Scottish Parliament Elections 2021: Hustings Guidance

Updated 16 February 2021

Information for churches on holding an election hustings or question time meeting.

Elections for the Scottish Parliament are scheduled Thursday 6 May 2021.

In the period before an election, churches and community organisations often put on election meetings (sometimes known as hustings). They do this as a public service, to support the democratic process, to facilitate public debate and as a contribution to the common good.

At these events members of the public can listen to and ask questions of the candidates who are standing for election. Meetings organised by church groups can provide an opportunity for respectful discussion in a neutral space, which is often appreciated by candidates as well as voters.

A Year Like No Other

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we have had to operate in many areas of our lives. Hustings would usually have been in-person community meetings. In 2021, hustings will have to be held predominantly online.

For many of us, the last year has been one of quickly adapting to new technologies, as worship services and keeping in touch with families and friends have moved online.

This election will likely follow the same pattern, and the potential absence of in-person meetings with candidates means that hosting an online hustings will take on a new level of significance.

Form a Coordinating Group

These meetings work best when they are organised ecumenically, so the first thing to do is to form a local ecumenical planning group. This could be under the auspices of your local Churches Together group, but if that is not possible it is better to set up a special organising group made up of representatives from different churches rather than to act as a single church or denomination. Contact as many churches as possible in your constituency to see if you can work together. Consider whether you also want to invite members of other faith groups or civic organisations to take part in the process. Call a meeting of this group as soon as possible.

Forming a small coordinating group of people who will be able to make decisions and act can lighten the load and ensure a smooth delivery of all the tasks that need to happen.

In 2021 most hustings will be online, and so you should make sure that your coordinating group includes people who are confident organising and hosting online events.

You might already have a group from a previous election that could work together again to adapt your previous model. If you are trying something for the first time it is worth considering whether there are already churches, faith or community groups in existence that you can ask to work in partnership with?

By moving online there is a new opportunity to join with other churches across your area to organise a single hustings that everyone could join, or share your event with churches that have not held hustings before.

What are the rules around holding a hustings event?

Churches are charities and so are regulated by the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (OSCR).

During election periods campaigning activities are also covered by the Electoral Commission. Hustings are legitimate activities for churches during this period.

The Electoral Commission has issued a guidance on hosting a husting.

OSCR also has an FAQ that covers campaigning, available on their website.

Setting a Date

Your event can take place any time between now and polling day.

It is always worth contacting the candidates as early as possible to begin discussing dates.

In particular, please note that due to the potential need to consider and monitor emergency COVID-19 legislation, the Scottish Parliament will be dissolved on the day before polling day (5 May). This means that candidates who are sitting MSPs will be juggling campaigning with their parliamentary responsibilities (though these should be only related to COVID-19 issues; all other normal parliamentary activity should finish by the end of March).

Legislation has been passed to enable these elections to be postponed by up to six months if the pandemic necessitates. However, we recommend that you do not delay organising your hustings. It is better to have to postpone than to wait and see and then find that you do not have sufficient time to organise properly.

Postal votes are usually sent to voters who have applied for them around two weeks before polling day. Many people complete their postal ballot as soon as it arrives, and more people than ever are expected to apply for postal votes this year, to avoid in-person voting.

For these reasons, our recommendation is that you aim to hold your event in the week beginning Monday 19 April, or earlier.

Ultimately the date will depend on a number of factors, including the availability of candidates.

Experience from previous years shows that candidates often respond positively to invitations to in-person meetings held on Sunday evenings, although possibilities for in-person meetings will be limited this year.

Choosing a Form of Hustings

There are a number of potential forms that your hustings can take. Here we outline four options:

Option A – Traditional hustings

These meetings take a “question time” format, where candidates are invited to respond to questions from the audience.

You might want to consider the following structure:

  • Brief introduction of the candidates by name and party
  • Short statement by each candidate (a couple of minutes each at most)
  • Questions from the audience on issues relevant to the election being held, allowing each candidate to respond
  • Final few sentences from each candidate.

