Thursday, 4 November 2021

Pitchforks and torches - thoughts on public meetings (and the need for more public debate)

"Over there, that's where they are..."

Simon Evans, comedian and thought leader, writes in Spiked about the need for more public debate.

A good public meeting is electric. You listen, throughout, not only to get informed, affirmed or provoked, but also to be able to coherently respond when the ball comes your way. To not make a fool of yourself, and hoof it over the bar, or repeat points already nailed. To identify a leaping-off point to launch your chosen attack. A public-meeting audience may not always be woke, but it will certainly be awake.
The public meeting used to be the central feature of political debate, the idea that elections are about "the hustings" persists even though elections have now become a sort of passionless operation driven by print-outs produced by data analysts staring at glowing screens in the campaign office. The public meeting died. It didn't die because candidates stopped holding them but because the public stopped going - the prospect of an evening in a draughty village hall required a real commitment to the cause when there was a nice warm living room, telly and comfort back home.

In 1983, I acted as election agent to John Carlisle, then MP for Luton West and soon to be MP for North Luton (a consequence of boundary changes rather than carpet bagging). There's a sort of formula to an election campaign, a set of things that you do that, back then, included an introductory leaflet, an election address, a canvassing schedule and some public meetings. We booked those meetings, one at the Beech Hill Conservative Club in central Luton and the remainder at suitable venues in Flitwick, Westoning, Pulloxhill and Barton-le-Clay. About twenty hardy folk turned out to the meeting in Luton while the other venues struggled to attract double figures even if you included me as agent, the constituency chairman and John's driver.

These events were supplemented by the hustings debate organised by a local church or community organisation. When I stood for election in Keighley, the biggest of these was at Christchurch on The Grove in Ilkley. Us candidates dutifully turned out to face questions from the public, perhaps 50 or so folk including, of course, our supporters all prompted with questions and interjections. The first question was about disability and Anne Cryer responded with a detailed, informed answer. I waffled through some sort of response because (shocking I know) I hadn't rehearsed the manifesto position about the subject. It wasn't until the count that I discovered the questioner was Anne's campaign organiser.

As an agent or candidate these events were something to be endured. They probably, unless your candidate does something really stupid, have little impact on the outcome of the election and they occupy the candidate for a day or two during the campaign. As every election agent knows, the main thing to do with a candidate is to keep them busy while you do the important job of getting them elected. Public meetings fill that gap: until the public stops turning out at which point the candidate looks at the agent and says "there's no point in doing this" and orders a stall on the high street or some sort of daft stunt involving balloons and nurses.

When you get elected, you get to do another sort of public meeting, the sort of meeting the public does turn out for, the sort of meeting that meant I couldn't find a space to park my car after a day driving to Milton Keynes and back. The meeting organised by the Parish Council to oppose something (the cause of my parking problem was such a meeting - opposing proposals for a landfill in Cullingworth). It won't surprise you to know that, as a local councillor, I've been to a lot of these meetings, they are a great way to stir the voters' passions and to look, as a politician, like you're on their side and, even better, leading the charge against the evil developers, planners or council (sometimes all of these things).

For a period I was an important councillor and this meant being, in part, responsible for those evil decisions that the Council has to make. One of these decisions involved the demolition and redevelopment of some council housing in a place called Ravenscliffe. If you were to hear me say "I'm going to a public meeting in Ravenscliffe", you might shrug and think nothing. Saying such a thing in Bradford would get you responses like "do you have a police escort" or "when is the funeral?". Ravenscliffe is the sort of abandoned peripheral estate where bored youth start fires, ring 999, and then throw stones at the fire engine. We were going there to tell them we were knocking their houses down.

Along with the Assistant Chief Executive, David Kennedy and a couple of brave housing officers, we attended the meeting. The event was lively. We stood in a tatty community room inside a sort of semi-circle of local residents and gently explained how knocking down some of their houses to create a new development site on which to put replacement homes was absolutely the only - and right - thing to do. There were shouts of protest and the semi-circle appeared to close in a little. We explained they'd be rehoused locally, that they'd get first dibs on the new houses, yes, the removal expense would be covered, no the council wasn't profiteering. After what felt like ten hours of grilling (but was, in truth, only an hour) we concluded promising more information and meetings as the project progressed.

In his article Simon Evans tells us a little about the stand-up comedian's relationship with his or her audience:
As a stand-up, one of the great tricks of the craft is to give the impression that your listeners are indeed in a two-way street, enjoying a chat – albeit one that it just so happens you are currently dominating. This keeps audiences much more alert than anything resembling a sermon would. And while hecklers are often treated as little better than vandals, often all they have failed to decode is this flattering deception, the lie that the performer is chatting with, not at, them and might give way at any time.

This made me smile because, even as a mere local councillor, I knew that I wanted a public meeting about the library closure or the housing development because I could manipulate the public meeting in a somewhat similar manner to the stand-up comedian (albeit without anything resembling a joke). Sensible developers and councils want to do a consultation, to set up boards and spend a whole afternoon in the village hall responding directly to any member of the oublic who drops in. Sensible councillors want a public meeting because that way you can stir people up, announce the intention to march on the town hall with pitchforks and torches.

Public meetings - all the trappings of participatory democracy - are wonderful things but are also entirely open to manipulation by the loud, informed and organised. This is the milieu beloved of the far left (and where those rare beasts still exist, the far right), the land populated by Saul Alinky's community organisers. It is a world just as reverential to sacred cows and filled with received wisdom as any staged debate. And it is a world where people like me can press the right buttons, get a cheer and walk off into the sunset with a well-slapped back knowing you've farmed a few more votes.

Don't get me wrong, Simon Evans is right to call for lots more public debate and for lots more spaces where regular folk get to say something, to contribute. But let's not get too wrapped up in the idea that participation should somehow replace representation or that public forums aren't readily shaped by those with either authority or oratory on their side. Once we understand this limitation and recognise that the purpose of public debate isn't to answer the question but to shine light on and give air to an issue, to escape from the careful positionings of those data analysts and comms advisors. You don't want people to end the meeting pitchfork in hand heading for Westminster but in the 'Rose & Crown' with friends old and new saying "I enjoyed that".


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