So, the general election is in full swing, and if it weren't for the never-ending news reports trying in vain to distinguish between 'we will make efficiency savings' and 'they will cut', I wouldn't know. I've not seen a single flyer, a single poster, and heaven forfend if I see a candidate. Okay, I'm not in a city, but usually there are posters in house windows (saying Vote Blah - with little rationale).
I live in a safe seat, always have. I've lived in safe labour seats, and I now live in a safe Tory seat - and I never see the candidates. Here, to unseat the Tory you'd need something like a 20% swing to Lib Dem. Where I used to live you'd need a similar swing to unseat Labour. My vote is therefore of little worth and they simply don't need to court me. The joy of first past the post. Now, if I lived in a marginal....
However, it's rare to not see a flyer, the lowest rung of engagement with the constituents.
Even on screen, this election has been very shy on 'meet the public' moments - and by that I mean genuine members of the public, not invited party activists. Sure, if the big cheese were coming to town, of course the party activists would want to go - but not to the exclusion of anyone else. Sure, there are local hustings (which you can find out about be searching online) - but there isn't anything on the screens where a politician is meeting real people.
What are we seeing this election? A lot of stage managed events with non-affiliated people reduced to shouting at the politician as they pass between event and vehicle. Gordon Brown was heckled the other day in just this way. How much better would it have been for him to stop, turn, say, 'I'm sorry, I have an appointment, but please talk to my assistant and they will arrange a five minutes later'? He could then hook up with that person later in the day, with the media watching, listen to what they have to say and respond (with the benefit of having had some time to think about a decent response, and check if he works for another party).
A party leader doing this would get so much credos. Yes, it may open them to embarrassment, but the reward is there too, Nick Clegg, in particular, would benefit from engaging directly, he has much less to lose and much more to gain. The last time this really happened in a big way was with John Major in 1992, whether you agree with his politics or not, his 'soap box' tour did his chances the world of good - although arguably it might have been better for the Tories in the long run to have lost in '92.
This thursday, there is the first of the 'debates' - done American style, where the audience is not allowed to react - and if I understand it right, the leaders are not allowed to directly interact. What sort of a debate is that? Are the leaders to appear on a 'BBC Question Time' panel? No such thing (to my knowledge) has been announced. The leaders are constrained by many rules - I will have great respect for the man who does a 'West Wing' and draws attention to those rules by breaking them.
If politicians really want to reconnect to the public, if they really want to raise their standing, they cannot do this by being disengaged from us.