Bearing in mind that you may have six or more candidates, you will need to ensure that statements and answers are kept strictly to time. You will probably want to have someone with a stopwatch who can notify the speaker that their time is nearly up (eg 30 seconds to go) and again when time is up. Online event platforms allow the host of the meeting to mute speakers.

It is always a good idea to have someone lined up to ask the first question – people may be slow in starting, but they will soon warm up. These meetings are run by – but not for – the churches. People from all sections of the community should be encouraged to attend and to participate.

Decide how you want to handle questions – should questions be submitted beforehand to ensure that a range of topics is covered, or are you happy simply to take questions from the audience? If so, you should explain the rules if someone wants to ask a question and how they can do this in an online meeting.

Whatever you decide, this should be made clear to the audience at the start of the meeting. Also decide whether you will allow supplementary questions to be asked: remember that even if each of six candidates is given just two minutes to answer, each question will take twelve minutes. The chair or moderator could take several questions at a time. Questioners may also need to be kept in check by the chair – people have come to hear the candidates, not the audience!

Option B – Speed hustings

Based on a “speed dating” format, this type of hustings enables a dialogue to take place between candidates and the audience. It would take the following format:

The audience is distributed into online breakout rooms, with each breakout room allocated a candidate and a facilitator. Candidates can make a short introductory statement, and then respond to questions from the group before moving on to the next group, after a set amount of time.

Having spoken with all of the break out rooms, the candidates are each invited to sum up with a short statement to the whole audience at the end of the evening.

Option C – “People’s politics” election meeting

Whereas a traditional hustings places the emphasis on hearing from politicians and parties, a “People’s Politics” event begins by hearing from those whose voices are not often heard within the political discourse before asking candidates to respond.

The event would take the following format:

  • Identify individuals or representatives from groups who are often marginalised within society. This might be someone from a homeless shelter or users of a food bank, groups with learning disabilities, young carers, asylum seekers or any others that might be applicable to your local context and to the election being held who are willing to share their stories (up to three people is ideal).
  • At the event, have the Chair introduce the format, the candidates and those who have been invited to share their stories
  • The first person shares their three-minute story then poses a question that they would like the candidates to answer
  • Each of the candidates in turn responds to what they have heard and attempts to answer the question. This should be a three-way conversation between the Chair, the person sharing their story and the candidate. It is not a dialogue between the candidates.
  • Once all the candidates have done this, the Chair will thank them and thank the person who has shared their story before inviting the next person to share their story
  • Once all the stories have been heard and responses from candidates given, the Chair has the option to ask all the speakers to come to the front of the stage and take questions from the audience (time permitting).

Much of the success of this event relies on facilitating individuals to share their stories. For some of those individuals, this may be an intimidating process: ideally you should spend time with them in advance ensuring that they are comfortable with the format and what is expected of them. Some may wish to have their story written down. For others, speaking for three minutes may be difficult and in these instances an interview approach between the Chair and the story teller may be advisable.

Knowing what question to ask the candidates may also be difficult for those sharing their story. If this is the case, you may need to help them think about the question in advance. The question does not need to be complicated and often simple questions such as, 'If elected, what would you do to address this issue?' can be very powerful.

The second significant part of the process involves facilitating the discussion between the candidates and the story teller. In this instance, it is important that the Chair ensures that both individuals are allowed a fair contribution and that they do so in a measured and constructive way. This should be explained to participants in advance of the event.

Option D – “Interview Series”

Instead of trying to organise a public event, this idea would see a well-briefed moderator interviewing each of the candidates; they would ask the same or similar questions and would give each candidate the same amount of time to respond (say around 15 minutes). The interviews would be recorded at a time to suit the individual candidates. Once they are recorded they should be edited into a single video, then uploaded. You should edit the videos together, making sure each candidate is fairly presented, that they have all been able to answer the same questions and are all given the same amount of video time to speak.

