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.
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.