I find election campaigns in which the Prime Minister addresses scrubbed, smug Tory audiences, filmed by the BBC in close shot to conceal the sparsity of their numbers, deeply disturbing. I find the speeches in factories to employees even more chilling. The sullen compliance of employees, too cowed to show discontent before their bosses, should disturb any right thinking person. This may bore millennials, but back in the 1970s it was inconceivable that a politician of any stripe could address a factory floor without some robust reaction from the workforce. In those days, workers had rights, their employment was protected, and they could not be dismissed on a whim. I have no doubt that the rise of the North Korean factory style meeting in British politics relates directly to the destruction of workers’ rights. Johnson did one in a electric taxi factory a couple of days ago and it was a staple of May’s appalling campaign.
Politicians only give speeches nowadays for them to be carried on electronic media, and the camera angles are considered more thoroughly than the content by their managers. The idea of a political meeting was that a politician would hire a public hall and invite the general public to come and listen to their attempt to win their vote, and engage in discussion with people. That idea has almost died, in favour of the outright propaganda model.
To his great credit, yesterday in Dundee Jeremy Corbyn did hold a relatively open meeting at the Queens Hotel, and he was heckled by Bob Costello. As it happens I know both Jeremy and Bob and have a lot of time for both of them. Bob’s heckle was the perfectly reasonable “I’m interested in what you’re going to do about the will of the Scottish people in relation to Section 30”. Section 30 in this context is Westminster’s agreement to an Independence referendum.
Heckling is a good thing. I do not hold for a moment with the notion that politicians must be heard in a respectful silence and questions reserved to the end. I almost always start my individual talks by encouraging people to interject if they have a burning desire to disagree. This was proper democratic politics as it ought to be conducted. Half decent politicians relish hecklers – they have the microphone and the platform and ought to have no difficulty in dominating the exchange if they are any good at all.
I would add that I have fierce contempt for the “security” argument for hiding politicians from their constituents. Far too often robust disagreement is falsely portrayed as threat. Another friend of mine, Nigel Jones, was when an MP attacked in his constituency office and left with permanent injuries. Public life carries risks. I have received a number of actual death threats over the years since I quit the FCO and started campaigning (often originating in Florida, for some peculiar reason). I doubt any MP has genuinely received significantly more than I. But I still hold perfectly open public meetings. I am in the phone book and on the open electoral register. My address is in Who’s Who. I find the continued bleating by politicians about their security insufferable. I faced the same nonsense in the FCO, when I was advised at various times under the FCO “Duty of Care” not to travel around the Ferghana Valley and around Sierra Leone and Monrovia – all of which I had to do in order to do my job properly. I ignored the advice, telling the FCO that if personal safety were my goal in life, I could have been an accountant.
I am surprised that the Tories feel the need to keep Johnson almost as wrapped in cottonwool as May, because Johnson is a better campaigner. His veneer of chummy bonhommie hides his menace effectively enough to fool most people most of the time. Where he is not good is under detailed, forensic questioning and I shall be surprised if the Tories let Andrew Neil at him. The broadcaster’s decisions on participation in debates are entirely governed by the Tory agenda. The Tories calculate that a sustained campaign of vilification has damaged Jeremy Corbyn to the extent the public will not listen to him, so the Tories are happy to debate Corbyn. They are determined to stop Sturgeon from interacting with Johnson, as she is an excellent debater. The Lib Dems are a major threat to Tory seats, which is why they want to keep Swinson as marginal as possible, although she is not a threat in debate.
By standing down candidates in 300 odd Tory constituencies, Nigel Farage drastically reduced the amount of time the broadcasters will give the Brexit Party. That is so fundamental, I simply do not believe it was done without a hidden Farage/Johnson understanding. The current “spat” between them over other candidates standing down is simply window dressing.
This is a fascinating campaign. I have not undertaken any quantitative analysis, but I have never before in a UK general election felt that, once a campaign was actually under way and the broadcasting rules in force, BBC bias continued quite as blatantly as it does at this moment. It is still my prediction that Cummings’ strategy means that vote spread will heavily disadvantage the Tories under FPTP and they will not get a majority. If they do, that can only hasten Scottish Independence and I will not personally suffer it for too long. But I feel very worried for the millions who would live under boot of the 1% in the conditions of deregulation a Tory victory would unleash.