After years of speculation, it has finally happened: the 2010 British general election campaign will for the first time feature not just one, but three leaders’ debates on ITV, Sky and the BBC.
The fact that Gordon Brown agreed to this is a sign of desperation. Every previous Prime Minister has realised that such debates are a mistake: they merely give the challenger a platform from which to land blows upon the incumbent. But given how bad the polls are, Brown feels he has nothing to lose. He believes that he can turn the focus back on policy, where he thinks he is strong and David Cameron is weak.
However, it is Cameron who has more to gain from these television debates because they will concentrate the voters’ minds solely on the Conservative Party’s greatest strength – Brand Cameron – whilst keeping the rest of his Party firmly in the background. Meanwhile, the presence of Nick Clegg will spoil the leaders’ debates as a television spectacle: people really want to see the two potential Prime Ministers slugging it out in the manner of a boxing match, with the voters left to judge who’s won on points, or delivered the knock-out blow.
Don’t get me wrong. Clegg is entitled to be there. There is still a realistic possibility of a hung parliament, and the public has a right to know which horse Clegg intends to back should he hold the balance of power although, of course, he won’t divulge that information. Clegg will be the happiest of the three party leaders because this innovation gives him the one thing he lacks: name recognition. Given that more than half the electorate currently can’t put a name to a photo of the Liberal Democrat leader, having three live television debates will be manna from heaven for Britain’s third main party.
The presence of Clegg has a more important consequence, however. It means that the television debates won’t be like the famous Kennedy versus Nixon head-to-head of 1960; it will be more akin to Georger Bush Senior versus Ross Perot versus Bill Clinton in 1992. On that occasion, the two challengers – Perot and Clinton – ganged up on the incumbent. In those circumstances, Clinton’s flaws were never allowed to emerge.
There are still minor issues to iron out before these events reach our screens. The leaders of the three main parties are still wrangling over the precise format: will a studio audience ask unseen questions, or will the leaders know the topics in advance? The decision to exclude the leaders of the smaller parties is bound to provoke an adverse reaction. Back in October Alex Salmond, the Scottish First Minister, threatened legal action over his exclusion when these debates were first mooted by Brown. He is sure to follow through on that threat now that these plans are close to becoming a reality. But in the end the SNP leader, together with his Welsh counterpart, will just have to settle for separate televised leader debates in their respective countries.
One thing is certain – television debates are undoubtedly here to stay. It is a bit like the televising of the House of Commons back in 1989. Once it occurred, people wondered what all the fuss had been about not televising it, and within months it became part of the political furniture.
But be prepared for a very different general election campaign. The leaders’ debates will define the structure of the campaign, making it even more leader-orientated than in previous elections. The debates will form the spine of the campaign. All the national media will be thoroughly geared up for the events, and each of the three party leaders will have to spend so much time preparing for these set pieces that a good third of a normal campaign will be lost.
I’m afraid that the introduction of television debates is merely the latest reflection of a trend over the last forty years or so – the growing focus on the party leaders, rather than the policies of their parties. Voters are less and less concerned with what the veteran Labour politician Tony Benn used to call the ‘isshoos’, and more and more concerned with the image of their leaders. Speaking personally, I think that is an unfortunate development. Let’s hope that when the election campaign kicks off in April that the issues are allowed to triumph over image.
Mark Stuart is a political writer and lecturer at the University of Nottingham, and has written the biographies of Douglas Hurd and John Smith.