Electing Our Masters: The Hustings in British Politics from Hogarth to Blair

July 23, 2009

This is a lively and stimulating history of electoral campaigning, spanning three centuries from the era before Parliamentary reform of the franchise to the present. Despite the enormous changes in the size of the electorate and in the technology of campaigning and political communications over this period, the book does a good job in bringing out the common themes that recur in campaigns.

One such theme is the importance of campaigns in promoting the political accountability of politicians. In the 18th century, this took the form of a strong expectation that candidates should defend their record or their promises in rowdy and boisterous meetings. These were often disrupted by rival supporters egged on by the free beer that flowed copiously during the campaign. A candidate who refused to participate in these, or who failed to deal with heckling and insults with equanimity, would be seriously weakened. This expectation developed, in part, out of the restricted franchise and the widespread feeling that citizens should have their say even when they could not vote. The same phenomenon occurs today, albeit in a muted form, in the television studios where candidates face hostile questions from professional interviewers.

Jon Lawrence brings this story up to date by showing how the micromanagement, spin control and the set-piece, ticket-only meetings that are characteristic of election campaigns since the 1960s are increasingly being overturned by a resurgence of the hustings. This takes the form of television and radio phone-ins and town meetings with live audiences and in the blogosphere, where unpredictable things can happen. Party managers are conceding control because of the dullness of tightly scripted campaigns that actually demobilise voters. A telling illustration comes from the 1979 election campaign, when the American network NBC reported that Prime Minister James Callaghan had stormed out of the ITN studio because his interviewer had persisted in asking questions that had not been agreed beforehand. This was not reported in Britain, but it certainly would be today. If a party leader tried that now, it would dominate the news agenda and seriously damage his or her campaign.

Another enduring theme is the cost of running for office. In the 18th century, candidates would be expected to donate generously to local charities and civic amenity projects while they were nursing a constituency, and those donations, plus the free beer, meant that the amounts spent on campaigning were considerably greater than in today's closely regulated world. The contemporary difficulties faced by political parties in fundraising for election campaigns are nothing new. The truth is that money has always bought political influence and preferment, and that is still true today, if not on the scale of the 18th century.

While this book's panoramic review of electoral politics is a strength, it is also a weakness. As a political scientist, I found myself drawing breath at some of the sweeping conclusions drawn on the basis of quite flimsy anecdotal evidence. One example is Lawrence's argument that MPs are increasingly turning to local constituency surgeries as a substitute for local campaigning. While it is true that almost all MPs now run surgeries, surveys of the electorate and analyses of constituency spending data show that local campaigns are very important in influencing the vote in contemporary elections. One reason not mentioned here is the declining attachment of electors to political parties, something that has been going on for nearly 50 years in Britain. In a world of weak partisanship, electoral politics is becoming increasingly volatile as more and more people can be persuaded to switch their vote by campaigning.

Equally, there is the argument that party political broadcasts are increasingly ineffective because of the proliferation of TV channels and the widespread belief that they are dull and predictable. However, the British Election Study surveys showed that in 2005, 70 per cent of the electorate saw one or more broadcasts and careful modelling shows that these broadcasts had a direct effect on the vote and on turnout. It would have been useful for the author to distinguish between the "air war", or the national campaign conducted mainly on television, and the "ground war", or the local campaigns fought in constituencies across the country. Both are important and both contribute to explaining the outcome of a general election.

Having made these points, the book does a good job in examining changes in electoral politics over time, such as the decline of the public meeting. In addition, the rise of broadcast politics has created a continuing conflict between journalists and politicians, which is well described. The decline in political deference and the falling levels of trust in politicians have given journalists the upper hand for now, although this may change.

Electing Our Masters: The Hustings in British Politics from Hogarth to Blair

By Jon Lawrence
Oxford University Press
ISBN 9780199550128
Published 26 March 2009

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