Judge: Andy Hume
Winner: Nick Clegg
Scores: Clegg 80 | Brown 77 | Cameron 75
This was quite a close debate, which was in my view won by the Liberal Democrats’ Nick Clegg. Clegg exploited his advantage as leader of the third party quite skilfully, displaying an informal and persuasive speaking style and breaking the fourth wall effectively to position himself on the side of the viewer against the “establishment” politicians.
Gordon Brown overcame his perceived manner deficit with a performance that was strong on policy and detail, and effectively challenged the Conservative leader on a number of occasions.
David Cameron found himself squeezed by the other two leaders; despite quite good manner, he was unable to control the ground on which the debate took place as much as he would have liked, and failed to respond to some key challenges, particularly on funding.
Perhaps the most interesting element of these debates was the tactics being pursued. Nick Clegg was keen to portray himself as a break from the “business as usual” represented by the other two men. He also repeatedly contrasted the other parties’ rhetoric with their lack of action, reminding the audience that words are no substitute for actions.
Gordon Brown’s strategy was clearly to agree with Clegg where possible, and challenge David Cameron to match his pledges and funding commitments. Many of these proposals and assertions, for example in areas like defence spending or health, were often not challenged properly by the Conservative leader.
Conversely, Brown’s challenges to Cameron to match his pledges, on electoral reform or funding for police and education, were effective, with the Conservative leader trying to avoid the questions by reframing the debate, but in my opinion not succeeding and instead sounding defensive.
All three candidates adopted the deeply annoying habit of repeatedly telling us about places they had recently been – usually in key election battlegrounds – and ordinary people they had met who just happened to agree with their analysis of the other side’s failings. (This reached an early nadir in Cameron’s somewhat crass name-check for the “40 year-old black man” in Plymouth who thought the immigration system was “out of control”.) This may be an effective tactic in this context, but not for nothing are young debaters warned away from using anecdotes as substitutes for real arguments.
Overall the debate was of a reasonable standard. The speakers came across quite effectively, their answers did not seem overly scripted and their key talking points ticked off quite seamlessly. The format was not as stilted as some had feared and allowed some time for interaction between the participants, but it still fell some way short of the free cut and thrust that we might ideally wish to see (not helped by an overly bossy moderator). If this had been a competitive debate of the sort undertaken by students around the world, I would have awarded the trophy to Nick Clegg.