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, and some coverage of policy launches cast in abstract jargon: Dave preached the “big society,” Gordon was “in the future business,” while Nick indulged in rampant oxymorons, arguing “every single person is extraordinary.” Really, Nick?
The moment it all came to life was when the three men stood side by side. You could not miss why Brown has had such trouble, as a leader, to find a communications style that works. Authority is not the same as bludgeoning the listener. After this, only a party courting defeat would not pause to consider how the candidates that might lead it could fare in a similar, future television contest. It turns on its head the lazy assumption that there are “substance” politicians, as opposed to the vapid, glitzy kind.
Politics is as much about the ability to project and popularise views, values and aversions as it is about holding them. So would, for instance, Ed Balls pass the same television debate test? A new bar has been set for job applicants. For the power of television is that it can make a single gesture defining: John McCain lost his debates with Barack Obama in part because he had not thought about how discourteously his sighs, grimaces and impatient teeth clicks would come across.
We’ve seen this most unforgiving of media make and break politicians before. Remember Michael Howard’s paralysed discomfiture on Newsnight when asked the same question some 12 times by Jeremy Paxman? In a different sense Tony Blair’s performance in Sedgefield after Diana’s death conveyed that, although the people’s princess might be dead, the people’s politician was in his element channeling national emotion. Some consider these aspects of politics trivial. I do not. The story of the 2010 election debates reinforces this focus on the politician as a representative for our fears and aspirations.
The “telly election” is also a useful ally against another dreary claim: that the public is incurably uninterested in politics. In my experience, few people are actively apolitical. In most cases, they have been turned off by tedious, repetitive or grasping politicians who have made themselves, and their profession, unattractive. The new parliament must address this as a matter of urgency. But at least it starts out knowing that we were prepared to tune in to the fight when the chance was offered. It’s no shame that the British love a competition. We are, after all, the country of leek shows, pub quizzes, talent contests and Crufts. Now we have shown we have the appetite for a direct political fight, we won’t let it go. Widescreen warfare won the day.