Hustings and Engagement Guide

INTRODUCTION

The past twelve months have been hugely challenging for many of us across the UK. With the ebb and flow of lockdowns and a huge amount of time spent in virtual spaces rather than physical spaces, churches have had to adapt and change in all sorts of unanticipated ways.

However, irrespective of the obstacles we have had to negotiate, the church has remained active and visible, and we now have another important role to play in serving our local communities in the run up to the 2021 elections in Scotland and Wales.

Often at the time of an election there is a vast overload of information. Hustings provide an opportunity to cut to the chase and find out what candidates’ priorities would be if elected and what they really think about what matters to us. With a year of adapting to online meetings, streams and Zoom calls, the church is in a fantastic position to be able to serve and love our neighbours by helping people to engage with the election process.

What is a hustings?

A hustings is simply a meeting at which candidates in an election address potential voters. It might be easier to think of a hustings as a ‘Question Time’ event, akin to the BBC topical affairs programme. It is a fantastic opportunity for voters to meet and question candidates about a wide range of issues and hear them talk about their values, why they want to be a Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) or the Senedd (MS) and what they would seek to do if elected. Of course, this year hustings will almost exclusively take place online which may even improve the reach of your event.

Why hold a hustings?

  • It is a great opportunity for the local church to serve the community, providing people with the chance to put specific questions to all the candidates at the same time, comparing and contrasting their answers.
  • A church hustings provides a simple forum in which to raise issues of particular concern to Christians which candidates might not otherwise be asked about.
  • It gives people the time to consider candidates as individuals and assess their personal strengths and weaknesses first-hand as well as connecting people to the political process.
  • A hustings also creates an opportunity for local churches to begin to build relationships with those who will be elected to represent them.
  • Church hustings send an important message – even before any questions have been asked – by reminding aspiring politicians that the church is not irrelevant but, as a key part of civil society, is deserving of respect.
  • Candidates often welcome the chance to communicate with their potential constituents

PREPARATION

Getting organised

Whether your church is large enough to consider organising a hustings yourselves or you are working together with either other churches from your network or denomination or working ecumenically, forming a small group to coordinate your efforts is crucial. This group will ultimately be responsible for ensuring the husting goes ahead, as well as apportioning the various tasks necessary for this to happen.

As almost all hustings for this election will be taking place online, it would be extremely helpful to have at least one person on the coordinating group with experience of managing, hosting or organising online events.

When to hold a hustings

You can organise a hustings any time from now until polling day, though try to avoid holding a hustings in the week immediately prior to polling day (6 May) as candidates may be less willing or available to attend.

Inviting candidates

The deadline for candidate nominations is 8 April, but many of the candidates will be known well before this date. Try to contact candidates as soon as possible to begin discussing possible dates.

It is important to consider that, due to the need for MSPs and MSs to be responsive to potential emergency legislation related to the COVID-19 crisis, both the Scottish Parliament and Senedd will only formally dissolve shortly before polling day on 6 May. Any MSP or MS you are inviting may therefore be especially busy and so early engagement with them would be advisable.

Voters in Scotland and Wales have two votes as they are represented by both a constituency MSP or MS and several regional MSPs or MSs. Constituency representatives are voted for by name, and regional representatives by selecting a political party or independent candidate. Our recommendation would be to prioritise a constituency hustings, but you may wish to group together with other churches or ecumenical groups to consider organising a regional hustings, too.

You should send a formal invitation to candidates, including the date, time and format of the hustings.

You can find more information about inviting candidates and other legal information further on.

The Chair

It is particularly important for your hustings to be well Chaired to ensure the evening runs smoothly. You will want to consider the following:

  • The host should have experience chairing meetings or discussions and be capable of calmly but firmly controlling both candidates and the audience where necessary
  • As well as being a resident of the constituency, a suitable host should also be familiar with politics and be able to press candidates for full answers where necessary or ask pertinent follow-up questions to ensure clarity for the audience
  • The host should be capable of being an independent arbiter of what may be a lively debate and it is therefore important that they are able to be politically impartial as well as not having ties to any of the candidates
  • A suitable host may be a notable local figure, a church leader, magistrate or business executive
  • For an online hustings, it is important to ensure the Chair is at least familiar with whichever platform you choose for the event; experience of hosting or conducting an online gathering would also be helpful

Getting the message out

An effective publicity strategy is vital – people cannot come if they do not know the meeting is taking place! You will want to publicise your hustings as often as possible and as early as possible, and may also wish to consider the following:

