DJ Taylor: Why Harold Wilson hoiked Steptoe off the box on election night

The extraordinary lengths politicians go to to get their vote out. Plus the various attractions of Michael Gove, Paul Weller, practical jokes and William Brown
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The Independent Online

One visible sign of the pre-election build-up is widespread alarm at the electorate's apparent susceptibility to influence.

The saga of Michael Ashcroft's assault on the marginals has been so pitilessly exposed that there can't be a floating voter in the West Midlands swing seats left altogether unaware of his lordship's efforts to rally faint-hearts to the cause. Then came news that an army of pro-hunting Tory activists, the so-called "Barbour Cavalry", was about to descend on constituencies where the freedom to kill small animals is regarded as an "issue". The North Lonsdale Foxhounds, or rather their owners, have been instructed to back the Tory candidate in Barrow and Furness, where plans to stymie the return of John Woodcock, a former Downing Street adviser, are supposedly "well advanced".

Although the mobilising potential of the pro-hunting Conservatives should never be underestimated – they did for the Lib Dem MP Jackie Ballard at Taunton in 2001 – precedent insists that this hysteria is slightly misplaced. Electorates have always been susceptible to influence, whether it was inter-war era Salford housewives having cakes of soap placed in their shopping bags by aspiring Tory councillors, or the inhabitants of the new post-war council estates being none-too-subtly reminded by canvassers to which political party they were beholden for this largesse. Labour was just as bad, if not worse, than the Conservatives – particularly in the parts of Scotland and Wales they regarded as their private fiefs. A Merthyr-born friend of mine vividly remembers her father, who had applied for a teaching job in a local school, being taken to see the Labour MP, S O Davies, so that he could collect the great man's imprimatur. No prizes for guessing which way he was expected to vote.

All this seems much more sinister than a man in a pink coat and jodhpurs knocking on your door with the aim of bringing back hare coursing. Running alongside is the thought that if you give people the vote, then you should trust them to use it sensibly and not regard them as wide-eyed half-wits whom the slightest subliminal nudge is liable to blow off course. Watching BBC 4's recent documentary on Panorama's election coverage, I discovered that in 1964 Harold Wilson was so alarmed that Labour voters might prefer Steptoe and Son to a trip to the polling station on election day that he successfully lobbied to have the programme taken off air. If there really were Labour voters capable of forswearing their democratic duty for a glimpse of Wilfred Bramble and Harry H Corbett, then you can't help feeling that a Tory victory would have served them right.

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Recent polls suggest that, however susceptible to influence, the electorate is unconvinced of the merits of the new breed of modern career politician: it is the veteran performers such as Vince Cable and Ken Clarke who seem to suit the voters' tastes. One comparative youngster who does appear to be covering himself in glory is the shadow education spokesman Michael Gove.

In so far as one can make them out, in an arena even more choked by obfuscatory smoke than usual, the Conservatives' education policies include a commitment to restoring the credibility of A-levels, ensuring that the qualifications children leave school with are actually worth something, extending parental choice, emphasising the value of "difficult" subjects such as physics and languages, and accepting that, as Orwell might have put it, while all universities are theoretically equal, some, in practice, are more equal than others. Mr Gove's latest scheme, unveiled to the annual conference of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), was for Saturday morning schools for children from disadvantaged homes, designed to help close the gap between poorer pupils and the better-off.

Inevitably, all this was greeted with grave scepticism, as was a subsequent proposal for "free" schools run by parents. According to the ATL's general secretary, Mary Bousted, "No one is fit to be the custodian of the nation's children unless they seek first and foremost to even the odds produced by accident of birth." But surely this is exactly what Mr Gove is trying to do? What has the teaching unions quaking in their galoshes is that he intends to do it by utilising the resources of the private sector, notably by encouraging private schools to take an interest in academy projects and making their expertise available to nearby comprehensives. No doubt Mr Gove could go further – an education secretary who meant business could start by taking the 20,000 cleverest children in the country from poor homes and forcing the private sector to educate them – but compared to the present incumbent he looks like a genuine meritocrat. Wild horses wouldn't drag me to the polls on 6 May to vote Conservative, but still a small part of me hopes that Mr Gove makes it to a cabinet seat.

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Still with education – up to a point – as a diehard fan of the Jam, I was enchanted to read the long interview with their former frontman Paul Weller in this month's Mojo. In discussing Weller's formative years, this took an unusual line in concentrating on the sensitive teenage Mod whose early efforts were influenced by writers such as Adrian Henri. The poet Michael Horowitz, brought in to commend his lyrics, claimed that "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight" (1978) showed his gift for "verisimilitude, atmosphere and implication".

A glance at the domestic rock scene of the past 30 years reveals a string of prodigiously talented working-class autodidacts – other examples might be Steven Morrissey or the Fall's Mark E Smith – with whom the education system of the day could clearly do nothing. Weller's school teachers, as several of his early songs make plain, thought he was an idiot. On the other hand, the stifling of a nascent literary sensibility that could find expression only beyond the school gate was probably a good thing. A Weller who sat A-levels and read English at university would probably not have written "Tube Station" but confined himself to the kind of rueful ironisings that get printed in the Times Literary Supplement. Here, at any rate, the good life wasn't won by degrees.

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Appropriately enough, I spent the morning of 1 April reading The Sultan of Zanzibar, Martyn Downer's entertaining biography of Horace de Vere Cole. If Cole (1881-1936) – one of those hugely eccentric figures that the modern age seems to have lost the knack of producing – is remembered at all these days it is for the celebrated "Dreadnought Hoax" of 1910, in which he and a group of friends (including the young Virginia Woolf) finessed their way on to a warship while masquerading as the "Prince of Abyssinia" and his retinue. Momentary suspicion on the part of their hosts was quelled when one of the ship's officers confirmed, sotto voce, that they had "the real nigger smell".

All this reinforced a long-held suspicion that for a practical joke to work effectively, it has to be truly elaborate, and ascend almost to the level of an art statement. Cole's imposture, for example, involved forged Foreign Office telegrams and long hours in the company of the make-up artist Willy Clarkson. Today's April Fool gags seem trivial by comparison, although I did like the prank played on the village of Belton near Great Yarmouth, in which locals were asked if they would like to be extras in a Gladiator-style Roman epic shortly to be filmed on the local common.

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Great excitement here in Norfolk as Norwich City FC's grasp on the League One title (11 points clear at the time of writing) grows ever more secure. So enraptured was one local pundit, the BBC Radio Norfolk commentator Chris Goreham, that he declared himself "lost for words". I always raise an eyebrow when people say this, as it flies so defiantly in the face of modern linguistic orthodoxy. Words, this argument runs, are all we have – "There is nothing beyond the text" as Derrida once put it, meaning that anything that can't be described doesn't actually exist. But what about non or pre-literate societies? A sensory experience is still a sensory experience, even if it can't be written down or otherwise communicated.

To go back to Mr Goreham, ordinary life has a welcome habit of undermining, or pre-empting, academic abstractions of this type. Take, for instance, that Gallic staple, originally coined by Roland Barthes, that tous les significations sont arbitraires ("all significations are arbitrary"). There is an early William Brown novel in which William's father vows to eat his hat if such and such an unlikely event occurs. It duly happens, whereupon William innocently proposes that things needn't keep their original names, and that you could easily call a hat a mint humbug if you wanted. This has always seemed to me to predate French literary theory by about 40 years.

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