We all know what soapbox politics is, I think, and we all know it's in pretty short supply at the moment. One of the biggest complaints levelled against politicians today is that they aren't in touch with ordinary people. Is this because they don't pitch up on street corners anymore to take abuse from the voters? Perhaps, but soapbox politics has its pitfalls. It might have helped John Major to win the 1992 election, but it didn't produce a lasting impression of the then-Prime Minister as a man of the people. Gordon Brown's ill-advised amble around the streets of Rochdale in 2010 put the final kibosh on any slim chances he had of getting back to No. 10. The big problem with soapbox politics is that it has a level of unpredictability, and, for political leaders, with unpredictability comes an exponential increase in the risk of looking stupid. Party strategists want their man or woman to appear as one of the people; that doesn't work if the people are shouting at them in the high street. Soapbox politics is a strategy that can backfire quickly and easily. Much simpler, then, to stick the leaders in front of 'controlled' audiences - party members, local activists, people who can be relied upon to clap at the right time, ask the pre-approved questions, and wave those stupid little flags around.
The problem with those kinds of events, though, is that they maintain and strengthen the idea of politics as an enclosed elite. UKIP didn't do so well this week by battling the Westminster mob on their own terms. In fact, hardly any candidate does well in that way. They all seek to portray themselves as insurgents, outsiders, taking on the powerful and the vested interests in our society. 'Fetch me my anarchist flag, I'm on the way to shake things up!'
That mindset generally lasts until around five or six minutes after they get elected, of course.
It's a Catch-22, then, for our politicians. What's the right way forward? Do you err on the side of caution, and risk looking out of touch, or do you take the plunge into the real world, where you might find yourself on the wrong side of loud-voiced voters and well-aimed rotten fruit? For a while, it looked like the Internet, social media, and blogs might be the new way between the two - connecting quickly and easily with ordinary people, while minimising the risks of looking silly - but it hasn't quite worked out like that. People complain about the anodyne nature of the Twitter feeds that politicians provide, more often than not supposing they've been written by special advisers. Any slip-up the parties make online is shared and retweeted almost instantly, getting fired around the blogosphere faster than any TV gaffe ever would. Even the risk of looking like a complete idiot hasn't been mitigated by the controlled soapbox that is the online media - everyone remembers David Cameron's awful tweeted picture of himself in a Team GB t-shirt during the Olympics, for instance, or Ed Miliband's excruciating typo in his Twitter tribute to Bob Holness, host, apparently, of TV's 'Blackbusters'.
Speaking of Miliband, he's decided, despite getting on the wrong side of an egg in Southampton last year, that the street is the best place to do politics. During the campaign for the local elections, he could be seen across the country, standing on a pallet (not a soapbox, but that's probably not a massive issue really) in town centres and getting into discussions with any onlookers who happened to wander over. It probably does, from the outside, make him look a little bit silly, but I don't suppose Miliband will care if it gets him some more votes. Labour didn't do as well in the local elections as they should perhaps have done, but it will be interesting to see if their vote went up more in the areas where Miliband and his pallet arrived to campaign.
Some people would say that this is a superficial issue of perception, that standing up in the streets and talking to people is merely a device to make you look like you belong to the grassroots. I think there is an element of that in Labour's thinking, but I don't think that's the whole picture, because that wouldn't work. Soapbox politics may prove to be a good technique for Miliband; he looks relatively comfortable when he does it, and the people who listen to him seem to respond well. However, like anything, it's not going to work if Labour don't have the right message. He can go and talk to people all he wants, but he won't get elected if people don't like what he's saying. Some of the issues he brought up in these elections - a living wage, crackdowns on payday lenders - chime well with the public. That is the meat here - his pallet's just the garnish. For all the focus on presentation, communication, on getting the word across to people, it is the policy above all that matters. If his ideas start to make more of a connection with the British people, he can shout them from wherever he wants.