The moderator would need to be prepared to think carefully about the questions and would need to ensure every candidate is represented fairly and accurately, and that no-one is getting more or less publicity. The coordination group would also need to put energy into ensuring publicity for the video is circulated widely.

Taking Your Hustings Online

It is important early on to make some initial decisions about the format and the platform through which the event will be held. Potential online platforms include: Zoom, Meetings, Google Meet, Go To Meeting, and Microsoft Teams among others. This section will outline three potential formats, but it is worth considering the feasibility of each suggestion for your own context, as a hybrid (or completely alternative format) may be best suited.

Option 1 – A live, all online meeting

Arguably the simplest option, and likely the most familiar to church communities, you could simply host an online meeting. This can be conducted in much the same manner as a traditional in-person hustings would be, with the Chair acting as "Host" and the candidates "pinned" or so they remain in the centre of the audience’s screen, like a panel. Questions can be submitted by the audience through the chat function or, if the Chair is comfortable, through spoken contributions.

Option 2 – Livestreaming an in-person panel

If local regulations and restrictions allow, you may wish to use a slightly adapted online meeting, whereby the candidates and the Chair are present in person and join the audience in an online meeting. Think BBC’s Question Time with its virtual audience. As with option 1, questions from the audience can be submitted through the chat function. Candidates may be more comfortable with this format, and the conversation may be more fluid as candidates are addressed in person.

With these options it is worth considering the following:

  • Numbers: How many people will attend? And does the online platform that you are using have a limit on the number of participants allowed in a given meeting?
  • Subscriptions and time limits: Do you need a subscription or membership for your chosen online platform? For example, on Zoom Meetings, the host will require a paid account to run a meeting longer than 40 minutes, so consider if there is a paid church or community account you can use or purchase. If moving online allows you to collaborate across a bigger area, it may be possible to pool resources for a more professional or effective event.
  • Facilities: If considering a hybrid approach, do you have a building set up with filming or live-streaming facilities, and a strong internet connection?
  • Registration: How widely do you want your event to be shared? You may wish to create a registration page for your event, to allow people to register to receive the meeting details. This will allow greater security, as you can control the sharing of your meeting password. Registration pages can be made on Eventbrite or other websites can provide registration pages easily.
  • Hosting: Appointing a coordinator or moderator to act as a technological host is essential. This person can manage the attendees, monitor a chat function, respond to any IT issues and keep on top of questions or comments. This allows the Chair to focus on managing the meeting and engaging with the candidates, rather than responding to IT crises!
  • Time keeping: Without an in-person audience, it can be difficult to remember to keep to time. Creating a schedule that the host and coordinator are aware of will help to ensure your event is timely, and that all candidates are given equal time to speak. Make sure that candidates are made aware how long the meeting will be, and outline this for the attendees at the beginning. If you plan to take audience questions, make sure you outline how these will be submitted – through the chat etc. – and when they will be addressed.
  • Online etiquette: Though many of us are now entirely acclimatised to online life, it is worth agreeing ahead of time a set of house rules to share with attendees at the beginning of a meeting. This could take into account remaining muted or sending messages into the chat.
  • Accessibility: Some online platforms have captioning functions that can be used to improve the accessibility of meetings. If you choose to share recordings of your meeting, or produce a pre-recorded resource, consider subtitling it to ensure it can be used by as many members of your community as possible. You may also want to consider translating the husting into an additional language if there is a predominant language in your area.
  • Security: Depending on the circulation of your meeting’s details, you may have security issues with unexpected attendees or indecent messages. Ensuring you have a moderator who can respond quickly by removing people or posts if necessary will help to manage this. Alongside house rules, you may wish to agree an action plan on how they will manage a security breach, to minimise disruption.
  • Recording and permission: You may choose to record your meeting and upload it for sharing with people who were not able to attend. If you are intending to share recordings of any meetings, ensure you make this clear, and allow people to turn off their camera and microphone if they are not comfortable being recorded.

