Review: The Prime Ministerial TV Debates

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Derided by many in advance as ‘X-Factor politics’ and seen by some as further evidence of the ‘presidentialisation’ of  British politics, the TV election debates have been a revelation. They have not totally won over their critics; there have been complaints that too much rests on them and all other campaigning has been sidelined in significance, and that they became a little repetitive. However, this new addition to the election calendar should be welcomed, and like it or not, the debates are probably here to stay.

A number of criticisms were made of the concept and the structure of the TV debates. Firstly there were arguments that the major issues would be sidelined as the leaders opted for cheap point-scoring over each other. There was also a fear that all three parties would stoop to populism as an attempt to win over the viewing floating voters. In a recession where all economists agree that steep cuts need to be made, this was a particularly dangerous issue. Cuts aren’t popular of course, and critics feared that the party offering the least might come out on top, something that would ultimately hamper the UK economy. Thirdly came the X-Factor issue; that the election would ultimately turn into a personality contest based not on which party offered the best manifesto or which local candidates were best, but over which party leader presented themselves best on the night, and made least mistakes.

Let’s look at the positives. Firstly, the sheer number of people who watched the debates offers encouragement. The first debate on ITV attracted 9.4m viewers, some 37% of the total audience (beating EastEnders and Coronation Street); the second on Sky was seen by 4.1m, an impressive figure for digital television; the third debate on BBC was seen by 8m despite a clash with European football. That itself is worthy of praise in a country which saw only 59% and 61% of people vote in the last two elections respectively. The use of social networking to report the debate to the general public has also become increasingly prominent, with Twitter being used in particular from partisan and undecided users alike. According to the Telegraph 154,342 “Tweets” were recorded during the third debate, an average of almost twenty seven per second, from over 33,000 users, more than the attendance at most Premier League football games.

The objections to the debating structure have also been largely misplaced. Whilst all three leaders did indeed engage in point-scoring over their opponents, would this not have happened anyway? Is this not a price worth paying for a greater insight into the three main political parties? Indeed even the attacks themselves helped the audience to glean a greater insight into the character of the three leaders, itself often a reason to vote for a particular political party. And whilst we criticise the constant sniping of politicians at their opponents, we forget that it is necessary; if nobody ever attacked a policy they thought was wrong how would we be able to weigh up the evidence? As regards the three parties stooping to populism, we did not see anything which differed from their manifestos, and indeed policies which appear to have radically changed since before the debates were announced. The allegation of populism is therefore unfounded.

The issue of personality over policy is a more complex one. The debates have not turned into a simple popularity contest and have not heightened the extent to which personality is important to any noticeable degree. Certainly popularity and personality have been an issue; Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats in particular has boosted his party’s campaign by appearing very personable, and by being adept in using body language and different methods of addressing the audience to his advantage. Rhetoric also has been an important tool in his rise to semi-stardom. But this has not come at the expense of policy; if anything it has increased its importance. For on a national stage in front of several million viewers for ninety minutes on three consecutive weeks, you cannot simply hide behind rhetoric and positive body-language. This was seen most clearly with Clegg again; whilst his stance as being different from the ‘two old parties’ was extremely successful in the first two debates, yet some argued that it was beginning to get tiresome by the end of the third. Policy therefore matters. Debating and thinking on your feet have always been some of the most important characteristics for politicians, from ancient Greece to the present day. By offering all three politicians the chance to attack each others’ policies and defend their own, it offered the viewing public a much greater awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of the different parties’ approaches than would otherwise have been possible without spending countless hours reading manifestos.

As for the actual outcomes, the debates proved fascinating in that they allowed for the greatest shift in party political support since 1945. Giving the Liberal Democrats an equal platform to the other two parties was always likely to work to their advantage, but in other cases where this happened, such as the last London Mayoral election, the opportunity was not seized upon. However Nick Clegg, buoyed by last summer’s expenses scandal which damaged the other two parties far more than his own, was able to turn the limelight into a leap in the polls in unprecedented fashion. Whether or not this will be converted successfully into seats on May 6th remains to be seen, but it has opened up the prospect of a hung parliament which did not seem possible ten months ago when a Conservative landslide looked self-evident. This has been seen as a great positive in some quarters, as it makes electoral reform appear inevitable, making the Westminster playing field much more even, but has led to warnings from Conservatives that it will prevent a strong government from dealing with Britain’s fiscal deficit. Whilst David Cameron was steady in all three debates, he failed to prevent further Liberal inroads, in turn failing to suggest conclusively that a Conservative majority is inevitable. That Gordon Brown didn’t exactly shine was perhaps of no great surprise, as he is often uncomfortable in the limelight. He often spoke with substance, but was at times guilty of appearing too aggressive to the Conservatives and of going too much into specifics where general, understandable outlines would have been preferred.

The debates can therefore be seen as a positive addition to election season, a chance for the viewing public to more simply gain more information on the three main parties. It was accessible for all, thought-provoking, and a boost for democracy. Those who thought it would be Punch and Judy politics were proved wrong, as the three debates focusing on different topics allowed for a greater analysis of the parties’ policies in all major areas of political life. Pored over by thousands of analysts, the only certain outcome from the debates is that nothing is now certain. This is most certainly a positive; they have fuelled the election debate but have not shunned other forms of campaigning, and as such the election itself was left wide open and inconclusive. What more could you ask for?

Article by Will Vittery. Edited by Vicky Shreeve.