Hosting A heated Hastings Hustings

Coastal Action’ s Chris Connelley looks back on the Hastings Independent Press hustings, which he moderated.

HIP, HIP Hooray

Hustings are a strange beast.

Intended to educate, inform and clarify the issues for an audience keen to find out more about what those who aspire to serve them believe, they tend in practice to only really attract the already committed, who come along to big up their chosen candidate while dissing the opposition, in effect creating a physical equivalent of the comfort blanket that tends to envelop online politics in the digital age.

And I speak from experience.

I have hosted a fair few hustings over the years, starting in London in the noughties and more recently here in Hastings too. I was one of the architects of the 2015 Hastings Independent hustings, which saw charismatic Green Jake Bowers ( now lined up on the Labour benches and on hand to film things) buck the trend and charm the crowd to win the public debate, and, despite the fact that I now work out of town and do very little public work in my home town, ended up hosting the Hastings Independent 2019 hustings at Sussex Coast College last week.

This was very last-minute and unplanned.

I had apparently riffed amusingly at a Changing Hastings meeting a few weeks ago to fill time when the technology wasn’t quite ready for our display, which led to a request to co-host the HIP hustings. I don’t like to say no and thought it might be a hoot so happily went along with the idea, only to discover that I would be the sole moderator at a super-large, super-charged event in the vast atrium of Sussex Coast College a week before election night in one of the nation’s most marginal seats. For, as any serious student of politics will tell you, our home seat of Hastings and Rye was held by Conservative Amber Rudd by a Rizla- thin majority of 346 in the 2017 General Election.

By December 5th, all 250 tickets had sold out. And, by 6pm that day, a half hour before going live, a small queue had formed outside the venue waiting for returns, sharing space with some good- natured protestors from the local chapter of Extinction Rebellion keen to make their point that this is as much a climate emergency election as a Brexit one.

The questions rolled in too, in many instances complex multi-part affairs often accompanied by lengthy preambles. In some cases, this even extended to full speeches; the kind of polemic characteristic of full-on political rallies. With hindsight, this should have been an early augury that this promised to be no ordinary question time, but more of a gathering of the politically committed and informed; a veritable activists’ assembly wanting to put the world to rights. Quick-fire and lighter touch questions were decidedly thin on the ground, with a bias towards big, bold, broad-ranging and seriously probing topics. These ranged from the obvious staples ( think Brexit, public services and austerity) through to more esoteric and left field material on population change and assisted death.

As the doors opened, it became even clearer that this was a partisan crowd, and one with a strong Labour bias. The hall was awash with red, manifested in a myriad of forms from crimson berets through to Peter Chowney badges, to the extent that a casual observer might have thought they’d rocked up at a Labour rally. The other candidates all came with some supporters, but the numbers were risible in comparison, reinforcing a sense of Labour’s operational and membership supremacy on the ground.

As host, working with such an obvious imbalance isn’t easy as it can unnerve other candidates and inhibit debate. Which is why I decided to give the smaller parties a fair crack of the whip by answering first on a number of occasions and by opening things up and challenging Labour’s candidate on one specifically local question linked to a community land trust, recognising Peter’s role as leader of the Council and the nearest thing we had in the room to an establishment figure. His supporters really didn’t like it, but to Peter’s credit, he handled the question well and had no complaint with the even-handedness of the evening.

Often, though, a single moment steals the show and defines the event. In this case, it was the singularly clumsy and ill-considered response by Conservative Sally Ann Hart to a HIP journalist’s question about work payments for people with learning disabilities. Her answer quite literally stunned the hall, leaving some audience members visibly distressed and needing to be comforted. Unsurprisingly, in an age of instant recording and sharing, the soundbite went viral within minutes, informing the national press agenda for the next 48 hours.

For many, this will be the abiding memory of the night. And as MC, I certainly won’t forget it either. But I’ll also remember the elderly lady who, frustrated that I had not caught her eye, stood in front of my lectern like a frustrated wrestling fan edging the ring until she got to ask her question on population growth. I’ll also remember the members of the audience who came up afterwards to thank me for ensuring fair play, the students who provided a separate set of questions and the four candidates themselves, visibly tired after a month on the stump, all of whom turned up and took part.

I still question how much hustings help make up minds when so many there are already committed, but don’t doubt the power of open, unscripted, extended live debate in age of soundbites and contrived photo opportunities. It reminds us what politics is all about and last Thursday, revealed a set of starkly different visions for the future of our community and our country.

And in just a few days, we’ll know which view won out.

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