The British love a good competition—and the televised leaders’ debates triumphed by turning the election campaign into just thatby Anne McElvoy / April 26, 2010 / Leave a comment
The winner of this election has been a branch of public life that, since the expenses scandal, has gained pariah status. Television debates have made politics interesting again, turning us from a nation crying a plague on all politicians, to enthusiasts for the spills (even I cannot claim many thrills) of televised argument. This is an achievement, given that our politicians were widely derided as a flop waiting to happen by wearier souls in Westminster and beyond.
Optimists among us can claim some triumph: who now would say such debates were not worth having, or that they trivialised the arguments? For all the unwieldy constraints of format—half an hour too long, and lose the lecterns next time—they have been a sound test of talent, and a spotter of weakness. Not so much the X Factor as Dancing on (Electoral) Ice. Nick Clegg’s triumph in the first debate was a good example of the new dynamism a contest of candidates brings to the election party.
With the exception of the brief brawl of prime minister’s questions, we have little chance to see our politicians in combat. Yet the ability to make more accurate comparisons is among the most useful advances of our era. We no longer buy car insurance without consulting the oracular meerkat or another comparison website. Who would sell a house without Googling the sale price, or select a school without a glance at the league tables? It makes little sense to have been deprived for so long of the opportunity to assess those who want to lead us alongside each other.
It will take some time to assess the impact of the debates on the big picture of the 2010 election, let alone its outcome. A few things, however, already strike me as likely consequences. The Cleggmania moment showed that the debate format does not squeeze the third party. Instead, it loosened assumptions of a two-party race, especially if the candidate in question is savvy enough to exploit the tantalising space between the two main parties. It also bolstered the case for electoral reform to a system less damaging to the Lib Dems. Debates also invite us—the viewer-voters—into a proximity with the candidates that the news channels have long ceased to offer. The week before the first encounter we were condemned to stories about the clothing of the leaders’ wives. There was also a row about national insurance,…