Andrew Vine: Public are shut out as spin machine pulls the strings

Graphic: Graeme Bandeira
Graphic: Graeme Bandeira
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FORGET Poldark, Game of Thrones or Downton Abbey – the most carefully-staged productions currently on television can be found on the news. They’re thoroughly rehearsed, immaculately-lit and tightly choreographed.

They are, of course, the mini-dramas played out by party leaders before docile audiences of the faithful. These sham set-pieces exist to deliver a few lines of soundbite for the media, and they are taking the place of real rough-and-tumble engagement with the public.

It’s a cynical way of running an election campaign, enveloping each of the main party leaders in a sterile bubble to minimise the risk of a member of the public daring to be the awkward squad and asking a question to which no answer has been carefully pre-prepared and coached.

Announcements and insults bounce from bubble to bubble, and the voters who will determine the course of the next five years are kept firmly on the outside, as are their representatives in the media, too often banned from asking questions on their behalf.

These risk-averse charades played out against carefully-chosen backdrops in offices or factories before audiences screened to exclude anyone who might throw an ad-lib into the script are designed to show how in touch with ordinary voters the party leaders are.

But they do exactly the opposite. By shutting out the electorate, they alienate voters, badly misjudging the mood of people who want real answers – not soundbites – before deciding how to vote in the tightest election in generations.

This control-freakery about image and message is more noticeable in the current campaign than ever before, perhaps because of the cold sweats that the memory of the biggest gaffe of the 2010 election causes across the political spectrum.

That was the moment when Gordon Brown destroyed his hopes of remaining prime minister by being caught on microphone calling one of his own supporters who had raised her concerns about immigration “bigoted”.

Suddenly, the stage-management of his personal appearances was blown apart and the reality of what lay behind the sound-bites was exposed.

It revealed what voters want – reality and honesty. If such was Mr Brown’s view of those concerned about immigration, let him say so openly and be judged on it.

Voters who wrong-foot politicians by springing a difficult, unexpected question have a knack of getting to the heart of things, stripping away facades and finding the truth. They bring elections alive and get people into the polling booth.

Elections should be fought not in soundbites but in engagement with the public, as they were only a generation ago, when party leaders actively welcomed the chance to get out and argue their case.

It’s no coincidence that turnouts have declined as political leaders have become more wary of mixing it with the public.

In the election of 1983, I saw Margaret Thatcher barnstorming down shopping streets, tirelessly making her case, and taking on any challengers.

There was the occasional confrontation over the wisdom and conduct of the Falklands war of the previous year to be faced, and she did so fearlessly. The debate was often vigorous, and though she rarely convinced doubters, they respected her for standing her ground and arguing.

Equally fearless was Labour’s Michael Foot that year, fighting a losing battle on a hopeless manifesto but arguing its merits on the streets with an unfailing courtesy not always shown by Mrs Thatcher.

Nine years later, in 1992, John Major and Neil Kinnock also took to the streets and looked voters who opposed them in the eye. Mr Major’s soapbox, on which he stood and faced down hecklers in shopping precincts, became a symbol of his campaign, and the engagement with voters it represented was perhaps the key factor in his unexpected victory.

But with the dawn of the 21st century, control-freakery was strangling such honest campaigning. Tony Blair’s last stop on his campaign trail in 2001 was at a pub in Castleford packed with cheering supporters for a final photocall.

Unscripted questions were off-limits, and party stooges even stooped to the attempted physical intimidation of members of the Press in an – unsuccessful – attempt to prevent them being asked. There had been a sea-change in the way election campaigns were run, and the losers were the voters.

It has become steadily worse since then. The stream of carefully-controlled soundbites and staged appearances instead of passionate arguments and engagement with voters on the streets are the equivalent of offering adults pureed baby food rather than a proper meal.

There is still time in this campaign for the sterile bubbles to be burst, for the leaders to take a deep breath, gather their courage and step before the public with all the attendant risks that somebody will trip them up.

They should take that chance, and get up on a soapbox instead of a sound stage. The honesty and willingness to look voters in the eye – and even get heckled – could be the deciding factor in this most unpredictable of elections.