Friday, 3 April 2015

British election: the leaders' debate

This is the second of my posts on the British General Election, this time on the televised debate between the party leaders which was held last night. This is only the second time there has been such a debate in the UK, and the format was different to last time. In the 2010 election only the leaders of Conservative, Liberal Democrats and Labour participated. This time, following various political machinations, they were joined by the leaders of the Greens, SNP, UKIP and Plaid Cymru (the Welsh national party). Thus the full cast was Natalie Bennett (Greens), David Cameron (Conservative), Nick Clegg (LibDems), Nigel Farage (UKIP), Ed Miliband (Labour), Nicola Sturgeon (SNP) and Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru). The debate lasted for two hours and was organized around four questions on the economy, the health service, immigration, and the future for young people.
In many ways it was this format that had the biggest effect. It meant that each leader had relatively little time to speak and when they did it was highly structured. There was little audience participation (I think by instruction from the broadcasters) and it was hard for any of the leaders to really get a sense of audience reaction – there was little applause, no catcalling and just one heckle towards the end. In short, the atmosphere felt quite sterile. Certainly it was difficult for any single leader to dominate proceedings, and none did.
Opinion polls and comments since the debates suggest that no one emerged as a clear ‘winner’or ‘loser’, although Nicola Sturgeon has been the most widely praised. I think this is deserved: she gave a strong, calm and confident performance. One quite likely permutation of the election result is a Labour minority government supported by the SNP and if so that will be an interesting outcome, since Sturgeon is some way to the left of Labour and would be likely to push strongly against austerity economics.
As for the other leaders, David Cameron, who had been resistant to the debates taking place, seemed somewhat ill at ease and disengaged. He can be an accomplished speaker and expectations would have been quite high that he would stand out, so I would think his supporters would be disappointed. Ed Miliband, by contrast, started against low expectations since he is widely seen as lacking charisma. Thus it was relatively easier for him to exceed expectations, so his supporters may be relieved. It would be hard to say that either of these two – the only ones with any expectation of becoming Prime Minister – decisively defeated the other.
Nigel Farage will have had high expectations from this debate. He is often an accomplished and effective speaker, skilled in projecting an image of straight-speaking normality. But his style relies a lot on the use of humour and bombast, and the rigid format and stage-managed audience weren’t a good format for these. He wasn’t able to dominate proceedings as he might have done in a head to head, and it was notable that Cameron and Miliband barely addressed him, treating him as almost an irrelevance. He was also the only one of the leaders who looked physically uncomfortable. His supporters profess themselves pleased but there was no breakthrough moment of the sort they would have hoped for.
Of all the leaders, Natalie Bennett started with the lowest expectations given recent painful media performances (which I discussed in another post). To exceed them all she really had to do was not implode, and she easily exceeded that bar. Leanne Wood was probably the least known of the politicians to a national audience and gave an assured performance, albeit one which (not unreasonably) mainlined on Welsh rather than national issues. Sturgeon, by contrast, had tended to emphasise the role SNP MPs could play in Westminster politics. But it was Wood who garnered one of the few rounds of applause of the night, in a sharp put down of Farage’s claim about immigrants using the health service.
Nick Clegg’s performance in the debate has been less commented on in the media than that of the other leaders. It was actually quite punchy and fluent. But whereas at the last election debate his was the runaway success, attracting by far the most praise and interest, the context has now changed and he has neither the edge of being a newcomer challenging the political establishment nor the significance that attaches to the prospective Prime Ministers.
Overall, we didn’t learn very much that was new, and it seems unlikely to me that many viewers will have changed their voting intentions on the basis of the debates. Nevertheless, it was a fascinating evening and, again, this was because of the format. Firstly, there was a far wider range of views represented than has been normal in British politics, and with each leader being given the same amount of air time these views were represented as all having equal weight. That felt like a refreshing change following an era which, as I wrote in my last post, has been dominated by the shared neo-liberal orthodoxy of Conservative and Labour parties. Secondly, the dynamics of the debate felt changed by the presence of three women – who, relatedly, each represented ideologies at odds with neo-liberalism. Since Margaret Thatcher’s departure, British politics has been heavily dominated by white men in suits and suddenly that domination has evaporated (as regards the men, but not the white bit). It was Thatcher who coined the phrase ‘there is no alternative’ (to free markets), otherwise known as Tina. But Tina, for one night anyway, was banished by Leanne, Natalie and Nicola.

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