Leaders’ Question Time and the future of election debates

BBC_Question_TimeThat’s the end of the set piece events for this election, so the politicians will be relaxing and not expecting to be facing any more tough questions until around this time next week. Of course then they’ll actually have to come up with an answer to the question Cameron and Miliband ducked last night: just how will you govern if you don’t get a majority? I know I bang on about this, but if you want a picture of what’s wrong with our political system, it’s two leaders who won’t get 40% of the vote, let alone 50% of it, insisting that they’d have a right to govern entirely alone without any compromises. (It’s also a media who collude in those delusions and talk about winners and losers in a system where we all lose)

As for last night, I thought Cameron did the best job in ignoring the question he’d been asked and delivering the pre-prepared responses in the same subject area. It felt like there were a bunch of interns back at CCHQ playing Buzzword Bingo, and he’d insisted that none of them could win unless he unleashed every single one of them. Miliband was a bit rough at the first, especially when the audience were at their most aggressive, but improved as time went on and stayed calm throughout, which contrasted with the tetchiness that always seems to linger just below the surface when Cameron interacts with anyone. Clegg did well, though he looked quite tired at having to explain the tuition fees issue for the umpteenth time, but dealt well with the audience and didn’t pander to them, being willing to point out to the ‘eight countries are leaving the EU’ questioner that he was just wrong. (Like any Question Time, this would have been improved by Dimbleby telling some questioners the premise of their question was wrong)

Will it have changed minds and been a decisive moment in the campaign? Like all the other events in the election, probably not, but perhaps it’s interesting because it’s not been decisive. A lot of the Tory campaign strategy did seem to revolve around the idea that Miliband would fall apart under the strain of the election, but that hasn’t happened and perhaps the improving public opinion of him has been what’s stopped the Labour vote falling away through the campaign as previous experience might have suggested it would.

Perhaps that lack of reaction is what we need to give us the space to discuss how debates and other set piece events are part of future election campaigns. Discussion of the 2010 ones was overshadowed by the effects of Cleggmania and the worry that they’d unbalance the campaign, but that hasn’t happened this time, even if discussions about them did take up far too much time in the run-up to the election. I suspect some form of debates will be part of future campaigns, but I think we’ve seen that a range of formats might be the way to go in the future. As well as debates, more Question Time-type events would be good, but also more interviews where they’re put on the spot. However, I also think we need to cover a wider range of issues and people than we’ve seen this year – did we really need more questions about immigration last night? I know there have been debates with other party representatives on different issues, but these have been buried away in the middle of the day, or stuck on BBC News and maybe deserve a higher prominence. We complain about the presidentialisation of politics, but this could be a way to weaken that, and also to ensure all issues get some coverage and give exposure to other politicians.

Right, can we have the election itself now, please?

2015 General Election Day 32: Into the second month

It’s starting to feel like this election campaign began before the Duchess of Cambridge was pregnant. Indeed, I’m not quite sure there was a Duchess of Cambridge, a House of Windsor or even a single monarchy back when it began. But no, it wasn’t in the days of the Heptarchy it began, just at the end of March and now we’re over a month later and still things feel as though nothing has changed in all that time, and we’re in stuck in an endless election loop. This time next week, though, the polling stations will be open and votes will be being cast in them and I’ll be spending my first election day in a number of years not running around like a blue-arsed fly, which will be interesting.

Sweepstake idea for election night: during Channels 4’s ‘alternative election night’ coverage, when will Jeremy Paxman first get visibly annoyed at having to cut away from an interesting interview or piece of actual news for some comic filler?

It’s the last big setpiece event of the election tonight as the Cameron, Miliband and Clegg don’t go head-to-head on Question Time. Yes, we can have all three in the same building at the same time – just like Miliband and Cameron were way back in March when they were interviewed by Paxman for C4 – but they can’t actually talk to each other. The order tonight is Cameron, then Miliband, and finally Clegg, but no word yet on if the others are kept in a soundproofed room while the others are speaking, and they all get a prize if they give the same answer to the questions.

I would normally have left the day’s election post until after it, so I could share my thoughts about it on the day itself, but tonight I’m going to be doing some more assisting on the QESB, so I’m unlikely to have the time to write anything before midnight, and if I don’t get my election post for the day done before Monday, then the Pumpkin Party win a seat. Or the blog turns into a pumpkin, it’s definitely one of those. It’s definitely been interesting helping out on the project both in terms of hearing what people are saying in focus groups and watching qualitative research being conducted. Plus it’s given me some interesting ideas for my Masters discussion, which I may discuss more on here when the election is over. Trust me, by September you’ll all be almost as bored of ‘the structure of competition for government’ as you are now by ‘variations within the margin of error’.

With the leaders all off prepping for their TV appearance tonight, it’s been a pretty quiet day on the election campaign trail, though that’s possibly because almost everything that could be said has been said in all the possible ways it can over the past thirty one days, and everyone’s hoping the stories about the royal baby coming are true because it might give them the day off that they’ve been hoping for since this all began. After this, though, it’s a frantic dash to the finish and it will be interesting to see where parties are targeting their campaigning and VIP visits in these last few days, as they try and shift a few hundred more votes in a constituency. This is also the time when the strength of the parties on the ground will be apparent – who can get out their and deliver the most leaflets and knock on the most doors before polling day, and who can drag out the most voters on the day itself? It might seem trivial, but swinging just a handful of seats from one column to another could be the difference between government and opposition, as John Lanchester explains here.

