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.

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