that they make the word parochial sound positively embracing in its scope. But, far worse, they are often rooted in some pretty base prejudices, which usually start “I’m no racist but…”, which have to be directly encountered to be believed.

Brave politicians challenge these with facts – I was out canvassing with one particularly robust Conservative candidate this week – but most regard canvassing as a data collection process designed only to identify their potential supporters and ensure they are turned out on polling day. Acquiescing in dog-whistle politics is often the easy option in these one-to-one encounters but it is no less insidious for that.

The hustings offers something different. It is not one-to-one but a collective experience. The politicians are invited to respond to a questioner in the presence of others who may take an entirely different view.  Here you are not just talking to the person whom you are addressing; you are talking to everyone (an insight which many senior clerics never seem to grasp).  At its worst this can lead to the classic politician’s all-things-to-all-voters answer. But at its best it reveals something about the character of the speaker as they commit themselves in public.

There is something else too. At the end of one such meeting this week I asked one of the audience whether she had been convinced by any of the speakers?  Well, she replied, they all seemed competent enough and none of the three main candidates would be an embarrassment if they were elected. But she hadn’t come there to be convinced, she added. “I’ve come to let all of them know that we Christians are interested in politics, and not just in the narrow list off issues with which we are often associated. We represent a body of opinion of which they have to take note.”

That is a notion which makes the deluge of media coverage look passive and distinctly one-way. Politics, as the hustings shows in its cumbersome communitarian way, is about something wider that that.


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