activism politics transition towns

Transition Luton Hustings – a debrief

Last night was the Transition Luton hustings, and I’m pleased to say it went very well. We had all eight candidates and they all behaved themselves, and there was such a good crowd we put out all the chairs we could find and still had had people standing all along the back and in the lobby.

Luton is an interesting race. With our current Labour MP in disgrace and not standing, it’s an open field. In the running are young and fresh Labour and Conservative candidates in Gavin Shuker and Nigel Huddlestone, and a popular Lib Dem councillor in Qurban Hussein. Mixing it up a little is Esther Rantzen, who is running as an independent and is everywhere in Luton at the moment. UKIP’s Charles Lawman and Marc Scheimann for the Greens are also running, with independents Joe Hall and Dr Stephen Lathwell rounding things up.

The theme was ‘Creating a vibrant, resilient, and low-carbon Luton’, and each candidate was invited to speak for three minutes on that topic at the start. One of them devoted that whole three minutes to denouncing climate change as unscientific, which was his loss quite frankly. The others engaged more positively, sharing their ideas for a greener Luton and mentioning the steps in that direction that they had already taken themselves, both personally and politically.

Questions from the floor followed, and topics included food miles, public transport, apprenticeships, creating green jobs, promoting small businesses, and university tuition fees, thanks to the NUS delegation from Bedfordshire University next door.

If you missed it, here’s a very rough video that’ll at least give you a flavour of proceedings. More detailed notes for other transition groups below.

Further notes, if you’re thinking of running something similar:

We debated whether or not to host a hustings and wade into local politics. We decided we should, because Luton needs a fresh start politically and it might as well go hand in hand with the transition fresh start that we want to offer. As a group that’s only four months old, it was also an opportunity to run something big and noticeable, and we probably had 100 or so people who we’ve not seen before at Transition events before. Whoever the MP turns out to be, they’ll know who we are, and it’s also about doing something positive for the town, creating a space for an exchange of ideas.

Because the election hasn’t been called yet, no one else had started planning a hustings. We were the first, and the first time all the candidates had been together in one room. That, along with the Esther Rantzen factor of the Luton South race, gave us a news edge and we’ve been in all the local papers and on the radio in the last few weeks. The papers were at the event too, including someone from the Daily Telegraph, although only because they were doing a 24-hours-with-Esther type thing.

Getting all the MPs was the first challenge, and we were lucky to know a couple of them already, including one or two who have shown an active interest in Transition Luton since we started. Once we had a couple of the big names, it was a lot easier to get the others, but it did still require a lot of persistence on Jeff’s part to phone, email, and visit in person. We invited all eight, and I’m very grateful that there wasn’t a BNP candidate. I’m not sure what we would have done if there was.

Publicity was the next challenge, as our previous events have had average attendance, and this one needed a bigger bang. Fortunately, the papers had picked up on a Grow Your Own event that we press released a fortnight ago. They loved it, and seem to see Transition as a source of news rather than a news item in itself, which is nice. (One paper even stole a march on, a site showing fruit trees growing on public land, that we weren’t planning to launch until May.) Candidates invited their own networks, and it was obvious that there were plenty of people there from the parties, or who’s interest was in local politics generally, rather than transition concerns. Others had come with a specific issue, such as Luton’s contentious guided busway or various proposed housing developments.

Finding a chair was tricky. You need someone strong enough to stop the candidates and keep things moving, who knows local politics and understands transition. As a fairly new group we didn’t think there was anyone among us who could do it, and we invited a couple of lecturers from the university and a local businessman, but they couldn’t make it. In the end the head of the council’s climate change team stepped up for us, in an unofficial capacity, and he did a great job.

By way of format, candidates had three minutes each at the beginning, and ninety seconds for each answer. They all had the right to reply to each question, but didn’t have to. To keep them on time, I had a stopwatch and a reception-desk bell. When they had 15 seconds left I raised my hand, and tapped the bell on three minutes. I only had to resort to it three or four times over the course of the evening, and people seemed to find it entertaining and there was no tension over having to interrupt. We also had separate microphones for each candidate, so that if it did get heated or someone lost the plot, we could just turn them off!

If I were doing it again, I’d have sourced a roving mic, with someone to go around and take questions. We could also have done with a raised platform. Candidates were seated and those at the back couldn’t see. They were happy to stand when speaking, but that wasn’t ideal for one disabled candidate. I’d have liked to see candidates engage with transitions a little more. A couple of them showed an understanding of the concept, and continued to address it throughout the evening. Others only had a partial grasp of it, and didn’t refer to it at all beyond the introductions. They were also noticeably more familiar with climate change than with peak oil. It would have been good to meet them each in person beforehand and talk it through, or we could have sent them a briefing pack.

Having a larger crowd than expected, we had to rush around and find more chairs. There weren’t quite enough volunteers to man the bookstand, serve drinks, shoot video, greet at the door and brief the candidates all at once. More next time. And I wish we’d had a more substantial flyer about ourselves, and a proper logo and a banner and so on.

Still, minor details in what was a very successful night, although we’ll see what the Telegraph has to say about it in due course. The only problem I can foresee now, and it’s a good problem to have, is how to drum up a similar level of interest when we get to unleashing.

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