Prospective MPs go dating to woo voters

March 19, 2010

speeddatingAs a group of smartly dressed men and women take their seats, in pairs, at small round tables in the dining room of a converted textile factory in Nottingham city centre, some look nervous, some confident, and others just eager to get started.

But before they can, the rules of “speed dating” must be explained: every 5 minutes one person from each pair will rotate to the next table, until everyone has had a chance to speak to everyone else. A whistle is blown. “Let the first date begin,” cries the host and a hum of conversation quickly fills the basement room.

While there certainly seem to be some attempts at wooing going on, these “daters” have little intention of romance. In fact as I watch, some even appear to try and rile their dates, for half the attendees are prospective parliamentary candidates, hoping to win the Nottingham South seat at a general election expected on May 6, and the other half are voters, seeking to quiz the candidates on their education policies.

This is “political speed dating”, and I wouldn’t be surprised if such events become a more regular occurrence as the campaigning gets under way and politicians seek modern, innovative ways to connect with voters. In an election that is likely to be very tightly fought, such one-on-one interaction, particularly in possible swing or marginal seats, is the kind of opportunity most candidates can’t afford to ignore.

“The speed dating idea was a way of maximising the exposure of candidates to interested panellists in the minimum amount of time,” said Alastair Hunter, President of the University and College Union, who have organised a series of political speed dating events in marginal seats around the country. “The hope is doing it in these kind of constituencies would have a spin off effect.”

With the added pressure of having us prying journalists standing over their tables, listening in to their conversations and shoving our tape recorders and television cameras under their noses as they try to answer questions, I fear the pressure was probably more intense than the nerves induced by a real first date.

“The time is a pressure,” one candidate admits to me afterwards. “You worry you haven’t got across what you wanted to say in the right way in the time given.” The voters certainly seemed quick to cotton on to the fact that, at times, in order to get their next question in, they would have to interrupt the candidates, clearly already adept at the politician’s skill of giving long winded responses without really answering the question.

But the event is hailed a success by both sides, who leave having had the chance to have their say, even if they did not always get the reaction they would have liked.

“See you on Tuesday for the next debate,” one candidate calls to another as she leaves. With the election date yet to be announced the official campaign may not have started, but on the ground the battle for votes is already very much in full flow.

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