April 3: Election debate degenerates into TV game-show

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A TRIUMPH for democracy – or a glorified game-show? This, rather than the great issues facing the country, will be the prevailing debate amongst the most important people of all, the voters, after Britain’s seven leaders took part in their televised exchanges.

At the end of a fractious night, the one clear winner was ITV’s presenter Julia Etchingham who retained some semblance of authority in chaotic exchanges that evoked memories of William G Stewart’s Fifteen To One.

It was also emblematic of how politics has changed in this country – and not necessarily for the better. Unlike the post-war period when leaders were orators who spoke with passion and conviction in packed public halls, the programme’s cumbersome format meant the participants had to rely upon the same old statistics and soundbites to make their points. There was little scope for more substantive answers which might alter the course of a lacklustre campaign that is failing to enthuse the public.

If this is going to be the future of democratic debate in this country, it will need to be revisited – this programme even featured one leader, the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon, who is not even standing in the Westminster election.

Yet she clearly hopes that her party will be a major player after polling day – her ‘I back Ed’ line on the economy had clear parallels with the ‘I agree with Nick’ phrase which defined the 2010 debates – and the prospect of a Labour-SNP alliance is a now real one.

That said, both David Cameron and Nick Clegg did hold their own, even when arguing with each other, as they sought to defend the record of their coalition and the policy progress that their two parties have made over the past five years.

Mr Cameron’s statesmanlike resolution – especially when he exposed the spending plans of his opponents – contrasted with the anti-immigration rabble-rousing of Nigel Farage which, in the eyes of many, will have only served to strengthen the view that he is nothing other than a soapbox tub-thumper. Despite this, Ukip’s dog-whistle politics still spells potential trouble for the Tories and could perversely benefit Labour, a party that is opposed to a EU referendum.

However, as supporters of this less than ‘magnificent seven’ now argue incessantly about the debate’s outcome, they should remember this point: this unedifying episode will certainly not have resonated with voters in Manchester Central, a seat within the shadows of the Salford TV studios, and where the dismal 18 per cent turnout for a by-election in November 2012 was the lowest in the post-war political history.

In one of the great democracies of the world, this is the challenge facing Mr Cameron and Ed Miliband – the only two leaders who have a chance of becoming Prime Minister. Now this debate is behind them, they need to find more effective ways of connecting with all those who are disengaged from politics or who switched off halfway through last night’s programme. The leader most successful at broadening their support before May 7 is the man who will be Prime Minister. It’s that simple. Now the game-show is over, let a real debate begin.

A timely Easter message: Archbishop speaks up for values

AMID the endless soundbites and easy promises of an election campaign, the Archbishop of York provides a welcome voice of reason in his Easter message in The Yorkshire Post today.

Dr John Sentamu concentrates our minds on the need to recognise and nourish the values that are required for humanity to flourish and for the dark forces that encroach on our lives – both personal and collective – to be banished.

He speaks insightfully of the hollow pleasures of consumerism and the dangers of its very antithesis – the rejection of all that this world offers in favour of what he calls the “false utopia” of the so-called Islamic State, where “martyrdom” beckons.

Easter is a time of renewal and revival – and Dr Sentamu speaks for many when he makes an impassioned argument for something better than the status quo.

Common decency and respect is lacking in too many areas of society and the absence of a clear moral compass endangers a way of life we have come to take for granted.

Though politicians have attempted to define a framework for the values required to produce the society we would wish for, most recently with David Cameron’s Big Society, Dr Sentamu is right to say that they have signally failed to adequately do so.

Many would argue, as he does, that the qualities hinted at in such quickly forgotten and invariably vague ruminations are, in fact, encapsulated in a movement that predates them by thousands of years and goes far beyond mere political sloganery.

That movement, of course, being Christianity itself. Happy Easter.