Who will organise public debates / hustings for local elections? And who will live stream them?

There are a number of local elections coming up in May 2021 – including the ones that were postponed from 2020.

Alya Zayed has produced this guide for the Cambridge News for people living in Cambridge City.

You can find out which elections are happening where you live via:

If you are not registered to vote, see https://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote. EU Citizens are eligible to vote in these elections. The link provides more guidance on who is eligible to vote.

How to organise a public debate / election hustings

The pre-lockdown guide written by Chris Rand of the Queen Edith’s Community Forum still reads well today, even though these things cannot be done face-to-face with big audiences. I’ve filmed a number of hustings over the years – the video from 2018 below gives an example.

Above – the 2018 Cambridge City Council hustings for Queen Edith’s Ward, at St John’s Church Hall, Hills Road, Cambridge.

Above – Sam Davies MBE confirms the Queen Edith’s Community Forum will be hosting a hustings for the candidates standing for election there.

For me, the video footage enables people who don’t get to meet the candidates to hear them in their own voices and words, and thus form a judgement based on all of those standing for election. One of the most interesting tests done at the end of the Queen Edith’s events is inviting the audience to indicate whether as a result of attending and listening, whether they have either made up their mind as a result of what they had heard, or whether they had changed who they were going to vote for as a result of the pitches by the candidates. These events show that there are votes out there ready to be won.

Back in 2017, I filmed over a dozen videos for candidates standing for Cambridgeshire County Council from the main parties in and around Cambridge. You can view the playlist here. My aim was to ensure there was video footage from as many candidates and parties locally as possible for the voting public. The format was identical for all of them. They had to state:

  • Their name
  • The political party they were standing for
  • The election they were contesting
  • The ward/division/constituency they were contesting
  • The date of the election
  • Three reasons why to vote for them *without mentioning any of their opponents*
  • Restate name, party, election, and polling date.
All mainstream political parties should be able to produce their own video content for local elections by now.

They should have within their memberships the collective skills in order to put their candidates up in front of someone filming with a smartphone who can then upload short introduction videos to a Facebook page or Youtube channel. [Other social media brand names are available]. Furthermore, there are community groups that produce their own content, such as Mill Road TV – and ultimately commercial organisations too.

With so much uncertainty on over when Lockdown will be lifted and whether restrictions on door-to-door campaigning and leafleting will be lifted or not – with accusations by opposition parties that cash rich, volunteer-poor political parties (such as the one in Government) stand to gain from the ban that’s currently in place.

Asking local professional broadcast standard media to assist.

If you want to host an event in these locked down times, there’s nothing to stop you from approaching the likes of BBC Cambridgeshire (their studios are on Cowley Road just off the A14), Cambridge 105, CamFM for Cambridge and Anglia Ruskin Universities, to provide live radio coverage of the hustings & debates in absence of the live audiences. Hence online advertising will be very important.

This is also where local umbrella organisations such as the Cambridge CVS can ask its members to see who is interested in hosting an event to ensure as many wards, divisions and neighbourhoods are covered.

I have no idea how to overcome the inevitable gap the digital divide causes for those not online – not an insignificant number, that does not involve large financial costs whether for printing publications, delivering said publications in a Covid-secure manner, or TV advertising. It’s a challenge to put back to the institutions responsible for organising the elections: What is the plan to ensure that information on the elections is available to all? One for the returning officers to deal with in the first instance?

Either way, if you are involved in a civic or community organisation/institution, now is the time to start thinking about who you’ll need to get involved to organise a local hustings/public debate between the candidates standing for election. Because as things stand, the ability of candidates to meet the voters and do door-to-door campaigning is inevitably curtailed. What is the collective response? What should it be?

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