The leaders debate: Royal rumble or intelligent debate?

The ITV Leaders' Debate Live on ITV1, Manchester, Britain - 02 Apr 2015

Last night was a red letter day in the world of the UK politics junky. We were treated to a political debate between no less than seven of the leaders of the UK’s political parties. We got pizza, the kids stayed up, I had Twitter running and we made a night of it.

This will be the only debate that we’ll get as part of this year’s General Election campaign. David Cameron has vetoed any others because as the incumbent he sees that he has very little to gain from these kinds of debates and a lot to lose. The tradition of televised political debates is much more fragile in the UK than in the US and so he’s able to get away with it. Good for the Conservative Party, bad for democracy.

Cameron was instrumental in framing this debate in the royal rumble style. He didn’t want too much focus on either him or on Nigel Farage the leader of the populist UK Independence Party. So he invited everyone to the party. My sense is that this this strategy paid off for him in some interesting ways.

So a quick run down of how I thought everyone did.

Debate

Natalie Bennett of the Green Party did a decent job of getting her message across. She was nervous and isn’t a natural TV performer, but she came across as informed and serious. I think that it will be difficult for the media to portray her as a raving radical based on the performance.

Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrat) was in his element. He’s really good at this stuff. He listens to questions and picks up on what other people are saying. The problem is that after his fairly disastrous five years in government he no longer looks like the fresh faced honest broker. There was a distance between his rhetoric and his policies that I think a lot of people will have found a bit difficult to swallow.

Nigel Farage (UKIP) was also in his. He’s a good TV performer of a very different type to Clegg. He revels in appearing as an uncultured bore. He shouted over other people, made jokes at their expense and generally seemed to have a good time. He played to his heartland rather than reaching out, but for those that like right wing bigots he undoubtedly will have done the job.

Ed Miliband (Labour) was OK. I found his performance a bit old fashioned. He used a lot of rhetorical tricks that came off as being a bit stagey, but basically held his own. Given the amount of media attacks that he has suffered it will probably be seen as a success for him to just come off as another politician.

Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru) was a surprise. I’ve never seen her speak before. To be honest I’ve never really given her much thought before, but she was great. Composed and engaging, consistently pushing the debate to the left, I thought that she came across really well.

Nicola Sturgeon (SNP) was also new to me. Although I know a bit more about her than Wood, she doesn’t usually get much coverage in England. She came across as intelligent, informed and authoritative. It was also clear how far the SNP have moved to the left from the days when my friends from Scottish Labour used to decry them as “Tartan Tories”. For me she was the most obviously Prime Ministerial of the lot. It is just a shame that she isn’t actually standing for the position. She will clearly, and regrettably for me, have done a lot of good for the case for Scottish independence last night.

Finally David Cameron did a decent job. He general comes across pretty well doing a humble-man-of-the people-I-feel-your-pain sort of thing. However, he occasionally loses his temper with everyone else and gets a bit grumpy. But, he knows what he is doing in this format and didn’t make any big mistakes.

For me the effect of the format was to pull the debate consistently to the left. Bennett, Wood and Sturgeon all agree on most things and this meant that almost half of the airtime was given over to pushing an anti-austerity, social justice agenda that always gets written out of British politics. When Farage started his “they won’t let me say this but I dare to speak truth to power” act, Leanne Wood was quick to put him down as a populist bigot. She got a round of applause for it and there was a lot of cheering in our house.

The big effect of the left turn was that Ed Miliband was left flailing. Normally he has the opportunity to be the more left wing voice and to win on the social justice points. In this case he looked indistinguishable from Cameron and Clegg on most issues. The women were all clear and committed to a left wing perspective, Ed ducked and weaved, fudged and obfuscated. Where this will leave the left wing vote is unclear. In Scotland it seems that Labour has been abandoned altogether, but in England and Wales people will probably stick by them for the most part. Nonetheless it was interesting to see the dynamics of debate pulling the issues in a different direction from normal.

The debate gave relatively light coverage to the issues that I’m most interested in. Education was barely mentioned. Ed Miliband had a quick go at talking about education, Cameron briefly mentioned apprenticeships and Natalie Bennett argued for a broader based education (although failed to mention careers). On the other hand an interesting discussion did emerge about job quality. The government’s line is that employment has gone up and so they’ve done well. However, in fact a lot of the increase in jobs is down to a decrease in job quality and an increase in benefit conditionality. In other words, yes more people are working but that is because we’ve now created a society where it is necessary to work in jobs that don’t offer a living wage and in which there is no security of progression. Ed Miliband did actually pick this up at one point. I’d like to hear him talking about this a bit more. Natalie Bennett also did a good job of explaining how public sector employment benefits everyone in a number of ways.

I felt that it was a good debate. One which covered issues and showed off the party leaders to good effect. If I was picking winners I probably would have ranked them as (1) Sturgeon, (2) Wood, (3) Either Farage or Clegg, but I thought that everyone did pretty well at getting their points across. It informed me about who to vote for and what they thought about at least some of the important issues. While it degenerated into a shouting match a couple of times, it wasn’t too bad. There was at least a little bit of a sense that we were talking about policies rather than just trading soundbites.

However, I wasn’t content with two hours of political debate so I watched another hour or so of post-match analysis on ITV and BBC. They had clearly been watching a different debate from me. For them they quickly turned it into a discussion about Conservative vs Labour with occasional comedy use of Farage. The women were written out of the story altogether as were the politics. It became a presentation skills competition between Cameron and Miliband. Confusing polls were thrown around which all highlighted the respective levels of popularity of the Conservative and Labour leaders. It was all reductive and depressing and reminded me of why I don’t watch TV news very much.

Last night it felt like Britain was moving towards an interesting experiment in multi-party politics. I would have like to see at least a couple more of these debates during the election campaign, but it is not to be. Instead we are going to have to rely on the news media and on last night’s showing they look determined to turn the whole thing into a cross between a soap opera and a popularity contest. I guess I’m heading back to the internet for the rest of the election!

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3 comments

  1. Leanne Wood, Nicola Sturgeon and Natalie Bennett give me hope in politics compared to the grey suits of the 3 main parties, and the rabid, anti-foreigner stance of Farage. Shame the media are so obsessed with the men!

  2. Thanks – a really useful summary. And I couldn’t agree more about the post-match analysis. Thoroughly depressing and Farage provides perfect fodder.

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