Between us at Gef we’ve covered 10 election meetings so far during this campaign and with a couple of exemptions the turnouts have been pretty poor, which has led us to wonder why?
With the exception of Ayre & Michael’s Jurby meeting, Ramsey and Rushen, the majority of meetings that we have attended have had about 40-50 people there and without being ageist, we have helped to bring down the average age quite significantly at a number of these meetings too.
So why could this be? One possible reason is that young people simply don’t care, but the engagement we have seen suggests that this isn’t the case, a good number want to vote and they want to engage with the election.
This leads us to consider whether the idea of hustings, with candidates facing two hours in front of the electorate is antiquated. Could it be that the tradition of candidates being hit with unknown questions and their attempts to pivot back to their manifestos or some soundbite they have in their head is no longer what the voters want? This could be the case, but then why did the people of Ramsey turnout? Why were the meetings in Jurby and Rushen standing room only?
I’ve lived in Onchan pretty much all of my life, with a four year gap to go to Nottingham for uni, and while I didn’t go to the hustings I’ve heard from several people that the turnout was low and there were plenty of empty chairs. This is the same Onchan which for as long as I’ve known it, hustings were held over two nights because so many people wanted to go they couldn’t all fit into whichever church hall was being used on the first night. Instead of attending the Onchan hustings, I was at the Garff hustings in Laxey. For anyone who has never been to a public meeting in Laxey, they are usually packed with standing room only but that meeting never reached capacity either.
I personally think that there is no single reason why these meetings aren’t well attended, rather it’s a cocktail of Covid, apathy, advertising and the format they are taking.
Looking first at Covid, some people do not want to be crammed into a small hall for two hours, perfectly reasonable and I get that entirely. Secondly, the gov have been in ours lives a lot in the past 18 months and I think that some people have just had enough and want to be left alone to live their lives, equally there are some people who don’t care either way as the politics on the island is rarely one which is seen to deliver real change that greatly improves people’s lives.
Looking more at central gov, who has organised these meetings, they have done little to really push them. Have you seen many adverts or press releases or even social media posts about these meetings? At Gef we’ve been pushing these meetings everyday, with at least one post per constituency and we’ve been recording and publishing the night online for people to watch. But while I’m sure there has been some advertising for them away from this, as someone who is paying a lot of attention island wide, I haven’t seen them.
The Captains of the Parish, who formerly used to organise the meetings and have chaired some of the ones we’ve attended, have made a point of saying that turnouts have been lower than when they were left to it. Now obviously there is an element of they are upset at losing some of their role, but they do have a point. Equally the idea of holding the hustings in schools, while that sounds logical as aside from staffing costs, they’re free, these aren’t necessarily in the best place. In Onchan the meeting was held at Bemahague, about as close to the edge of the constituency it could’ve been without physically sitting at Signpost Corner. Whoever thought that was a good idea when there is a primary school and indeed a community centre opposite each other in the heart of the village, with three churches or halls round the corner clearly doesn’t know much about the voters of Onchan or recognises that many of the village’s older voters live literally five minutes walk away from these buildings and nowhere near the high school.
This brings me to the format, with these meetings being, on the whole, poorly attended, it has to be asked whether people still want to spend two hours of their lives in a school or church hall seeing candidates facing whatever question, local or national, springs to the mind of their electorate. Maybe the future is in online hustings, where people can watch online and submit questions via Zoom or enter them ahead of time.
I do believe that Covid and central gov are the biggest reasons for why these meetings have suffered, being in a stuffy hall is clearly not high on people’s agenda and bad planning and a lack of advertising have not helped. Really we won’t get much of a chance to review the situation until 2026 by which point many people will have forgotten the lessons learned during the pandemic. I just hope that the turnout at these meetings isn’t reflect in the ballot box.