In the 2001 election campaign, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott actually punched a protester who had egged him at close quarters. Those were the days before Twitter but had this wondrous tool of instant reaction been available, no doubt it would have registered a storm of Biblical proportions. In the event, Conservative leader William Hague confined himself to the observation that it was not his policy to go round hitting the voters.
On Thursday night’s “Challengers” BBC debate, Nigel Farage hit an audience. “There just seems to be a total lack of comprehension on this panel and indeed this audience, which is a remarkable audience even by the left-wing standards of the BBC.” Predictably enough, he was booed and jeered, enough in itself to suggest that may be the Ukip leader was onto something. Regular viewers of BBC’s Question Time will not be surprised. More and more, its audience has come to resemble a left-wing lynch mob.
Yesterday, in a moment of rare candour, the Beeb has released details of the make-up of the studio audience of 200 people, who were assembled by pollsters ICM and were intended to be representative of the electorate. Twenty per cent of the audience were undecided on how to vote on May 7 and of the rest, 23 per cent were Conservatives and 14 per cent Ukip. So roughly one third of the audience was on the right and two thirds were on the left (if one counts among this group the 18 per cent of the audience who said they supported the Lib Dems).
Quite what possessed ICM to invite so many Lib Dems into the studio at Westminster Methodist Central Hall one can only surmise. They were certainly there in disproportionate numbers – roughly twice their party’s poll rating. The same was true for the minor parties: SNP 9 per cent; Green 9 per cent and Plaid 5 per cent – all at levels of studio representation roughly twice that of their opinion poll ratings.
So Farage, who was regularly heckled for his views on immigration, certainly had a point when he indicated that he was addressing his remarks to the real audience at home. He was suggesting that by this point in the proceedings, large numbers of people in coastal towns in Essex and Kent were hurling their beer cans and crockery at the TV set in the hope of clobbering a member of the audience – or some cases, one or more of the panel of speakers.
Just over four million people watched the debate, not many among an electorate of approaching 50 million, though others will have seen or heard reports of the latest bunfight, which again enhanced the standing of the bolshy Ms Sturgeon.
But Farage was probably not the biggest loser of the night. Its abiding image was that of a leader of a big party, Ed Miliband, being set upon by the minnows in the shape of the SNP, the Greens and Plaid, a handbagging given even greater theatrical effect from the fact that all three leaders are women. The TV studio is a great leveller, putting a leader of a party with millions of votes and scores of MPs on a par with those with hardly any of either. By the very act of covering the campaign, TV itself is contributing to the fragmentation of the party landscape.