Leadership hustings: why be enslaved by conformity?

The rules for the official hustings meetings for the 2015 Liberal Democrat leadership contest are prescriptive and traditional.

It’s understandable that the core set of official hustings should have fairly clear rules laid down for their operation, and the overall format of hustings events is – much like lectures at universities – deeply entrenched in habit and custom even though there is no matching pile of evidence that they are really the best way to do things.

In fact, with university lectures the evidence increasingly is that they’re not the best format, but old habits die hard. With hustings formats, the evidence is less because the research is mostly absent and, regrettably, almost all the innovation in political hustings formats has been left to other parties, especially the Conservatives.

Yet if you want to know which person is best up to the job of party leader, there are plenty of ways of testing it out other than the traditional hustings. I even got the party to experiment with one back in 2007, though this has not been followed up.

From cautious reform (trying out a panel discussion format) through to more radical reform (head-to-head debates) or even the unthinkably different (go on, imagine the fun of role playing a PMQs) there are many other options other than the rote of short speech followed by questions which must be for both candidates and almost no supplementaries (and really don’t think about the idea that two follow-ups might ever be wise).

In fact, when you think about all myriad different ways in which people decide who is best suited for a role in other walks of life, the traditional hustings format is very narrow, staid and far from inevitable.

If you’ve been to a fair number of hustings, the limitations of the format rapidly become apparent. The standard question and answer show is that a person asks a question about something that’s really important to them, and the candidates – after that person’s vote – both agree that they’re right to say it’s important and they’d do something about it.

As a test of oratorical ability, that works. But it also means the clichéd answers and grand promises come easily. Rigorous testing out of whether candidates can really deliver what they promise? That’s the rarity, and that’s particularly a problem where the contest is more about who is best able to deliver than between competing visions of what to deliver.

Occasionally a question really hits the money. More by luck than by judgement, my question at the staff hustings last time round rather nicely revealed both the strengths and weaknesses of both Clegg and Huhne. I asked them what they’d learnt from each other: Chris’s answer was worthy but often dull, Nick’s answer starting gratuitously rude and ended up charmingly funny.

But such exchanges are the exception and the conformity of hustings the norm.

So if you’re organising a hustings in addition to the formal main set, why not experiment? Gunge tank optional. Conformity undesirable.

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