AH! THE LEADERS’ DEBATES AT LAST! THEY’RE A TIME-HONOURED PART OF THE ELECTION RITUAL, RIGHT?
Wrong. While US presidential hopefuls have been debating one another on radio since 1948 and on TV since 1960, and in France the tradition stretches back to 1974, it was not until 2010 that the first TV election debate between party leaders took place in the UK.
• OH YES, I REMEMBER THEM - SO SAME AGAIN THIS TIME? Not at all. In place of the three three-way encounters between Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat leaders seen in 2010, this time round ITV is staging a seven-way clash featuring David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg alongside Ukip’s Nigel Farage, Natalie Bennett of the Greens, Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon and Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood. On April 16, the BBC is holding a second “challengers’ debate” featuring five leaders, with Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg staying away.
• WHY THE CHANGE? The format was the result of a protracted negotiation between broadcasters and politicians, with the outcome widely seen as a victory for Mr Cameron’s efforts to avoid a head-to-head clash with Mr Miliband. The TV companies tried to take account of the surge in Ukip’s popularity by including Mr Farage in their first proposal for three debates, only for the Prime Minister to protest at the exclusion of the Greens. Perhaps fearful of accusations that inviting Ms Bennett alone to join in would amount to favouritism for a party with only one MP, the broadcasters’ second suggestion also involved the SNP and Plaid - prompting Mr Cameron to complain that Democratic Unionists were excluded. A threat to “empty chair” the PM fell flat, and the eventual outcome was very close to the “final offer” favoured by Tories.
• WHY DOESN’T MR CAMERON WANT A HEAD-TO-HEAD WITH MR MILIBAND? Traditionally, prime ministers have avoided direct debates with their principal challengers during election campaigns because they do not want to afford them equal status. With the Conservative campaign this year majoring on perceptions of Mr Miliband’s weakness as a leader, Tory strategists do not want to give him the opportunity to best the PM in front of a TV audience of millions. Even though Mr Cameron won an instant poll after their separate grillings by Jeremy Paxman last week, Mr Miliband outperformed his personal popularity ratings and aides believe he boosted his credibility with voters who may never previously have had such extended exposure to him.
• SO WHAT’S THE FORMAT? ITV drew lots to choose podiums in the studio at Salford’s MediaCityUK, putting Ms Bennett on the far left and Mr Cameron on the right, with Mr Miliband taking the central slot. Each of the seven leaders will give a one-minute opening statement, before a series of 18-minute debates on questions from the 200-strong audience on four subject areas, selected by a panel of experts. The two-hour session will be wrapped up with personal statements. An elaborate grid determines the order of speakers in each section, with Ms Bennett speaking first and the Prime Minister closing the show.
• ISN’T THAT A RECIPE FOR CHAOS? ITV has gone to great lengths to ensure each of the leaders gets a fair chance to speak and that key election issues are addressed in an orderly way. The results will be closely scrutinised for evidence of whether the debate format is viable in a multi-party democracy.
• WHO’S GOING TO WIN? No victor will be announced, but instant polls will play a major role in perceptions of which leader has gained most. Bookmaker Ladbrokes has Mr Farage as hot favourite to top the polls on the night, and Mr Clegg to trail in last. Leaders will also be looking to deliver strong soundbites which will be re-run time and time again by broadcasters during the election campaign.
• WHAT WILL THE BUZZWORDS BE? Viewers are likely to tune out the endlessly repeated mantras about “hard-working families”, “a long-term economic plan”, “the cost-of-living crisis” and the “stronger economy in a fairer society”. But leaders will also have been rehearsing new one-liners which they hope will get through. Mr Miliband’s much-quoted “Hell yes, I’m strong enough” in the Paxman interviews was clearly pre-planned, and Labour got it on to T-shirts with suspicious speed. But the most memorable phrase of the 2010 debates was something the leaders seemed scarcely aware they were even saying at the time: “I agree with Nick.”
• AND WHAT EFFECT WILL IT HAVE ON THE ELECTION RESULT? Difficult to say. The parties are certainly treating the debate as a vital moment, but it’s not at all clear that it will change the way people vote. Despite “Cleggmania” in 2010, the post-debate spike in Lib Dem popularity was not sustained to the polling booths, and the party’s final result was little better than in polling at the start of the campaign. Perhaps the biggest message is that the debate offers minor parties an opportunity to boost their profile, and major party leaders the risk - to be avoided at all costs - of a foot-in-mouth moment which could wreck their bid for power.
• ARE DEBATES HERE TO STAY? After the series of three in 2010, everyone thought so. But following the debacle of this year’s negotiations and the mish-mash of formats that has resulted, it will be all too easy for future party leaders to argue they have been an experiment that failed. Much will depend on the state of politics in the run-up to the next election. A prime minister with a comfortable lead in the polls in 2020 is unlikely to feel under much pressure to comply with broadcasters’ demands if this year’s shows are viewed as anything less than a success.
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