by Sarah Childs, Professor of Politics and Gender at University of Bristol.
This blog was originally posted on PolicyBristol. Reposting with kind permission.
The last time I’d been here it had been for ‘What the Frock’. I half expected Bristol’s very own platinum-blonde award winning comedian Jayde Adams to start serenading from behind a velvet curtain. However, on this sultry spring evening at the Square Club in Clifton, Bristol, my job was to chair the Institute for Arts and Ideas’ Bristol West Hustings.
Seven parliamentary candidates were present. Sitting to my left: the incumbent Stephen Williams (Lib Dem); Thangham Debbonaire (Labour), Darren Hall (Greens) and Paul Turner (UKIP). Sitting to my right: Claire Hiscott (Conservative); Dawn Parry (Independent) and Stewart Weston (Left Unity).
The candidates’ backgrounds, ages, marital status, and occupation, are already in the public domain. Their personal manifestos were recently summarised in a Bristol Post review. Collectively, there is much agreement amongst them about what constitutes Bristol’s top political issues (in no particular order): the NHS, housing, transport and young people. What I wanted to see delved into during the Hustings was how the different candidates saw Bristol West’s ‘interests’.
With two minutes each for their opening salvos, the candidates’ emphasis on their connections to Bristol – when they moved here; what jobs they had done in our City; what they felt about Bristol – showed the increasing importance of localness in British politics. The story was one of a shared agreement that (a) ‘being local’ is something they felt should matter to the voters, and (b) that Bristol is a great city to represent.
I was to speak for the audience, mostly members of Bristol’s creative industries, who had provided questions as they arrived at the Hustings. These were less focused on the Arts and Bristol than the candidates might have expected given the billing. I guess when pressed the audience preferred to highlight the same kinds of issues as the electorate more widely: young people and the vote – there was audience approval for votes at 16 and most, but not all, of the panel agreed. Housing saw divisions over financial efforts to support young people to buy homes even as there was agreement over the need to convert empty office blocks into housing stock. Greater vision in designing adaptable new homes also saw general support. The solution to young peoples’ employment was variously, a strong economy, good apprenticeships, and better links with Bristol’s two universities on technological innovation.
How were my audience? Well, the first time I asked the audience for their views – on young people’s political participation – I asked for questions from any in the audience aged 16 or 17. A young man stood up: ‘I’m not 16 or 17’ he said; at which point I told him he should sit down… Not the most auspicious of starts perhaps, but I got away with it. My effort at introducing a ‘quick fire’ round was rather incendiary, as both questioners wanted more of their detail and argument in my paraphrasing. I had thought asking how each candidate would vote in a second referendum on Scottish Independence was fair – but the questioner wanted individual not party views. This interaction provided insight into some people’s criticism of party politics. Onto the question of replacing Trident: was it value for money (irrespective of whether its cost was 20bn or 100bn)? Here the audience became quite animated, but I understand that’s been true of other Bristol West hustings where this issue has been laboured. It was the issue of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) – the EU-US trading agreement – which I linked to the question of NHS being ‘put back into the hands of the public’ (the questioner’s phrase) where it nearly all kicked off… Whatever its relationship with the NHS, the audience’s scepticism of the main parties’ positions on TTIP suggests that this has not yet been successfully explained to the public.
The two hours were nearly up. Was the event a ‘success’? That’s for others to say, although two St Mary’s Redcliffe students said they’d enjoyed themselves. A win in my book. The Bristol Post have reported the event.
I had not wanted this hustings to be a series of monologues; but neither did I want it to descend into a slanging match. I was given the impression that there had been too many of the former and I wanted to avoid the latter. I saw my role as Chair not to try to induce agreement amongst either the candidates or between them and their audience. My goal, I decided, was to try to facilitate clarification of each of the candidates’ views. At the same time, fairness to each candidate was paramount. I made it clear when the question was about women’s and minorities’ inequality that I didn’t write the question (although I could easily have written it). I think we probably avoided what one candidate tweeted as ‘redcardgate’ – making sure all the candidates had pretty much the same amount of ‘air time’.
What did I learn for when the BBC Question Time comes calling? That seven candidates requires rather a lot of concentration. Making sure that all had an equal chance to speak; that no one had the ‘best’ slots of the night; or that one candidate dominated. By the end I had acquired a very stiff neck, straining to keep them all in sight. Finally, I was told that they’d all be doing it again and again before the election on May 7th; I was respectful of all the candidates’ interest in seeking to make a difference for Bristol.
For further reading see: Childs, S. And, Cowley, P. (2011) ‘The Politics of Local Presence’, Political Studies, 2011. You can follow Professor Childs on twitter: @profsarahchilds