Watch out for Labour's masochism strategy in this campaign - it hurts, and it works

Blair was interrupted, shouted at and jeered, but he came out as decent, good humoured and engaged
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The Independent Online
The forthcoming election campaign in Britain will be incomparably more interesting than the previous two. Usually party strategists seek the smoothest path to victory, the carefully staged press conferences in London, the contrived photo opportunity and the prime ministerial speeches in the evening with a neat soundbite for the television news bulletins. No doubt there will be quite a lot of these ingredients this time, but there will also be a rougher and more unpredictable edge. Senior Labour campaigners have calculated that it is in their interests for Tony Blair and other senior cabinet ministers to be bashed around a bit by voters, to be seen addressing their angry concerns. They are planning for spontaneity.

An early example of the new strategy could be seen on Channel 4 at the weekend. On a programme cheekily called Tony and June, Blair sat in a studio with the presenter, June Sarpong, and a crowd of young voters. Some were furious about his approach to the war against Iraq, pub opening hours, university top-up fees and just about everything else. What made the programme more interesting was that others were more sympathetic.

At the very least their conflicting angry assertions highlighted the complexities facing political leaders when they take decisions. Many were opposed to the war, but one woman, an Iraqi, declared that while she doubted some of the motives she was pleased Saddam had been removed. Another opposed top-up fees for students, but was countered by someone insisting she did not see why those who were not at university should subsidise those who were lucky enough to attend.

Blair was interrupted, shouted at and occasionally jeered. He came out of it as decent, good humoured and engaged. Oddly the more anarchic format allowed him to convey more clearly his thoughts in the lead-up to deeply controversial decisions.

Incidentally, June, the presenter, came out pretty well also. At the BBC the interviewers' repertoire seems limited to lofty disdain or swooning deference. June was flirtatious, good humoured and asked some tough questions. In other words she behaved as a human being having a conversation with another human being, rather than an interviewer trying to catch out a politician. Jeremy Paxman has claimed that faith in politicians would be restored if only they answered his questions openly. But in reality a team of producers spend hours on Newsnight, and on other programmes, contriving questions aimed at landing a politician in deep trouble if they answer them with full candour. Nearly all of us play this game in the media but let us not pretend we are the innocent ones nobly dealing with evasive, mendacious political leaders.

Still, I suspect it is easier for a politician to handle a formulaic interview with a single interrogator than it is to deal with hostile questions from a wary audience. Most prominent politicians would not be able to handle their equivalent of Tony and June. Michael Howard can be awkwardly shy and would be thrown by the even greater degree of hostility that his policies would provoke from a young audience. Gordon Brown's priorities would have chimed with such an audience but he would not have been as relaxed as Blair in such a context, nor quite so at ease with the persistent onslaught. I know of only one other prominent political figure that would have performed as well in such a context and I will come to him later.

As for Blair, he is a natural communicator. There is nothing forced or false about it. He is able to listen to others and exchange views even when the political temperature is high. This has been an unchanging characteristic. It is odd how some in the media who used to hail him in the 1990s for his lack of stuffy pomposity now detect layers of artifice. Yet Blair is more or less the same whether he is hosting Downing Street press conferences, in the Newsnight studio, or in exchanges with the voters and media away from Westminster. I do not detect defensive or deceiving affectations.

The more noticeable change can be detected in the priorities outside Westminster. To take one example, last night Blair was in Manchester where questions from local voters focused on housing, the future of trams in the city and air pollution. They were much tougher and more detailed than questions we London-based journalists often pose on relations with his Chancellor, but they seemed to matter more.

It is in this context that Labour is building on what became known as the "masochism strategy" deployed in the build-up to the war against Iraq. On several programmes two years ago Blair faced questions from those passionately opposed to the war. The exchanges were intense, emotional and appeared to be draining for Blair. Now he is going back for more.

The broader background helps. It is easier to be exposed to anger when the economy is performing relatively well, employment is high and a lot of cash is being invested in public services. The appeal of this form of controlled spontaneity would be more limited if an election were taking place in a recession.

The masochism strategy is also based on some characteristic caution. As with the previous two campaigns, Blair has kicked some of the thornier questions into the long grass. Policies relating to Europe, the future of the council tax (where a review of a review has been commissioned to report conveniently after the election) and the reform of pensions (where a review of the preliminary review will also report after the election) will not be intensively debated. It is usually the main opposition party that is more flexible with policy commitments, but the Conservatives will make an appeal armed with detailed policies that are unworkable. The Government's more pragmatic pre-election approach presents it with some longer-term problems, as some key arguments and debate will spill over into the third term. But in the meantime Blair has defined forensically the limited perimeters of the election debate and will take on the doubters in a way that no Prime Minister has done in previous elections.

This is one of the risks of the strategy. On the whole Blair was entirely comfortable in his exchanges with irate leftish youngsters. Yet he looked deeply uneasy when he was, famously, slow hand-clapped by the Women's Institute towards the end of his first term. I suspect this was partly because he is deeply protective of his support from Middle England, fearing they could defect to the Conservatives. But in this election the Liberal Democrats are the wilder card. If Blair is seen in too many heated exchanges with those on the disillusioned left, more voters might switch to the Liberal Democrats.

Probably the relatively smooth election in Iraq will make the war a less highly charged issue in the British campaign to the Liberal Democrats' electoral disadvantage. But Charles Kennedy is the only other prominent politician who could perform as well as Blair surrounded by an audience of awkwardly informed and angry youngsters. Do not yawn. This campaign will be worth staying awake for.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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