GE2015 minus 47: debates? Wot debates?

Posted: 22 March 2015 in general election 2015, politics
Tags: , ,

So, the televised elections debates are agreed. No, wait, I should correct that, the election debate is agreed. No, let me correct it once again: there aren’t going to be any real election debates, and no-one agrees about anything. 

In 2010, for the first time, the British public was exposed to proper televised election debates. Three debates, each of them including the three main party leaders of the time: the Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the leader of the opposition David Cameron and the leader of the other main opposition party, Nick Clegg. It’s generally agreed, I think, that of the three of them, Nick Clegg emerged from them the best, Cameron next best and Gordon Brown the worst. Certainly, the personalities portrayed during the debates had no similarity (other than by coincidence) to either the political portrayals we’d seen for the previous few years, or the personalities post general election. But it was the first time anyone this side of the pond had seen serious public debates between the three of them.

Each of them (and Brown’s successor as leader of the Labour Party) took different lessons from the experience, I think. 

Clegg learned that a decent performance in the debates can really increase the chances of people taking a non-Big-Two party seriously, and also that having everyone focussed on you is a double-edged sword; it may increase the pressure to do well and punish mistakes, but it also cements your position as leader. 

David Cameron learned why every previous Prime Minister had said no to televised debates: the Prime Minister cannot “win” the debate. They’ve been in power for the past four or five years; they’re expected to be able to defend their administration… in fact they’ve done so repeatedly for the past four or five years, to the point where they’re so busy defending their record, there’s no space or time for them to present any new ideas. Because they’re wide open to the accusation that if the idea was any good, they should have done it while they were in power. So, they’ve nothing new to say and no new way of saying it.

And Ed Miliband, Gordon Brown’s successor as the leader of the Labour Party? Well, if he didn’t know before, he knows why every previous leader of the opposition desperately wanted televised debates. If they don’t happen, you get to call the Prime Minister a chicken. And if they do, you’re not held to account for anything you’ve actually done. As the saw has it, opposition is about saying things and government is about doing things. And it’s easier to hold someone to account for what they’ve done than what they’ve said. For a start, people tend to remember the former much more than the latter.

There was, for a short time, the possibility that television broadcasters would actually ’empty chair’ the Prime Minister, but that was never really a probability for the most obvious of reasons: politics. The BBC needs charter renewal in 2017, which means the next government will be in charge during charter negotiations, and all the others are subject to Ofcom and you can be sure that the next chair of Ofcom wouldn’t be appointed unless he or she was aware of the situation.  

As for what we’re going to end up with, well, I know what the line being trotted out by everyone is, but it’s a long tinme between now and the first – and only – ‘debate’. I’ll write more on that closer to the date.

G’night all.

  1. I just realised I missed out on further musings.

    Wot debate. We have the ‘7 way’ to replace last time which was a ‘threesome’.

    My perspective has been consistent for years. We shouldn’t have debates of leaders. Only the electors of Oxfordshire choose David Cameron and only the electors of Doncaster choose Ed Milliband. We don’t have a presidential system but a Parliamentary one. If we had leaders debates in 2005 then Tony Blair would have been up but in 2007 it was Gordon Brown. The media called for a General Election because the Prime Minister had changed. This was another incidence of the superficiality of the media. The Prime Minister is the person who has the support of the majority of MPs in the House of Commons not the ‘winner’ of a TV debate.

    All leaders in opposition call for TV debates. This is pretty much because they lack Prime Ministerial presence. The reason being that opposition leaders are not the Prime Minister. This is a statement of the obvious.

    Brown was pretty daft going for a threesome in 2010.

    The media love TV debates. Not because they like democracy but because they make programmes that they want viewers to watch. They have newspapers they want to sell. The headline in one election was ‘It was the Sun wot won it’. The media want to both report and a create the agenda.

    The perversity of this is that it creates a group of MPs who are elected because of the focus on their leader whereas they should win their local constituency by engaging with their voters.

    David Cameron doesn’t want Ed Milliband or Nick Clegg to look like an equal so, from his perspective, he has already won the debates by making sure they will be as dull as ditchwater.

    • I agree with much of what you’ve said, Steve. But I don’t for a moment accept that the debates – last time – hurt the campaigns or otherwise shouldn’t have happened.

      We may have a parliamentary system, but virtually no-one thinks they’re voting for their MP; they’d vote for whoever’s part of their ‘tribe’, or rather whoever will keep the other lot out of the seat.

      As I said, sure there’s some elected on a personal basis, but precious few. The debates are another way of letting people know what the policies of the parties are, and in that, there’s nothing wrong with the leaders of those parties facing each other and picking holes in each others’ positions.

      We should have debates, and I’m damned sorry we’re not getting them.

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