The peril of every politician is the heckler. Despite the security of spin, handpicked television audiences and packing the front rows of your conference with student politicos primed to applaud like performing seals, stick a politician out in public, and someone’s bound to shout something, at some point, that sticks.
Poor Theresa May, heckled and jeered during this week’s Police Federation Conference in Bournemouth. Her speech, defending 20% cuts, ended in silence. Awkward.
Pity too Andrew Lansley, who was also heckled this week, not his first time, thanks to Mrs Hautot, but this time at the Royal College of Nurses conference as he struggled to state the correct number of nurses cut from the NHS frontline by the coalition. And it’s not just Tories who generate the nurses’ ire – Patricia Hewitt was notably heckled twice in one week by healthcare workers when Health Secretary back in 2006.
Trade union conferences do seem the domain of the heckler. Less to do with the origins of the word ‘heckler’ from some stroppy jute workers in Dundee. More probably thanks to an audience freer from the controls which can be exerted by political parties at their own respective conferences. Vince Cable was booed at last year’s GMB conference. Nick Gibb was too at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers’ conference in 2011.
And it’s not just the coalition – Ed Miliband’s first address as Labour leader to the TUC saw heckles shouted and hackles raised after he called public sector pension strikes ‘a mistake’. Luckily for Ed, the same RCN conference that jeered at Lansley this week granted him a standing ovation.
In his brief history of heckling, Michael White bemoans that the art of political heckling has all but disappeared, with what is described as heckling of politicans today really being “more of an organised verbal assault: anger, not wit; abuse, not tempered outrage; a blunt instrument, not a rapier.”
Indeed, in all the examples above, there’s not a single witty one liner of the type a decent stand-up can transform from bellow to banter. Even Walter Wolfgang, disgustingly manhandled and evicted from Labour Party Conference in 2005, merely had the gumption to shout “nonsense” at Jack Straw.
I suspect today that the Statlers and Waldorfs are all too busy being clever on Twitter. But no matter. Even if heckling isn’t the fine witty art it once was in the days of public meetings (and do go back to White’s brief history for some cracking examples), it can still have an impact.
Nobody’s career has ever been destroyed by a heckler (no doubt someone will prove me wrong in the comments but it’s worth remembering if you’re a candidate and have a sticky moment); incidents do however serve as an audio litmus test of how a politician is being received.
Any hopes Tony Blair might have of returning to a more active role in British politics should be humbled by the boos of his own party to mention of his name. I would suspect, should Cameron’s much-anticipated reshuffle be shuffled along soon, May and Lansley will be among those being slow-clapped off the stage.
P.S. The punchline to the title is, of course, that they get elected.