Debating the debate: responding to my fisking

The 3 leaders’ debates have been and gone. Stef gave me a good fisking after the first debate, based on a post I wrote a few weeks ago. Now taking the long view, I thought I’d respond to each of his points.

Note: my original points in italics; Stef’s argument in italics below.

1. Debating points and issues in the debates won’t really be the aim. Instead, it will be used as an opportunity to trade blows, irrespective of the content of those blows
Stef: Some real issues were aired and some interesting debates did occur, albeit they were somewhat stymied by the short amount of time available for each question.

After the first debate, it did seem that some interesting debates might occur. But they didn’t. I was wrong in the sense that the debates would be used to trade blows. Instead, they were used to just say and then repeat their key messages. This wasn’t really 3 debates; it was one debate repeated 3 times. (And the format of the debate, as Stef rightly says, stymied the debate.)

2. What goes on in the debates is almost neither here nor there; it’s how they get spun afterwards that matters.
Stef: Whether the debates were of Aristotlian profoundness or playground pettiness, how they get spun afterwards was always going to be as important, if not more important than the debate itself. This does not invalidate the debates themselves, what went on in the debate did make a difference to how the debate was spun.

My original point safely holds. There were clearly prepared lines and put-downs which were echoed in the post-match spin. Related to point 1 above, the debates weren’t genuine debates; they were just an opportunity to establish and repeat key messages, not debate the merits or otherwise of each other’s policies.

3. I’m not one of those that complains about the American-isation of politics, and in particular the cult of personality in politics. The leadership debates will do nothing to assuage people who do complain about this.
Stef: Agreed.

We were agreed on this, so I don’t need to re-emphasize I was right in the first place.

4. Does anyone remember the one-to-one interviews between Jeremy Paxman and each party leader during the 2005 general election? If you do, you’ll remember they were not known for their jibber and jabber on policy issues but instead adversarial tosh focused disproportionately on specific issues (e.g. the number of illegal immigrants in Britain).
Stef: [T]here was a disproportionate amount of focus on the issue of immigration. Yet because of the uniquely non-adversarial format of the debates, we got into more detail and more clarity on policy positions than any PMQs or Question Time.

We did get into a bit more detail about a very few things; but focusing disproporionately on specific issues – particularly immigration, interestingly enough – did happen. The debates were narrow in their focus.

5. The worry about ‘losing’ the debate, or being the subject of a terrific putdown is precisely what leads to the score-draw results assigned to most presidential debates of the last 12 years. Even though this is the first time debates have been held here, the tendency will be for the candidates to play it safe.
Stef: Yes, it was a play-it-safe debate for all the candidates but especially the ‘incumbents’ but Clegg did better because he played it less safe. Here’s betting that the next two will be a bit livelier. A real good put-down may win it.

The perspective of the 3 debates shows that the debates were primarily safe. For all the media tried to find one, there wasn’t a significant moment in any of the debates.

6. Most people think these debates will be good for Gordon Brown. I don’t agree because (1) the Tories are good at precisely this sort of thing, being the presentation of policy rather than what the policy is; and (2) it depends which Gordon Brown turns up. I suspect it will be the one that has turned up at Prime Minister’s Questions for the last 2 years, which is no good thing.
Stef: Patently wrong on both accounts. Cameron inexplicably failed to present himself and his policies at all well, usually his forte. Brown, clearly dreading the event, actually did much better than he thought he would. Although in my opinion he came ‘last’ it was not by much and he, along with Cameron, can only improve over the next two debates.

I was certainly wrong on (1): Cameron did an awful job in the first debate, did marginally better in the second and was his best in the third. Brown was consistently stodgy. The polls for each of the debates bare this out – only in rogue polls did Brown not come third.

7. The spare wheel: there will have to be air time for Nick Clegg as leader as the Lib Dems. This will just be embarrassing for everyone concerned.
Stef: Erm, I’ll let Rich defend himself on this one. Yes the Lib Dems won’t be the largest single party but hell, the kaleidoscope has been well and truly shaken.

I wouldn’t try to defend it: Clegg clearly did well. I’m going to write a post on my wider thoughts on the Lib Dems over the last two or three weeks.

