election politics and the meaning of 'the public' and 'public space'

Just a short note - an interesting article by Marina Hyde in the Guardian on how the current election campaign is being run as a 'pseudo-event', using fake public spaces and inviting the fake 'public':

So far, this has been an election staged in out-of-town business parks, cleared factory floors, deserted building sites, and town halls filled with pre-screened party supporters. The list of venues to which the party leaders are bussed or flown satirises itself: a heavily-guarded empty barn, a facility that makes virtual reality suites, a rural hedgehog farm...
These are not anything that could be described as civic spaces. In fact, in civic terms they are non-spaces, the sort of places you might expect to end up if you took a wrong turn at a roundabout in a vast international airport, with its strange network of goods vehicle roads and utilitarian hangars.

A non-space; Kirsty Wigglesworth/AFP/Getty Images

See this series of images about how odd these spaces are and how the photo ops are stage managed to make it look a lot more populated than it actually is: http://imgur.com/ZeDjVC7


The attendees are invited or have to buy a ticket. All the parties stage-manage these events to avoid confrontation by opponents among the general public. Hyde bemoans the end of old style election campaigns that attempted at least to truly engage with the public, and indeed the ability to retort against hecklers in the audience was the mark of a good politician:

when public meetings really were public meetings. Harold Wilson was a masterful putter-down of unmannerly interrupters.

This chimes with me a lot, as it mirrors some of the themes running through my next book, Protest and the Politics of Space and Place, 1789-1848 (plug plug - out with MUP hopefully late in the year).

Local and national parties attempted to exclude opposition by carefully stage-managing meetings, dinners and other civic events. There were always claims and counter-claims about what was public space, and whether the local notables, meeting privately in a pub or in a town hall, constituted 'the public', and whether these dignitaries' names, appended to an address or petition, represented the whole populace of a town, or just its elites.

This narrowing of who had the right to represent the town and its public was at the heart of popular politics, and what the radicals and Chartists challenged in the first half of the 19th century. A key incident that I've focused on in my book happened in Manchester during the reform bill agitation in 1831.

The middle-class moderate Political Union organised a public meeting on 12 October to discuss the House of Lords’ rejection of the first reform bill. They hired a Riding School on Lower Mosley Street for the meeting. Crowds gathered and could not get into the building, which the MPU had regulated entry to.

The Political Union of the Working Classes therefore moved an amendment that the meeting should adjourn to Camp Field, off Deansgate (where the museum of science and industry now is). This was a larger space, open and outdoors.

Camp Field, http://www.ancestryimages.com/proddetail.php?prod=g4126

The boroughreeve and constables of Manchester rejected the adjournment as they ‘refused to recognise’ the working-class political union. The boroughreeve (roughly equivalent to a mayor) asserted that he ‘would only consent to call and preside at a meeting of the Inhabitants of Manchester held within doors. They might choose the largest place in the town for that purpose, but indoors it must be’.

The working-class political union eventually got their way and the meeting took place outside. However, there was much to-ing and fro-ing about the content and signatures on the address to the House of the Lords. The middle-class union did not want Manchester to appear to be radical. The radicals however forced through an address that called for universal suffrage and the secret ballot and annual parliaments, all anathema to the bourgeois liberal Guardian readers (the editor of the Manchester Guardian was on the committee of the MPU). The MPU committee considered refusing to send any ‘expression of public opinion in favour of the Reform Bill’ to parliament and the King ‘for fear of the radicals’. So Manchester had a divided voice, and who had the right to represent the 'public' of Manchester to the wider nation was contested in these battles over meeting spaces and the wording of the addresses.

(Manchester Chronicle, 15 October 1831)


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