  • Work closely with other local churches – as well as presenting a united front it will enable you to reach a wider audience. You may find it useful to allocate responsibility for identifying local church champions for your hustings to someone from the coordinating group.
  • Use church websites, social media, newsletters, bulletins, magazines, community notice boards and any other means to advertise your hustings. You may wish to allocate responsibility for ensuring awareness of and accessibility to the hustings for those in your local area who are less familiar with online technology.
  • Send a press release or short notice ahead of time and/or take out an advert for your hustings in local newspapers/media – of course, make sure you only do this once you have all the details confirmed. You may also want to send a follow-up press release after the hustings with quotes from candidates. If any local media attend, make sure you let candidates know.
  • Try to engage with local and regional radio stations as well as Christian radio stations if there is one in your area

Considerations for an online hustings

There are many factors which are relevant for both a typical in-person hustings and an online or virtual hustings, but there are a few things you will need to consider specifically in relation to an online hustings.

Platform

  • Initially, you will need to determine which online platform is best suited to the skillset of your coordination group or those who will facilitate the hustings. Popular options (with varying costs – some of them are free – and functionality) include:

Are we looking to engage in conversation between a large group? Communicate information? Share opinion? Depending on this, you would select one platform or the other.

As well as the platform, you may also want to consider whether you would like to concurrently stream the meeting on a social media platform. Streaming the hustings live on social media is a great way to reach more people. If your church has a Facebook or YouTube page, this could be the perfect place to show the event. You could also use Instagram or Twitter. Please be aware that people are free to publicly express their thoughts and reactions on social media meaning live events require close monitoring.

  • Streamyard allows you to stream on multiple platforms at the same time.

Online only, hybrid or pre-recorded

  • The simplest option – and one familiar to many churches – may be to simply host and stream an online meeting. In many respects, this would follow a typical hustings pattern, with a Chair/host and candidates who are featured, ‘pinned’ or ‘spotlighted’ to give the appearance of a panel.
  • A second hybrid option which may be suitable, subject to regulations and restrictions at the time of your hustings, would be for the Chair and candidates to be together in person on a platform, with attendance and participation from the audience conducted online only.
  • A third option would be to send pre-record segments with each candidate which can be compiled into a video which can be accessed online, broadcast on a particular date and time. For this option, you would need to agree upon questions beforehand and give strict criteria to candidates in terms of the amount of time they have to answer questions; all candidates would need to answer the same questions. Whilst this option is less interactive, it may be more manageable if you are concerned about the technical aspects of options one or two.

Dealing with Q&A

There are a range of options for dealing with questions during your hustings:

  • You can use the chat or Q&A functions of whichever platform you choose; this will need to be moderated by the organiser and a means found of selecting appropriate questions for the Chair to ask. For example, you could set up a private chat or WhatsApp group for the organisers to share questions. Depending on how you choose to set-up your meeting, questions could be taken verbally directly from participants if the Chair/organiser feels comfortable doing so.
  • If your coordination group is sufficiently confident in the use of technological solutions, online Q&A tools such as do are available and make for a dynamic means of audience participation.

Other factors to consider:

  • Regarding your choice of platform
    • Be aware that some online platforms have caps for the number of participants in meetings or webinars
    • Ensure that you meet any subscription requirements (e.g. whether all features you need are usable with a free trial, whether there are time limits on your meeting based on the subscription package you have chosen)
  • Accessibility
    • Some online platforms have caption features which can be enabled to facilitate relatively up-to-speed subtitling for a live meeting
    • If you are pre-recording content, consider whether you have the capacity to include subtitles
    • Some platforms allow participants to call in using a landline to hear audio online; this is something you may wish to explore
  • Technical support
    • Whilst only the Chair and candidates are likely to be visible to the audience during your hustings, you will need to ensure there is sufficient technical and logistical support behind the scenes. We would recommend:
      • Appoint one person to manage the technical aspects of the meeting (I think it needs to be more than one person, ideally 2-4 people especially if the event is going to be live streamed. It will take someone to monitor comments, mute, admit people, support speakers etc), including managing attendees (including muting and monitoring video feeds, as well as being prepared to remove participants who are not welcome or behaving inappropriately), being alert to possible technical or IT challenges, monitoring the chat function if you choose to use it, keeping on top of questions which are submitted for candidates.
        • Consider appointing at least one additional person to help with these duties
      • The Chair should only be responsible for managing the hustings itself – i.e. engaging with candidates and ensuring discussion runs smoothly
    • Facilities
      • If considering a hybrid-style meeting, ensure you have suitable facilities for filming or live-streaming and that the internet connection is stable. It will be necessary to use a relatively high resolution camera for filming in this way, as opposed to a laptop or other device if conducting an all online event, for example. You will also need to ensure individual microphones area available for each candidate and make sure the platform is well -lit.
    • Registration
      • Depending on how open or widely shared you would like your meeting to be, we would recommend creating a registration page on a site such as Eventbrite. This will help with security, as you will be able to control how details of your meeting (including any passwords necessary for access) are distributed, and also with keeping track of the number of attendees.
    • ‘House’ rules
      • Agree ahead of time what rules will be in place for the meeting. For example, that all participants (including candidates) should be muted unless directly asked to contribute by the Chair; how the chat function will be used; ensuring that videos remain on during the meeting.
    • Translation
      • You may want to consider whether you can provide simultaneous translation for your hustings. This would ensure candidates have freedom to choose how they respond to a question; the Chair, too, would need to be able to field questions in Welsh and English. The translator should be politically neutral and competent, ideally with experience of simultaneous translation; you may wish to consider budgeting for this.
    • Practice and test everything!
      • We strongly recommend conducting a practice run and technical rehearsal, covering every aspect of your meeting, using all the equipment and processes you intend to for the live meeting:
        • Ensure that everyone is clear about their respective roles
        • Check internet speed, particularly if your intention is to stream your meeting (as a rough guide, your upload speed should be approximately double the speed you plan to stream with)
        • Test the technological and practical aspects of the meeting, including:
          • Cameras (and related equipment such as CamLink) and microphones, tripod, (if using a hybrid set-up)
          • Lighting (for both a hybrid setting and a fully online meeting)
          • Laptop or broadcast devices

