Opinion by Andy Hume
One of the strengths of the coverage at Election Debates is that these debates will be adjudicated by experienced judges from other countries, not just the UK, with few if any preconceived opinions of the men they are listening to.
The domestic media narrative, by contrast, will be shaped to a large extent by the expectations for each leader going in; it may therefore be useful, particularly for readers from outside the UK, to give a quick sketch of the backdrop against which each protagonist will be judged.
For Gordon Brown, trailing in the polls, these debates offer the opportunity to showcase the persona that Labour hope may just be enough to see them to an unlikely victory; the unspectacular but safe pair of hands in the midst of global economic turmoil.
With Britain finally having emerged from recession, Labour’s message is that voting for the “novice” David Cameron, and his agenda of immediate spending cuts to tackle the growing public debt, would endanger the still-fragile recovery.
Despite extremely low personal approval ratings, Brown believes that his experience and sheer stolidity will come across as strengths when compared with “the relative youth and inexperience” of his opponent.
Running on his record is difficult, given that many of Labour’s principal achievements have receded in the voters’ memories and economic catastrophe is still fresh in the minds; but Brown will insist that when the banks were failing and the economy teetering on the brink of the precipice, Labour got the tough calls right, the Tories wrong.
Brown may not score high marks for his manner; he’ll hope that substance makes up some of this deficit.
David Cameron faces a different kind of problem. Having enjoyed a seemingly insuperable lead at the turn of the year, the polls have gradually closed, due in part to a number of small but telling tactical blunders, and fuelling fears that the Conservatives have not yet “sealed the deal” with the electorate.
Cameron himself is seen by many voters as lightweight and untested, and will be painted by Labour as an opportunist of no fixed ideological abode.
Cameron needs to convince the country that he is ready to lead, that he has a coherent programme for government, and that the Conservatives have truly changed from the “nasty party” that lost the trust of the electorate, and three elections as a result. Not everyone is yet convinced.
In this context, some observers were surprised that the Tory leader was apparently so happy to take part in a televised debate with Brown. His superior communication skills are already “factored into his price”, so to speak; merely looking and sounding more polished than the PM will not be enough to change many minds, particularly when his opponents are keen to portray him as an untrustworthy PR man.
David Cameron can go a long way to assuaging such concerns by demonstrating that his vision for the future is not just a salesman’s rhetorical fluff, but there is no doubt that he has more to lose in this debate than either of the other two leaders.
For Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the debates present an unprecedented opportunity.
The third party frequently complains of being “squeezed out” of press coverage, despite Britain’s strict laws on media impartiality during election campaigns. So merely starting from an equal footing with the other party leaders in the three debates will give Clegg a timely boost.
Indeed, there is every chance that the format of the debates will work to his advantage; with no chance of forming the next government, the Lib Dem leader may find that the two main parties devote their limited rebuttal time to attacking each other.
With voters tired of negative campaigning, and a febrile, anti-politics mood in the country, this may help Nick Clegg depict himself as a fresh, positive, untainted alternative – a British equivalent of the outsider taking on the vested interests in Washington.
In the recent “Chancellors’ Debate” between the three parties’ prospective finance ministers, it was generally agreed that the Lib Dems’ widely respected Vince Cable “won” the debate at least partly due to the relative lack of scrutiny afforded to his answers in comparison to his two opponents; the other parties quickly flagged this up to the broadcasters of the leaders’ debates.
Whether the debates will do much to change the course of this election, of course, remains to be seen. But such is the novelty value of these encounters that they have the potential to be pivotal events in the campaign. We’ll be proud to bring you our take here at Election Debates.