Wessex Conversations

It’s good to talk. It’s a necessary prelude to well-considered action. Yesterday as a party we had two lively conversations, one internal, one external.

The Party’s Annual General Assembly, held at Wokingham, began the work of planning our election strategy for 2015. The meeting was arranged long before the Eastleigh by-election was called but our President broke off from campaigning to give us an entertaining and inspirational account of tactics in the constituency. A couple of members then accompanied him south to a hustings organised by Churches Together in Eastleigh (CTiE), held at St Andrew’s Methodist Church.

Waiting for the start, we were able to explain to one member of the audience why Eastleigh’s Wyvern Technology College has such an appropriate name. Eastleigh is a very mixed constituency. Chris Huhne, when he was the town’s MP, described it as “not pretentious at all, it’s very down to earth, and I think it’s great.” It’s a glorious cross-section of Wessex life and all life was indeed there last night.

Hustings we have known are of two types. There are those that advance the democratic process by even-handedness towards all candidates. There are also those that retard, truncate and ultimately undermine that process by allowing only ‘approved’ candidates access to the microphone. A fully functioning democracy isn’t just about choice: it’s also about how choices get to be defined and filtered. If they’re defined and filtered by undemocratic means – by favouritism – then the democratic choice itself is rendered meaningless.

We are pleased to report that CTiE did it right. The Tories and the LibDems did end up in an unseemly slanging match over local planning issues that was tedious to watch but the organisers had done their best to keep it all on a friendly level and most candidates had responded with very good humour. (According to Nick Clegg today, it’s a two-horse race, though he’ll only know this for sure if the ballot’s already rigged. If so, that’s a shame, since neither horse was on top form last night: too much whinnying by far.)

All candidates had been invited and ten were in attendance, arranged in alphabetical order, just as they are on the ballot paper. It was a very long table, accommodating a wide range of views. The contrast with programmes like the BBC’s Any Questions? and Question Time, where only opinions considered ‘safe’ are aired, let alone treated with respect, was immediately striking. A well-run hustings can reveal the truth that politics doesn’t have to travel in the same well-worn ruts.

The Britain portrayed by the mainstream media is one compressed into those very ruts: massively tribal in its thinking and with nothing better to do than gossip about the survival chances of the London party leaders and spit venom at ‘the other side’. Politicians are expected to jostle for power, to define or be defined. It is much less forgivable that the media, instead of opening-up space for ideas to grow, so often feign incomprehension and fawn before the familiar dinosaurs instead.

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