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Programme highlights Thursday, 17 May, 2001, 13:50 GMT 14:50 UK
Apathy or antipathy?
Craig Evans and John Prescott involved in a brawl in Rhyl
Is direct action the only way of being heard?

The incident in Wales on Wednesday in which the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott hit out at a protestor who threw an egg at him has continued to dominate the political scene on Thursday.

Mr Prescott himself described the incident as regrettable and frightening, in which he responded in self-defence to a blow on the side of his head.

At the Labour press conference this morning Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Alan Milburn and David Blunkett rallied to Mr Prescott's defence in such a manner that Mr Blair was accused by journalists of trying to make light of what one described as "John Prescott's yobbish behaviour".

As the questioning continued, Mr Blair and his colleagues were asked again and again to examine their collective conscience about their relationship with voters at a time when accusations have been levelled at them of stage managing contact with the public.

Reaction

Other party leaders have weighed in with their opinions of the fracas.

A Tory heckler in Peterborough on Thursday
All parties are facing heckling

John Swinney, leader of Scottish National Party, said it was clear that no-one should be throwing eggs or punches in an election campaign - he called for Mr Prescott to be removed from the campaign team while the police investigation into the incident was going on.

Tory leader William Hague called the incident regrettable and said Mr Prescott should have kept his cool.

Heckling

John Prescott's encounter in Rhyl was just the most physical expression of the public dissent which broke out yesterday.

Tony Blair, Jack Straw and William Hague all had verbal altercations which revealed some of the anger and frustration felt by some voters when confronted with members of the political establishment.

No sign here of the apathy of which Mr Blair has complained in recent speeches: nor of the cynicism which politicians say they resent so much, usually when referring to people who do not see the sparkling brilliance of their policies.

Yet perhaps what the politicians call apathy and cynicism is in fact something different: many non-voters are anything but apathetic - they simply don't believe the political system we have can deliver the change they want, in some cases, passionately want.

Sharron Storer, who accosted Tony Blair about cancer care
Protests but does not vote

The expression of direct protest by Sharron Storer - angry at the treatment of her partner with cancer - or by the police officers who heckled Jack Straw - seems to be part of a much wider pattern.

Direct Action

Some of the most striking political interventions of recent times have been made by people operating outside the political system.

Demonstrators on everything from the poll tax through to globalisation and GM foods have decided that they cannot make their point effectively by dialogue and debate with their elected representatives.

This very morning, on the Streets of London, trades unionists are demonstrating against Marks and Spencer for closing its shops in France, and against the Government for failing to provide workers here with the same protection as their French counterparts.

Today, the main parties were facing up to these awkward questions.

William Hague's immediate response was to disdain a walk-about in Peterborough, in favour of a talk - without questions - to local activists.

The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, who have not yet been caught up in this new wave of active protest, found the subject dominating their morning press conference.

Charles Kennedy admitted that there was a growing sense of disengagement and dislocation of the public with regard to the political process and people were resorting to direct action.

Antipathy?

The World at One brought together representatives of the three main UK political parties to discuss the issues surrounding direct protest and whether there was a gap between the things that politicians are keen to talk about, and the things that really matter to people.

We spoke to Lord Razzell, who is in charge of the Lib Dems' election campaign team, Tim Collins, who is one of the Conservative's election strategists, and Margaret Beckett who campaigns for Labour.

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