Bill Carmichael: Ditch the showbiz, get out the soapbox

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ANY doubts that this election campaign is the most bonkers in living memory were banished by a raft of headlines this week.

“Ed Miliband pays homage to Russell Brand in the anti-austerity campaigner’s £2 million flat” just about gives the gist of them.

What? This has to be satire surely? But no, it turns out to be true. The Labour leader ordered his limo into trendy Hoxton in east London for an interview with the millionaire comedian – he of the verbal diarrhoea and the immaculately tonsured chest hair who wants to redistribute everyone’s wealth except his own.

What followed was a riot of ersatz matiness as Miliband and Brand desperately tried to out-mockney each other like a couple of RADA luvvies auditioning for the part of a Queen Vic extra on EastEnders.

Not since Dick Van Dyke donned the chimney sweep’s costume in Mary Poppins have so many glottals been stopped in the service of public hilarity.

The idea, according to Labour’s strategists, is that this will persuade Brand’s vast army of gullible young followers to turn out next Thursday to deliver the glorious “Milibrand” socialist revolution.

Only it probably won’t – Brand has previously told his fans not to bother to vote and it is now too late to add their names to the electoral roll.

As these two intellectual giants of the modern British left might put it: “Cor blimey, guv’nor! Strike a light and no mistake. Wot a terrible shame, in’it?”

It is not the first time Miliband has bent his knee to the cult of vacuous celebrity. Earlier in the campaign he submitted himself to an interview with reality TV “star” Joey Essex, whose main claim to fame is that he is too irredeemably stupid to tell the time.

To be fair the utter phoniness of the current campaign is not confined to the Labour ranks. For example there has been much criticism that David Cameron’s campaign lacked “passion”. So the Prime Minister responded by taking his jacket off, shouting a bit and going red in the face, as though passion can be summoned up at the click of a spin doctor’s fingers.

What is missing is all these stunts are any real people – they have been kept well out of the way in the current campaign.

Each photocall is carefully choreographed, with local party supporters bussed in to wave placards and cheer their leader’s every word. At Labour and Ukip events, journalists who asked awkward questions of Miliband and Nigel Farage were barracked by the party faithful. Even the supposedly spontaneous walkabouts are strictly 
stage-managed.

Of course, letting politicians have unscripted encounters with unpredictable and sometime volatile members of the public carries risks for the party machines.

For instance, who can forget the 2010 disaster of Gordon Brown labelling a life-long Labour supporter a “bigoted woman” because she dared pop the party leadership’s metropolitan bubble over open-doors immigration?

Or indeed when in 2001 when John Prescott punched a protester? He got away with it on the grounds, as his boss Tony Blair said, that “John is John”.

But the involvement of the public can also provide the spark that electrifies a lacklustre campaign. Take for example 1992 when John Major was widely seen to be heading for defeat until he pulled out his soapbox and defied thuggish hecklers to engage with ordinary voters in shopping centres and markets across the country.

It wasn’t pretty, and some of the more refined commentators winced at the sheer rawness of these street encounters, but Major went on to beat the odds.

Is there a lesson here for the party leaders looking to energise flagging campaigns with less than a week to go until polling day?

Dare any of the parties ditch the anodyne scripted photoshoots, the campaign events packed with loyal party hacks and the slavish kowtowing to know-nothing celebrities?

Is it time for the leaders to get out on the streets and argue up close with members of the public face to face, and risk the wrath of loudmouth hecklers and dissenters?

It may just be the making of someone – but have any of the current leaders the courage to drag out their own soapbox and engage in a bit of street debate?