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

Did it really matter, in the end? The UK election debate wrap

Opinion by Ray D’Cruz

The dust has settled on both the 2010 UK election and the first series of televised leaders’ debates, begging some questions:

  1. Were the debates worthwhile?
  2. Did they matter, in the end?
  3. What should be done differently next time?
  4. Are there lessons for other countries?

Were the debates worthwhile?

Undeniably, yes. In a nation where getting people to vote is a challenge, anything that can generate interest and enthusiasm for the political process is a good thing.

Did they matter, in the end?

This is a subtly more different question from the one above, and much harder to answer.

Nick Clegg chose avoid the fray in each of the three debates. Periodically he deigned to clash – but generally he just spoke to the audience. This strategy supported his differentiation (outsider) strategy.

Speaking, not debating

Different is good when you’re dealing with a tired and jowly incumbent. But speaking and debating are different, and the lack of appetite for a clash did not please all our judges.

Popular opinion says Clegg did very well in all three debates and changed the election. History now shows that he led the Lib-Dems into Coalition Government for the first time in 70 years. The media reaction to his performance threatened to make the decisive impact of the debates a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Yet Clegg did not capitalise on debate momentum in terms of seats gained. Opinion poll support collapsed in the final few days before the poll. Academic research into the impact of the debates is required before any conclusions can be drawn.

David Cameron was ponderous and pensive, like someone with something to lose (in his case sustained opinion poll leadership). He tried desperately to maintain his likeable image, but the contrariness of debating is not suited to such aims. Finally, under seige from a surging Clegg, he became more direct and confrontational in the third debate; his strongest performance of the three debates.

Cameron's likeable but pensive thing is not new

There is a theory that televised leaders’ debates provide the opposition with a platform, and that governments should resist them. The exception appears to be where the incumbent leader is in a desperately poor situation.

President Gerald Ford agreed to a televised debate in the 1976 US elections after a 16 year hiatus since the Kennedy-Nixon debates. Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s far less personable successor didn’t want to debate in 1964, nor did Nixon in 1968 and 1972, fearing a similar result to the 1960 debates that were credited with giving Kennedy victory. Ford’s enthusiasm for the debate was said to be a calculated gamble due to his desperately poor standing in the aftermath of Watergate.

That Gordon Brown also agreed was a sign of his desperate political circumstances.

I thought that Brown did well in the debates because he was more substantial on policy issues. But his die was cast. In a political sense he was dead man walking. Some Election Debate judges thought he did well in all three debates – but it doesn’t seem like anyone was listening.

Was anyone listening?

Did the debates, in the end, simply allow people to confirm their views? Confirmatory bias, where we seek information that validates our current views, may be alive and well in election debates.

Absent some major slip up, confirmatory bias may ultimately render debates good for generating interest and enthusiasm (especially when change is the order of the day) but not so good for changing opinions. I don’t think the format helped in this regard, but more about that later.

Beyond confirmatory bias there is the political spin of parties in the aftermath of the debates. That the media continues to ask political parties to provide post-debate “analysis” defies the predictable and biased opinions trotted forth.

So, did the debates matter? I don’t think we know yet. There will no doubt be studies conducted into whether these debates mattered, in the end, and we’ll await that research with interest.

What should be done differently next time?

First, and foremost, decision making for the debate format should be taken out of the hands of political parties and media and become the domain of a genuinely independent group (not a proxy group of political appointees and hacks).

Second, I would like to see the three debates operate under different formats. That will keep interest alive and also cater to different debating styles. It will encourage innovation from producers.

Third, initial speaking times should be two-minutes, with one-minute replies and rebuttal. If you want to see speakers actually explain themselves properly and illustrate their arguments with examples, then more time must be allowed on a argument by argument basis. Otherwise, we will continue to have speakers avoiding each other, speaking in very general terms and making unproven assertions. That’s bad debating, and it can be fixed with some structural change to the debates.

Fourth, I’d like to see the set designer from the Sky broadcast counselled.

Are there lessons for other countries?

Yes, there are.

For the US – it’s good to have the speakers questioning and confronting each other.

For Australia – likewise, direct questioning by speakers can work well. Also, direct questioning from audience members can work well. Finally, worms do not add anything; they prompt hysterical and emotive responses (now Tweets) from journalists that end up constituting the debate narrative.

For Canada – having special interest parties does not add to a national debate. It sidetracks debates. Five people is too many people for a televised leaders’ debate.

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