It would have allowed local people to put questions to the candidates in a much-loved building, far removed from the hurly-burly of relentless political canvassing or vans with loudspeakers extolling the virtues of this or that party.
But there was a difficulty that needed to be overcome first. No fewer than 19 candidates were standing for election to Westminster. I had allowed an hour for the hustings over lunchtime, principally to accommodate people who might be working. If all 19 candidates took up my invitation to attend there would scarcely be enough time for every candidate to make a brief opening statement, let alone answer questions.
The excellent website of the Electoral Commission came to the rescue. Its helpful guidance about hustings enabled me to make a decision about which candidates to invite that fell well within the parameters set out in the commission’s guidelines. Those candidates who were not invited, I reasoned, would be welcome to come to the hustings, to ask questions and (if they wished) to identify themselves as candidates as well. If only it had been so simple.
The pushback started with emails and telephone calls from candidates, and their party representatives, who had not been invited to the hustings. These communications were for the most part perfectly civilised. There was general agreement that I could not reasonably be expected to invite all 19 candidates; there was, though, universal disagreement from disappointed candidates with the decisions I had made about whom to invite.
I could have lived with this level of pushback, even though dealing with it was taking up more and more of my time. But then the twittersphere began to get lively. I was accused of bias; a noisy protest outside the cathedral was promised on the day of the hustings; finally, there came a thinly veiled threat of legal action. It was this that prompted me to cancel the hustings at less than 24 hours’ notice.
Even though I knew I was acting perfectly legally, I also knew that a lawyer’s letter must always be answered by a lawyer’s letter. The cathedral could not afford even a modest legal skirmish. When news emerged of the cancellation, there were some predictably triumphalist and smug tweets from those who had questioned my impartiality and even impugned my motives. The whole episode had, it seemed, turned into a zero-sum game.
Social media had won; I had lost.
Except that I had not actually lost anything. The real losers, of course, were the electors of Wakefield. They had been denied the opportunity to engage in some serious political debate at a moment of huge local and national political significance.
As someone who is deeply committed to the city of Wakefield, I am keen to offer the cathedral as a space where ideas and opinions can be aired and tested. The Church has never been, and must never become, a politics-free zone. It has a responsibility and a calling to work tirelessly for the flourishing of all people and that must surely include allowing our buildings to be places where the exchange of ideas and the articulating of aspirations can be facilitated.
The late Archbishop Desmond Tutu famously remarked, “When people say that politics and religion don’t mix, I wonder which Bible it is they are reading.”
Tutu’s comment was not a call for the Church to favour one political party over another. It was a reminder of the Church’s responsibility to take its place confidently in the public square and to play its part in ensuring that the voices of all people, not just those who shout loudest, are heard.
The campaign on social media that ultimately thwarted my attempt to hold hustings a month ago was disappointing, but it has not diminished my enthusiasm for offering our wonderful building to support and enable debate in the public square.
Just a few days after the by-election producers at BBC Radio 4 contacted the cathedral to ask if we would be willing to host live broadcasts of both the PM programme and Any Questions on August 5.
We were delighted to respond positively. I very much hope that both programmes will allow some of the ambitious plans for our great city to become known to a wider audience. I am sure that both programmes will also feature plenty of politics. A good thing, too.
- The Very Rev Simon Cowling is Dean of Wakefield.