Election hustings should be held in pubs, says Colin Valentine.
As we all recover from the most momentous political event of most of our lifetimes, it is perhaps worthwhile taking a step back and trying to figure out how civic Scotland, and by that I mean all of us who are not members of political parties, can keep the elected politicians interested in what we, the general public, otherwise known as their electorates, would very much like them to do on our behalf.
There is little doubt that, in the aftermath of last month’s referendum, we have their attention like never before, especially given the numerous ad hoc groups that sprang up during the campaign on both sides of the debate.
It is for those of us who would like politicians to do something positive to come up with ways to ensure that our elected representatives do what they are there to do, which is represent us, instead of constantly bickering with, and talking over, each other. Whilst I have to say that all of the politicians I know are not like that, put them in a television or radio studio and that is what they do.
So what can we, as community groups, charities, third-sector organisations and ordinary members of the public do to keep the politicians engaged in what we would wish them to do? In my opinion, when we have common interests, we must work together to exert maximum pressure and ensure that they do the right thing. A perfect example was the way that producers, retailers and consumers in an industry not particularly well known for co-operation worked together in 2012 to persuade the Chancellor of the Exchequer to ditch one of the most pernicious taxes ever introduced and one almost designed to further kick an industry when it was down.
That concerted effort was the campaign to scrap the much hated Beer Duty Escalator, which entailed brewers, pub-owning companies, consumers and back bench members of parliament working together to ensure that beer tax did not increase by two percentage points above inflation year on year. The Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) was instrumental in launching an e-petition and we quietly went about our business garnering the 100,000 signatures required to ensure a parliamentary debate on the issue. Brewers and pub-owning companies distributed material to consumers to ensure we covered as much of the beer-drinking public as possible and back bench MPs ensured that Treasury ministers were well aware of what a damaging tax it was.
Speaking with one voice meant it was impossible for the Treasury to dismiss us as a ragtag of disparate groups who couldn’t agree on anything. By sticking together on this, whilst having disagreements on other matters, we persuaded the people who matter in the Treasury that this was a subject that we were all agreed on and, in the end, it was a very easy political decision to make.
In the run-up to next year’s Westminster election, Camra will ask parliamentary candidates to attend our beer festivals and branch meetings to discuss how they can help support and promote pubs. We will also suggest that they hold hustings in pubs and that sitting MPs, and MSPs, have surgeries in pubs in their constituencies.
The referendum proved the power that people have over the political system when we make our voices heard and gave us some pointers as to what can be achieved if people stand together in a common cause. It is for us to grasp the thistle and make things happen following the apparent stasis and disconnect that many of us have felt in the political process in the past decade or so.
We, as members of the public, have an opportunity that does not come along too often, while we have their attention – to get politicians at every level to do what they are elected to do – represent us. If you have an issue that you think needs the attention of one of your elected representatives, now is the time to hold them to account. You may not get a chance like this again for many years.
• Colin Valentine is national chairman of Campaign for Real Ale