Election 2015 England

Election 2015: Do people's hustings put voters back in control?

A speaker from the Older People's Network at the People's Hustings in Croydon Image copyright Sitala Peek

In the high street in Croydon, south London, a small crowd has gathered outside Marks & Spencer in North End.

"What are you going to do about bed blocking?" asks Elsie Sutherland from the Older People's Network, on a raised platform.

In the audience below are the Labour, Green, Liberal Democrat and UKIP candidates for Croydon Central, a key marginal tipped to be one of the most closely fought seats in London.

This is an attempt to turn the tables on politicians and put voters centre stage at a 'people's hustings', where speakers from local groups are invited to set out their wish list for the next government.

The politicians listen and may only speak in reply to the specific points the speakers have raised.

With less than two weeks to go until the general election, political campaigning is well under way, but some feel it is largely a one-way conversation.

From campaign posters on billboards and buses, to radio and TV debates and leaflets stuffed through letterboxes, is it all on the party or politicians' terms?

The Speakers Corner Trust says it is trying to "redress this balance and put voters back in control."

Image copyright Sitala Peek

"We want to revive the flagging tradition of open-air public meetings in a way that brings voters into direct contact with candidates," Peter Bradley the director of the Speaker's Corner Trust explains.

"It's raw, theatrical and humorous, as well as being about policies."

Can this format cut through voter apathy and restore public confidence in MPs and the political system?

It brings politics into public spaces where people are already going about their daily business - a man queuing to use the cash machine stops to listen to the "very sensible person" on the platform and a woman asks "what's all this then?" as she puts down her groceries.

The setting has the advantage of reaching people who might not usually attend political meetings.

Image copyright Jan Enkelmann
Image caption People's hustings grew out of the free speech tradition at Speakers' Corner
Image copyright Jan Enkelmann
Image caption It was born out of the Chartists' fight for the right to assembly in the 19th Century
Image copyright Jan Enkelmann
Image caption Famous Speakers Corner orators include Karl Marx and George Orwell but anyone can have a go

The idea stems from the practice of debating important matters in public which began in the 19th Century with Speaker's Corner in London's Hyde Park.

The rules of people's hustings forbid candidates from criticising each other - something that research suggests a lot of people find a turn-off.

During the BBC's televised leaders debate, audience approval rose when politicians said how they would tackle specific problems and fell when candidates began blaming and criticising each other.

People's hustings were held in Lichfield in Staffordshire, as well as in Nottingham, and Croydon. An additional event is planned for Reading on 2 May.

Mr Bradley, a former Labour MP in Shropshire, says the rawness of the format means people will see through slick presentations as the candidates cannot set the agenda and are less able to prepare a 'one size fits all' speech.

"People are far more likely to get an insight into the candidate's competence and values this way and what he or she really stands for. That sort of information you won't get from a brief doorstep encounter or a grotty leaflet through your door," he says.

Image caption The Croydon Central candidates want to claim the seat last held by the Conservative's Gavin Barwell who was canvassing elsewhere in the constituency

Labour candidate Sarah Jones is responding to Elsie Sutherland's question about elderly people's care.

A woman standing next to me turns her head away in disgust. "I don't believe any of them. Where are they going to get the money from for this? Of course quicker access to GPs would be lovely but the surgeries have still got to be open haven't they?"

She is a senior nurse and says none of the parties are being realistic. "They all treat the NHS like a sacred cow, but they need to look at it and change it for the 21st Century."

"That's rubbish," she says, now disputing the UKIP candidate's claim that immigration is the reason hospitals are full and people struggle to get a doctor's appointment.

"There's overcrowding in hospitals because of the elderly. They're living longer so they are developing diseases associated with old age.

"What I want to hear is a party saying they will raise taxes to pay for these services, but of course no-one is saying that."

"I'm too cynical for this," she says, walking away.

Phoebe, a 20-year-old singer and her boyfriend Levi, a 21-year-old web developer, have stopped to listen. "This is fantastic. A lot of politicians dodge the question quite well and side step the issues.

"I think on TV they were just putting each other down, so to be able to pin them down like this is great," Levi says.

