The General Election will soon be upon us. It is predicted (somewhat paradoxically) to be the most unpredictable election in memory, with it seeming increasingly possible that neither the Conservatives nor Labour will emerge with a majority. The Liberal Democrats look set to suffer at the hands of the electorate, with key figures such as Danny Alexander being forced to truly battle for his seat. Smaller parties which have burst onto the scene in recent years, such as UKIP, the Greens and the SDP, have real potential to make gains in Parliament and, as Nigel Farage and Nicola Sturgeon are both claiming, to “hold the balance of power.” In such a complex and unclear situation in the weeks preceding the election, it might be worth considering what role TV will have in deciding the country’s fate come May 7th.
For many weeks now, the major political story has been the ongoing, farcical debate between the major parties, smaller parties and the broadcasters about TV debates. This story has dominated the newspapers, Question Time and political interviews. Such a big deal has been made of the fact that these programmes are ‘essential to democracy’ and a democratic right of the British electorate, that you would think that these programmes are truly vital to our political system and the election outcome.
However, the idea of televised election debates in the UK, although floating around for a while now, only came to fruition for the first time in the last general election. It would be hard to argue therefore that these debates are actually vital (or even important) to our political system, as we have managed for centuries without them.
Perhaps a more significant point is their potential to affect voters. On the face of it, they do indeed have significant potential to attract votes, based on the performances of the party leaders. This is particularly true of the ‘floating voters’ who have yet to be wooed by one parties’ promises or policies. Those who are either true blue or red through aren’t suddenly going to change their political viewpoint based on a few hour long programmes.
It is also worth remembering that this draw effect that the leaders may have is necessarily limited, as for most people in the country, voting for any of the party leaders is in fact impossible. The truism that ‘all politics is local’ actually turns out to be accurate, because the electorate is split into 650 segments, of which only 3 (or 5, or 7 depending on your definition) will be voting for major party leaders.
To gauge the effect that this round of debates may have, we must look back to the only evidence available on this subject, from 2010.
The debates and ‘I agree with Nick’ induced a state of nationwide ‘Clegg-mania’, with many people newly aware that a third major party existed, and that their leader seemed to be competent, pleasant and offering a new kind of politics. People turned out in droves to vote Lib Dem, powering them and their new hero Nick Clegg to a swathe of new seats – only, of course this wasn’t what happened. The Liberal Democrats’ share of parliamentary seats actually declined from 62 to 57. As Mark Dexter, playing David Cameron in the recent Channel 4 programme Coalition said, “What happened to the Lib Dems?”
It could of course be argued that the Lib Dems would have lost more seats if ‘Clegg-mania’ hadn’t taken hold. But even then, if the major impact this significant shift in politics had was damage limitation, it seems increasingly hard to say that the debates this time will hold any real sway over the outcome.
Having watched the first of the much debated ‘debates’ on March 26 – the chat-show sounding Cameron and Miliband Live: The Battle for No. 10 – it seems even more likely that this series of four, varying debates will be almost entirely inconsequential. ‘Cameron and Miliband Live’ was to say the least, underwhelming. The leaders and broadcasters had only agreed to the format of the four debates a matter of days before the 26th, so perhaps it is understandable that the first in the series was a bit flat. However, an intensively aggressive Paxman interview, followed up by what felt like a school Q&A session (the order of which for some reason was swapped for Ed Miliband) didn’t seem to me to be either informative or suitable for what is actually an incredibly important matter – who will be the next Prime Minister? Further than this, neither leader gave a shining performance, although neither can be said to have had a debacle either.
The majority of the viewing and voting public seem to have shared my opinion. The polls suggest that Cameron just about won, but many were surprised that Miliband wasn’t the weak, weird, two-kitchened leader that the press paints him to be. Feedback indicated that the programme didn’t answer the questions people have, and the general consensus is that neither leader has won any of the floating vote. Viewing figures for the first debate of 2015, when compared to the first debate in 2010, also look bad. 10 million people watched the first debate in 2010 – in 2015, it was less than 3 million. All in all, not a great opening skirmish in the battle for number 10.