21 Apr 2015

Politicians should follow John Major’s example and get a soapbox

All the parties have been slow to bring out their big beasts in this campaign. Where’s Heseltine? Where’s Mandelson? Where’s Gordon Brown? Well, today we get a glimpse of John Major, speaking in the West Midlands.

Sir John will probably go down as the Tory leader who led his party to their worst ever defeat, in 1997. But it should also be remembered that he also led them to one of their most unexpected and substantial victories. In 1992, he only won by 21 seats, but that failed to reflect his decisive seven per cent margin over Labour. And the 14 million votes the Conservatives got in 1992 were the highest achieved by any British party. In history. Ever.

Halfway through the 1992 campaign John Major decided to abandon his previous methods, and return to the street-fighting style he’d learned as a young man in south London, where on Saturdays he’d regularly harangued shoppers from a soap-box near Brixton Market.

British Prime Minister John Major talks on a soap

So one day in Luton in 1992, a modern-day soap box was brought out of John Major’s campaign bus and erected on a street corner. Major then addressed voters – friend and foe and indifferent – with a small loud-hailer. It wasn’t an all-ticket, activists-only affair. His audience weren’t vetted in advance. Journalists weren’t kept away. Anyone could stop and listen, or simply pass by and ignore him. It was spontaneous, natural politics in the raw. And he repeated it wherever he went subsequently.

And, most terrible of all, people could heckle. And John Major would respond.

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Oh, for the heckler! Good, confident politicians like Major and Heseltine, and Harold Wilson, used to thrive on hecklers. As a young man, Michael Heseltine used to ask his friends to stand at the back of the audience and heckle him, so that he’d look good when he hit back with a witty put-down.

But modern politicians hate hecklers. They think hecklers make them look weak and unpopular. Not true. It’s the politicians’ fear of dissent which makes them look weak.

So will we see John Major out on his soap-box today? I doubt it. I think it was auctioned off for party fund-raising years ago. Sir John’s event today will probably be an activists-only affair, with all troublemakers weeded out by party officials.

A pity. Sir John knows how to mix it. And David Cameron should follow his 1992 example.

So, too, should Ed Miliband, Nigel Clegg, and even Nigel Farage.

Follow @MichaelLCrick on Twitter

5 reader comments

  1. Philip says:

    It was a patently obvious gimmick. Neil Kinnock lost that election rather than Major winning it. And it gave us the weakest PM in modern times – certainly up to Cameron. It was a government of sleaze, colossal economic mistakes (caused us, not by global problems) and a disunited government & governing party that handed power to Labour on a plate 5 years later. Apart from ken Clarke’s handling of the economy towards the end, I can remember nothing that Government did for us…oh, sorry…there was the cones hotline

  2. Patrick says:

    What about Jim Murphy’s Irn Bru crate tour of 100 towns (cut short) during the Scottish Independence referendum? Got him where he is today, which he’s probably regretting.

  3. Noah says:

    Michael. Keep shaming them and exposing them for what plastic waxwork puppets they really are. Loved you being told off by the Tory guy – who told u that the ‘real life’ activists in Cheshire were NOT the story. Glad you broadcast his idiotic view of life. :P

  4. Alan says:

    The author appears to recount a myth as though reality?

  5. anon says:

    are you suggesting method acting as a way to break the political impasse? no worries once online voting comes in they will be able to do without the niceties and choose the result they want?

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