But these are not the floating voters the candidates are hoping to win over. Phoebe and Levi have already made up their minds who they are voting for, and after a few seconds they carry on with their shopping.

Image copyright Sitala Peek
Image caption Liberal Democrat candidate James Fearnley urged everyone in Croydon Central to use their vote

The act of debating in itself may be important for our perception of democracy, says Dr Nick Anstead from the London School of Economics.

"When people are engaged with the political process they are more likely to see it as legitimate," he adds.

However, he questions the ability of unelected community speakers to represent voters' views.

In Nottingham the speaker due to represent young people was a student with a manifesto based on concerns about education and crime.

Mr Bradley accepts that young people's interests and tastes can differ widely, but says they also share common needs in terms of their education, employment and housing, and says it is on that basis they are able to articulate young people's requirements.

Image caption Audience approval fell when opposition leaders criticised each other in a live TV debate

But does debating help us choose the best parliamentary candidate?

Hustings and TV debates potentially risk identifying good orators rather than good leaders, says Dr Anstead.

According to Richard Newman, a public speaking and presentation expert, the two are not mutually exclusive.

"Your job as an MP is to represent constituents and influence people in your party, or on the international stage, or in the government. Having really good communication skills is a fundamental part of the job.

"If you have someone with good ideas but a poor communication style, they can't really get the job done."

What to look out for when the candidates are speaking - from public speaking professionals

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Wartime PM Winston Churchill's legendary oratory did not secure him victory in the 1945 election
  • If heckled or booed, candidates will seek to diffuse the moment with humour or ignore it and carry on. It does not necessarily mean they are taking it lightly but if they become visibly shaken or emotional they risk losing credibility with the audience
  • Candidates will try to be energetic in order to engage people in a short amount of time, but they still need to be factual and accurate
  • Facts tell but stories sell; skilful candidates will try to appeal to hearts and minds with stories, a technique that Obama uses a lot
  • Watch out for candidates who say 'let me be clear' in an effort to come across as plain speaking, that's what they are there to do
  • Politicians will try to demonstrate their active listening skills, to show they are approachable. Hillary Clinton used her presidential nomination announcement as an opportunity to sit down with the audience and listen

Hustings tips from: BodyTalk director Richard Newman and the Public Speaking Expert forum

Pollsters Ipsos Mori say recent sampling suggests people will be more influenced by parties and policies than by the leaders in this election.

Run well, hustings and public debates "can increase political education and allow for cross-examination of policy positions," says Dr Anstead.

"Did I learn anything? I'm not sure, but they always say the same things though don't they?" says Ahmad Turkmani, an assistant accountant from South Norwood, who was passing by but stayed for the duration.

"What we need is action, can anyone give me that?"

Image copyright Sitala Peek
Image caption Ahmad Turkmani said the Peoples Hustings had reinforced his existing political preference

A last-minute speaker has walked on to the platform and taking the microphone proceeds to tell the candidates, "Why I am not going to be voting."

Valentine McDonald is a 55-year-old father of two from Bromley in Greater London and is upset about successive changes in child support arrangements.

"Nobody is helping fathers, there have been lots of suicides because of this, and that is why I am not going to vote for anyone."

He is also upset about a "coalition government that nobody voted for. We voted for a single party, not a mix of two. That was just imposed on us and it's unfair."

Mr McDonald says he doubts any good will come of his speech but he is grateful for the chance to say his piece.

"I think it's the only time I will be able to have my say. Every time I try to see a politician or write to one they won't see me."

He might not be casting a vote this time, but he feels the People's Hustings experience has gone some way towards repairing his faith in local politics.

Image copyright Peter Bradley
Image caption Lichfield's hustings ran for an extra hour by popular demand

The candidates for Croydon Central are:

  • April Ashley (Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition)
  • Gavin Barwell (Conservative)
  • Martin Camden (Progressive Democratic Party)
  • James Fearnley (Liberal Democrat)
  • Sarah Jones (Labour)
  • Peter Staveley (UKIP)
  • Esther Sutton (Green)

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