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What will define the 2015 election?

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Every election seems to have its defining moment. Often it is when a party leader is brought into direct contact with the voting public. This is not accidental. As I explored in a history of British electioneering, Electing Our Masters (OUP 2009), British political culture has long placed an unusually strong emphasis on the importance of politicians being seen to engage with voters face-to-face. Door-to-door canvassing remains a staple of British politics, and any serious candidate will have spent a large part of the last few months on voters’ doorsteps.

Historically, the other classic way in which politicians came face-to-face with the voting public was at the hustings, where candidates could expect to be interrogated on the burning issues of the date, and often mercilessly heckled in the process. Hustings still take place in many constituencies, usually organised by local churches and voluntary groups, but they no longer represent the heart of an election campaign. Crucially, they also play no part in the leaders’ national campaign (unless we count the recent innovation of the televised leaders’ debates).

But party leaders still like us to see them meeting and greeting voters, or at least people who look like voters. Since voters are unpredictable campaign managers generally prefer to run tightly choreographed events in which the leader meets only party loyalists who can be guaranteed to offer a warm reception. Pictures of the leader surrounded by cheering supporters look good on television, but they don’t look much like the old hustings – journalists make sure that we know this is all a fabricated election event, not a genuine, unmediated engagement with the public. There’s been very little of this type of engagement during the 2015 election, possibly less than at any other election. But why?

One answer may be that the defining event of the 2010 election was Gordon Brown’s notorious encounter with Mrs Gillian Duffy in Rochdale. Brown followed the example of many leaders before him and tried to exploit the power of face-to-face politics to help him reconnect with an indifferent public. In 1992 John Major had done the same and his soapbox oratory on the streets of market towns across the country was widely hailed as the turning point of the campaign. Although Kinnock’s apparent hubris at a party rally in Sheffield arguably ran it close as the defining moment of that campaign.

In fact Brown was not undone by meeting Mrs Duffy, the two parted on good terms after their exchange on immigration and other topics. What undid Brown was that this public display of empathy was followed by a private denunciation of the staffers who had arranged for him to speak with a ‘bigot’. All this caught, and endlessly replayed, because of the mike he was wearing to ensure that we all heard as well as saw him engaging directly with voters on equal terms. It was this hypocrisy that proved so wounding for Brown, not the gamble to take politics out on the streets, but that does not seem to be the lesson learned for the 2015 campaign.

This reluctance to risk meeting voters face-to-face may be one reason why so far in the 2015 campaign it is very difficult to identify a potentially definitive moment. Most of the contenders focus on the same issue of ‘authenticity’, or rather the semblance of authenticity, which was also central to the Duffy affair. Perhaps if Ed Miliband had had his showdown with a bacon sandwich during the campaign (rather than in May 2014), this misguided attempt to appear like a regular guy would have been a contender. Instead it seems to have persuaded Labour insiders that their only option was to let Ed embrace his inner geek. Even they can’t have expected the geek-chic phenomenon of ‘Milifandom’ that has enlivened Twitter in recent weeks.

With the polls still neck and neck, and the two main parties apparently fighting, not for an overall majority, but simply to be the largest party, it is perhaps surprising that no one has yet gambled on taking their message to the streets. Perhaps they will – thanks to our deep-rooted hustings traditions it’s still the best way to demonstrate that you are not wholly detached from people’s everyday problems.

But assuming that no one finds the courage to take to the streets is there any other election incident that might be the defining moment of 2015? One strong contender is surely David Cameron’s so-called ‘brain fade’ last weekend when he forgot which football he’s meant to support during a speech, appropriately enough, on identity in modern Britain. Although he has long proclaimed himself to be an Aston Villa supporter, he inexplicably told an audience in south London that he hoped they’d join him in supporting West Ham (thereby also suggesting a weak grasp of the geography of football allegiance in the capital).

Of course, there is nothing new about politicians highlighting tastes that appear to make them ‘just like us’. In the 1960s Harold Wilson was famous for supporting Huddersfield Town, liking HP sauce and smoking a pipe (in fact he preferred cigars, but crucially the public never knew). More recently Tony Blair cultivated a down-to-earth persona by identifying as a Newcastle United fan, and engaging in an impressive bout of keepy-ups with Kevin Keegan. It wasn’t altogether convincing, but Blair was never careless enough to forget the story and suddenly claim to be a Sunderland fan.

Does Cameron’s slip really matter? To anyone who follows football the PM’s gaffe screams insincerity and artifice as loudly as Brown’s mutterings about Mrs Duffy, but not everyone does follow football. Also, unlike Brown in 2010, there’s no victim here. Cameron hasn’t directly and gratuitously insulted a voter, unless you take the view that by pretending to be a genuine fan he’s insulted all voters. We will only know if this was a defining moment after 7 May. If Cameron hangs in there, or even manages to squeeze the Lib Dems and UKIP hard enough to scrape a majority, then we will have to look elsewhere for our defining moment. Perhaps it will be Miliband going cap-in-hand to see Russell Brand, the self-regarding bête noir of Middle England. That was certainly a high-risk move, and much less edifying than meeting more real, unmediated voters in the flesh. Perhaps ‘Milifandom’ has clouded the judgement of Miliband’s advisers. Only hindsight can determine that point. 

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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