Naturally, the journalists have complained about this. Dogs bark. Cats meow. Journalists want press conferences, gaffes, drama, news. They don’t want to merely vassals providing the requisite minutes of airtime or pages of newsprint demanded by spin doctors to fit a “grid” of policy announcements and soundbites.
“So what?” reply the Party managers. “We are not here for the benefit of the journalists.” In an election campaign, the balance of power is tilted away from the media and towards the political parties. This is because it would be hard for journalists to refuse to give any at all coverage.
That means political parties imagine they have an advantage by playing it safe. If the only message they offer is their core message then that is what the media will have to repeat.
The difficulty is that it is not just the journalists who are frustrated but the electorate. Even the TV debates have felt flat as they were over-rehearsed. We could all tell that comments were preheated not an authentic dialogue.
Yesterday the Daily Telegraph leader said:
“In 1992, when the polls put Labour ahead a week or so into the election, John Major threw away an overly cautious battle-plan and engaged in some old-fashioned soapbox stump oratory. “People say that you cannot do it these days,” Sir John said. “It is fashionable to say, for security and other reasons, that you cannot get up on a soapbox. I think you have to – and I am going to do it.” Mr Cameron should do the same.”
Many of the 650 Conservative candidates fighting the General Election may find this advice from leader writers to do some campaigning rather annoying. The thought had already occurred to them. Some will have been standing on soap boxes. Others debating with rival candidates in church halls. Or manning street stalls. Or knocking on doors.
But so far as the air war is concerned – really the battle between the Party leaders – is the grit of the campaign coming through? It all seems too scripted, too vetted, too staged.
The Conservatives have most to gain by changing this approach. This is partly because of the personal strength of David Cameron compared to Ed Miliband. But it is also about the reputational difficulty the Conservatives have – of being considered aloof, too grand, arrogant, out of touch.
This means that TV footage of the Prime Minister trying to reason with an angry voter would be good coverage for the Conservatives. Today, he appeals in the Sunday Times (£) to Liberal Democrat and UKIP voters. It is time to bring that appeal to life.
I remember there was a day in the 2001 General Election campaign when Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, was ambushed by woman called Sharon Storer complaining about the NHS. Jack Straw, the Home Secretary was slow hand clapped by the police. That evening John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, hit someone who had thrown an egg at him.
At the time I felt it was a bad day for the Labour Party. But I wonder if some voters unhappy with certain aspects of Government policy found it cathartic? Perhaps some felt that as Labour had “got the message” it was reasonable to continue voting Labour rather than resort to making a protest via the ballot box.
I can also remember nine years earlier in the 1992 General Election the tedium on the TV news of the “John Major in the round” meetings where only supporters could attend. After he got out his soapbox and was responding to hecklers, one paid far more attention to what he said during the clips on the TV news.
The Prime Minister is relatively popular, but is felt to be a bit too smug. He needs to be filmed being shouted at by supporters of the Socialist Workers Party. Or, if they will not oblige, then perhaps by some ordinary voters.