Barking and Dagenham Question Time Event Tuesday 4 May, 2010

 

A Community Campaign project report from Liam Baxter of the 2009/10 UpRising Cohort in partnership with Ekky Haque and the Community Service Volunteers charity

With the General Election looming just two days away and the future of both the local borough and the local council in the hands of the residents of Barking, Tuesday 4 May saw the brightest and best of the borough’s youth descend on the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham Stadium (no really!), home to the Dagenham & Redbridge Football Team for an evening of topical debate with the constituency’s prospective parliamentary candidates.

Towards the tail end of 2009, a chance meeting on the District Line at Dagenham Heathway brought together Ekky and I and a discussion arose about our ideas for a community campaign project across Barking & Dagenham which focused on the key theme of ‘political engagement’. As residents of the borough, Ekky and I were concerned that the local community were not sufficiently engaged in the political process to vote in the upcoming General and Council elections. We found that we both had a common theme in our ideas of getting a ‘Question Time’ style debate set up which involved an opportunity for an audience made up of residents within Barking & Dagenham to question their prospective MPs and Councillors before Election Day.

Current figures showed that the recent European Elections across the borough saw only a 30% turnout while the last General Election in 2005 saw only 1 out of every 2 eligible voters make the trip to the polling station on Election Day to make their voice heard and their vote count. This was simply not good enough! This political apathy, coupled with the very public rise of the Far Right party the BNP in the local area, made us aware that we needed to work on a campaign which helped to raise the profile of the importance of voting in the Election, but would also educate voters to make sure that they were aware of what they were actually voting for on May 6.

After initial discussions with a number of Council departments including a meeting with the Head of our Democratic Services section we began looking at securing dates and venues for our event. Unfortunately while general progress was initially strong, the gods of political debate and community engagement deserted us when it came to securing panel members from the serving Labour Party. The party’s core election message of ‘tackling the BNP head on both in the community and on the doorstep’ unfortunately took a left somewhere down the road when it should have clearly taken a right and ended up in a horrible car crash with the message of ‘we do not share a platform with the BNP’.

Many changes were made to our event proposal but these changes fell on deaf ears. It seemed as if the ghost of political disaffection would win the way and prove that even the politicians themselves were unwilling to embrace our plan for borough wide political engagement.

A month went by and it seemed that our event would never happen. Then completely by chance an email arrived from Aretousa advising us that a young campaigner named Robert Doughty was working on a project for a charity named Community Service Volunteers (not that kind of Community Service!) called ‘Youth Action – Barking and Dagenham’. The centre piece of his campaign revolved around setting up a political debate in a Question Time style format (notice any similarities with this picture?) which involved local candidates for the Barking seat in the General Election. With the opportunity to get involved in this project one that couldn’t be missed I contacted Robert and arranged a meeting to discuss his plans for the event.

Just two weeks later after numerous phone calls, meetings and emails, the event preparations had begun to bear fruit and a venue and panel were secured. The event would be held on the evening of Tuesday 4 May 2010, just before the General Election day and would involve an audience of 16 to 25 year old school, college and youth group members who were interested in hearing what their potential future member of parliament had to say about the issues in the local community that mattered to them.

Even after some last-minute phone calls the event was forced to take place without either the current sitting MP (Labour’s Margaret Hodge) or Nick Griffin of the BNP. Both the panel members however and the 110 strong audience members were not willing to let this stifle an intriguing two hours of political debate. At a quarter past six in the evening we settled down with the audience to hear young members of the borough question the panel on a variety of issues that mattered to them including knife crime, possible funding cuts for students in Higher Education, policing on the streets of Barking and future plans for the council’s Youth and Sports Centres.

With a panel comprising Simon Marcus of the Conservative Party, Jayne Forbes of the Green Party, Liberal Democrat candidate Dominic Carman, the Christian Party’s George Hargreaves and Frank Maloney of UKIP (and boxing promotion fame) all questions were well debated with regular feedback on the issues raised from our audience members who were keen to scrutinise every answer given by the panelists. The event was marvellously mediated by our host for the evening Mr Tom Kingham who is the current Head of News for the local community radio station TIME 107.5 FM.

Although the event finished at close to 8pm we were still on site after half past 8 as the remaining few audience members used their additional time for 1-2-1 questioning of the panel. We received some extremely positive feedback from audience members leaving the event (whilst also managing to do some covert UpRising 2010/11 scouting!) and the panel also left in high spirits with questions of when the next event would be held.

Although the proof will be in the proverbial pudding on Thursday in terms of seeing if the event has any impact on those who attended coming out to vote, it was wonderful to see a room of largely first-time voters take their opportunity to get involved and engaged in the political process in Barking.

A number of photos of the event were taken and a report is scheduled to be added to the next fortnightly distribution of our borough’s local community newspaper ‘The News’. If you are in the local area, look out for this paper which is free to pick up from next Monday.

Although this campaign idea focused largely on the lead up to the election, we have already had tentative discussions with the Community Service Volunteers (CSV) team about taking this campaign forward and holding a similar event for Councillors across the borough once the newly elected Members are in place following Thursday’s election.

If anybody is interested in working with Ekky and I on future events, please get in touch as we hope to continue this on after UpRising is finished. Most importantly, wherever you are, whatever your political views and whichever borough you represent, make sure that on Thursday 6 May you do your duty for Queen and country and vote in the elections!

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