8. Which television stations will cover this? If not everyone can cover every debate, what will the implication be?
Stef: 9 million viewers for a 90 minute political programme on ITV without adverts is absolutely astonishing. The Sky debate will have next to bugger all viewers, mores the shame. What I’d give for a Channel 4 debate with the mighty Jon Snow.

The ITV debate had 9.4m viewers – around 37% share of the viewing audience that night if I remember correctly. Sky had just over 4m and I still don’t know the figure for the BBC debate (which I expect will be the highest viewing audience). This partly anticipates my riposte to point 9 below, but I don’t think the turnout will be higher than the 1997 election (i.e. 71.4%). Viewing figures aren’t much of a proxy for this, but I think the media is more excited by them than the voting public.

9. Does anyone seriously think the debates will engage a wider audience than those engaged in politics anyway? I doubt it very much.
Stef: Policy by anecdote warning! This weekend I had my first ever party political conversation with my brother whom is not atypical of the disengaged voter but a good proxy. He did not watch the debates but read about them afterwards and looked at some of it on YouTube. His verdict. Cameron “Don’t trust him” (Incidentally my mother thought he looked like a porn actor) Brown “Doesn’t know what he’s doing” Clegg “Seemed straightforward and normal”. Policy by anecdote completed. This is why anecdotes are, in the right context, very powerful. My brother and many like him will possibly vote for the first time ever because of the debate and many may well vote Lib Dem, fundamentally changing the political landscape in this country. This would not have happened without the debate.

I’ll leave the point about whether or not the landscape has been changed by the Lib Dems to a later post (here’s a quick preview: I don’t think it has). But I stand by my original point: the leaders’ debates have not engaged a wider audience than those engaged in politics anyway. Ultimately, this will be borne out by the turnout of the election. But beyond the bubble that the media has created, and which has been supported by social media (especially Twitter), I suspect a significant proportion of the public will remain disengaged by this general election.


Mapping the election maps – an observation

There’s some very nice work by the various newspaper websites to cover the election results in each constituency. I’ve mapped the maps here.

It says a lot that only Sky decided to put a description of how the expenses scandal affected each MP in their description of each constituency on said maps, don’t you think?

Advice for #GE10 candidates

With the election having started, I admire the vast majority of candidates in both the general and local elections who are putting themselves on the block.

Two people who are pretty experienced in this sort of thing, Iain Dale and Luke Akehurst, offer their top 20 tips for candidates.

Iain’s tips are here and include:

11. If Party HQ offer you the chance of a visit from a politician even you have barely heard of, turn them down. Even if you have heard of them, consider turning them down. Visits from national politicians use up too many resources and rarely attract a single extra vote.

Luke’s tips are here and include:

9. The single metric of success that counts before polling day is the number of voters you speak to on the phone or doorstep. Prioritise canvassing over all other activity and during the short campaign if you are a parliamentary candidate try to do canvassing from 10am to 12 noon, 1pm to 5pm and 6pm to 8.30pm. Other tasks like press releases and emails should be done when it is too early or too late to talk to voters. Set a target number of canvassing contacts to make each hour and keep trying to hit it.

Mapping the election maps

The vast amount of coverage, fact, opinion and general splurge that newspapers will publish on their websites will be superfluous at best. But one very useful tool that each has invested some considerable time in is their election mapping graphics. Below are the ones I’ve found so far, and I’ll add to the list as I find them.

The Times: Election’10

Sky: General Election 2010

Guardian: election map and swingometer

The Telegraph: UK General Election 2010 politics map

BBC news swingometer

In my view, the Times’s is the best, and is the one I’ll be using for the duration.

Brown at the Palace

This may well turn out to be the leakiest election in history. After this earlier transcription of conversations inside number 10, AC can exclusively* reveal the conversations that occurred earlier this morning at the Palace.

Sir Philip Farquar Jones Jonestown III (Queen’s Private Secretary) – Good Morning Mr Brown, lovely day for it.

Gordon Brown – Would have preferred good sturdy old-fashioned pea-souper to suit my mood and that of my party. On the plus side, I always like my chats with Her Highness…

Sir – Well she’s in a foul mood, she’d planned a lie-in after hunting for easter eggs round her garden all weekend and didn’t find any – have you seen how faaarking huge it at Windsor?

Brown – Yes, I’d always planned to have a caged Blair in there as part of the tourist attraction I had planned for when I declared a Republic. Shame I ditched that plan along with the Autumn election.

