Croydon Debate Club’s first season

By - Friday 7th July, 2017

Croydon Debate Club was Robert Ward’s response to a perception that the quality of the national debate on the EU referendum was poor

Photo public domain.

Let’s not re-visit the arguments, but both sides were guilty. Wild exaggeration, presenting the predictions of economic models with dubious input assumptions as fact, pretending to know the future and more were commonplace. I think that most people were able to figure it out in the end, but it was a lot harder than I think it should be. Yes, last year’s referendum wasn’t a high standard of debate.

We the public don’t help ourselves. We ask for ‘the truth’, which when it comes to predicting the future is more guesswork than even experts like to admit. We ask for simple answers to complex questions.

Most disappointing for me is that decision-making always involves trade-offs. Understanding the trade-offs is crucial to good decision-making yet our political dialogue rarely brings them out. Choices are presented not as viable alternatives, either of which has its plusses and minuses, but as all bad or all good depending on which side of the argument you stand. The public is then left to figure out the trade-offs but first must struggle through a fog of misinformation.

For good or for ill, I decided to try something different while still calling it a debate club

The way to create better solutions is through debate, yet the traditional debate format often doesn’t help. Debate is adversarial by nature because someone wins and someone loses. It encourages style over substance and point scoring. Speeches from the floor mimic the main speakers and are often simple rants. Those whose minds were made up when they entered the room leave it more entrenched and no wiser. Few people leave the room having learned much.

For good or for ill, I decided to try something different while still calling it a debate club. Some may have been disappointed at the non-traditional format, but as a formal discussion on a topic of interest I hope that we had a debate.

Subjects were chosen to be topics based on which decisions were about to be made, preferably whilst they were out for consultation. The meeting started with a scene setter by me, where I tried to give a balanced view of the options. A guest speaker with knowledge of the subject at hand then gave a short briefing. The meeting was then handed over to the floor. I facilitated the discussion and circulated notes afterwards.

Should we change the format or should we even call the whole thing off?

Those who attended will judge how successful we were, but I was pleased with the outcome. I for one learned a lot and attendance steadily increased with time so people must have been getting something out of it.

I found that the discussion worked best with fewer people in the room and without a ‘celebrity’ speaker. For example, I was very pleased to have the Borough Commander as a speaker. It brought people to the meeting, but despite my best efforts to facilitate a discussion it understandably became a question and answer session of Jeff Boothe. We had a very informative meeting so it was a great success, but it was by a process different from that I had set out to achieve.

Another challenge was presented when the former housing minister and Croydon Central MP Gavin Barwell was our guest. Extremists from the far left and far right attempted to get in, which made for an interesting evening. I am grateful to those who helped manage that situation and who consequently were not able fully to participate in the discussion as they had set out to do.

Were the subjects well chosen? What about the venues?

My biggest problem was finding suitable venues. Theatre Utopia at Matthews Yard, Croydon Conference Centre, and most frequently Project B were our hosts. All of these venues are in Central Croydon and are not as cheap as I had thought and hoped.

The summer now gives some time to think about how to do better next time. Were the subjects well chosen? What about the venues? Is a midweek evening the best timing? Should we change the format or should we even call the whole thing off?

I don’t have answers right now to any of these questions, but I will set out some thoughts in a future Citizen article. There will likely be an online questionnaire to solicit your views. In the meantime feel free to send any thoughts to .

Thank you to everyone who was part of our first season. Whether you were one of those people or not, I hope to see you at a future Croydon Debate Club meeting.

Robert Ward

Robert Ward

Engineer and project manager specialised in helping businesses make better strategic decisions and improve safety, quality and effectiveness. Conservative Party Councillor representing Selsdon and Addington Village on Croydon Council. He tweets as @moguloilman.

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