Not a historic debate

The first clash between Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg revealed nothing new. Yet its timing underlined just how out of touch all our leaders remain
April 16, 2010

The first historic hurdle is crossed. Britain’s domestic situation has been analysed and argued over by the three leaders like they were hosting an ITV makeover special, where they all agreed that this shabby old country was a debt-bloated sap in need of change, progress, and a fresh start. Each leader offered their variation on a starvation diet of efficiency savings.

But this was no casual bit of broadcasting. These debates are "historic"—or so we've been told, over and over. Sky will even be broadcasting the second debate in historic HD. Though actually, it seems the debates are only historic in the sense of being outdated. After all, for the last 20 years, every week parliament was in session, we've had the equivalent of a televised leaders' debate in the form of Prime Minister's Questions. Are we meant to see this new debate format as a revolution in British democracy just because for the first time the opponents stand in a line, rather than on opposite benches? Or because it’s what the Americans do?

It’s been 50 years since Nixon’s sweaty and uncomfortable performance opposite the smooth-faced Kennedy made personal image matter for politicians. And perhaps the most interesting thing about our own televised debates, now, is that they target the same audience who first watched Kennedy’s triumph. As MORI founder Robert Worcester told the BBC on the morning of the debate, three out of four pensioners don’t use the internet, while they make up 40 per cent of voters. Like universal free education and the state pension, the television debates are something which will benefit only the baby boomers. Perhaps that was why the set looked like it was from the Krypton Factor.

Yet as our politicians performed their great historical act, the future carried on regardless. Despite the 76 rules compiled to save the leaders any embarrassment, the debates did not occur in the one-way tradition of broadcasting that held when Kennedy faced Nixon. Before a point had been finished, it was already being analysed by voters writing up live blogs, or tweeting. An hour in, tweets featuring the hashtag “leadersdebate” were coming in at an average of 22.55 a second. Cameron’s obsession with meeting minorities was being mocked. Brown’s need to butt in was sneered at. Long before the column writers could file their thoughts as to who had won, the digital electorate had analysed and decided amongst themselves: any Twitter user could see Clegg had the advantage long before the Yougov poll confirmed it.

But as far as the leaders were concerned, this wasn’t happening. They carried on with their flowchart answers arranged in advance, oblivious to the feedback from the digital nation. As a rule, parliamentarians are not tech-savvy creatures. Tony Blair speaks proudly of how he had to be taught how to use email after he had left Downing Street. And, staggeringly, in a recent letter to Emily Thornberry MP, Stephen Timms, the minister who piloted the controversial Digital Economy Act, revealed the gaping hole in governmental knowledge of technology when he explained that the “IP” in “IP address” stood for “Intellectual Property.”

It’s as though the two worlds exist side by side. One involves leaflets posted through letterboxes; another involves scanning and uploading the same leaflets so that voters can compare the different lines being spun in every ward in the country. Mistakes by local councillors no longer languish on page 6 of the local paper—we all find out about them. Technology has outpaced our politics, because voters have access to more information and analysis than the politicians can hope to compete with.

There’s nothing new in this. Just as with illegal file-sharing today, in 1815 new technology threatened the business of a once-mighty industry. Thanks to progress in ship design and food preservation, it was possible to import corn more cheaply than it cost to grow it on our own native soil. The old landowners were in big trouble. Just as with the Digital Economy Act, parliament came to their aid, bringing in the Corn Laws. Artificially inflated corn prices caused suffering for the general population while the prevalence of rotten boroughs stifled any attempt to repeal the laws. But the industrial revolution to which the Corn Laws responded eventually changed society; as the new urban working class developed, so did its voice. Our system of government had to respond. The 1832 Great Reform Act changed everything. The Corn Laws were dropped in 1846, bringing about the age of free trade.

Now we have our own tipping point. Thanks to the information revolution, a great deal more knowledge is available to the public, from crowd sourcing to Wikipedia. The population have the tools to govern themselves, but parliament still works in the way it has since the last revolution. Something will give.

And we already have the outliers that show the way we could go in the future. A good example is Tom Watson, Labour MP for West Bromwich, who is seeking to “stand on a platform that is avowedly supportive of the generation that seek to use the internet to make the world a better place.” On 11th April, he created a list of nine "digital pledges" on his website and invited people to comment on them. "It’s clear to me that the British political class as a whole (like others round the world) struggles with getting these principles right," he wrote. "I’ve had a stab here but I’d grateful for all honest attempts at improving them. It’s a healthy thing for internet experts, like everyone else, to get into the habit of asking for what they want."

Watson's initiative is limited and small scale, but it may just show how future parliaments could use technology to better represent people. Now that would be historic.