Rebecca Coulson is a freelance classical musician and writer, and the Prospective Parliamentary candidate for the City of Durham.
Hustings: seven down, eight to go. It’s a funny, numerically-confusing word, isn’t it? Why are we so keen on them? Are they truly more substantive than TV debates? An unmissable opportunity to win over the local electorate? Or just a (hopefully) less-physical, more-clothes-on, public wrestling match?
Last week’s first of three was hard work. Organised by the pressure group ‘Keep Our NHS Public’, I was confronted with a town hall-full of angry people, confident that the Conservative-led government had been selling off something that they love as much – and as uncritically – as they do their grannies.
I spent the evening trying to explain what privatisation actually is; that whilst our public services are not ‘free’, nobody is calling for an NHS that charges at the point of use; and why aiming for universal access to effective healthcare should matter much more than who provides it.
None of this was helped by the chairman refusing to let us answer questions that weren’t on (his) topic. A pre-determined series of, ‘Welfare cuts cause illness, don’t they?’ was very much in, but a renegade teenager asking, ‘Has the NHS suffered because Labour wrecked the economy?’ obviously wasn’t.
Judging by the response of the people I talked with afterwards – none of them Conservative voters – this authoritarian partisanship wasn’t appreciated: it harmed KONP’s reputation, even amongst its groupies. Regardless of how completely something convinces you, if you want to bring others on side, you must let them hear opposing opinions – and the continuing justification of your position, in the face of these.
The second hustings took place at my old school. Or, rather, the Mondrian-esque tower now in its place. Underneath the duplo cladding, however, it’s very much the same. This meant that the two of us who showed up – out of seven candidates – faced an hour of interrogation from a gallery of a couple of hundred immensely clever sixth-formers.
The following day, I bumped into a friend whose daughter goes to the school. And it turned out that what she had recounted to him wasn’t my determined defence of Trident, my attempt to balance the need of addressing exploitation against protecting the rights of sex workers, or the familiarly protracted discussion on tuition fees. No, it was the moment I became so annoyed with the extent of my Labour opponent’s theatrical gurning and head-shaking whenever she wasn’t speaking, that I asked her, rather forcefully, if she could stop being so immature.
I don’t regret this outburst – not just because it proved quite effective. Few people are involved in mainstream politics for personal gain, or because they want to damage society. Mostly, we just disagree on how to solve complex problems. To divert an audience from proper debate, by refusing to engage sensibly with your opponents, risks trivialising not only serious issues, but democracy, too.
The third was the most enjoyable I’ve taken part in yet. A hustings on motorbike issues, in the back room of a local pub, with cool-bearded, Guinness-drinking biker families, deftly chaired by libertarian ex-Lib-Dem, Lembit Opik. Again, there wasn’t a full house of candidates – but disappointment at Labour’s absence was quickly appeased by the entrance of a child-sized soft toy, labelled ‘Ed’. Yes, that’s right – they empty-beared her.
And nobody came with a closed mind; those attending wanted to discover which parties’ representatives were willing to engage with something that means a great deal to them, but of which I, for one, had little practical experience. (The only time I’ve ever been on a motorbike was by accident: a decade ago, a university friend offered me a lift back along the Girton Road to my college, and I accepted, assuming he meant in a car, until he reappeared with some helmets. A pretty invigorating few minutes.)
The ensuing neutrality of this third hustings meant that – as well as being able to promote relevant Conservative policies, and link in overriding achievements (after all, bikers want good jobs and schools, and pay taxes, too) – we could all learn, openly, from the experts present.
This reminds me of an argument I had with a friend last week. Like many, he thinks that those in positions of specific political power should have had prior involvement in their allotted area – that the Secretary of State for Education should have been a teacher, for instance. I disagree.
Being an MP is being a representative. British politicians are elected spokespeople: it’s essential that they are able to assimilate information, sought from those with appropriate knowledge and experience. This can then be used to improve both local (say, the need for a new path, which only nearby residents might recognise) and national policy.
And this is why it’s more important for the Education Secretary to explore – and then be able to espouse a cogent argument, informed by – the disparate views of numerous current teachers, than it is to have once been a single subjective example of this kind of worker, themself. (It’s also a strong argument for increased localisation, and the reduction of bureaucratic ‘management structures’.)
As a Conservative, this approach of responsive, considered reaction is much more attractive than the imposition of prized ideology. I’ve written this many times, but I like conservatism because it is positive: it aims to conserve and develop the freely-developed good of our society.
Well-run hustings exemplify democracy, and are a relevant trial for candidates. They provide a useful opportunity – not to dictate, but to engage – for everyone involved.