Local election hustings – bins, missed manifestoes and vendettas

I recently helped to organise a local election debate. They’re particularly unique experiences that people either love and wouldn’t miss for the world or – more usually – avoid like the plague.

This means that the majority of people who attend already have strong feelings about one particular party, candidate or issue. These issues can range wildly, which makes the events unpredictable – part of the draw for a lot of people. A lot of good points were made, such as air pollution, better services for students and local services.

Par for the course, the biggest issue of the night was refuse collection. Little else gets the public so exercised during a local election than bin men, litter and fly-tipping. One man, though, did not turn up to ask when he’d be getting a new wheelie bin. Having submitted a short essay on a question card the hosts deduced he had come along to demand a reason for why he had been kicked out of the parties’ Facebook group. Sadly we never found out a reason.

On style, the candidates’ performances were mixed. Smaller parties are often at pains to put their smaller vote share down to lower media coverage, exacerbated by other groups – such as hustings organisers – giving the larger parties precedence (organisers would normally base their invitations on previous election results or the size of the parties on the council).

Perhaps as result of having less experience speaking publicly about policy plans, some members of the smaller parties struggled to fill their 60-second introductions. Several did not seem to know what their manifesto was calling for, or even their personal priorities. One Lib Dem candidate proffered that his aunt would have been able to provide a better answer. The crowd did not go wild.

It was reassuring to see the Greens staying on message, declining the bottles of water provided for refillable cups. Unfortunately, they then bordered on the silly.

To laughter from the audience, the Greens interrupted a Labour-Conservative argument to say that having appeared on the panel at another hustings the week before, they had seriously considered not attending this one because the constant back and forth between the two was harming the room’s mental health.

In their closing statements, the candidates sought to leave a final impression. Again, the smaller parties rather struggled to fill their time, with Labour’s ward candidate having the strongest conclusion. But, it was the Conservative candidate’s to-the-point remarks that he’d had four years of good work and he wanted another four that received the strongest reaction from the crowd. In fact, he appeared to have a team of student groupies in the audience.

A successful event with a decent attendance, devoid of any violence or personal attacks, received its cherry on top in the taxi ride to the train station afterwards. After explaining why we had been in the area, the driver said “all those people in there have just wasted an evening of their lives. Voting will never change anything; they’re all in it for themselves”.

Despite some of the eccentricities you come across in local politics, the majority of people put themselves forward because they want to help their communities. And God knows it’s a thankless task.

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