Packed halls, lively debate: Why hustings are a hit

John Hess
Political editor, East Midlands

image captionA number of hustings have been held in churches and chapels across the East Midlands

David Cameron has been telling reporters that this election campaign is not about photo opportunities but more about the UK's long term economic revival.

However, that's at the heart of the media's frustration.

The fact is the campaign has become a succession of tightly controlled photo opportunities... by all the main parties.

This has become the hi-vis, hard hat election.

It's been the predictable campaign gear for both David Cameron and George Osborne.

No walkabouts. No risk of a verbal ambush by ordinary voters.

But there's a fascinating side to this election where the campaign can offer raw politics, unplugged... where the voters engage with the politicians seeking their support.

Election hustings have been one of the big successes of this general election.

image captionSome hustings are held in lecture halls like this one at the University of Derby

There have been a record number of them held in churches, according to research by one Christian charity.

I've been to a number of hustings so far and there's one reason why they work. The debates and exchanges are close up and often personal.

Voters are able to question the politicians and get beyond some of the campaign sound bites and slogans.

They also often highlight issues that are just overlooked in the "noise" of national campaigning.

That was the case at a hustings at the All Nations for Christ church in the Normanton area of the Derby South constituency, where the audience were mostly from the city's African Caribbean communities.

image captionLilian Greenwood MP speaks at a hustings in a Nottingham church

On the platform, representatives from all the parties, including Dame Margaret Beckett, who's defending a 6,000 Labour majority in Derby South.

There were questions from the audience on immigration, Europe and schools.

But one question particularly gripped the audience: Why were graduates from the African Caribbean communities three times more likely to be out of a job, six months after leaving university?

The study was carried out by the Bow Group think-tank and Elevation Networks, a youth employment charity, and was based on interviews with 2,500 students over two years.

It also found that black students were not being given the same opportunities as white students.

One angry voice in the audience shouted: "That's outrageous and disgraceful".

image captionDuring a hustings in Broxtowe the candidates clashed over HS2

It got backing from the Greens.

"That indicates there's some form of discrimination going on in the jobs market," said John Devine, the Green Party candidate for Derbyshire's Amber Valley.

There was a suggestion from one questioner for employers to be forced by law to audit who and where they recruit staff.

A precise solution perhaps required a precise response.

But the Conservatives' Derby South candidate Evonne Williams tiptoed round this one.

"It's something that we haven't considered but I'm happy to take it back to the party," she told the questioner.

And Labour's Dame Margaret?

"We're going to be looking at the Equalities Act to see if it needs modernising and updating. So your suggestion is exactly the kind of idea we will be looking at," she said.

One platform speaker wanted to go much further. Lucy Care, the Lib Dem's candidate for Derby North, suggested that all job application forms should no longer include the person's name.

"We would like to have name blank application forms," she said.

"So all you read is their experience and what they've done. Often the name of the applicant can deter some employers from short listing or recruiting."

image captionOrganisers say the key to a good hustings is to get people engaged

As for UKIP's Derby South hopeful Victor Webb, he didn't completely rule out having such a recruitment audit, but: "I wouldn't do this because of the burden of cost and regulation on small businesses."

For this hustings audience, maybe no instant solutions but they got the politicians thinking about their concerns.

"The key is getting people engaged," said Marc Grant, the event organiser.

"It's the first time we've held a hustings at the church."

"We wanted to show why politics is so important to our daily lives and I'm really pleased so many people came along."

Whatever the outcome of this election, the locally organised hustings have emerged as a big campaign winner.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionPoliticians are often pictured visiting building sites and wearing hard hats and hi-vis jackets

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