Monday, June 28, 2010

Looking back on the leaders' debates

I have an article on the televised leaders' debates that took place during the recent general election campaign in the current issue of Liberator.

It's not the most exciting thing I have ever written, but I am including it here for the sake of completeness.

X-factor Politics

The three leaders’ debates during the general election campaign probably did not much affect the result of the election, but they may have altered the course of British politics after all.

For a while after the first debate it seemed that the wildest hopes of those Liberal Democrats who had long argued for these debates had been exceeded.

As Jonathan Freedland wrote in the Guardian the following day:

From the start, Clegg asserted himself as the star of the show, anointed as such by a whopping 51 per cent of those surveyed by an instant Sun/YouGov poll.

The first shot had him looking alarmingly young, boyish and eager, but he soon transcended that. More than his rivals, he demonstrated an instant understanding of the format. All his answers were delivered to the camera, since that was where the audience that mattered was to be found.

Such was the assurance of Clegg’s performance, and their own comparative lack of preparation, that both Gordon Brown and David Cameron were reduced to frequent cries of “I agree with Nick”.

In the days that followed that debate, we Liberal Democrats could hardly believe what we were seeing. We did not just rise in the polls: it reached a point where we were disappointed if we saw an opinion poll in which we were not in first place.

On the internet, reflecting the particular success of Clegg’s performance in the first debate with younger voters, the position was just as encouraging. Unauthorised “I agree with Nick” merchandise sprouted everywhere, and a similarly independent Facebook group entitled “We got Rage Against the Machine to #1, we can get the Lib Dems into office!”, which had less than 19,000 members after the launch of the Liberal Democrat manifesto, leapt to a membership of 115,000 in the wake of the first debate and was eventually to have more than 160,000 members.

It could not last. Though most judges and polls suggested that Clegg had shaded a generally lacklustre second debate, his performance inevitably lacked that extraordinary novelty factor the second time around. By now the other two leaders had stopped agreeing with Nick, but they did not really get around to attacking him until the third debate. Though Clegg’s performance in this third debate was in many ways more forceful than in the second, by now David Cameron had come to terms with the format and most polls awarded victory to him.

Such had been the impact of Nick Clegg’s performance in the first debate, however, that most observers still expected a major Liberal Democrat advance on election night. When the broadcasters’ exit poll showing no advance at all appeared, not even the most senior politicians believed what it said. Yet it proved to be correct, suggesting that four weeks of election campaigning – leaders’ debates included – had ultimately had little effect on the way the nation had voted. Nor did the turnout show much sign of the young having been enthused to vote. It was up on the last two elections, but given that the 2010 election was so much more open than those two, not up by half as much as might have been expected.

So was Cleggmania all an illusion? The evidence of the opinion polls taken after the first debate suggest that it was not, though we should be more wary of online evidence – in the new social media in particular, there is a tendency for likeminded people to congregate and convince themselves that they represent a far larger slice of the population than is really the case. This can be valuable for raising activists’ morale, but misleading when it comes to sensing the mood of the wider electorate.

Perhaps the best parallel for Cleggmania is one of those great by-election upsets in which the Liberal Democrats – and the Liberal Party and SDP before them – used to specialise in. They often produced a remarkable upsurge in the opinion polls; in the Alliance years they often led to polls suggesting that the two parties might well form the next government. But we never did form the next government, because that effect had long since worn off by the time that the general election came around. The polls always ask “How would you vote if there were a general election tomorrow?” but there rarely is an election tomorrow.

Looking back, it seems we also read too much into the polls asking voters who had won the debates. The assumption seemed to be that if people said Nick Clegg had won the debate then they were bound to vote for him, but of course that was never the case. Think of The X-Factor – a parallel that suggested itself to many commentators at the time. Once people have decided on their favourite act they will vote for him come what may, but they will be quite capable of admitting that he was not at his best this week and that someone else sang better. So it was quite possible that some of those who said that Nick Clegg had won the first two debates were confirmed Labour or Conservative voters who were fair-minded enough to be objective about what they had watched. That never meant they were going to vote Liberal Democrat.

