Tam Dalyell: When hecklers ruled the hustings and party soundbites were silent

After 43 years in the Commons, the retiring father of the House reflects on how campaigns have changed

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I have a sneaking suspicion that Charles Kennedy may be right in one thing. This general election may turn out to be more like a series of by-elections than any previous election in the past three decades. If this is the case, it reverts to the situation of four decades ago.

I have a sneaking suspicion that Charles Kennedy may be right in one thing. This general election may turn out to be more like a series of by-elections than any previous election in the past three decades. If this is the case, it reverts to the situation of four decades ago.

Forty-three years ago in the month of May 1962, I was a by-election candidate in the then West Lothian constituency. There was Labour, a Conservative, a Liberal, a Scottish Nationalist, and a Communist. I think we probably had the same experience that as candidates we were left to our own devices, albeit the central offices kept a supervising eye.

My agent was the secretary of West Lothian constituency Labour Party, Jimmy Boyle. He had a small printing business and a pub at which he was mine host in the mining village of Whitburn. His method of working was to come in to the Labour Party office at about 11 in the morning, after he had organised the printing work for the day, relating to his own business, and after he had checked the takings in his pub from the night before and made sure that the books were in order.

Having made himself comfortable and lit his cigar he would then get on the telephone to Labour Party members in either the villages or wards of the towns in the constituency. Referring to his chart he would arrange for 48 hours ahead of time the people who were to accompany me, the candidate, door-to-door round the houses.

This had a huge advantage over the modern system of central control. The local party felt responsible for getting their candidate elected. There was a sense of obligation on local people in a way that simply doesn't happen now when they feel excluded from so much of the razzmatazz of modern politics. Jimmy Boyle held razzmatazz in some contempt. He would say that there was no substitute, using Lyndon Johnson's phrase, for pressing the flesh.

What then was the role of the formidable Scottish secretary of the Labour Party, the disabled and immensely shrewd, gentlemanly, Will Marshall, a Fife miner for a quarter of a century until he was injured in the pit? To nod and support whatever Jimmy Boyle wanted. "You do not interfere with the plans of the man who does the job at general elections. If you do so, you have difficulty in harnessing the good will of those who lead the network of families in any area who will deliver the Labour vote.''

Even when the legendary and fearsome Sarah, later Dame Sarah, Barker arrived from Transport House to make sure that everything was all right, Jimmy Boyle was in command and told Sarah what he was doing, without expecting any suggestions from her.

It may look nowadays to be a haphazard approach to elections. But it worked. At the 1962 by-election there was a row with one of the village parties. Why was it that in Black Ridge, a mining village, only 77 per cent of the electorate had turned out? The party organisation had been failing in not delivering an 82 per cent plus vote in that community.

The elders of West Lothian Labour Party would be rotating in their graves if they saw by-election turnouts of 40 per cent and under. And don't suppose it was only in country areas that this happened. It was exactly the same situation in the following year when Neil Carmichael was elected for the Woodside division of Glasgow. The Labour vote depended on the "tribes'' of socialist-minded people doing their duty.

Nor do I believe that it was very different in other parties. Vividly, I recollect saying to the Scottish secretary Will Marshall that I thought that the SNP would get 10,000 votes. He reported that until that point he thought that I had been a sensible candidate. "Now I'm beginning to wonder whether you have the judgement to become a member of the House of Commons.''

In fact, it was the springboard for SNP success. William Wolfe got 9,750 votes. This was achieved in a similar fashion to the Labour success, by a network of families who were nationalist-minded getting together and working door-to-door. Equally, the fall in the Tory vote from 18,000 to 4,000 came about because the network of Tory families, mostly small shopkeepers, decided collectively that they did not care for Selwyn Lloyd's budget. They sat on their backsides, or voted Nationalist.

If the centre did not have anything like the say in elections which they have today, certainly the centre reacted to the results of elections. In the early 1970s I sat next to Selwyn Lloyd at a parliamentary and scientific dinner. As we sat down he said to me: "You are the young man who got me sacked." Sacked! What as? "As Chancellor of the Exchequer!" He then explained that it was the West Lothian by-election result which had panicked Harold Macmillan into sacking half his cabinet - as Harold Wilson was memorably to put it: "the wrong half''.

One of the huge differences from 40 years ago is the nature of television. Along with Middlesbrough at which the late Jeremy Bray was elected, West Lothian in 1962 was one of the first hustings in which television was to play a significant part. But it didn't revolve around soundbites from the candidates. It was in-depth interviewing of each candidate for 40 minutes shown on BBC Scotland at a peak hour by the late Esmond Wright, professor of politics at the University of Glasgow.

Thinking that I had done rather well on television, I was prancing down the streets of Bathgate the following morning and met the county commissioner of Girl Guides who said laconically: "Saw you on television last night. Your tie wasn't straight!'' End of conversation. That brought me down to earth.

Even more unfortunate was the Tory candidate, a generous, nice and cheerful lawyer called Ian Stewart QC. It was a hot evening and he appeared in a light suit, a light-coloured tie and a white shirt; he was also, no fault of his, albino. He appeared like the negative of a photograph. It was a visual disaster for him. I think we all learnt the cruelty of the camera. Nowadays infinite attention is paid to appearance on television.

A huge change is in the decline of the genuine public meeting. At the eve of poll of my by-election - and it wouldn't have been different in other by-elections at the time, there were 400 people in Broxburn, 300 in Armadale, 450 in Bathgate, ending up at nine at night in Bowness with a packed town hall holding 950. Throughout the campaign my agent had told any warm-up speaker, even the former secretary of state Arthur Woodburn, to sit down because it was the candidate that the electors wanted to hear. That would be unthinkable today. The candidate usually makes a short speech and some persona from a cabinet or a shadow cabinet follows.

Then of course in general elections there was the all-important leader's rally. There was no question whatever of sifting the audience. They would come on a first-application, first-served basis. Harold Wilson and George Brown would not have been pleased if political opponents had been excluded.

This was not because they were philanthropic. It was because they relished dealing with hecklers, who added colour to politics. The mass rally was also the occasion for unveiling ideas. Harold Wilson exaggerated just a little before his big rally at Green's Playhouse in Glasgow in 1964 that he had thought up the idea of an open university.

The truth was that Michael Young and others had put a good deal of thought into it. But it was also the case that the hustings in front of a large audience was the place to reveal ideas and policy. Times have changed.

Life and times

* Name: Tam Dalyell

* Born: 9 August 1932

* Education: Eton, King's College, Cambridge

* Family: Married Kathleen 1963, son, daughter

* Career: MP for West Lothian 1962-83, MP for Linlithgow 1983-2005. Father of the House, 2001

* Profile: Grand old man of the awkward squad, he takes pride in making trouble for eight prime ministers, of whom, he says, Tony Blair is "by far the worst". Driven by a need to expose what he sees as the truth, whatever the cost to party or reputation. He says this dissenting urge cost him the chance of becoming a minister, which he regrets. He is awkward in definition too, defying left-right labels: he is "left wing" - anti-war - on Iraq, but promoted three nuclear power stations. An opponent of devolution, he posed the West Lothian Question as an argument against it.

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