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Keeping the Hustings Alive

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Jon Lawrence is a Senior Lecturer in Modern British Political History at Cambridge University, and is particularly interested in politics as a site of interaction between politicians and the public. He is the author of Electing Our Masters: the Hustings in British Politics from Hogarth to Blair. In the original post below, he looks at how the spirit of the hustings is being kept alive during the election campaign by the Internet and the UK’s first televised Prime Ministerial debate, which aired last week. You can read more by Jon Lawrence here.

The spirit of the hustings has brought British politicians face-to-face with an irreverent, questioning public for centuries. It is arguably the most distinctive and valuable feature of our electoral culture, but it is not one that political parties can be trusted to keep alive in the internet age. It is no accident that Gordon Brown switches off the electing-our-masterscomments function on his YouTube postings, or that most of the free-comment facilities on the Conservatives’ innovative WebCameron site were switched off after its first 8 months.  But for all that, the 2010 election has already shown encouraging signs that the spirit of the hustings is alive and well in British politics.  For sure, the role of the public has been tightly circumscribed in the televised leadership debates, but there is still a clear recognition that, as the rules put it, ‘the audience is a key element of the programmes and has to be seen by the viewers’.  The audience may not be allowed to applaud, let alone heckle, but their presence is central to the theatre of these debates. It was striking in the first debate how, as the leaders warmed-up, so they got better at answering questions directly and personally (in turn this allowed ITV to focus more closely on audience reaction since one of the 76 rules governing these broadcasts stipulates that ‘if one of the leaders directly addresses an individual audience member, a close-up shot of that individual can be shown’). Nick Clegg not only appeared the most comfortable with this intimate style of politics, but he also pushed it furthest –notably by addressing most of the questioners by name in his 90 second peroration. Although David Cameron has spent much of the last two years criss-crossing the country addressing open meetings of voters in key marginal constituencies, it was Clegg who appeared instinctively to understand the power of the hustings to re-connect politics (and politicians) with the public. Of course it helped that he could play his ‘plague on both your houses’ card, but this was made more credible by his mastery of the old arts of the hustings.

And what of the internet? Is all the hype about the virtual election justified, and, perhaps more importantly, has the web restored spontaneous, irreverent interaction to British politics? Well it’s trying, but there’s still a long way to go. There is no doubt that both the media and party activists are hooked on the internet campaign, but is the wider public?  Do they really care about ‘tweet wars’, or attempts to pyramid-sell the party leaders via social networking sites such as Facebook?  I know how I would feel if someone asked me to become a friend of Dave, Nick or Gordon, and I’m a political junkie.  Similarly, there will be little edge or spontaneity to the proposed ‘digital debate’ sponsored by Facebook and YouTube. The leaders (or rather their minions) will have ten days to compose their video replies to the short-listed questions (as of Monday 19 April this exercise had mobilized just over 4,500 voters – by contrast the audience for the first leaders’ debate peaked at 10 million). It is at the constituency level that the maths of internet interaction starts to look more impressive, especially since local candidates usually find it much harder to secure access to mainstream mass media. True, traditional electioneering methods, such as direct mailing and door-to-door canvassing, remain dominant in the constituencies, but especially in the marginals reaching voters via the web has great attractions. But the challenge is to create a virtual arena where voters and candidates are brought together in the free, anarchic spirit of the blogosphere. This can’t happen on the party websites, anything irreverent or taxing will simply be deleted. Attempts are already underway to create such spaces (e.g. Hustings.com and the Democracy Club), but as yet they don’t command the public footfall needed to persuade candidates to get embroiled in genuine, interactive debates with their own constituents (indeed the model for such sites remains more ‘compare the meerkat’ than Guido Fawkes). Probably this will only change if an organization with a strong web presence and an established reputation for neutrality steps in to fill the role – Google and the BBC are obvious contenders, though whether either has the stomach to enter this legal minefield is open to question. But even if the interactive campaign doesn’t quite take off in 2010, the leaders’ televised debate has already shown us that the spirit of the hustings is alive and well. The candidate who best understands that spirit seems sure to prosper in 2010.

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