General Elections 2015 — Experiences at a Hustings

I find myself a seat in the Church, take a look around, quite liking the way the Methodists have decorated the place. I’m twenty minutes early. Not quite sure what time to arrive for the first election hustings I’ve ever attended. I’m not the first to arrive; although perhaps the youngest.

A screen is mounted high on the stone wall, scrolling through bulleted party manifestos. Slides are working for all parties, except the Greens, which flips straight to Labour. The audience gathers until the hall is comfortably accommodated, although by no means full to standing.

The candidates proceed into the hall, take their places. It’s going to be a Question Time style event. The panel is presided over by a softly spoken chap called Andrew who wields the questions which have been pre-selected. He immediately defers to a chap named Bruce, whom he introduces as his “political editor”.

“Of what?” mutters somebody. Nobody is quite sure..

Bruce starts off some form of warmup act. There are jokes. He’s wearing a green jumper but he’s not… affiliated. The Green candidate smiles fixedly. The conservative fellow clasps his hands, looks out to the audience. Bruce continues. He’s part of a local Christian group it turns out, been in politics for a while. Now. The Ten Commandments, Moses... The audience figures him quickly, tells him to shut up. The microphone is quickly reclaimed. Bruce sits down. The debate starts. The candidates introduce themselves.

Bob is the incumbent Tory. He’s been at it a while. Sixteen years. He speaks fluently; he’s done it before. He’s got a good voice for radio. He turns quickly to the party line. I wonder whether he’ll mention the long term economic plan.

John’s the Labour candidate. He used to be a teacher. He has a teacher’s predilection for props. He pulls out a tea towel featuring two mules pulling a rope in opposite directions. Capitalism, he explains. Yes. Sam’s the Lib Dem, already on his second campaign as candidate; he’s only thirty. He used to be a school governor. A misspent youth? The UKIP man is young too, keeps his intro short. The woman behind me claps.

The First Question. It’s a little dry. Defence spending cuts; have they gone too far? Bob Tory says no. Roisin, the Green candidate reckons not far enough. UKIP wants more spending, but only on proper defence defence, you know, not world policing. So far, nothing out of the ordinary.

Second question: “What should the UK Government do to stop Israel stealing more land from the west bank?” Ouch. The questioner has his own opinions. John Labour manages to relate his answer back to the constituency, which is impressive, given we’re in south London suburbia. I quite like his school teachery ways. He knows things. The other candidates do a reasonable job of answering the question without fully accepting its premise. This bothers the questioner, who makes himself known amid the audience. “You haven’t answered the question!” he claims. “Can he follow up?” asks a helper with a microphone who I think is named Margaret.

“Yes, so long as it is question, and not a speech.” says Andrew, “It’s not a speech, is it?”

“No, no, it’s not a speech,” says the man, unfurling his speech.

He manages a few words of his speech before getting shouted down. The audience isn’t keen. Margaret wants to keep collecting questions from the floor, liven things up a bit. Andrew isn’t so sure. It’s unlikely we’ll solve the Israel question here tonight, he says.

Next question. What will you do about the housing crisis? Bob Tory thinks we’ve under-built. Roisin Green answers in depth. She sounds quite posh, well-spoken. The vicar is keeping his own time, lets his phone alarm bleep when her time limit elapses. Andrew is soft. John Labour digs out some statistics. In London there are 5,000 people living per square meter, he says. I presume he didn’t teach maths.

School. Bob supports them. Academies and free schools and all the other types that have recently been invented. Roisin Green isn’t keen on a new school being built on an allotment. Surely she’s falling into Green cliché? UKIP man focusses on choice. How can you have choice if you only allow local authority state schools? Fair point. He keeps it short. The woman behind me claps loudly again, alone. Her husband tells her off.

Police. Sam Lib Dem is happy to defend the coalition record. 10% reduction in crime wasn’t it? He nods to his erstwhile conservative colleague. Bob Tory is glad to agree. He would hardly do anything else, would he? 10%. A nice round value. UKIP man has had trouble with local crime. The windows of the local UKIP shop have been broken three times. The police can’t help because there’s no CCTV. Surely they can use their little grey cells? I suppose they’re not keen on hiring Poirot, that bloody EU immigrant.

Time to open the questions to the floor. An obscure question about the transatlantic trade agreement. Bob Tory is keen; good for trade. “We need less trade!” says a long haired woman in the audience.

Margaret on the floor is keen to pass the microphone to the next question; it’s her moment to shine. No dice. John Labour wants to answer. He’s not keen on globalised capitalism, it turns out. Sam Lib Dem bravely mentions Nick Clegg. UKIP says it’s all the EU’s fault. The UKIP supporters behind me clap loudly again.

A man at the front simply wants a simple answer. What is your immigration cap? I don’t want waffle. Just the number please. Apart from the UKIP man, the candidates don’t want to give a number. Better to talk. A number, a NUMBER! cries the man in the audience. Immigration seems to bother him. I look around the audience. Not a single non-white face in the church.

Another guy has an immigration question. Three hundred thousand immigrants a year. Is it not alarming? Why isn’t immigration higher up the agenda? The woman with long hair grabs the microphone “A national service scheme!” she cries. “A national service scheme to do the work we want, so there won’t be any jobs.”

Nobody has a clue what she’s talking about.

Andrew decides its the moment to draw to a close. Direct questions from the audience seems to be a tactical mistake. It makes me wonder how the Dimbleby brothers manage it every week. I find renewed respect for each of the candidates. They have to listen to a lot of nonsense. Andrew finishes with some more wisdom. Immigration is complex, he reminds us. We can’t just pull figures from a hat. It’s a rich tapestry. We must find the courage to put the right tick into the right box. He is a bit of a poet.

We file out of the church, into the night. It’s dark outside now. I cross through the woods on my way home, tripping over occasional branches and roots. It’s difficult to see where I’m going.

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