Considering what’s at stake, the run-up to May’s elections has been excruciatingly dull.

Campaigning has had the life and bounce of a washed-out tea towel. Covid restrictions have camouflaged the low level of public interest and engagement. If the leaders’ debates could be encapsulated, insomnia would be cured overnight. Of course, present day politicians are risk averse and do their best to avoid unmanaged face to face encounters with the electorate.

Gordon Brown’s 2010 face-off in Rochdale with “that bigoted woman” demonstrated the dangers of being ambushed by a less than happy punter. In 2011, Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray decided discretion was the better part of valour and sought asylum from dissenters in a Glasgow sandwich shop. The unpredictably of public hustings and the ever-present threat of predatory hecklers, has made them no go areas for politicians on the stomp.

Yet, heckling has a long and honourable history. The name itself may be derived from the heckling combs used by radical Dundee linen workers. As Jeremy Corbyn found to his cost, the heckling tradition lives on in Dundee.

During the 2019 election campaign he was heckled at a rally in the city, underlining the danger of direct engagement with the electorate. Corbyn’s heckler was quickly hustled out by security; removal sadly, being the modern response to heckling. A shameful example occurred at the Labour Party conference in 2005 when an 82-year-old delegate was ejected, none too gently, for merely having the temerity to shout “Rubbish” at Home Secretary Jack Straw.

In the US, Donald Trump’s lack of mental and linguistic agility meant hecklers were an unwelcome intrusion into his stage-managed rallies. In Iowa he encouraged supporters to “knock the crap out” of a heckler. Others were called “slobs” and security criticised for being too slow in “dealing” with hecklers.

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It hasn’t always been like this. Dealing with hecklers was part of the repertoire of old-time politicians. Harold Wilson relished crossing swords with hecklers at public hustings. When interrupted by a shout of “Rubbish”, Wilson continued seamlessly, “I’ll come to your special interest in a minute, sir.”

By far the best insight into the lost art of heckling is American director Joseph Strick’s 1967 film The Hecklers, still available in its entirety on YouTube. It was shot during the 1966 General Election campaign and is a stark reminder of how sanitised and stage-managed modern elections have become.

Strick was surprised by the heckling he witnessed, because it was unlike anything he had come across in the US. He approved of heckling however, describing it as constructive “democratic confrontation”. Strick also noted how skilful and sharp-witted politicians like Wilson, used heckling to their advantage. A rhetorical question from the platform was posed to draw a shouted response, allowing the speaker to deliver a pre-prepared witticism to squelch the heckler.

Genuine heckling is not abuse and the weapon of choice is the rapier, not the broadsword. Wilson told the story of a husting in Yorkshire where a heckler demanded to know, “What’s Labour going to do about prostitution?” The flummoxed candidate swallowed the bait and could only witter, “Drive it underground”, bringing a rapier-like response from the floor, “Typical Labour, pandering t’ bloody miners again."

For those of a certain age, Strick’s film provides an opportunity to stroll down the political memory lane. The central characters are all male, and include Wilson, Heath, Hailsham, the patronising and extravagantly moustachioed Gerald Nabarro and Jim Callaghan at his smiling, avuncular best.

Callaghan invites a particularly strident female heckler to the front so she can make her point more clearly. The politicians accepted they were fair game for the hecklers and gave as good as they got. They would probably be contemptuous of their present-day counterparts who venture out only to ticketed gatherings of the believers.

Those watching the film for the first time will be struck by the contrast with what passes for present-day political engagement and debate. The audiences were much better informed than would be the case today. There’s genuine interest, if not agreement, in the answers. They were passionate and committed and asked questions that demand answers. Sure, the meetings were unruly and some utterly shambolic, but they were amazingly good humoured and non-threatening.

Strick’s film is of its time and a lot of water has flowed under the bridge. Back then, televised political coverage was relatively new and public meetings were of much greater importance. Politicians couldn’t communicate or trivialise via sound bites or Twitter. They needed the personal touch. Twenty-four-hour news and social media have changed the rules of the game and the ways in which sections of the electorate view and respond to politicians. Our parents and grandparents got their news mainly from the press with its lengthy accounts of parliamentary and political proceedings. They were well-equipped to make their views known face to face, often at public meetings.

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In contrast, modern social media amplifies the trivial, reducing often complex issues to their lowest common denominator. Its anonymity has completely changed the nature of political engagement.

A quick trawl through “have your say” platforms provides ample evidence that mindless abuse, threat and worse have replaced reasoned political thought and engagement. In that angry and volatile environment who can blame politicians for keeping themselves and their families safe by avoiding uncontrolled face to face encounters? The fact that they require security to live and work says more about ourselves as a society than it does about them.

Sadly, the entire political process is poorer for the loss of that “constructive democratic confrontation” documented and preserved for posterity in The Hecklers.

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