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Churches have organised hustings across the Diocese of Norwich in the lead-up to previous General Elections.
There are no significant changes to the legal framework compared with 2015, but it is always worth checking current guidance.
Why should churches consider holding hustings?
There is a long tradition of churches in Britain organising election hustings to help voters make informed, educated decisions, and foster a high quality of political debate.
Hustings must not be a platform for a particular party or candidate. They must be neutral and seen to be neutral, not just on principle, but because partisan events are covered by more rigorous aspects of election law.
Parliament was dissolved on Wednesday 3 May and the deadline for nominations was Thursday 11 May. The cut-off date for UK, Commonwealth, and Irish citizens aged 18 or over to register to vote in the General Election is Monday 22 May.
This is worth communicating among church members, especially those who may be entitled to vote for the first time. Monday 22 May also marks the deadline for voters to apply for a postal or a proxy vote.
Who can or should organise hustings?
There is no theoretical reason why an individual parish or benefice should not organise hustings, but they have most commonly and most effectively been organised ecumenically. If there is an active Churches Together group in your area, that is likely to be the most sensible organising body.
Date, Time and Venue
It is important to find a date and time that suits all candidates, or at least those of the main parties in the constituency. If the sitting MP is standing again, it is usually best to find available times for him or her first.
Contact their agent about their diary, then invite all other candidates. Think about the best time and venue for your community.
Remember, events on weekdays during working hours are not accessible to those in work. Weekday evenings are most common although some have found Sunday evenings at 8pm effective.
Expect a worthwhile event to last anything from 75 minutes up to 2 hours. Churches, church halls or community centres are useful places to hold hustings and in some larger towns, you may consider taking the hustings to the people by holding a series of events in communities, housing estates and venues which people find more accessible. Think about parking, disabled access and, in larger towns, public transport when considering venues.
Also think about microphones and amplification. Not all candidates can be heard in a large hall without amplification, and members of the audience will also need microphones when asking questions.
Invite all the candidates
The nature of a hustings is usually to invite all those standing for election. The latest guidance from the Churches’ Legislation Advisory Service is that some candidates can legitimately not be invited if there is a clear, objective, reason which you are prepared to make public.
These reasons include that: the individuals not invited are likely to obtain very few votes; that those invited are those most likely to win in the constituency, or that a particular candidate or candidates present a public order risk.
Mere disagreement with the political views of a candidate is not a sufficient reason not to invite them to the hustings.
If you cannot demonstrate what the Electoral Commission judges an objective reason for not inviting every candidate, your event may count as a donation to the candidates who were invited.
If the cost is above £50, it will need to be recorded as a political donation, and you will have fallen foul of charity law because it is axiomatic that charities may not make political donations.
If you do have what would clearly be understood as an objective reason for not inviting one or more candidates, former practice has been that you invite them to send a statement to be read out at the meeting.
If a candidate fails to attend, the suggestion is that you leave a vacant chair on the platform with their name on it to make it clear that they were invited.
Hustings should be for everyone in the community, so publicise them widely and make sure everyone knows they are welcome.
Do let your local newspaper and radio station know about the event with a brief press release stating date, venue, time, and explain that the hustings is run by a local ecumenical church grouping (e.g. Christians/Churches Together in xxxxx) for the benefit of the community and to enable people and candidates to engage in quality discussion of important issues.
It is important to find the right person who can handle and direct a complex meeting. This should not be someone closely linked to a particular party or view. Having a separate Chair and organiser allows for a neat division of tasks during the event.
It’s useful if the organiser and Chair prepare some simple hand signals to help steer the meeting, such as, ‘there’s time for one more question…’. We suggest you locate the organiser at the back of the venue since not everyone needs to see the gestures.
Aim for about five questions per event. (five questions to five candidates giving three minutes reply equals a minimum of 1 hour and 15 minutes.)
Most Hustings invite people to submit questions beforehand, then organisers go through and select 5 that represent the major interests shown in the questions. It may also be necessary to prepare some that cover essential issues and ‘plant’ a question on the night. Or you could invite people to come early (e.g. 7pm for a 7.30pm meeting) and write down their questions for a quick review on the night.
Encourage questions to be for the benefit of the whole community – ‘the Common Good’ – rather than around a Christian focus or issue.
Open-ended questions can sometimes be more productive, e.g. ‘How does the candidate define poverty?’ Also try questions that give them the opportunity to express their personal and genuine hopes and aspirations, rather than a paragraph from their party’s manifesto.
Running the event
Timekeeping during the meeting is crucial. The Chair should make the point that this event is not modelled on Question Time, nor is it a lobbying event.
It is a good idea to give a specific time for each candidate to reply, e.g. 3 minutes each per question. Have a timekeeper in the front row whose only task is to time replies. They put their hand up when the time is up and the microphone moves onto the next candidate. Or they can hold a yellow then a red flag up if you want to give them warning.
In particular, it is important to keep questioners short. They often need to be cut short. So, if using a roving microphone, don’t give it to the questioner, keep it and withdraw it if necessary. It is at the Chair’s discretion as to whether to allow a supplementary question.
At the end, offer the candidates 2 minutes each in reverse order to say what they want before closing.
Churches Together in Britain and Ireland are soon launching an election website which you can view here.
There have been no relevant changes to election law since 2015, and CTBI guidance from that year is still available here.
The Archbishops of Canterbury and York wrote a pastoral letter on the 2017 General Election which can be viewed on the Diocese website here.
You can find information, support and guidance on how to run a hustings and what rules apply from the Electoral Commision website.
The Evangelical Alliance have also produced information and resources about the General Election 2017.
You can also find information about the General Election on the Joint Public Issues Team website here.
Please note that this article and the materials featured do not support a ‘Church’ view or party line, but aim to help Christians engage with a range of important issues facing our country, however they may decide to vote.