Bear with me on this one, I actually wrote it last week prior to last night’s 7-way leader’s debate broadcast. Although I’m feeling perfectly vindicated as the whole thing more or less confirmed my suspicions as detailed below….
UK politics were treated to another novel concept this election cycle, the slightly oddly formatted affair on Channel 4 that saw Cameron and Miliband grilled separately in quick fire succession by the tenacious Jeremy Paxman, in addition to a small studio audience. It felt like a dense affair with little breathing room, as both leaders were put under no small amount of pressure by their inquisitors. Snap opinion polling gave the nominal win over the affair to Cameron by an order of 54 to 46, but the small margin has seen some commentators claim that, due to low expectations, Miliband was the actual victor.
Various other subsidiary metrics were gleaned via polling, relating to matters such as leadership quality, world standing, likeability, veracity etc., but really it’s hard to measure what if any genuine impact the event will have on the election. Reactions from journalists, politicos and the average observer seem to pretty much boil down to confirmation bias, and the much vaunted “undecided” are unlikely to pin their ultimate decision down to what they witnessed. It largely felt like a vapid presentation piece during which we learned nothing new, and the best a sceptic might say is that it was entertaining to watch both leaders squirm a bit.
Frankly, these leadership-oriented events are something of a betrayal of the traditional nature of British politics and a further step in the trend towards imposing a presidential sort of perception on things. For anything that adequately and accurately represents how the Westminster machine still really ticks you would have to include at least the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Home Secretary. But given the tedious palava that were the negotiations to establish this year’s varied set of cross-party forums, such an eventuality would probably be beyond the capabilities of the broadcasters and parties to achieve.
The seven-way debate on April 2nd could be fairly forecast as a complete debacle, unless ITV’s Julie Etchingham has moderating qualities of supernatural proportions. If you’ve ever watched an early-stage US presidential primary debate, in which there are multiple candidates still in the field, you’d probably agree with that statement. They either descend into noisy and cluttered diatribe, or the moderator wields an iron fist and the strict time allocations reduce proceedings to a stilted competition of who has the best sound bites. And that would be referring to the relatively mild Democratic primaries. The Republican iterations are downright outlandish.
As for the other main formats, the April 16th BBC five-way will offer little by way of improvement for lacking Cameron and Clegg, despite Dimbleby’s formidable experience, though at least the April 30th Question Time between Cameron, Clegg and Miliband carries the familiar and tested feel of a UK political staple. The town hall vibe feels marginally more genuine, as even if the core questions are guaranteed to be pre-approved, there is no grooming the often visceral reactions of the crowd. The people in the audience that night will hopefully feel entitled to express themselves as freely as they often do on many an ordinary Thursday night.
One wonders if the broadcasters considered something completely different though, something that might have offered the electorate a proper look into the parties in a fashion that is actually representative of UK politics. The cross-party aspect possibly does provide an adversarial entertainment element, but really it is completely meaningless. Going back to the notion that the Chancellor and Home Secretary should be representing their parties as well, you could expand further and include other major portfolios, and have broadcasters host single party events that more fully delved into individual party legacies, policies and promises.
Line them and give them a treatment on par with Paxman’s uncompromising assaults on Cameron and Miliband for Channel 4. Perhaps it may appeal less to those who don’t already have a healthy degree of political engagement, but considering a major complaint of the Channel 4 spectacle was that it broadly lacked substance, perhaps not. The format would provide proper focus and strip away the chaff of who is a better debater or performer, which is an utter irrelevance to political competency and ideology.
There’s no doubt the parties would still find a way to moan and quibble over how the broadcasts were released, which day of the week, timeslot, order, interviewer, proximity to election and more, but it would be worth pursuing in future elections if the British public are keen on more accessible modes of having their political options presented to them. The spirit of televised pre-election political broadcasting is in that sense very worthy. But clearly as they are still a newfangled thing in this country, there’s great room for improvement on what we’ve seen so far and are yet to be served up with.