Election 1997: Dead wood and deaf ears

The voters are fed up to the back teeth hearing about a boom and nothing Major says is capable of altering that
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Just 140 years ago, a priggish young Ascherson from Berlin - my great-grandfather - found himself in the middle of a British election campaign. Wandering the streets of Liverpool, he found all the enthusiasm shockingly un-Prussian.

He wrote to his mother: "Today the scandal broke through all bounds. There was fearful excitement... At nine in the morning the Tory candidates, Horsefall and Turner, arrived each in a six-horse carriage, while Mr Ewart, the Liberal, came on foot. They mounted the platform outside the town hall and made speeches in turn until four in the afternoon. Business was quite disrupted. All over town posters of every kind were stuck up to influence the voters... There are banners all over the place, and monstrous shouting in the streets: Horsefall & Turner for ever, Ewart for ever..."

Going round Middle England with John Major last week, I envied my great- grandfather. The "scandal" may be in the newspapers, but it is not on the streets. And while there is some shouting when Mr Major faces the citizenry, no name - not Major's, not Blair's, not Ashdown's - is "for ever". The people have no heroes in 1997. Although this is supposed to be the most "presidential" of election campaigns, there was more faith in the power of individual politicians in 1857 than there is today. This is the strangest of election atmospheres. The voters are sullen, with their minds mostly made up already; the parties are shrieking away in a world of their own, blinded by over-sophisticated techniques of "message delivery" and deafened by their own super-smart language of rebuttal - before the electorate has grasped what is being rebutted.

Watching Mr Major, in the East Midlands and East Anglia last week, I thought he was in two kinds of trouble. First, he is not being given much chance to do what he does best: talk directly to ordinary people. But secondly, and fatally, he now seems out of touch when he does talk to the people in his favourite way. What he wants to talk about is not what they want to talk about. The Britain he claims to see is not the Britain they see.

He spent a great deal of his time visiting businesses, where he and Norma would be shown round by the boss - the Douglas Gill factory at Long Eaton which makes clothing for leisure sailors, the gigantic JCB plant at Rocester, a racing stable at Newmarket. Much of this is virtual electioneering: photocalls designed to provide the media with Norma and John mounted in the cab of the latest JCB backhoe excavator, Norma accepting two weatherproof jerkins (blue for him, red for her), John talking to a sexy young colt who has begun to win races.

But there is also an element of personal back-scratching. Chunky young Mr Gill in his non-union workshop is a supporter being rewarded by a prime- ministerial visit. Chunky young Sir Anthony Bamford, boss of JCB and its 3,000 workers, is being rewarded for finally returning to the Tory fold after a much-publicised wobble towards Tony Blair.

John Major kept trying to snatch a word with workers. He discussed paint- hardening methods for a few moments with two men at JCB. "Seemed to know what he was talking about, for once!" said one of them. But the sharp eyes of the managing director and the personnel executives were always close.

All this is a waste of his electoral talents, and he knows it. John Major showed in 1992 that he is far the best campaigner the Conservatives have. On the stump he is likeable, funny, combative without nastiness. Above all, he enjoys arguing with ordinary people - and he lets that enjoyment show, which is the most seductive talent of all. Six years at the despatch box have sharpened his command of hard-hitting banter. So when was he going to escape from the minders and the tycoons and get on to his soapbox? We, the journalists, and he, the man with the magical blokeish touch, were waiting impatiently for Friday, when he was going to meet the crowds at Norwich.

But before that came Thursday night's rally. Sir Anthony Bamford had offered him a hall in the JCB plant, and some 700 Tory activists and candidates had been gathered from all over the East Midlands. Sir Jeffrey Archer did the warm-up; he strode on reassuringly, shouting: "Good evening!" and the whole audience rose and roared "Good evening!" back. But somehow it wasn't a very good evening. Mr Major's speech devoted two whole pages of its text to what a fifth Conservative government might do, but 12 pages to the untrustworthiness of Tony Blair ("Tango Bravo", as Major's campaign staff call him).

The prime minister valiantly roared and scolded his way through the speech, and yet he seemed to lack the quality which makes Tango Bravo exciting on a good day: the feeling that this man is talking urgently to you and me about what he really believes.

There was plenty of applause. This was an audience desperate to suspend any disbelief in imminent defeat. When Jeffrey Archer proclaimed that "things are at last going our way", they loved it. And yet it was ominous that far the greatest explosion of joy came at the end, when John Major said that he would never sign the Social Chapter and added: "If not signing means being isolated in Europe, so be it. I've been isolated at the negotiating table before, and if I need to be, I will be again."

A word has changed value. For the Tories in that hall, "isolated" is a splendid and patriotic thing to be, a trigger word for pride. John Major, surfing on the uproar of delight, extemporised: "If the man who wants to be prime minister of Britain is not prepared to be isolated in Europe, then he has no right to be prime minister of Britain!"

The cheering rolled on. But this was Thatcher talk, not Major talk. What did it mean for the future that the only way for John Major to reach the deepest passions of his own party was to step for a moment out of character? In the back rows we picked out the tall figure of Bill Cash, king of the Eurosceptic Conservative rebels, smiling with satisfaction. But when at the end somebody from the audience called for "three cheers for John and Norma", Bill Cash seemed to be too deep in conversation with his neighbour to join in.

Then came Norwich. It was a cold and windy morning; the great square was filled with market stalls and shoppers as a crowd of some 700 gathered round the Major bus convoy. First of all, the prime minister dived into the crowd and fought his way round, wringing hands, exchanging jokes and rebukes with the hundreds of shouting faces which pressed briefly towards him. Then the side-flap of his bus came down, the amplifiers were switched on, and he emerged above the crowd for the real hustings show - a brief address, then a round of questions and answers.

This is what he likes. His grin was genuine; he was enjoying himself at last. "What a way to earn a living!" said an old man at the back of the crowd. "Well, somebody's got to make him happy," said his wife. And it was plain that the crowd - turbulent but never dangerous - was indeed making him happy. The trouble was that he, in turn, was not making them happy. His gift has been to confront hostile or surly audiences and disarm them - to make them feel that at least he was a nice, sincere guy who meant what he said. But at Norwich, the old magic did not work.

There was cross shouting at the front. But what people exclaimed spontaneously at the back, almost to themselves, was more important. This was a fed- up, pissed-off electorate, already set into voting the Tories out or not voting at all. Most strikingly, they did not even accept John Major's basic premise: "Britain's Booming". Everyone I spoke to talked from their own experience about redundancy, insecurity, negative equity, decaying hospitals and schools. Whenever John Major spoke about economic success, falling unemployment and low inflation, the people standing round me or passing among the stalls growled in anger. "No, pathetic, he hasn't a clue."

John Major went back into the bus, exhilarated. But the fact was that he had gone down badly. The crowd simply did not recognise the prospering Britain he talked about as their own country. If they vote Labour into power, it will not be a revolution born of rising expectations, but a revolt born of bitterness and fear. There is no "Tony Blair for ever!" in this mood. Even for Tango Bravo, it would make an uneasy triumph.

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