RUNNING THE HUSTINGS

How long should the hustings last?

Allow enough time for a good debate on a range of subjects. For an online hustings, somewhere between one to one-and-a-half hours should be sufficient.

How should the hustings be structured?

You will want to consider:

  • Create a running order so that the timings of the event can be well managed. Ensure that candidates are aware of the format beforehand
  • Begin with an opening statement from the Chair which welcomes the audience and candidates, thanks the church for hosting and organising the meeting, asks the candidates by name (to avoid candidates unmuting and speaking over one another) to introduce themselves and the party they are representing, and outlines the format and ground rules for the evening
  • Proceed with questioning candidates. Questions could be determined in a number of ways and are likely to broadly fall into two categories: 1) questions related to party policy (usually covered in the manifesto); and 2) questions of a ‘conscience’ nature.
  • Consider allowing the candidates 90 seconds each at the end to make a final statement. Draw their names from a hat to determine the order and don’t be afraid to use a timer – it is important for each candidate to have an equal say.
  • Conclude with thanks to the candidates and their parties, your assistants, the hosting church and the audience for their questions and interest

Questions

  • A series of topics should be decided upon in advance to ensure a debate which is wide-ranging. These should cover both matters of party policy and topical matters, as well as ‘conscience’ issues and perhaps issues specific to the constituency. As this will be a hustings run by a church, it is appropriate for the questions to focus on issues held particularly dear by Christians. Churches holding hustings provide a forum for asking questions that if Christians ask, no one else will.
  • Questions can be submitted beforehand by the audience and checked against the topics you wish to cover before the hustings begins. Any topics which aren’t covered by audience-submitted questions can be added by the Chair from a pre-prepared list.
  • As noted above, questions can also be sourced during the course of the hustings through various means (e.g. the chat function, do, etc) and will need to be monitored. You will need to agree before the meeting and communicate to candidates and the attendees how the Q&A will work.
  • For the purposes of an online hustings, it may be simplest for all questions to come from the Chair. You may feel comfortable taking open questions from participants, but will need to agree beforehand upon how you will do this.
  • Try to vary the order in which candidates answer questions

INVITING CANDIDATES AND LEGAL INFORMATION

How to contact candidates

The best way to obtain contact details of local candidates and their election agents (election agents ensure the proper management of each candidates’ campaign) is via the local or central offices of the political parties (you will find more information in Appendix 1 and 2). You can also find contact details on candidates’ social media profiles or websites, as well as on elections2021.care.org.uk. Independent or smaller party candidates may also be standing in your constituency or region, so do keep an eye on local media for mention of them.

It is wise to contact the candidates as soon as possible for their provisional acceptance and to consult your main local candidates on possible time and date options.

What if a candidate doesn’t wish to attend?

A candidate from a mainstream party should be pleased to have an opportunity to connect with voters who are, of course, potential supporters. If the candidate declines or seems reluctant, it is likely to be for one of the following reasons:

  • They may underestimate the significance of your hustings

In order to avoid this it is vital to convey that attending your hustings will not be a poor use of a candidate’s time by making this clear in your initial request for a candidate. Be sure to mention the size of your church congregation and any community initiatives you are involved with. It would also be very helpful to stress the relationships you have with other churches and the wider locality, and that the event is being promoted widely. For more information on this, please see Appendix 2.

