How Politicians can Mishandle Audience and Electoral Anger

Guest post by Dr Gavin Sullivan

Question Time on BBC 1 is a television show that invites vigorous debate on issues that are put to a panel by the studio audience. The situation is similar to situations in which politicians talk to an audience because there are often restricted possibilities for the audience to indicate their approval or otherwise for the answers they receive and the content of the debate. Research in the area of investigation known as conversation analysis has examined the dynamic interactions that are possible between politicians and their audiences. In a seminal example of an analysis of audiences at political events by J. Maxwell Atkinson (1985), he noted that the audience tends to be limited in what they can express and communicate as a collective. In particular, audiences can demonstrate “gross displays” that are affiliative (such as applause and laughter) or disaffiliative (including jeers, boos or ironic cheering). The length of this collective noise and the volume is obviously important, of course, but something is missing from his account and more recent research based on it; namely, that it is interesting to use events like Question Time and the reactions of audience members as a barometer of the emotions of the electorate as the election campaign develops. Anger is particularly important because it appears to play a crucial role in encouraging people to engage in collective actions, such as protests in the street, or choosing smaller parties as a protest vote.

On February 5th, Question Time took place in Finchley, North London. The discussion became particularly heated towards the end because many audience members expressed anger about George Galloway’s views on Gaza. Before that issue was discussed, multiple sources of anger were displayed in the debate reflecting deep-seated community feeling about issues important to the electorate. The most interesting examples of anger are where questions from the audience include extended clapping and individual comments or heckling. In addition, the following examples show how politicians should not respond to anger if they want to avoid being punished at the general election:

Contradict the audience member

In the North Finchley meeting, an audience member notes: “Err just a comment that you made about you’re creating a thousand jobs a day. A thousand jobs a day on zero hour contracts means nothing”. Conservative Education Secretary Nicky Morgan speaks over the question, saying “No, no, no, no”. The audience member continues and adds “but they’ve got no choice, it’s slavery”. Looking as if she has been personally attacked, Morgan rejects the comment and shakes her head while the audience claps in support of the audience member.

Deny an obvious point and don’t apologise

A clearly angry audience member asks Labour Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt about the hypocrisy of Labour claiming that the “Tories have given tax cuts to their mates”, and adds: “I’m sorry it’s pure hypocrisy and anyone who trusts your lot with the economy wants their brains tested”. Loud clapping interspersed with cheers suggests that the point is one of popular anger. Nicky Morgan joins in the attack adding further details through Hunt’s attempted reply and adds a dismissive “Oh Tristram” with a smile. With the third repetition of “it’s pure hypocrisy” by the audience member there is less clapping but the anger hasn’t been addressed. The point is addressed later by George Galloway as something that Labour should apologise for but will not.

Get personally offended

A further tip for politicians to mishandle audience anger in a public discussion is to get personally angry themselves. When Tristram Hunt is angrily told “you don’t understand the difference between big business and small business” he first contradicts the audience member with “yes we do” and then displays anger himself in noting that his wife runs a small business: “I know about the challenging facing small business-people in our family, so don’t give me a lecture on that. But we make no apology”. He smiles as he attempts a repair with the presenter, David Dimbleby. George Galloway capitalises on the enduring anger about this point by saying Labour should apologise for not being tougher on tax dodgers during their thirteen years in office to audience applause.

Follow criticism with a vague yet-to-be announced alternative

Tristram Hunt criticises the coalition for cutting spending in schools and public services just before David Dimbleby interrupts to ask “You’ve attacked them for cutting, how much are you going to spend?”. Tristram Hunt’s reply “We will be announcing that in the next couple of weeks” is met with groans and a chorus of angry-sounding, extended “aww” audience response. Nicky Morgan attempts to use the “chorus” to score another point, adding “So you don’t know, you do not know”. David Dimbleby repeats this point as some of the audience join in dismissive laughter. Although he talks over the noise with “hold on, hold on”, Hunt eventually appears to deflect this anger but the topic shifts and other angry points about unqualified teachers are put back to him.

These brief examples show that there is more to audience possibilities for expressing particular collective emotions—such as deep or enduring anger—than affiliative or disaffiliative reactions. During the election campaign, politicians who mishandle anger in debates and discussions risk feeding into rather than beginning to address those shared sources of anger.

Atkinson, J. M. (1985). Public speaking and audience responses: Some techniques for inviting applause. In J. M. Atkinson (Ed.) Structures of Social Action (pp 370-420). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

This work was undertaken by Gavin Sullivan and other members of the Identities and Resilience in Communities and Organisations research theme at University of Coventry.

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Nicola Vaughan