Opinion by Neill Harvey-Smith
By the end of April, the Liberal Democrats had broken through to a consistent 30% in opinion polls on the back of the third impressive performance by their leader, Nick Clegg. The Guardian published an interview on Friday April 30th in which he claimed the election was a “two-horse race” between his party and the Conservatives. He said “I think if you look at the debate last night, there is just a gulf between what David Cameron stands for and what I stand for – in terms of values, in terms of internationalism, in terms of fairness, in terms of progressive tax reform, in terms of political reform…” That day, the newspaper added its formal support to Clegg’s campaign. There seemed no doubt that the election debates had transformed British politics.
By Wednesday May 5th, the Guardian/ICM poll had the Conservatives on 36%, Labour on 29% and the Liberal Democrats on 23% – an accurate prediction of the following day’s election result. The shock when the Liberal Democrats lost seats was such that early commentators dismissed the BBC/Sky/ITV exit poll as evidently wrong. Days passed, and Clegg’s two racing horses merged into Plato’s winged horses, with David Cameron the charioteer. The debates a dying memory, Clegg said “we are united by a common purpose for the job we want to do together in the next five years” and PM and DPM spoke warmly of each other and their common programme. When the votes were cast and the coalition formed, it was as if the debates never happened.
The debates had dominated the campaign, providing a weekly cycle of speculation, reaction and analysis and feeding the media the personality politics they crave. There was an added novelty factor, strong viewing figures (up to 10 million) and momentum created by the bump which debate 1 gave to Liberal Democrat polling figures, apparently throwing the election wide open. People were talking about the debates in workplaces, schools and online. In a country which never had televised debates, it is now unthinkable that we should conduct a campaign without them.
But just because people think you won a debate, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will vote for you. According to John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, between 27-36% of voters believed the leader of the party which they support had not won the third debate. Debates and their outcomes are a distorted lens through which to view voting intentions.
I watched the debates very closely and gave an instant decision on each to Election Debates. The paradigm for judging a debate is as follows: you put yourself in the mindset of an unbiased member of the public and rate how persuasive you find each of the candidates.
It was a challenging task. I strongly disagreed with the views expressed by many of my fellow experts. Many others with long experience judging competitive debates expressed bewilderment at how the public had responded.
Initially, given these differences, I felt relieved and rather proud that my choice of winner matched the public’s – Clegg, Clegg, Cameron. In competitive debates, it feels unsatisfactory when the audience takes one view and the judging panel takes another. I must have my finger on the pulse, I thought. But the closer I looked, the less cause I had for satisfaction.
Firstly, much of the public does not like debating. Moments where one politician is perceived as attacking another are often disliked, perhaps seen as unstatesmanlike. My judgement deviated most from the public mood in the second debate, because (like six out of seven Election Debate judges) I placed David Cameron third. I wrote:
David Cameron was more fluent than last week and stronger stylistically. But he managed to sound like a man apart from the debate. Depending on your view, he either transcended the debate brilliantly – or – he looked like the third-party candidate rather than the Prime Minister in waiting.
As this is a debate adjudication, I am forced to criticise him for failure to engage. Apart from a one-off show of anger over the contents of campaign leaflets, he took the path of calmness and moderation – on defence, immigration, and the EU – to the point of ignoring others’ contributions. He engaged less than the other two candidates. He did not defend his position directly when attacked, which left uncertainty around his positions – for example, on leaving the EPP – and avoided attacking the government when the opportunity arose – for example, on pensions. Cameron used greater nuance of tone, a bit of humour and more subtle use of illustrative anecdotes than last week.
From a debating viewpoint, failure to engage, ignoring attacks, making your positions unclear and missing opportunities to attack are negatives. Debate is about listening to and engaging with points made by your opponents. The viewing public do not all share that paradigm. When Cameron corrected these “faults” and gave a more robust performance in debate 3, I rewarded him handsomely in my judgement and the public did proclaim him the winner. But John Curtice’s analysis of undecided voters – the people in whose armchairs I sought to sit – showed 27% thought Cameron did best, compared to 28% for Brown and 34% for Clegg.
Secondly, much of the audience is not unbiased. Remember that most people thought the leader of the party they support won the debate. Unlike me, they were not wrestling to throw out their cherished beliefs as they watched. Even among those who judged their leader the loser, for some it was the failure to articulate a more entrenched partisan position which frustrated. Bias works in various directions, infecting the polling data upon which winners and losers are proclaimed and, subsequently, how an election campaign is conducted. Would the Guardian have backed the Liberal Democrats without their ten-point surge in the polls? Would the Mail and Express have heaped a week of abuse and scorn on Nick Clegg without his debating victories?
The Election Debates international panel expressed diverse views. Our purpose was not to predict the findings of polling data, but to give objective, rational analysis. We watch debates not as a collection of individual contributions and soundbites, but arguments made, evidenced, challenged and rebutted. My closeness to broad measures of public opinion was a coincidence, not a badge of honour, however strong the temptation to proclaim my genius.
I strongly believe in the value of election debates in the United Kingdom. Never before has there been a fraction of the prime-time policy debate that ten million voters witnessed. Candidates had time to make their points, uninterrupted by journalists, and confront each other about their differences. The silent audience must have been uncomfortable for the leaders, but they got used to their surroundings and the debates were of a progressively higher quality. The widely mocked rules didn’t get in the way and the moderation became less disciplinarian. British general election campaigns will never be the same again.