7-way-debate

The leaders’ debates are only part of the story

The Freshwater Public Affairs team prepares us with the context of ITV’s seven-way political debate ahead of the 2015 General Election...

It has been a long and arduous journey to the televised leaders’ debate, but finally this evening will see seven party leaders debating key issues ahead of the general election in a television programme which will be watched by millions of voters. David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg, Nigel Farage, Nicola Sturgeon, Natalie Bennett and Leanne Wood will face off on ITV for over two hours.

The USA has a long history of TV debates for presidential elections, but in the UK leaders’ debates are in a troubled infancy. The first leaders’ debates five years ago, featuring Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, were some of the most memorable parts of the election campaign – the debates catapulted the country into ‘Cleggmania’, when the Liberal Democrat leader’s performances briefly transformed him into the most popular politician since Winston Churchill. The first debate was watched by nine million people and each one dominated news headlines, with fevered discussion of who had ‘won’ and ‘lost’.

But the popularity of the debates was also their downfall. In 2010, Gordon Brown had nothing to lose. But in 2015 for Prime Minister David Cameron there is a fair amount of credibility at risk. He has enjoyed considerable superiority over Ed Miliband in the personal ratings so it is not particularly in his interest to take part. TV debates are unpredictable and difficult for a party machine to control and open participants up to an unusual level of scrutiny thanks to an inflated public interest. Ed Miliband, au fait with fielding questions from the public thanks to his marathon tour of constituencies around the country, is, relatively speaking, in his comfort zone in such an environment.

While Mr Miliband has much to prove and can afford to take risks, it makes little sense for Mr Cameron to engage in any forum that could take him into choppy waters. This is why he has resisted taking part for as long as possible and only conceded to today’s debate, which features all the main party leaders together.

Unlike the debates in the last election this debate will feature more than just the leaders of the three parties who dominate the House of Commons. Ukip, the Green Party, the Scottish National Party and Wales’ Plaid Cymru will also have their time in the spotlight on an equal footing with the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

For these smaller parties, it is a major opportunity. There are few chances for them to impose themselves onto national awareness, because the media generally prefers to focus on the big three. But when smaller parties get their chance they can use the exposure to boost their popularity and attract votes from sizeable parts of the population who have grown tired of the voices in the mainstream and cynical about the extent to which they offer anything very different from each other.

This is what happened in 2010 when millions of voters were introduced to Nick Clegg for the first time. Previously the media had mostly ignored him, but the debates gave him a golden opportunity to talk directly to the electorate. His effective communication skills enabled him to maximise the opportunity. On election day they reached a record 23% - the highest result for a third party since the days of the SDP – Liberal Alliance in the 1980s (albeit only 1% more - and with a smaller swing - than Charles Kennedy achieved in 2005).

Farage, Sturgeon, Bennett and Wood have a similar opportunity to make a real impact on the general election campaign. Whether they can do so depends on how effectively they perform and, sharing the airwaves with six others, how well they communicate their messages under pressure.

But it is important to remember that the importance of televised debates is limited. Most people will not watch them and most people have already made up their mind about who they are going to vote for. Although the Liberal Democrats enjoyed soaring popularity in the opinion polls immediately after the debates in 2010, their support did drop considerably on polling day. One poll conducted over the two days following the first leaders debate showed the Liberal Democrats as the most popular party on 32% of the vote. By election day it had dropped nine points. Of course, the position of the Liberal Democrats is now vastly different - with a reputation tarnished by the coalition, Mr Clegg now risks losing his Sheffield Hallam seat.

This suggests that, although the leaders debates provide opportunities for parties more ignored by the media, their influence is only marginal. Success at the ballot box depends on more than a couple of hours under the hot white heat of the television studio lights. 

Freshwater’s Public Affairs team provides specialist political communications and intelligence for a diverse client base. Whether you need campaign advice, crisis communications support, stakeholder engagement guidance or are interested in registering for our daily and weekly parliamentary and media monitoring reports, feel free to contact us on 0207 067 1595.


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