The truth is probably not as clear cut as this, with people’s reactions to the debates being partly based on an objective consideration of what they had watched and partly on pre-existent partly loyalties. It was notable that by the time of the third debate the polls on who had won looked remarkably like the polls about voting intention: David Cameron was in the lead with Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown level pegging a few percentage points behind him. By then people’s voting intentions were firming up and were more likely to colour their view of what they had seen in the debate.

One notable result of Nick Clegg’s commanding performance in the first debate was that he and the Liberal Democrats became central to the later debates and the election campaign as a whole. This was a wonderful contrast with past elections, where we have often been desperate for attention, but the political wisdom that you are on the way to victory if the battle is fought on territory of your own choosing is only half right: you have to win that battle too. And we did not win enough of the important battles.

While not being like “the two old parties” was enough to win the first debate, by the time of the third debate there was much closer scrutiny of specific Liberal Democrat policies and they – or Nick Clegg – did not always stand up to it well. Our insistence on including the question of a replacement for Trident in the defence review, for instance, was made to seem a unilateralist position, when a stronger insistence that with the economy in such a state we should be very sure before we embark on a policy that will cost some £65bn.

Equally, our “earned route to citizenship” was painted as a simple amnesty that would encourage further illegal immigrants. The truth is that there will be illegal immigration as long as there is an enormous disparity in wealth between countries and easy intercontinental travel, but that point was never made and might not have been well received if it had been made. In the campaign more generally, Liberal Democrat shadow ministers had more trouble explaining how the policy of allowing people to settle in some regions and not others would be policed and it is probably as well that point was not raised in the debates.

Ultimately these two failings may not have been so damning: people wedded to nuclear weapons or immigration control are unlikely to vote Liberal Democrat anyway. More serious was the failure to get over the sense that the Liberal Democrats grasped that tax had been something that only the “little people” paid and were determined to do something about it. The policy of lifting people out of taxation was mentioned, but the thinking behind it was never made clear and it may have been less well remembered for that reason.

Despite the disappointing Liberal Democrat performance, Nick Clegg left the campaign in a much better position than he entered it, and that must surely be down to the debates. He is now known by every voter and seen, even by those who will never vote Liberal Democrat, as of equal standing with the leaders of the Conservative and Labour parties. That is a remarkable turnaround and could hardly have been achieved without the concentrated exposure that the debates gave.

It may well be Clegg’s standing after the debates that encouraged David Cameron to make his offer when he failed to win an overall majority. For the Liberal Democrat leader was not just bringing his 52 MPs, he was bringing a sense of freshness and possibility that the government badly needed. So while the debates did not ultimately enthuse the young to take part in the political process or result in many more Liberal Democrat votes, they did change our politics permanently.

Will these debates become a permanent feature of British general elections? Do not bank on it. The 1960 debates between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon have entered political folklore on both sides of the Atlantic. What is less widely remembered is that there was not another Presidential debate until 1976, when the unelected Gerald Ford was almost as little known as his challenger Jimmy Carter.

Since then debates have become the norm in America, but they have never decided the election in the way that this folklore holds that they did in 1960. In fact they have often proved quite remarkably dull, with the Ford-Carter debates providing a particularly good example of this. Worse than that, Ford had obviously been told to try to smile and someone had told Carter not to grin so much; the result was that both spent the whole time with fixed half-smiles on their faces.

Fast forward to 1992 and the debate between the elder George Bush and Bill Clinton, when Bush was caught sneaking a look at his watch during one of their encounters. This was widely regarded as a gaffe and reinforced the idea that Clinton was much more in touch with the voters and their concerns. Yet when asked about it later, Bush said: “Was I glad when the damned thing was over? Yeah, and maybe that’s why I was looking at my watch — only 10 more minutes of this crap. Maybe if I’d have said that I’d have done better."

It will be hard for David Cameron not to agree to televised debates at the next general election – the media will howl in protest if he tries to get out of holding them – but if he is a long way ahead in the polls, do not be surprised if he tries.

1 comment:

NoetiCat said...

I re-watched the first debate again recently, and two things stood out:

1) Clegg stuck to our policy of timing cuts on circumstances rather than on political dogma [I wonder who then advised him to start siding with Labour on this? I bet it was Sue! ;-) ]

2) Brown's answer to pretty much every question seemed to be "spend, spend, spend!"