Option 3 – Share pre-recorded clips

This option would involve the organisers either conducting a series of separate interviews, or sending all the candidates the same questions and ask them to video-record their responses and then the church can post them online. Perhaps a church leader may also like to add a comment reflecting on faith, the democratic context and the current context.

This may be an option if there are a large number of candidates, or in areas with unreliable internet connection that may make hosting an online meeting difficult.

Appointing a Chair

To ensure that a range of views and opinions are heard during the debate you should identify and approach a respected and impartial person from the community to chair the meeting.

This could be a church figure, a community leader, or someone else who is comfortable speaking in public and keeping order.

They should not belong to or be on record as supporting a political party.

It is also important that they are able to conduct the meeting firmly, and are well briefed about how the event will run.

You could consider holding a "dress rehearsal" style run through, before the event.

Someone with experience conducting online gatherings, or with an understanding of the platform on which the meeting is to be held, would be useful.

Inviting Candidates

There may be a number of elections occurring on the same day in your area, so you will need to decide which one(s) you will host a hustings for. If you are unsure which elections are happening in your area, you can have on the Electoral Commission's Upcoming Elections page.

The deadline for nominating candidates is Thursday 8 April. After this point, the returning officer for the respective elections will publish a list of candidates for each election.

You will then be able to contact them through the political parties locally or nationally, social media or candidates’ website.

If you want to get in touch before this time, you can use Democratic Dashboard to find out who is standing in your area.

You should also ask for mobile numbers and the name and details of the candidate’s election agent so you can keep in touch in the run up to the event.

At elections to the Scottish Parliament, voters are represented by a constituency Member, elected by first-past-the-post, as well as several regional Members, who are elected on a proportional representation system.

Some smaller parties might not put up constituency candidates, but instead only stand for the regional seats.

You should decide if you want to invite only the local constituency candidates, or instead have representatives of all the parties standing in the constituency and region – try to think what is likely to be most useful for the community and is in the best interests of fair public debate.

Do we have to invite all the candidates?

No – but if you don’t, you must have an objective, impartial reason for not including all of them.

The simplest approach is to invite all the relevant candidates in the area or all political parties campaigning in the election and allow all those attending an equal opportunity to participate.

However, this may not always be practical. For example, there may be so many candidates or parties standing that a meeting would be hard to manage – this is especially true for the Scottish Parliament regions where a number of seats may be up for election. If you decide not to invite all candidates, there are some good practice recommendations you should follow to ensure your hustings is genuinely not promoting particular candidates or parties more than others.

These include:

  • Being able to give impartial reasons why you have not invited particular candidates or parties. You should be prepared to explain your reasons to candidates or parties you haven’t invited. If you don’t want to invite a candidate because you don’t agree with their policies, this is not an impartial reason. Neither is inviting or not inviting a candidate because of their actual or perceived religious affiliation. Whilst this may sometimes be legitimate under charity law, it has consequences for candidates under electoral law, as spending on such hustings may count as election expenditure. In this situation, the amount spent needs to be divided by the number of candidates and if it is over £50 then candidates need to be notified to include it in their returns to the Electoral Commission. You should consult the Electoral Commission’s guidelines on organising a Selective Hustings as this will be subject to regulation. You may be required to register with the Commission and ensure that the candidates that you do invite declare your support for them. For these reasons, it is recommended that you invite all candidates, unless there is an impartial reason for you doing so.              
    Impartial reasons may include:
    • Local prominence of some parties or candidates over others
    • The number of elected representatives of that party at the local or national level
    • Recent election results in the area
    • Resources and other practicalities constraining the number of invitees
    • Security concerns.
  • Making sure that candidates or parties you invite represent a reasonable variety of views, from different parts of the political spectrum – for local elections or the regional lists in the Welsh Senedd or Scottish Parliament, each party should be invited to choose a single candidate, even though multiple candidates from that party are standing in the election
  • Allowing each candidate or party representative attending a fair chance to answer questions and, where appropriate, a reasonable opportunity to respond to points made against them by other candidates or party representative
  • Informing the audience at the meeting of candidates or parties standing who have not been invited. It is good practice to invite such candidates to submit a short written statement (of the same length as the opening statements of parties who are present) to be read out by the chair at the start of the meeting.

