Nick Bibby, author of Adjudication, analyses the debate.
Winner: Nicola Sturgeon
Second: David Cameron
Last: Nigel Farage
The dynamics of this debate were different from what either the audience or some of the speakers were used to. That was a large factor in the decision with the ability to be persuasive on the basis of a reasoned chain of logic being the other decisive element. Nicola Sturgeon won hands down on recognising the need for interaction within the debate, although the ‘tag team’ approach taken by her, Leanne Wood and Nathalie Bennett worked much better for her than the other two. David Cameron played to his strengths well, winning on clash against Miliband and locking him out of the debate.
There was a need for all participants in this debate to demonstrate that they understood that they were being assessed against six others, rather than in a more traditional one-on-one relationship (albeit sometimes previously delivered in a three way round). Cameron and Miliband started the debate apparently determined to just debate each other and operating within a very narrow spectrum – this approach could only work for whoever won their debate-within-a-debate (easily Cameron) but locked the other out of both that approach and the wider dynamic. In effect, Bennett and Wood were acting as an overly supportive extension to Sturgeon – although that may have been their most sensible position in terms of wider political strategy. Bennett attempted to address that on immigration but too little and too late.
Clegg and Farage took positions that deliberately set themselves outside the broader dynamic of the debate. In Farage’s case, this was deliberately at odds with the ‘ordinary reasonable person’ of the imagined audience of debate theory. This may be his most successful position politically but it left him sounding like a one trick pony in terms of the interaction within the room. Clegg had a very difficult position – agonising over whether ‘to knife or not to knife’ Cameron; in the end he failed to make either option work for him.
However, all doubts over the efficacy of seven participant debates – to my mind at least – have been dispelled. The interaction and breadth of the larger format is vastly preferable to the macho blame game of the tripartite closed shop of previous contests.