How can I prepare for voters’ questions?

Read a lot, and talk a lot. In particular, seek out existing States Members and ask them about the issues that have been debated this term, and the different angles that concern people about them. Talking is helpful because you cover a lot of territory in a short amount of time, and you get a window into aspects of the issue that aren’t necessarily going to be obvious in writing.

Even if the deadline is a long way off, you might want to start preparing answers to the various candidate questionnaires that exist. Doing this will help you to think through where you stand on a variety of issues, so you’ll be able to answer more naturally when people ask you similar questions face-to-face.

Finally, don’t worry if you don’t know the answer to everything. Be honest with voters – most people respect that. Show that you’re willing to learn. Explain how you would go about solving a problem, if you don’t know the actual solution yet. Don’t shut the conversation down – I don’t think many voters would be impressed by a candidate who says “that’s outside my comfort zone, so I’m not going to talk about it.” But feel free to acknowledge “that’s something I need to learn more about”, and even to ask “what do you think I should know or do?”

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What are people going to ask me about?

Everything! Each person you speak to will have their own ideas about what issues are most important for us here in Guernsey, and their own view about how those issues should be addressed.

You don’t have to be an expert on everything, though. If you’ve been in the States before, you’ll be expected to know more than if you’re a first-time candidate. But even returning Deputies get to say “that’s not a topic I’ve had much involvement in, so I would need to do more research”, or “actually, we’re looking into that at the moment, I want to see what the evidence says.”

If you can’t tell people what the solution to a given problem is, then try and tell them how you would go about solving it, or what kind of things you would be looking for in a solution.

And also – don’t forget to listen. People who ask you about a given topic are probably doing so because it’s something they care about. It may well be something they have a professional background in, or have thought about carefully themselves. Don’t be afraid to say: “this is how I think I would approach it – but what would you do?” Take the opportunity to learn from the people you meet, as well as to share your views.

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Do I need to have an opinion on every big political issue?

No. Well, not exactly.

I certainly don’t think you need to comment on every big political issue in your manifesto – there just wouldn’t be space for that.

I do think you need to be informed. You need to know what the big, controversial political issues of this term have been. And you need to have some understanding of issues that concern the public, which we haven’t been able to address. Because you will be asked for your views during the campaign period, and you want your answers to be credible.

As a first-timer, you can usually afford to say: “Based on my current understanding, I think X. But I will need more information to make a final decision. This is what I’m going to do to make sure I get that evidence.” (Or, “I think it’s important we hear the voices of the public on this before the States vote. Here’s what I’ll do to make sure there is a meaningful consultation.”)

At least, you can do that in response to questions about “how are we going to fix this?” But you can’t sit on the fence when it comes to general principles. (Well, you can. But it won’t look good on you.)

For one example, take education. The technical question is “what is the right model of secondary education?” You might not be able to give a concrete answer to that. There’s a review and consultation going on – why would you know more than it does? People will want you to have an answer (and, especially, will want you to listen to theirs) but I think you can say “there’s more we need to know before we make a decision.”

But the in-principle question is something along the lines of “would you bring back the 11-plus (or some other form of selection)?” It’s a question about the principle of (non-)selective education. I think it’s reasonable to expect that even first-timers would have a view on that – we have been debating it as a community for generations.

Or, as another example, take drug reform. The technical question is “what should Guernsey’s drug laws look like in future?” The States has committed to look at alternatives to criminal justice for drug use, early in your term of office. So this will probably be a live issue for you. But it’s a complex area where – again – you might want to do more research before you can commit to the right way forward.

But the in-principle question is “do you believe drug use should be a criminal issue or not?” I think people on both sides of the argument will, reasonably, expect to hear a fairly definitive answer to that.

The thing about politics is, once you’re elected, you’ll learn a lot about issues that you’ve never considered before. You might have an instinctive position on something and, once it has been challenged by the evidence, you change your mind. That’s great. Politicians who learn and grow, who consider the evidence and are moved by it, are a wonderful thing. And I think it helps if you acknowledge upfront that you will want to do your research, and you might very well change your mind on some things as you find out more about them.

But I don’t think that should put you off saying anything definitive about anything. If you can’t give a clear answer to any straightforward question, then you won’t be giving voters any substance to latch on to – nothing to show who you really are, or what kind of decisions you are likely to make. I’m not sure fence-sitters are going to do well in this election – I think people are going to need a reason to be enthusiastic about you, to vote for you; and that only happens if you show what you’re made of.

That said, “fence-sitting” is a time-honoured political technique and, to be honest, it works really well for some people. Some voters do accept being fobbed off with waffly non-answers; maybe even enough to get you elected, if your waffle is convincing enough.

As always, I need to qualify what I’ve said here (which boils down to: “know when to give a straight answer, and when to acknowledge there’s more to learn”) is really a personal preference and, while your honesty may win you favour with some voters, it will alienate others. As ever, take what I say with a pinch of salt, and do what feels right for you in your campaign.

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