What if a candidate doesn’t respond, declines, boycotts or fails to turn up?

For organisers, this can be very irritating, but if you anticipate how you will handle the situation before it arises you will be better prepared. In the first instance, try to find a date which all your invited candidates can make – and try to be flexible if things go awry!

  • Non-response – If you do not get a response, you need to follow up on your invitations. Keep chasing and try to get an email address and telephone number for the candidate and their election agent so you can keep in touch.
  • Declines – if a candidate has declined to attend (due to another commitment, for example) you don’t have to worry about whether your event is impartial, since it is the invitation which counts. If it is a candidate of one of the main national parties, think about whether you would be happy to have a different party spokesperson take part. In the case of a constituency hustings for the Welsh Senedd or Scottish Parliament, it would be reasonable to allow the party concerned to nominate one of its regional list candidates as a substitute. You may wish to make a statement at the start of the event, explaining why the candidate is not able to make it. It is good practice to invite such candidates to submit a short written statement (of the same length as the opening statements of parties who are present) to be read out by the chair at the start of the meeting.
  • Boycotts – some parties have a policy of not sharing a platform with other parties, as it is felt this conveys a degree of legitimacy on them. If you find that because party X is standing, candidates from Y and Z will not turn up, what should your planning group do? Be prepared to consider holding a different event or not holding an event if it will not be of benefit to the community.
  • No-shows – clearly this would be disappointing for the planning group and the audience, but also for a candidate who has forgotten! Elections can be very busy times, so minimise the unexpected by keeping in touch with candidates, share phone numbers and confirm all the arrangements a couple of days before the event.

Publicising the Event

Try to get publicity for the meeting out to as many people and in as many ways as possible – and at the earliest opportunity.

You will need to decide on the security of your hustings depending on the platform you choose to use. You may choose to advertise an Eventbrite or sign up link that will provide details closer to the date.

Contact all the churches in the local area, asking them to share the hustings with their congregation through their newsletters, social media or services.

If possible, get a member of each congregation to take responsibility for publicising it within their own church.

Whilst it is worth focusing on prioritising online promotion, you may wish to consider how less technologically literate members of the community will be made aware of, and can be assisted in accessing, the meeting.

Some platforms allow you to hear the audio of a meeting by calling from a telephone. You may also wish to appoint someone to ensure the event is as accessible as possible.

You could also ask local media to advertise the event. A simple document (stating What, When, Where, Who and Why) can be sent to local newspapers and radio stations, but don’t forget to notify the candidates first.

If you choose to record the event (first gaining candidates and audience permission for any recording), you could also post the video online and let people know about it.

Checklist and Contacts

  • Form planning group
  • If necessary, decide which election(s) you will feature
  • Research who the candidates are in your area
  • Decide on a format / platform
  • Set date, time and venue
  • Invite candidates and chase up responses
  • Find your a) Chair and b) online meeting coordinator
  • Publicise event (registration page, Invite link etc) and ask for question submissions
  • Have a practice run and tech check

This guidance has been prepared by the Scottish Churches Parliamentary Office, Cytûn – Churches Together in Wales and the Joint Public Issues Team.

We would love to know how you decided to hold your event, who attended, what questions were asked and especially if you tried a new kind of format for engagement.

Send us pictures too (with the permission of those involved).

We also want to know if this guidance was useful, if there was anything you needed to know that was missing or if our advice wasn’t so useful.

We’ll use your suggestions to help prepare for the next set of elections, whenever they may be!

If you have questions, suggestions or comments please write to:

Scotland: David Bradwell

Wales: Gethin Rhys

England: Joint Public Issues Team