During general elections (and occasionally, but rarely local elections), it is quite common for there to be a series of election hustings where they invite all of the election candidates to face questions from an audience.  There are a number of important details to be aware of before accepting an invite.

How many hustings should I expect?

This can vary tremendously depending on the sort of constituency you are in.  In some areas, there may only be one or two, but in other areas especially in cities where there are a lot of politically-active campaign groups, there may be many more.

It is common for a “Churches Together” group to organise the biggest hustings, with other political and community groups such as Unlock Democracy, trade unions, the Women’s Institute, Friends of the Earth etc to also organise events.

Do I need to attend every hustings?

Ideally, you would attempt to attend every meeting, however this may not be practical if they clash with something else important or you find there are so many of them that you cannot find time for other campaigning.  Generally, we would advise you to try and attend the largest meetings, (usually the ones organised by local churches and environmental groups), and you may find it acceptable to miss those that have been organised by groups that are overtly hostile to you and the Liberal Democrats.  If you are unable to attend an important meeting, it is perfectly acceptable to send a representative – perhaps a local councillor or someone articulate who you know will be able to handle national policy questions.

In some places – usually cities with more than one constituency – there may be one hustings meeting organised for all of the constituencies.  In these circumstances you should try and share the workload amongst the other candidates, unless the organisers have specifically requested all of the candidates to attend.

Who should be invited and how this effects election expenses

This all depends on the type of meeting and who it is open to:

Closed meetings: if a meeting has been organised just for members of a particular organisations, e.g. a trade union, then they don’t need to invite every candidate.  The cost of the meeting does NOT need to be included in election expenses.

Open meetings with all candidates: if all candidates have been invited then the meeting does NOT need to be included in election expenses.  This is regardless of whether every candidate turns up, as meetings can continue regardless.

Open meetings with only some of the candidates: previous guidance used to say that these meetings had to be declared in the election expenses of those candidates who turned up.  However, the Electoral Commission have issued new guidance (see below) that has changed this. Essentially, as long as the main parties are invited then a meeting can go ahead without affecting the election expenses of those who turn up.  However, it is recommended that the organisers name all of the candidates at the meeting and are able to justify why a party has not been invited.

Meetings organised in support of a specific candidate

You need to be very careful about these sorts of meetings and it is important to check with the meeting organiser that they have thought through the implications of how the meeting is organised.

You need to be sure before attending whether the meeting has to be declared on expenses or not.  If it is going to be an expensive meeting and/or you will be close to the expenses limit, then you either should explain politely why the format isn’t acceptable and that it should either be opened to all candidates or that cost must be as small as possible.

The most common problem to arise is if food and/or drink is laid on at a meeting for free.  When this happens it is “treating” and it is an election offence that could land you in serious legal trouble, as it is essentially considered to be bribing the electorate with food so that they vote for you even if that wasn’t the intention.  Whilst, the value of the food and/or drink is irrelevant, it is unlikely to be a problem if people are simply offered tea and biscuits, however anything much more than this could be a problem.

How to include the cost of a meeting in expenses

Organisers of a hustings meeting should notify you in advance if they expect part of the costs of the meeting to be included in your expenses.  It is also worth checking with them if this is going to be the case.  The organisers should then let you know what the cost is of the room and any other associated bills and this should then be split equally between those candidates attending the meeting.

Other things to think about

  • Try and ensure that the candidate is not left on their own to attend the event.  If they arrive with some other people it stops them looking lost and friendless.  It also helps in cases where the majority of the audience are likely to be hostile, as it is always good to have some supportive people in the audience who can clap at the right point and generally look cheerful.
  • Think through any difficult questions you might be asked, either about the candidate personally, national policy or perhaps difficult decisions you’ve made on the council.  Try asking a friendly local Lib Dem to quiz you before going to the meeting to make sure your answers sound credible to someone else.
  • Try and find out who will chair the meeting.  If you don’t know anything about them then do some research.  This will give away any bias they may have or other issues you need to know that may effect how they chair the meeting.

Useful external links

Electoral Commission guidance on hustings events

Updates and commentLast updated by Anders Hanson on 18th March 2010.
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