Her Majesty Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the Seas Queen, Defender of the Faith, Duchess of Edinburgh, Countess of Merioneth, Baroness Greenwich, Duke of Lancaster, Lord of Mann, Duke of Normandy, Sovereign of the Most Honourable Order of the Garter, Sovereign of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath, Sovereign of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, Sovereign of the Most Illustrious Order of Saint Patrick, Sovereign of the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George, Sovereign of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, Sovereign of the Distinguished Service Order, Sovereign of the Imperial Service Order, Sovereign of the Most Exalted Order of the Star of India, Sovereign of the Most Eminent Order of the Indian Empire, Sovereign of the Order of British India, Sovereign of the Indian Order of Merit, Sovereign of the Order of Burma, Sovereign of the Royal Order of Victoria and Albert, Sovereign of the Royal Family Order of King Edward VII, Sovereign of the Order of Merit, Sovereign of the Order of the Companions of Honour, Sovereign of the Royal Victorian Order, Sovereign of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem (For it is she) – Morning, can’t possibly think what you’re here for. Honestly, LONGEST.FUCKING.TRAIL-OF-DRIBBLE.MIND-ALTERINGLY-BORING.ELECTION CAMPAIGN. EVER. And I haven’t even started it yet. Who’s genius idea was it to not even wait until January 2nd before starting the willy-waving?

Brown – Good morning your highness. Given the importance of the choices facing the country, the complexity of the issues confronting voters and our desire for a high-minded debate, we felt a longer period of conversation with the electorate was necessary. Plus the Tories said they were going to start then and having both run out of ideas of our own, we quietly agreed to start slagging each other off as soon as possible.

Queen – Hmm yes well lot of good that seems to have done you both, clearly politicians have been starved of media exposure this last year. You lot should learn from me, keep stum, open some shit and wave a great deal.

Brown – Yes ma’am.

Queen – Lets cut to the chase then, don’t want to miss ALL of Homes Under the Hammer. Would get one of them Sky+ boxes but can’t stand the little shit Murdoch, £40 to watch the football, I mean. So yes, you are dissolved or prorogated or whatever it is. Obviously I’ll probably see the lot of you back here in a month or so. Hope you’ve been practicing being a grown up politician so that you, Dave and wotsisface can work out how to run my gaff.

Brown – I believe the electorate will recognise the need for stability in these turbulent times and decisively elect a Labour Governent.

Queen – Gordon, I know its a stressful time but lay off the blue one’s eh.

Brown – Yes ma’am. I believe that in the event of a hung parliament we can form something akin to a government of national unity.

Queen – Well you bloody better, just remember who really runs this place…Just so you know, I like Vince, he does has something of the Phillip about him, dreadfully handsome, full of meaningless, unsubstantiated shit but unchallenged because of his position. He’s gotta be in, none of that boy george rubbish, wallpaper fortune, so bloody nouveau. And as for Dave, well says it all really, half-decent lineage yet insists on being called Dave.

Brown – So I trust I can count on your tacit support in helping me to form a government ma’am?

Queen – Sod right off mate. Are the raving loonies still about? Might as well have a laugh given how skint everyone is.

*Nobody was consulted in the making of this entirely fictional blogpost

Darling’s daring (and the C4 Chancellors’ debate)

Alistair Darling can’t rightly be described as ‘daring’; even so, it made for a good post title.

This is just a short post celebrating the fact that, for once, I was right when I wrote (back in January!) that Darling is key. His solidly boring budget and the finding that Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling (33%) are more trusted to run the economy than Cameron and Osborne (27%) all go to further demonstrate the point.

And, if you need more convincing, then Events dear boy, events does a good job:

A safe pair of eyebrows

Attention will now turn to Channel 4’s Chancellors’ debate between Darling, Osborne and Cable tomorrow night. It simply won’t be possible for Osborne to trip out the line that people will have to ‘wait and see’ what the Tory spending/savings proposals are when he’ll have the ‘People’s Politician’ Cable on one side of him and Darling solidly making the case for Labour’s handling of the financial crisis on the other.

The only hope Osborne has is to wrong foot his opponents, since he’s so resolutely unable to debate with them on, I dunno, economics. So, expect to see a couple of spending revelations to be, well, revealed by Osborne, and for Darling and Cable to bring actual depth to the debate rather than petty electioneering.