» leaders’ debate ¦ What You Can Get Away With

electiondebateThe general election debate dance used to be simple. The leader of whichever of the Conservative or Labour partes was trailing in the polls demanded one, then the one who was in the lead hemmed, hawed and put so many conditions in the way of having one that they could never be accused of turning it down, but guaranteed that it would never happen. The leaders of the third and other parties presumably had opinions on this, but as the debates were never a serious proposition, they didn’t get aired, unless their inclusion or not was one of the roadblocks thrown in the way it happened.

Then in 2010, the stars aligned in just the right way and we had our three debates between the leaders of the three leading parties. Understandably, this has created an expectation that they’ll happen again, which would set us off on an even more complicated path of negotiation even without the changes that have happened in politics over the last few years.

In that context, the initial proposal for the debates – a debate with Cameron and Miliband, then a debate with Cameron, Miliband and Clegg, and finally one with Cameron, Miliband, Clegg and Farage – would make sense as a wrecking proposal from someone who didn’t really want a debate. It’s bizarrely convoluted, it ignores the Greens, it means each debate is going to end up covering the same ground as the new inclusion in the later debates will want to revisit that and it doesn’t appear to satisfy anyone. Job done, except this came from the broadcasters, not a politician, and I’ve no idea how they managed to come up with such a dog’s breakfast of a proposal.

The key point here is that the broadcasters are in a position of strength as the public will be expecting debates this time, so they’ve got the ‘we’re going ahead with this format, with or without you’ card to play. The public would accept an empty chair, if they think the broadcasters have been fair and it looks like someone being petulant. As it is, this proposed system just guarantees Cameron and Miliband having the same discussion for three weeks, with extra guests being invited to interject on the reruns.

The way I see it, there are five parties that pass the credibility test for being included in a UK-wide debate: they’ve all had MPs and MEPs elected, polls suggest they will get MPs elected at the next election and they’re standing in a majority of the seats at the election. (To the best of my knowledge, no party is intending to stand in all of them) That means debates between the leaders of the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, UKIP and the Greens, and the formula should be on the same lines as last time: one on the economy, one on foreign affairs and one on domestic issues. The one thing I would agree with David Cameron on is that because of fixed term parliaments we now know exactly when the election will be, they could be spaced out over a few months before, not all crammed into the campaign. I’d also suggest that similar debates with similar criteria for entry should occur in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and that the broadcasters should commit to showing these across the UK on free-to-air channels.

The debates worked last time because they were simple and everyone could understand what they were about and why the leaders were there. The political system now isn’t quite as simple, but that doesn’t mean we need to add an extra level of complexity into the debates. Three debates, each on a theme, with five leaders at each is the best way of achieving that this time around.

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Firstly, a musical interlude:

Well, that’s cleared all the lingering dog whistles from last night. For more on this, and to save me just echoing everything she wrote, go and read what Jennie has to say.

Just think, this time next week it’ll all be over, unless you have local elections and they’re finding it hard to get enough staff to count them all, and you’ve got several wards where the result is really close, and they’ve all had to go to recounts, and then the Returning Officer, with the look of someone who can barely remember what sleep is, decides you’ll all need to come back tomorrow to finish off. So, unless that scenario happens – and I know I’m tempting fate for Colchester by writing it here – the election will all be over by this time next week. And that’s when the screaming starts…

Or there’ll just be the realisation that while the people have spoken, we’re not quite sure what they’ve said and as liquidating the electorate and replacing them with a new one isn’t anyone’s policy (well, the first half comes close to the BNP) we’ll just have to go back and ask them again in 6-12 months to see if they’ve changed their minds. Electoral staff may be one of the growth industries of the next few years, if only we can find a way to export them for profit. Sadly, that would likely involve persuading another country to adopt an FPTP electoral system, which they seem reluctant to do so.

For another perspective on what might the situation this time next week might be, go read Chris Brooke.

Back to the debate, and an interesting post from Channel 4’s Gary Gibbon looking at how the pollsters weight their panels for the debate response polls. The information he provides leaves a very large question mark over just how accurate any of the post-debate polls have been, especially given that ‘the leader of the party I support came first’ appears to be the most common response. Still, anyone who watched Charlotte Gore’s version of the debate would have enjoyed it. If I had any animation skills at all, I would be working on a version of MegaMultiLeaderMechaRobot vs GimletEyedBearFascist Stomp Attack!, but I don’t so I just have to hope someone else is inspired.

That’s all from me for today – another 300 deliveries to take the total to a nice round 3,000, but no doors knocked today, as I had a terrible night’s sleep last night and don’t think that falling asleep on someone’s doorstep as I wait for them to answer the door is a good way

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It’s very hard to watch a political debate objectively when you’re a partisan supporter of one of the participants in it. ‘No, no,’ you find yourself practicising in your head during the most embarrassing moments ‘when he removed his trousers and ran round the stage proclaiming he was the Rightful King of Greater Abyssinia, he was showing his commitment to an active engagement with African politics.’

So, watching tonight’s debate – sorry, THE FIRST EVER LEADERS’ DEBATE as ITV insisted on billing it – I found myself thinking that Nick Clegg was doing well, but almost second-guessing myself and thinking that while I liked what he said, would the public. Turns out that I am in tune with the public, as UK Polling Report states:

There were two properly conducted instant polls following the debate, carried out by YouGov and ComRes. Both show Nick Clegg winning, Cameron second and Brown last (YouGov has NC51, DC29, GB19. ComRes has NC 46, DC 26, GB 20)

Overused phrase of the night had to be ‘I agree with Nick’ which is something I always like to hear, but it was good to hear the leaders of the the other parties saying. Shame that they never said it in the House of Commons when Nick was proposing a series of reforms to clean up politics – including the ability to recall MPs – but let’s be glad that they’ve finally accepted they were wrong on that, rather than harping on about whatever they did wrong in the past.

Clegg did a great job not only in setting out Liberal Democrat policy, but in showing how we differ from the Labservative consensus. One message we’re continually trying to push is that we’re about doing things differently – not just tinkering around the edges of how the government works, but completely remaking the way this country works.

I was thinking before the debate that this was potentially the most important 90 minutes for the Liberal Democrats in years. Clegg took the opportunity that was offered to him and ran with it, which has the potential to turn this election on its head. I’ve already seen a mention of an Angus Reid poll that says 42% of people are now more likely to vote Lib Dem than they were tomorrow, which could lead to some big changes in the polls over the weekend.

There are still two more debates to go, and it’ll be interesting to see what effect tonight’s ‘result’ has on Brown and Cameron. Do they continue to play the ‘I agree with Nick’ card, or do they go all out to try and knock him down with the risk of them looking hard and nasty as a consequence? The one thing I do know that’s happened as a result of this is that I can’t wait to get out and get delivering and knocking on doors tomorrow – and initial Twitter reaction suggests there are lots of Liberal Democrats feeling the same way.

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