Tuesday 29 September 2009

Why a TV election debate won't be a game-changer

A series of election debates in which Gordon Brown would be the first Prime Minister to debate his rivals for the job during an election campaign is a good idea.

But they are unlikely to prove a "game-changer" in an election campaign. The idea of the "knockout" blow is overstated.

TV leadership debates seem to me almost as likely as game of noughts and crosses to end up as a draw.

But the recent German election was something of an exception. It saw SPD Kanzler-candidate Frank Walter Steinmeir won a points victory over Angela Merkel. That lifted the SPD's flagging morale for the last fortnight - but it had little impact on the general election outcome itself. (The Greens, Free Democrat and Left leaders took part in a separate debate, on the grounds that their leaders were not genuine candidates for Chancellor, an approach to the third party which Britain would not emulate).

Still, the German debate is also a good reminder of why a debate is a good idea. It is a reminder that the common 'Americanisation of British politics' objection to a leadership debate is a highly parochial red herring. After all, TV leaders' debates are a regular fixture in parliamentary democracies - also Portugal (where socialist Jose Socrates was re-elected to government on Sunday, Spain, Ireland, Austria, Australia, Greece, Portugal, New Zealand and others - as well as Presidential systems like France and the United States.

What a debate will achieve is this: it will increase knowledge and understanding of policy and politics.

Millions of people will pay more attention to the election than they would otherwise have done. 14 million viewers watched the German debate. International experience suggests a British debate might well be watched by one in four voters, or possibly more.

So for all of the anticipation, it might well lack drama. And this will be some of the most straight and old-fashioned "talking head TV" any of us have seen since the black and white golden age of AJP Taylor.

The media will complain at the lack of a 'knockout' punch. The think-tankers will note how key issues got ducked. The bloggers will fisk every answer, and the twitters will complain that the format has not been transformed to one which is social media-led. Yet, for all of the traditionalist complaints about 'soundbite' politics as the leaders attempt to come up with a memorable zinger line, it will see the largest numbers of people who watch any part of the election listen to more detailed exchanges on policy issues than they will hear in any other news or broadcast coverage during the campaign.

My prediction would be that Cameron will probably come across, on such an occasion, pretty much as he often comes across: as articulate, fluent, likeable and a little lightweight.

Gordon Brown will probably gain more than Cameron. I think he is likely to come across as serious, intelligent, informed about the issues and committed to making a difference, getting a less mediated hearing than in most political coverage.

Perhaps Nick Clegg would gain more than either of the two party leaders, since it might well be the first time many voters have seen him speak for more than a sentence or two.

Labour does need a "game-changing" intervention - but that depends on how it uses the using the next 200 days in government to make choices which can frame the political argument. Being ready to debate opponents as often as possible before and during the campaign is a good idea - but a less risk averse approach to Labour's election campaign than in 2001 and 2005 depends on much more than this.

What I would predict is that there would quite probably be an upwards bump in trust in the political process. Even the lacklustre and barely visible 2005 campaign saw a short-term increase in interest in politics and trust in the political process rise, according to the authoritative Hansard Society audit of political engagement.

So whatever impact a debate has on the fortunes of the parties, it is likely to be a pro-politics force.

PS: The obstacle to a debate may now be differences between the broadcasters more than the parties. The Times reports that Sky " refuses to join the BBC and ITV in setting up a negotiating team, fearing that the terrestrial broadcasters will fail to give it an equal share". (The two companies share ownership).

I can't see what the "equal share" claim could be. It ought to be a basic democratic principle that all of the events must be broadcast free to air on terrestrial television, though there should be no problem with any satellite broadcaster then also carrying the programme. The report could well lead to the suspicion that Sky's recent campaign over this long-standing issue is more about its profile within the debates than the idea of a leaders' debate itself).


Bearded Socialist said...

A really good piece, I might even be convinced that it's not the devil incarnate.

I fear you may also be right about Sky, they are more interested in having the debate than the debate itself. Not that anything Murdoch does is ever for his own gain, of course.

Who should stage it is a serious question, probably the BBC for my money (literally)

LC said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Demos Intern said...

An epoch-making development in electoral campaigning! Maybe that is a tad too far, but the prospect of viewing a debate series between our three serious political contenders does raise important questions about how we conduct politics. It highlights the importance of 'performance', if there is concern about a decline in interest in politics, it’s a chance for politicians to give the public something interesting.

A debate would give the general public a chance to hear politicians engage each other about issues such as the state of the economy and climate change. But they must do this honestly and frankly – where do they really stand, and what does their party really offer on the things that matter? Brown, Cameron and Clegg must guard themselves against the attraction of ‘killer facts’ and ‘knock-out punches’ in a popularity contest reminiscent of the X-factor. This is a chance to give people the reasons to trust them, to show integrity, knowledge and depth as well as panache.

I am still undecided whether TV debates will be judged on the substance of the arguments made or on the ability to 'perform' well on the TV today. Nonetheless, I think from New Labour’s point of view, and Brown’s hopes of electoral victory, this development could swing in their favour.

Rachael Jolley said...

If the debate happens my feeling is it should happen in the House of Commons, underlining it as the centre of democracy not in a TV studio, and certainly not in satellite channel that doesn't reach millions of households. Having the debate in the House would underline the differences between our system and others, and that we are not just apeing the US system.