2010 UK Election, Ray D'Cruz, View opinion pieces

Coaching the speakers: strategies for the second UK leaders’ debate

Opinion by Ray D’Cruz

We learnt a lot from the first leaders’ debate:

  • Gordon Brown is pretty good at avoiding discussions about the past.
  • David Cameron either doesn’t like arguing or still doesn’t know why he should be PM.
  • Nick Clegg likes to rise above it all.
  • None of the speakers really want to debate, they just want to speak directly to their audience.
  • The ITV set designer is a big fan of recycling, and nostalgia.
  • The format does not encourage any depth of analysis, whatsoever.

Perhaps it is the last point that is most disappointing. You can’t have depth in 30 or 60 second responses. A typical 30 second grab correlates more closely to a sound bite than an oral argument. It means that we will continue to get more assertions and rarely sight an argument. What a wasted opportunity.

Onto the speakers, and here are some strategies or approaches they should be considering for the second debate:

Gordon Brown

Substantive matter: As with the first debate, Brown needs to connect the GFC with his election promises. It reminds people about his experience, while at the same time focusing on the present and the future, not the past.

Rebuttal: he needs to zero on Lib-Dem and Conservative policies that expose inexperience, a lack of credibility or extreme views. He can occupy the middle ground in the debate by putting Lib-Dems and Conservatives at the opposite end of the political spectrum. He could take a leaf out of the US presidential debate playbook and focus on their voting records in opposition.

Manner: Brown should continue to be direct and (moderately) aggressive. He could mix it up occasionally.

David Cameron

Substantive matter: Cameron needs to clearly articulate the three or four fundamental differences between the Conservatives and Labour. This should be a mixture of principle and policy. He didn’t do it in the first debate; he’s got another chance tomorrow.

Rebuttal: Cameron needs to focus on Brown’s past, including major policies errors and failures. He needs to widen and deepen the sense that it’s time for a tired government to go. But this message will only work if his substantive matter is clear and strong.

Manner: It’s time to get tough and time for Cameron to show Britain he really wants the job. More aggression, more confrontation, but mixed with the warm personality that many people like.

Nick Clegg

Substantive matter: To avoid looking repetitive and to anticipate more direct attacks from Labour and the Conservatives, he will need to be clearer about substantive policy. He too should be prepared to articulate three or four clear differences between his party and the others to make the case for voting Lib-Dem more than just a protest vote. Avoiding the notion that a Lib-Dem vote is a protest vote – and can be something more substantial – might be the key to translating favourable opinion polls into electoral votes.

Rebuttal: He will continue his piecemeal approach to rebuttal, picking holes here and there. Like Cameron, he needs to focus on Brown’s record in government and some of the more extreme views or divided aspects of the Conservative Party.

Manner: More of the same will do. He’ll try to stay above the fray, and be the anti-politician. However, he’ll need to be more direct and unambiguous when articulating his party’s clear points of differentiation – the Lib-Dem case for government.

Election Debates will continue its coverage of the second UK leaders’ debate following the conclusion of the debate.


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