We need to make sure climate change and the environment are high on the agenda for the upcoming election otherwise they are likely to get submerged by other issues. Organising a hustings meeting for your local election candidates is a great way of doing this.  It shows candidates these are issues they can’t ignore. And it gives constituents a chance to hear what candidates have to say before they cast their vote.

There are SECA member groups all across the South East. If we join forces and run a series of climate hustings events across multiple constituencies this would send a powerful message to party HQ’s that this is an issue they need to take seriously.

Hustings meetings can take various forms, from a low-key public meeting in a village hall to a more ambitious staged event.  Here’s some advice from Greening Steyning, which has run hustings meetings for the last three elections using a BBC Question Time format.

How the Question Time model works:

  • Find a really good chair person – you need an impartial chair who can keep order, press home questions, involve the audience, and ensure the right light touch atmosphere.
  • Find a good venue – we used the local comprehensive school, that has a big drama hall with raked seating that proved ideal (see photos below). But a village hall would be fine too.
  • Involve local schools – there will be a bunch of first time voters in year 13. They’re an audience group that politicians are keen to engage with, and we found they asked some of the best questions. Approach the head teacher and see if they’ll be interested in partnering with you, and maybe offer a free venue. Having a contact person on the teaching staff to liaise with will help. They might be able to fix a pre-meeting with students ahead of time to get a discussion going and prompt them to think about good questions.
  • Fix a date as soon as possible – candidates diaries fill up fast, and venue availability might pose challenges in the run up to Christmas.
  • Agree the focus of the event. Should it focus exclusively on tackling the climate emergency, or take on a broader set of agendas? It’s best to set boundaries so candidates can prepare and the discussion doesn’t go off on tangents.
  • You must avoid being party political – if the event looks like a stitch up for any one party it will put candidates off.
  • Approach the candidates. They should be looking for platforms to speak on in the run up to the election – and should be persuadable if you look like a serious group that can provide a good audience and a well-run event.   Lining up the sitting candidate first may make sense. If you can get one or two candidates to agree then it will be harder for the others to refuse.
  • Publicise it well. Put up posters, use your newsletters, social media, and other channels to spread the word.
  • Get the media involved. We got the local paper to cover it, including filming it and posting the video online. A well-attended hustings is a decent news event so it should get their attention.
  • You could decide to sell tickets. This can be a fundraiser for your group and also covers to cost of the venue. We charged £3 for adults last time, with tickets free for students. Using an online booking service like Eventbrite helps with selling tickets in advance.
  • Sell drinks.  Offering drinks before/after the event helps to make it more of a social event – but means choosing a venue that has a licence.
  • Work out how to collect questions. You can do some of this in advance, for example by working with school students ahead of time. But there needs to be opportunities to finalise this on the night. We got the audience to write questions on an A5 card as they came in to the venue and drop them off at a ‘Question Desk’. Here’s a template you can use which includes advice on what makes a good question, and a section you can tear off so people have a copy of their question – in case they forget!
  • Have a process for narrowing down the questions. Create a small committee (maybe 3-4 including the chair) to quickly whittle them down to a shortlist of about 6-8 questions covering a good balance of issues, and put them in a sensible order.  It will be up to the chair to decide which ones to go with. This may change depending on how the debate pans out – there’s no point asking a question that’s already been answered early on.
  • Don’t show the questions to the panel in advance. Otherwise you’re likely to get stock responses.
  • Ask the questioners in the audience to stand up and read out their question. A roving mike will help if it’s a big venue.
  • Make it short and sweet. We found one hour start-to-finish was enough. The chair will need to keep the debate moving. Encourage people to come half an hour early to have a drink and think of good questions. And encourage candidates to stick around afterwards to meet the audience face-to-face.
  • Organise good lighting and sound. How easy this is will depend on the venue. We roped in the school drama technician to do this. To add a bit of drama, we used the Question Time theme music to open the event.  Houselights were dimmed as the music started.  Candidates then walked onto the stage in semi darkness, with spotlights coming up as it finished to highlight the stage for the start of the debate.
  • Photograph it well. We found a local photographer who did this for free, and it gave us some great publicity shots to use later.
  • Take advantage of social media. Create a hashtag for the event and publicise it in advance so people can engage online during and after the event.
  • Use it as a publicity opportunity. This is a great chance to spread the word about other things you’re doing. Chances are you’ll get some different people to this event than others you organise.
  • Have plenty of volunteers on hand. To sell tickets, welcome people and show them to their seats, promote your group, etc.
  • Prepare an info sheet on the candidates. If you have time, it’s helpful to ask candidates to submit a photo and a short biography, so you can put together an info sheet and circulate it ahead of time.

Greening Steyning would be happy to provide advice and support to other SECA groups thinking of following suit. For further info, contact Geoff Barnard (geoff@barnards.plus.com   Tel: 07510 314397)


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