BVEP - Business Visits and Events Partnership

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BVEP Blog

An Engaging Election?

By Simon Hughes - I don't know about you but, if the debate about the television debates is anything to go by, I think we're in for a fantastic time in the run up to the general election.

It's rather like all these stories popping up in the media where either hopeful or fully fledged politicians have been caught out – from far right plots to falsifying invoices, promises of lobbying services to cash contributions that break the rules. What a coincidence! At least the PM hasn't got carried away over some ad hoc salad preparation in his kitchen and promised to serve only two terms and a scotch egg.

You may feel that I sound a little jaundiced already and of course you'd be right. Naturally I will remain apolitical when it comes to the politics of the election itself, with one major exception – the use of events to drive the agenda and help politicians from across the spectrum get some desperately needed media coverage. We've seen so many cunning events and stunts over the years that it's always interesting to see what the bright young things that dream this kind of stuff up have to offer that's new and fresh. Or at least new and fresh in their minds.

After all how do you compete with our general election events legacy? A white scarf wearing Maggie Thatcher roaring around in a tank? Neil Kinnock going nuts so convincingly at a rally that the electorate abandoned Labour in droves? John Major breaking out his soapbox? Gordon Brown very cleverly leaving a Sky News microphone clipped to his jacket while he compared notes about a voter he'd just had the pleasure of conversing with? Of course the day to day battle plans are all laid down – the run of the mill briefings, daily press conferences, launches, photo-ops etc. It's the unplanned stuff at the edges, the mistakes, fluffs and mishaps that the media pack love to pounce on.

The tendency of the major parties to move away from traditional venues and camp out on factory shop floors, in the gloom of retail warehouses and booming glass atrium reception spaces in hi-tech business parks makes the opportunity for really engaging with the audiences that have been marshalled into listen to them rather remote. Take the 'town hall' style meetings that were such a feature last time around – is there a training camp where audience members are schooled in staying awake, looking enthusiastic and applauding at the right point? You can be certain that if someone in the background does nod off, starts miming a song or even dribbling it will be picked up and have gone global before you can shout "Pinterest!" Life is now like that.

Which I think is a shame. As the SoS at the DCMS promises the events industry more support it is sobering for all of us in the industry to see where events fit in the campaigns. Non-traditional venues tend to play well for the media coverage, not the experience. The absolute control that the spin doctors from all parties insist on makes genuine debate, participation and interaction less and less available. Social media replaces the hustings, while campaign leaflets shoved through your letterbox (and then straight into the recycling) replace the election poster that once might have proclaimed your intentions. So it all comes back to what ends up on the screen – whatever kind of screen that is. Of course the very worst thing about all this? Despite ourselves, we'll all be watching.