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Did the 2010 Leader's TV debates enhance democracy and affect the result?

Opposition leaders have regularly challenged the incumbent Prime Minister to a debate but Prime Ministers have refused, mainly because they might lose the prestige attached to the office if they were placed in a forum where they were equal to the Leader of the Opposition.  In 2010, various factors led to the first Leaders’ debate taking place:-

-        All three leaders felt there would be a benefit from a debate.  Brown, behind in the polls, felt that a detailed debate on policy would play to his strengths and that he could demonstrate his success in dealing with the economic crisis.  Cameron had made his willingness to debate a part of his campaign to win the Conservative leadership and was a skilled television performer. For a Liberal Democrat leader any chance to be on equal footing with the leaders of the two main parties was an opportunity not to be missed.

-        Sky News promoted the idea and threatened to go ahead with whichever leader turned up.

-        In the wake of the expenses scandal there was a feeling that politicians should be seen to be debating openly before the public.

The format was three 90 minute debates on Thursdays a week apart.  An editorial team chose questions from the audience (who were not allowed to clap) and from emails, and the presenter then encouraged interaction between the presenters.  They took up a lot of campaign time with the leaders using the weekend to prepare and then the Friday had to be spent discussing the aftermath.  Media coverage was immense with discussion of how the debates might go and then how they did go dominating election coverage to the exclusion of coverage of issues and the rest of the campaign.  Public reaction was positive, especially among younger people, and half of 18-39 year old said that it helped them make up their mind about how to vote and 80% that they learned more about the parties.   87% of viewers discussed the debates with others and 55% said that it made them more interested in the campaign.

The impact of the first debate was remarkable.  Cameron gave a comparatively wooden performance while Clegg spoke informally straight to the camera. Cameron had, perhaps, been over-coached by advisers studying the US debates on how to look Presidential but this style does not work with British audiences and diverted Cameron from his usual informal style. Liberal Democrat support shot up 10 points in the opinion polls, after the first debate, and Annette Brooks, who held onto the highly marginal Mid Dorset and Poole seat for the party, remembered that things were very difficult on the doorstep before the first debate but were transformed afterwards. Cameron retrieved the situation somewhat in the other two debates though the audience for these was smaller. Although the Lib Dem vote was not in the end as high as the opinion polls were suggesting half of those who said they had changed their vote during the campaign said the debates had influenced them. Brown did not do badly, though he was solid rather than charismatic, but voters’ opinions of him were already set and with Cameron not doing brilliantly there was probably less effect on the Labour-Conservative vote.

Effects on the 2010 General Election Campaign

There were a number of effects on the campaign:-

-        The public were able to see direct interaction between leaders and the leaders were able to speak directly to the voters. It allowed key issues to be aired at reasonable length. Normally they would only appear in short clips selected by the news channels and accompanied by comments from journalists.

-        There was considerable interest from the public. An estimated 9.4m people watched the first debate, more than for the soaps. Viewers reactions were positive and young people, who are less likely to vote, said that that they learnt more about the parties.  People discussed the debates afterwards and so the electorate was better informed.

-        Viewers often judged the style of the leaders rather than what they were saying about issues. Because Clegg spoke directly to the cameras in the first debate and because voters had seen less of him, so that there was a novelty factor, and because Cameron appeared comparatively wooden, Clegg’s rating shot up. Those listening on the radio were surveyed and did not give Clegg such high ratings.

-        The media spent a large part of the campaign debating who had done best in the last debate and who would do best in the next one rather than raising the key election issues and investigating party policies.  This was, though, partly because policies were not that different.  The leaders had to spend so much time preparing for the debates and debriefing afterwards that they had little time to campaign in the country.

For 2015, Cameron has less incentive to take part as the established Prime Minister. Clegg is no longer a fresh face but with his party so low in polls has little to lose and Miliband will want to use the debates to improve his poor ratings. Farage sees himself as good on television and will want to take part.  The broadcasters have proposed one debate with just Cameron and Miliband, one with the leaders of the three established parties and a final debate with the three leaders and Farage as well. These proposals have not yet been agreed by the parties and the Greens and the SNP may mount a legal challenge if they are excluded, as both have MPs and significant poll ratings.



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