The Revd David Tomlinson - with Placard outside St John’s Church Shildon.

Organising A General Election Hustings

Many churches across the Diocese of Durham have held hustings events in the lead-up to previous General Elections. The following information is provided to help people think about planning an event, but it is important that organisers check the new guidance on the CTBI Churches Together in Britain and Ireland website.

Preparing for the event

Section 14 of the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 made provision for lengthening the UK Parliamentary election timetable, both for general and by-elections. This provision was brought into force on 6 April 2014. Parliament will now be dissolved 25 days before the General Election on Thursday 7 May 2015, instead of 17 days. According to the new timetable, Parliament will be dissolved on Monday 30 March 2015.

Churches Together in Britain and Ireland will update their current guidance on the website www.ctbi.org.uk. These materials do not support a ‘Church’ view or party line, but aim to help Christians engage with a range of important issues facing our country, however they may decide to vote. The Joint Public Issues Team from the Free Churches group is also likely to publish comments and policy guidance. Other denominations may publish some guidance nearer the time.

Purpose of Hustings

  • To help voters make informed, educated decisions
  • Important it is seen as neutral, must not be a platform for a particular view
  • Be aware of the new legislation of ‘Transparency and Lobbying Act’ Section 2. Mainstream denominations and church leaders have been considering whether to register as ‘non-party campaigners’ this autumn. Individual churches should not need to register.
  • The Hustings is run by a local ecumenical church grouping eg Christians/Churches Together in xxxxx for the benefit of the community.
  • Encourage questions to be for the benefit for the whole community ‘the Common Good’ rather than around a Christian focus or issue.

Chair

  • It is important to find the right person who can handle and direct a complex meeting. This should not be someone closely linked to a particular party or view.
  • It’s useful if the organiser and Chair prepare some simple hand signals to help steer the meeting. For example ‘there’s time for one more question…’ and we suggest you locate the organiser at the back of the hall/room since not everyone needs to see gestures.

Date

Start with the sitting MP who plans to stand again. Contact their agent and find a suitable date then invite all other candidates. It’s not too early to start planning. Think about the best time and venue for your community. Weekday evening? Sunday evening at 8pm?

Invite all the candidates

The nature of a Hustings is usually to invite all those standing for election. 

Church of England Guidance, first published in 2007, and expanded for the 2010 General Election tells clergy that they do not have to invite BNP candidates for Election Hustings held in church premises, as long as the other parties’ representatives declare the fact.

In recent European Elections some organisers chose to call their meeting an ‘Election Question Time’ to avoid the need to invite every candidate.

If a candidate fails to attend, the suggestion is that you leave a vacant chair on the platform with their name on it to make it clear that they were invited.

Venue

School or church halls or community centres are useful places. In some larger towns, you may consider taking the Hustings to the people by holding a series of events in communities, housing estates and venues which people find more accessible.

Public

Hustings should be for everyone in the community and so publicise them widely and make sure everyone knows they are welcome. But remember it is a Hustings and not Question Time or party lobbying.

Prepare questions

  • Aim for about 5 questions per event. (5 questions to 5 candidates giving 3 mins reply equals a minimum of 1 hour and 15 mins.) Most Hustings invite people to submit questions beforehand, then organisers go through and select 5 that represent the major interests shown in the questions. It may also be necessary to prepare some that cover essential issues and ‘plant’ a question on the night. Or you could invite people to come early (7pm for 7.30pm) meeting and write down their questions for a quick review on the night.
  • Open-ended questions may be more productive eg ‘How does the candidate define poverty?’ Also try questions that give them the opportunity to express their personal and genuine hopes and aspirations rather then a paragraph from their party’s manifesto.
  • Another suggestion is to ask the candidates to come with a question for the public there, since they are supposed to be representing them. However this requires enough time and an experienced Chair to control answers from the audience.

Potential issues?

  • UK Poverty
  • Employment / Wages
  • Economy / who really pays in austerity?
  • Middle East (war)
  • Immigration
  • Europe
  • Transport issues
  • NHS
  • Social care of older people
  • Land use – food, oil production, housing
  • Climate change
  • Global poverty, health, water etc
  • Should we vote for the party or a good constituency MP?
  • Prison reform / crime
  • Small and medium sized businesses

Running the event

Timekeeping during the meeting is crucial

The Chair should make the point that this event is not modelled on Question Time, nor is it a lobbying event.

It is a good idea to give a specific time for each candidate to reply eg 3 mins each. Have a timekeeper in the front row whose only task is to time replies. They put their hand up when the time is up and the microphone moves onto the next candidate. Or they can hold a yellow then a red flag up if you want to give them warning.

In particular, it’s important to keep questioners short. They often need to be cut short. So if using a roving microphone, don’t give the it to the questioner, keep it and withdraw it asap. It is the Chair’s discretion as to whether to allow a supplementary question.

At the end

Offer the candidates 2 mins each in reverse order to say what they want before closing.

More General information on Christians engaging with the electoral process can be downloaded from the Evangelical Alliance here.

With thanks to the Diocese of Salisbury for allowing us to use some of there guidance notes on Hustings in this post. http://www.salisbury.anglican.org/mission/social-justice