Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Televised debates will be bad for the Liberal Democrats

While I have been at work the Liberal Democrat blogosphere has gone collectively bananas over the prospect of a televised debate between the party leaders during the next general election campaign.

I disagree. I think such a debate or debates could well be bad news for the Liberal Democrats.

Here's why.

The arrangements under which the party gets close to equal treatment with the two main parties during election campaigns were hard won. If Sky TV is allowed to tear them up (if there is more than one debate, will Nick Clegg be invited to all of them?) we are unlikely to gain from it. As far as the media are concerned, the story is Labour vs Tory, Brown vs Cameron. The Lib Dems and Nick Clegg are a distraction to this and if they can sideline us they will.

Remember, too, that this is the Murdoch family we are talking about. Remember James Murdoch - half CIA operative, half Mormon missionary - and his claim in Edinburgh that public broadcasting is a threat to our freedom? You should do when you celebrate the way Sky has moved more quickly than the staid old BBC. The Murdoch family has agendas the way that dogs have fleas.

And will these debates be helpful to the Liberal Democrats? On any objective account the party's greatest asset at the next election will be Vince Cable and his reputation for competence in economic matters. It may be difficult to emphasise a team of potential cabinet ministers rather than the party leader in a modern election, but we should certainly give it a try. If there are televised debates these will inevitably become the focus of the entire election campaign and Vince will be excluded from them.

There seems to be an assumption that Nick will do well in the debates, but will he? From his reaction on live television to the revelation of the "Calamity Clegg" memo in the leadership campaign to his "Our shopping list of commitments will be far, far, far, far, far shorter" in the Independent recently, Nick's major media appearances have generally contained episodes that could have been put a great deal better.

Leading a party in the age of 24-hour media is a horribly difficult job, and Nick has certainly been learning fast, but I do not share this assumption that Nick is bound to shine when placed against Cameron and Brown.

Behind this enthusiasm for televised debates lie two things.

The first is a feeling that they are new, modern and American, and therefore Liberal Democrats, as the party of reform, should support them. For the reasons given above, I am not convinced.

The second is that in order to win power all you need to do is put a pleasant man with youthful looks and a public school education before the public. But just because Tony Blair and David Cameron have made party leadership look easy, it doesn't mean that it is easy.

So all those Lib Dem bloggers should be careful what they wish for. They may get it.

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Mark Thompson said...

I'm not in favour of it for partisan reasons. I just think that the time is long overdue for the main party leaders to put their case in a televised debate. Frankly it is bizarre that it has not happened before now.

It's not even modern, the US has been doing it for 50 years.

As it happens I think Nick will do well, certainly better than Brown. It will give him/us more exposure and remind people that there are more than just the two main parties.

Regarding Murdoch, it does irk me a little that it is Sky that has been the first to do this but we needed someone to. Leaving it up to the politicians we'd still be here in another 50 years debating the whys and wherefores and having the front-runners coming up with excuses as to why it shouldn't happen.

Mark Pack said...

I'm in favour of TV debates, but for neither of those reasons Jonathan.

For example, if there is a debate where the public ask questions directly, I think we're likely to get much better answers as stonewalling the public - especially if they get a follow up - normally comes over much worse than doing the same to a journalist.

Also asking the same question of several party leaders together gives a much better opportunity to compare and contrast their answers, because you hear them in immediate succession - and therefore you get a different set of answers. A set of vague cliches from one suddenly looks very bad if the next answer addresses the issue more directly.

That's not to be starry eyed about debates, but those I've seen from other countries most of the time give more information about the attributes and policies of participants than the journalist vs leader set-ups we have.

For me the best argument from overseas about TV debates isn't the US, but from what I've seen of Canada and Australia, where they also have a Parliamentary system and the debates consistently make the election campaigns better.

Marc Gascoigne said...

If we think Vince Cable is going to be our biggest asset then we should be pushing for a debate between the parties' Treasury teams as well, or would that just be unfair on Osborne and Darling?

Maybe I'm naive, but given that Sky invited the Lib Dems and openly stated that they 'should' be involved I see no reason why they'd suddenly take that away - judging by the comments on their petition if anything they'll have to open the debate up to other parties, not restrict it.

I think Clegg would do well, and that any chance to have him placed on an equal platform with Brown and Cameron can only be good for the Lib Dems, and very much hope the debate goes ahead.

Neil Stockley said...

Now, let's get this right.

There might be a leaders debate on tv -- and the rules might be fair.

But the Lib Dems shouldn't let our guy go on because some of us are scared that he might get his arse kicked. Hardly the way to get taken seriously by anyone.

Maybe our alibi will be that we don't like the owners of the TV station. So, no more interviews with the Times then?

Or maybe we'll say we're running a team; meanwhile the voters judge us on our leader more than the team (also, parties that try this look like they're trying to hide a self-confessed weakness).

There is by the way nothing "new" or American about these debates. NZ had a leaders debate as long ago as 1969 and they have been a staple of election campaigns there since 1975. Australia and Canada have also used them for years. They expose the leaders to much more scrutiny and bring politics home to people.

Could that really be so terrible?

Matthew Huntbach said...

It's not even modern, the US has been doing it for 50 years.

Yes, and they have a presidential style of government and we do not. Our general election is not about electing a College of Electors whose only job is to elect the Prime Minister. Television general election coverage is already too biased in presenting it that way, why push it further?

Why can't we push the emphasis back onto electing community representatives who together sort out how this country should be run? So why not do whatever is required to force the lazy journos to put it this way? Wouldn't that revive politics and the democratic ideal which is so lost at present?

As Jonathan suggests, why do we have to live as if life as presented by US entertainment is reality, and what is around us is just a sort of shadowlands which we should try and fit and adapt into the reality we see in 'movies' and TV 'shows'?

And, as Jonathan is hinting, actually we have a leader who is turning out to be a bit useless. Obviously we can't get rid of him before the general election. So it's in our interests to present ourselves as a party which isn't all about its leader. Our party has under several leaders suffered from being seen as just their personal vehicles, whereas we'd be seen as so much grander and more useful if we did present ourselves as stuffed full of skilled and experienced people who'd do a good job in government. Kennedy worked well as leader because (ok, it had to be this way because he was too drunk to be the front man all the time) he let the party be seen as more than him. Clegg's conversation on the plane shows up the real problem - he's insecure because he knows he's a bit useless, so he doesn't want any alternative talent to shine. Grudgingly, he's had to let Vince be seen and heard, but Vince is ok as he's too old to be a leadership challenger and really doesn't want to. Even so, notice how Clegg doesn't actually reflect what Vince is saying when he speaks, so Vince is seen as just Vince and not the voice of the Liberal Democrats.

Smart constituency associations are minimising the Clegg presence on their literature. It is sad that so often we have to run local campaigns which seem to be separate from the national campaign because the national campaign isn't helping much. But my tip is, those who want to win must do that for the next election.

Frank Little said...

I agree with Matthew's first two paragraphs. We have a system of representative democracy and we should strengthen it, not weaken it.

Rather than take his negative line on the leader, though, I think we should accentuate the positive, especially the strength of our Treasury team.

A further thought: if Sky is contemplating taking a partisan line during the election period, surely the regulator must step in?