The Tory leadership contest should seek to connect with the public, not just Party members
Say what you like about the Brexit Party but their strategy of holding rallies around the country has been hugely effective. Come and hear Nigel Farage in Wolverhampton at The Willows, Willenhall. In Brentwood at The Sugar Hut; in Huddersfield at The John Smith’s Stadium; in Pontefract at the Featherstone Working Men’s Club; in Durham at Rainton Meadows Arena… more than one a day, for day after day. Thousands crowding in.
It takes me back to the General Election of 2017. But then it was the Labour Party defying the sneering establishment. Outside the Westminster bubble, something was happening – an estimated 10,000 people turned out to hear Jeremy Corbyn in Gateshead. It’s not as if he’s much of an orator. That was in solid Labour territory, but the Independent also reported:
“In a leisure centre car park on the outskirts of Reading, more than a thousand people gathered in the middle of a working day, leaving behind their desk jobs and even climbing trees to catch a glimpse of Corbyn.”
In Whitchurch Common in Cardiff there was similar enthusiasm “from a crowd of around 700.
Red Pepper boasted that hundreds of thousands had attended somewhere or another. It added:
“Yesterday hundreds of supporters, young and old, turned out at Warrington’s Parr Hall, even though the Labour leader could only speak via video link. It was one of six rallies taking place across the UK that day alone, with other venues including Croydon, Glasgow and Birmingham, and there are more planned today and tomorrow.”
Catching the Zeitgeist isn’t necessarily easy. An election campaign helps to catch the attention of the public. Last year the Labour Party booked White Hart Lane for the “Labour Live” festival and it was a deathly flop.
But there is great potential for reviving large scale public meetings as part of the political process. They provide a wonderful combination of the old and new campaigning methods. Nigel Farage is a natural for vaudeville. That old fashioned, conversational, music hall style. “Isn’t it interesting?… Have you noticed?…” Of course, Ann Widdecombe is also a great asset for the Brexit Party.
It would be easy to be dismissive of these as being nostalgia fests that appeal to pensioners. That would miss a number of points. First of all, there are rather a lot of pensioners in this country with rather a lot of votes. It follows that for modern, sophisticated politicians being too dismissive of them is not very smart. Secondly, the Brexit Party has gone to great efforts to be diverse in its range of candidates – and thus of speakers at these occasions. That has probably helped ensure the audience is more mixed too. Finally, there is a multiplier effect. Even if a rally doesn’t interest the national media, it will be likely to catch the regional broadcasters. Then we have the tweeting, the selfies, the live video streams. Perhaps in a town of a hundred thousand voters, only a thousand will turn up – but the impact will be wider.
Beyond the mathematics comes the symbolism. The humility of politicians touring the country rather than just the Westminster TV studios. Furthermore doing so in an open way – turn up for free or click on a website to buy a ticket for a pretty nominal sum. The potemkin photo opportunities in some controlled environment have ceased to be convincing. Theresa May belated launch of the Conservative Euro Election campaign yesterday, in a small room in Bristol with three Euro candidates, was painful to behold.
The good news is that the forthcoming contest for a new Conservative leader provides an opportunity for Conservatives to connect with the public. Once the MPs have worked through the (long) list of contenders the final two go before the Party membership. In the case of Theresa May’s election in 2017 this phase scarcely got underway before Andrea Leadsom withdrew. So we have to go back to the 2005 contest between David Davis and David Cameron for a comparison. This site was in its infancy (though we already provided well informed coverage). So was YouTube. Twitter did not launch until the following year. Therefore it was natural that the hustings meetings around the country were private events for members. Cameron won by 134,446 votes to 640,398 for Davis. It is reported that the total Party membership has since fallen to 130,000.
This time round there is everything to be said for opening them up. Broadcast them all on all YouTube (or Periscope or whatever else comes to mind.) While only paid up members have votes, why not let others come along? There would be a cost of booking large venues and a risk of embarrassment if there were empty seats. But I suspect you would find considerable interest if the two rival contenders to be the next Prime Minister pitched up in your town. The Brexit Party’s model of selling tickets in advance – for a modest sum (in their case £2.50 a seat) appears to have worked well in managing numbers. Even if the cost isn’t entirely covered there is the potential for membership subscriptions and donations from those who came along and felt duly enthused.
This is not to see that the process should be prolonged. It is important that a new Prime Minister is chosen as soon as possible. So there is a strong case for curtailing the nine week schedule that might drift into August. But it should be intensive. An endurance test. One or two hustings a day, not just one or two a week.
Candidates seeking to be Prime Minister should consider what public acceptance they will command. An early General Election would be one option, but there is not much appetite for it. The spectacle of the new Prime Minister being chosen by Party members with the rest of the country shut out from the process is a dangerous one. Objections that the Conservative Party is arrogant and out of touch could easily be strengthened. Instead the campaign must be held in a way that confronts such assumptions. Rather than presenting itself as a beleaguered and closed sect, the Conservatives can encourage the rest of the country to take part in the deliberations. That would encourage the meetings to avoid being characterised by licking wounds and gazing at navels. Instead they could be good humoured and welcoming, with a mood of optimism and confidence to consider new ideas.
Let sunshine win the day.
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