Today’s pickings from the depths of the list of parties is the Liberal Party. Yes, the continuity Liberals who didn’t join the Liberal Democrats post-merger in 1988 are still going, unlike their counterparts in the SDP. They still have a handful of councillors in scattered parts of the country and are standing four candidates: three in some of their traditional areas, and also one in Chelmsford. As a party, their ideology has wandered back and forth between the centre and the left over the years, seemingly depending on who is in control of the party at the time – at one point they were part of the No2EU electoral alliance that formed the basis for TUSC, but now the front page of their website shows that whatever they believe, they’re committed to explaining it in extremely long run-on sentences. I know that I sometimes have problems with using full stops as much as I should, but I’m not sure I’ve ever written a sentence that’s 223 words long and contains a quite ridiculous number of semicolons.

As the campaign goes on and more people hear about it, it’s interesting to se Election Leaflets look at times like everyone’s uploaded the same leaflet, only to realise it’s just a bunch of election communications that have arrived using the same party template. There are standard Tory, Labour, Lib Dem, Green, UKIP, Plaid and SNP leaflets all visible now in which the only real change is the photo and the candidate’s name. This, of course, is how we get leaflets asking for a vote for Name Surname who’s strongly in favour of First Local Policy Proposal Goes Here, and will work hard for the people of Constituency.

But you also get the one-offs like this leaflet for the Digital Democracy party‘s only candidate. Leaving aside the question of using an analogue method like a leaflet for an avowedly digital candidate, on reading it I can’t help but feel that he’d do well if someone explained to him the concept of a self-selected sample as basing your opinions solely on those who’ve chosen to come and register on a web site then answer some single issue questions seems to me to be a poor way to find out what public opinion is. Still, at least his leaflet looks good and doesn’t appear to be a template.

Only another week of these posts to go – but how many days will I need to be writing government negotiation posts for?

Question Time needs a wider variety of panellists

BBC_Question_TimeBecause I’m a masochist, I watched Question Time last night, where one of the panellists was a representative of the Taxpayers’ Alliance. Contrary to the image they present, the TPA isn’t a membership-based grassroots organisation, but a privately funded lobbying group that doesn’t represent anyone but its donors – what’s normally known as an ‘astroturf‘ group. However, like other lobbying groups and corporate shills that pretend to be ‘think tanks’ (the ones with ‘Institute’ in their names), it often gets invited to go on Question Time and other news programmes as though it has some kind of impartiality and objectivity, rather than being something established to campaign for a specific purpose.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with campaigning for something, even if that is to ensure that addressing the concerns of the wealthy and privileged is even more over-represented in political debate, but why aren’t other campaigning groups given a seat on the Question Time panel? I can’t recall anyone from organisations like Friends of the Earth or Amnesty – groups with actual memberships, often larger than any of the political parties – ever sitting on the panel, while the TPA and their ilk regularly get a seat there.

Alternatively, if the producers of Question Time are actually incapable of doing any sort of research into the people they invite and accept the spin that these people are some kind of impartial experts, why not invite some genuine experts on the programme? There are hundreds of academic experts in politics and public policy and at least some of them are safe to put on television before a general audience. Naturally, I’d suggest someone like David Sanders from Essex, but other academics and academic disciplines are available. I have been told by reliable sources that there are historians with opinions out there who aren’t called ‘David Starkey’.

They can still have the astroturf lobbyists on there occasionally if they want to, but surely it wouldn’t be too hard to find a wider range of panellists that might actually allow some facts to be interjected into the discussion occasionally?

Worth Reading 82: Norwegian lead

This week on Question Time, we’re in the ruins of Ancient Mu.

The Regeneration of Doctor Who – Some interesting synchronicities between Doctor Who and the KLF. (This is because Bill Drummond is a Time Lord, of course)
Argh, plot bunny: free to a good home – Explaining he secret history of Hollywood
Rotherham, UKIP, And What We Don’t Know – Tim Fenton sums up the issues around the Rotherham fostering case very well.
Is there Bias on BBC Question Time? – A Very Public Sociologist looks at the political make up of the QT panels. It’s slightly better on gender balance than Have I Got News For You, though.
The cosy consensus I saw on Question Time’s panel is a disservice to every man and woman in Britain – Owen Jones after his appearance on QT.

70% of the way there

Interesting headline for a post on Political Betting:

Is now the moment to replace Dimbleby

Even though –like many others – I rarely watch Question Time now, because it’s become so pointless and merely a reflection of a Westminster political culture that regards shouting at people and never backing down as the most important skill to possess, I think I can answer that with a ‘probably’. The show needs a complete rethink, and a new host would be part of that.

But wait, there’s more to the headline…

with Andrew Neil?

And suddenly you realise that there are so many ways in which it could be made worse. A prime example of how just three words can dramatically change the response to a question.

(The comments on Political Betting are fascinating, by the way. Apparently, there are people out there – who don’t appear to be members of the production team – who think This Week in some way resembles quality television.)