  • They may be reluctant to commit to attending until other parties are on board

If a candidate sounds unsure about attending or has declined to do so, you should politely inform them that the hustings will go ahead without them and that other candidates are attending. It is unlikely they will be content for a hustings to take place without their views being heard and they are therefore likely to decide to attend.

  • They may not be free on the date of your hustings

In this instance, again, politely inform them that the hustings is proceeding and that other parties will be represented. This may result in their availability changing. If they are really unable to make it and the date you have chosen is immovable, you should make it clear to the candidate who is unable to attend that you are proceeding with the hustings. You should also make it very clear to the other candidates as well as making an announcement to this effect at the beginning of your hustings. An option may be for the candidate to send a representative who may be a councillor or another party spokesperson; however, please note that this may not sit well with other candidates.

Rules about who to invite

At the outset, it is important to decide whether you wish to proceed with a constituency hustings or a regional hustings as this will have a bearing on who you invite.

To ensure your hustings cannot reasonably be regarded as intended to influence voters for or against a particular party or candidate, the Electoral Commission advises that all known candidates or parties standing for election in a constituency or region should be invited to a public hustings. This is to ensure that the hustings does not provide a benefit to a particular party or to particular candidates.

However, in many cases, this simply is not practical. You do not have to invite all candidates or parties; but, if you decide not to invite all candidates or parties then you must have what the Electoral Commission calls ‘impartial reasons’ not to invite them. The Electoral Commission advises that these may be as a result of considering the following:

  • Resources and other practicalities constraining numbers of invitees
  • Security concerns
  • Local prominence of some parties or candidates over others
  • The number of elected representatives at the local or national level
  • Recent election results in the area
  • NOTE: you cannot exclude a candidate or party for subjective reasons – e.g. because you disagree with their policies

To further help your cause and to ensure a balanced hustings, you will want to consider:

  • Informing the audience at the hustings of any candidates or parties standing who haven’t been invited or were not able to attend
  • Being prepared to explain your impartial reasons to candidates or parties you haven’t invited. Make sure that you have a agreed a position within the Coordination Group
  • Make sure that candidates or parties you invite represent a reasonable variety of view, from different parts of the political spectrum
  • Allow each candidate or party representative attending a fair chance to answer questions and, where appropriate, a reasonable opportunity to respond to points made against them by other candidates or party representatives

Regulation, spending limits and campaign contributions

Spending for a non-selective hustings (described above), where the hustings cannot be reasonably regarded as intended to influence voters for or against a particular party or candidate, is not regulated.

If you do not have ‘impartial reasons’ for not inviting all candidates, your hustings may be considered a ‘selective hustings’ – i.e. it provides a benefit to particular political parties or candidates. Spending on a selective hustings will be regulated in some circumstances and you may be considered to be making a donation to each candidate or party that attends.

Charities are not permitted to give preferential treatment or make donations to political parties and to do so may affect your charitable status. Charities and churches are encouraged to discuss the question of which parties, and therefore candidates, to invite. A formal decision not to invite a particular candidate (or candidates) should be clearly minuted.

Although it is very unlikely to be needed, as a matter of good practice it may be helpful to keep a record of all monies spent on the organisation of your hustings – including staff time.

Please note, the information above should not be considered legal advice, but merely an introduction. For more detailed information, visit www.charitycommission.gov.uk and www.electoralcommission.org.uk  

APPENDIX – MODEL INVITATION

You can personalise the example letter below. It is advisable to email or post this invitation before following it up with a telephone call to ensure your request has been received. It should be noted that this is merely an example and should be rewritten to reflect your individual context.

Example letter

Dear

I am writing to invite you to the NAME OF CHURCH SCOTTISH/WELSH Online Parliamentary Hustings at TIME on DATE. 

NAME OF CHURCH is a growing church with a congregation of nearly NUMBER people which has been based in the centre of NAME OF TOWN for the last 10 years. We run E.G. A DEBT ADVICE SERVICE, A PENSIONER’S LUNCH CLUB AND HOST A NUMBER OF LOCAL YOUTH PROJECTS as well as providing E.G. AN EXTENSIVE CHILDREN AND YOUNG PEOPLE’S PROGRAMME on Sundays. Our services are provided to any and all – people who attend church on a Sunday and people who don’t. Over the past twelve months we have E.G. HELD REGULAR MEETINGS ONLINE AND HAVE BEEN DELIGHTED TO BE A CENTRAL HUB AND PLACE OF SUPPORT FOR PEOPLE LIVING IN OUR LOCAL AREA.

We are very much engaged with community initiatives across the city and are well networked with other church and civil society organisations in the local area. We will be promoting the hustings across the CONSTITUENCY/REGION and amongst our own contacts and expect our online hustings to be well attended.

I very much look forward to hearing from you soon.

Yours sincerely,