TALK about two for the price of one. Two senior Labour politicians wandering around Morrisons in Newark on a Monday afternoon. However, when the Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls and deputy party leader Harriet Harman approached a lady in the fruit and veg department, she observed them with a level of contempt usually reserved for those charity “chuggers” who bother you for spare change in the street.
When Balls reached out to shake her hand, she dropped it and suddenly appeared to take a great interest in the price of fish. It was a snub for the Shadow Chancellor, there to support Labour candidate Michael Payne who is standing in the by-election today. And it was a reminder, once again, that there is not a lot of point to political walkabouts.
Most of the politicians who go out on the road would be better off staying at home. When Gordon Brown was caught on camera calling a woman “a bigot” in Rochdale in 2010, he must have known it was all over bar the counting.
It’s a tricky one to pull off, isn’t it? MPs certainly shouldn’t shirk when it comes to engaging with the public. They’re also being urged to escape the Westminster bubble which gives them a skewed impression of what ordinary people want. Why do you think so many of us are so disaffected with politics we can’t even be bothered to vote? And why is it that David Cameron reportedly ordered every single one of his MPs to visit this Nottinghamshire constituency at least three times in the run-up to this by-election? Because they have to be seen to be interested. Social media has its limitations. TV debates are generally followed only by the committed few.
I don’t have scientific proof, but you can bet that the PR gurus paid hugely- inflated salaries to state the obvious have told MPs that it’s vital.
It’s just that the “walkabout” seems to have had its day. This is for several reasons. Boring politicians. People have got to want to talk to you. You’ve got to be interesting, and genuinely interested in others. It’s supposed to be all about connecting, but if reaching out exposes your flaws and failings, it’s counter-productive.
There’s nothing worse than being ignored. Except perhaps being pelted with an egg, but more of that later.
Why would an unassuming woman, clearly busy doing her shopping, want to be distracted from her list by a gurning man in a suit? Let’s be honest. Until Balls, the Morley and Outwood MP, came upon her with his bag of washed salad, there is no guarantee that she even knew who he was. If you’re going to succeed on a political walkabout, one ingredient is vital – personality.
That’s why Ukip leader Nigel Farage appears to relish his public appearances. When he turns up, more often than not, people actually do want to meet him and hear what he has to say. And possibly, buy him a pint. His party might be trailing behind the Conservatives in the poll in Newark, but you can’t deny that his larger-than-life personality makes him pretty good at the walkabout game. If you want proof, observe the way he assembled his ground troops around him to help put up his by-election fight.
However, given his political stance, it’s not surprising that he’s come in for his own share of flak. He’s had to cancel public appearances for fear of “scuffles” in Swansea. And he’s had an egg thrown at him in Nottingham. Ah, eggs, the Molotov cocktail of 21st century British politics. Can there be a senior politician who has escaped this missile in recent years? Ed Miliband must duck every time he goes past a poultry farm.
This brings us onto the embarrassment factor. If there was an award for public gaffes, the Labour leader would win it. Caught on camera attempting to engage with the public, he looks like Bambi trapped in the spotlight of ITN. It comes to something when a senior British politician is forced to eat a bacon sandwich in an attempt to look “normal”. And it comes to another when the leader of an opposing party is forced to compete by attempting the same feat himself.
The bacon battle between Miliband and Nick Clegg was at worst unedifying, at best a telling illustration of how political spin and stunts is increasingly distracting from the proper business of politics. And we’re not daft. We know we’re being manipulated.
All this canvassing might not be doing much for the egos of politicians. It probably won’t, in the end, persuade anyone to vote for them who wasn’t going to do so anyway. It is, however, having a positive effect on the profits of supermarkets and local traders. I’m assuming that Balls paid for his bag of salad in the end. And an enterprising trader in Newark market is cashing in, selling single eggs “for throwing” at 50p each. Come on down and pick a politician, he says. By the time the general election comes around next year, he will probably have opened a nationwide chain.