Last week, Boris Johnson made a last-minute change to his itinerary in the West Country after protesters from Extinction Rebellion and others had gathered outside a bakery he had planned to visit near Glastonbury. The visit, it was reported, had not been publicised, but word had nevertheless got out. The Prime Minister swerved off to the nice, placid cathedral city of Wells instead.
I have reported on elections in democracies – real and sham – around the world. And what leapt out from this little episode was not the change of schedule per se; such things happen. It was the detail that would-be protesters had managed to find out where he would be, even though the visit had not been publicised.
Not publicised? People – protesters, maybe even fans – left to winkle out, how they may, where the Prime Minister and leader of the country’s governing party is campaigning and when? What sort of a country is this, where the Prime Minister is criss-crossing the country, dashing from hospital to school to high street and the first most people – even the majority of those actually on the route – will know about it is from the baby-hugging, song-singing and rabbit-stroking they see on the evening television news?
Nor is this secrecy limited to the Prime Minister. Look at any of the parties’ websites, subscribe to any of their mailing lists – including as a member of the media, which I have done – and you will search in vain for the one piece of information you most need: when and where are the party leaders going to be - today, tomorrow, in the coming weeks of the campaign. I even tried with the main candidates for my constituency, Cities of London and Westminster. Not a word.
All right, you may say, there are justifiable security precautions to be taken when the Prime Minister is on the move. And during an election other party leaders should surely benefit from similar protection, as should individual candidates who – for whatever reason – have drawn particular public ire. The risk of terrorist attacks is always with us, and the murder of the MP for Batley and Spen, Jo Cox, just days before the EU referendum is a tragic reminder of the risks. These are all reasons to take sensible security measures; they are not reasons to shut the vast majority of the voting public out.
Other countries manage this differently. In most national French and German elections – including the most recent – it has been possible for anyone with the internet to know where the main candidates are going to be on any given day at any given time, and if you are interested in seeing the candidates, watching how they perform, and gauging the response of the public, you can go along, too.
You can turn up in the early evening, as I did, in the small city of Brandenburg in the former East, during the last stages of the 2017 German election campaign, and make your way, with hundreds of others, to the market square, where you can listen to the warm-up speakers for Angela Merkel, and then to the Chancellor herself. The next day you can drive on, as I also did, to one of the rust-belt towns of the Ruhr region, where you can sit in one of the cafes ringing the central square, order a sandwich and a glass of wine, and repeat: this time for then SPD leader, Martin Schulz.
Earlier that year, you could have made a day trip to Lille or Paris and stood alongside French voters at rallies for Emmanuel Macron or Marine Le Pen. As a Paris correspondent in 1995, I traipsed around the country after the Socialist presidential candidate, Lionel Jospin, stood behind the crowd barriers with the Chirac-chanting locals, when the then candidate visited his adopted home town of Ussel in the Correze, and followed the Green candidate, Dominique Voynet, to a rally at a Brittany nuclear power station.
Based in Washington during the 2000 campaign, I rode the Straighttalkexpress for a day, with the now late lamented John McCain. You could land at a benighted town in what is now termed “flyover country”, stay for the weekend and join locals as they flocked on successive days to rallies for George W Bush and Al Gore. If you happen to live in a marginal constituency in a swing state, the odds are that the candidates are going to come to you – and they will want you to know about it. Flags and signposts advertise the event days in advance.
Yet here, in the United Kingdom, which sends envoys around the world preaching “best practice” in elections, it is nigh impossible to get anywhere near an actual election event, let alone see and hear any of the actual party leaders in the flesh. You might just land a ticket for a rare public event or get your question on a phone-in. But even this is subject to control. Callers to the BBC Radio 5 Live phone-in with Boris Johnson last week had been pre-selected (for “engagement with the BBC”, whatever that means) and their questions vetted in the name of “balance”. The same rules will doubtless apply when the other party leaders do the same gig. The marathon annual phone-ins by the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, are more spontaneous than this!
What you, what we, see on TV each evening is made to look like a series of real, meet-the-people events, but is actually a Potemkinesque campaign produced by a small group of accredited reporters and a changing cast of a very few “ordinary” voters who become props for a day. Anyone outside those two groups – other reporters, foreign diplomats (whose job, after all is to report on what is happening in the UK), and, most disgracefully, the vast majority of voters, are for all practical purposes locked out.
It was much the same in 2017 – when excessive stage-management may have been one, among many factors, that penalised Theresa May. But it was little different in 2015 and 2010. No wonder John Major and his soap-box (1992) are remembered with such nostalgia; no wonder young people flocked to Jeremy Corbyn’s outdoor rallies (when they could find them) last time around.
The sort of genuinely public events that happen in schools and fields across the United States and in town squares across Germany and France are a rarity here; they should not be. Politicians might find the voters less cynical and less malevolent then they think if they made a greater effort to meet them. Unless they stop this pseudo-campaigning, however, they will never find out.