Holding our politicos to account

In a television dominated election campaign Derek Jones puts in a word for local hustings

The very word ‘hustings’ has an archaic, 18th or 19th Century, ring to it, and you might think that given the plethora of news, information and comment on radio, television and online, there was little place in modern election campaigns for local hustings.

Ruthin and District Civic Association, made up of churches, trades unions, land local voluntary organisations, thinks otherwise. It regularly organises hustings at election time and this campaign has been no different. As chair of this campaign’s debate, with Clwyd West candidates, I was a bit worried about the turnout. This was because it clashed with the second of the televised Leaders’ debates. However, I needn’t have worried. In the event a creditable 150 electors turned out to quiz their five candidates.

What do such local hustings add to what is already on offer? First, and most obviously, they add in the local dimension. National arguments remain abstract to many electors until they are related to local conditions – this hospital, or that school, rather than ‘the health service’ or ‘the education system’; jobs lost when a local workplace closes down rather than ‘unemployment figures’; even, dare I say it, ‘Clwyd West’, or ‘Ruthin’ and their character and needs, rather than ‘Wales’.

Very properly, electors want to ascertain how far candidates have mastered the detail of local needs and interests. G.K. Chesterton’s adage – “for anything to be real it must be local” remains pertinent even in vastly changed demographic conditions. It doesn’t mean that electors are unable to place local issues in a wider context.

Then there is the matter of personal contact with the candidates, and the opportunity to weigh up not only their views, but also the kind of people they are. With the best will in the world, that’s difficult to manage on the doorstep. Candidates show their face, certainly, but they are in a hurry, and have swept on to the next doorstep before you have the time to turn around. Some candidates do not appear at all because, they judge, such and such an area in the constituency is unlikely to yield rich pickings for them. Their neglect does them no good. Electors expect to be visited, and complain quite seriously when ‘nobody knocked on my door’.

They are of course asking for the impossible, but it would be good if, in every constituency the candidates could counter, did you come to the hustings? Obviously hustings are not perfect in every respect – only a limited number of people will respond to the invitation, and an even more limited number can ask questions. The five candidates in Ruthin discussed around a dozen in the two hours available. Yet during that time the constituents who were present could observe them relatively closely. To be able to compare and contrast local candidates is just as important, perhaps more important, than the debates that have been taking place between party leaders.

It is particularly important for electors to hear aspirant MPs talking politics. After the election is over, few of them will follow the debates in Hansard or on BBC Parliament, and only a very small number will actually meet their new MP. Those who do normally want them to sort out their individual problem, and this is one of the issues which all the recent discussion about the role of MPs has not examined in any detail.

Is it really an MP’s job to engage in casework (yes, some MPs actually use that word) as if they were social workers?  How far does the correspondence and personal meetings, which casework entails, obscure the MP’s primary task of representing their constituents in political debate?

These questions take us far beyond the hustings, I agree, but they are not in an entirely different world. What if, say, once a year, the local MP and AM were to appear at analogous local events during which they reported on their activities in Westminster and Cardiff Bay and took questions?  Many people would find that interesting in itself, but, more to the point, it would give some meaning to the word accountability. It would surely also increase the sum of political literacy.

Derek Jones is a freelance writer. On the website, hustings.com you can post news of your own event and learn what is happening elsewhere.

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