Nothing focuses an election campaign like a televised debate between the candidates, which is perhaps why some politicians are less than enthusiastic
Television debates have long been part of the political process, or so we think. We have a hazy memory of Kennedy vs Nixon, the black & white TV pictures of men in suits looking sombre involved in a debate any reasonable analyst will describe as being an occasion on which the suits were more important than the people in them. Apparently back in 1960 Americans voted for president based on how crisp he looked on television, and Kennedy had done so, whilst Nixon had appeared to be both sweaty and blurry. It cost him the White House so they say, but then they would.
We then rather bizarrely assume that because of that start we’ve always had election debates, that they sprang up in 1960 and have been with us ever since and that all countries with a well developed media hold them so that the voters can see the candidates lay out their stall and counter the positions of their competitors. Unfortunately that just isn’t true. After the 1960 debate there were no more Presidential debates until 1976, the effect on the political process had just been too great, taking part was far more risky than the politicians had realized.
In a country where the re-election of incumbents runs to about 95% there was a distinct feeling that for those already in office there was no purpose served by these debates, save for giving gravitas to their opponents and risking a gaffe that might see them plummet out of the running, so why take part? In the US this reticence was steamrollered by a corporate media like no other and politicians were left with little choice but to participate. Unfortunately in much of the rest of the world the media didn’t have the same good fortune.
Politicians around the world are easily led into their first televised debate, their confidence and ego assuring them they will come out victorious, looking fabulous, ready for power. The harsh reality they quickly learn is that live TV debates are playing politics without a net and any single moment could damn you. This tends to mean that whilst the first debate is easy to arrange, the second one is all but impossible. It took nearly two decades to get US politicians to return to the stage, in other nations they simply never did.
Debates Never Popular With Politicians
In the UK debates were first mooted during 1964 by Harold Wilson and wholly rejected by Alec Douglas-Home, and indeed over the next forty years or so every time one of the candidates agreed to a debate the opponent refused. Margaret Thatcher famously claiming she didn’t wish to debate sitting Prime Minister Callaghan because such television debates were alien to Britain. However perhaps the most salient comments on the attitudes to debates in the UK came from John Major who said; “every party politician that expects to lose tries that trick of debates and every politician who expects to win says no.”
Media pressure, however, saw the first election debates in the UK held over three successive Thursdays during the 2010 campaign. They featured the three main party leaders, they were quite entertaining, and produced the rather amusing result of convincing the UK electorate that Nick Clegg was worth voting for. The leader of the Liberal Democrats had come across as so calm and reasonable, such a ray of hope between the stuffy “You are but what am I?” arguments of Labour and the Conservatives, that people voted for his party in greater numbers than ever before.
The influence of these debates on polling figures was pronounced and indeed some lay blame for the resulting coalition government at the feet of the debates, the TV appearances having destroyed David Cameron’s shot at a majority. This perhaps explains why the Tory leader is now making the attempts to stage further election debates so fraught, as Prime Minister he has little to gain from a debate and a whole lot he could lose. The current spat about debates may appear fatuous political grandstanding but this could well be the make-or-break component of these elections.
UKIP & The Greens, In Or Out?
The media, in their various guises, have a problem with time and numbers. The time is too short for a large number of candidates and thus they’ve chosen to only invite the major players. The conservatives, the Labour party, the Liberal Democrats and UKIP. It is the inclusion of this last one that has the Tory leader worried. UKIP is the new right-wing boy on the block and is guaranteed to take votes from the Conservatives at the polls, David Cameron does not want to have to debate Nigel Farage the populist leader of UKIP.
In order to avoid this he thus refuses to take part unless the media include the Green Party’s leader, which he’s selling a principled stand gambling news of his support for the Greens will make him look slightly less idiotically out of touch. Of course the real reason he wants the Greens on stage is that they’re a thorn in Labour’s side just as UKIP is in his. This is why Labour is calling him a coward and saying he, as a politician, shouldn’t choose who is or is not in the debate, and Cameron meanwhile points out the Greens were more successful than the Lib Dems (who are invited) in the recent euro and local elections.
Debates Desperately Debated
• UK politics hots up as parties argue over TV debate
• David Cameron called “Flit” by Labour leader
• Bet365 offers odds on every aspect of the race
At Prime Minister’s Question Time (a weekly shouting match in parliament where the PM must answer questions from both friends and foes alike) the argument was heated with the Labour leader quoting the Conservative heroine Maggie Thatcher when he accused Cameron of being “Flit”, with Cameron on the back foot as pressure grows on him to take part. The threat of an empty podium on screen where he ought to be now floated by his opponents by an identical letter from all three whose glee at his discomfort is as joyous as any winner in a UK internet casino.
UK gambling laws allow political wagering and with this heating up, it’s still only January, so much so fast you’d be hard pressed to find a more edge-of-your-seat competition to bet on this year. Bet365 for instance are already reflecting this new facet of the election in their odds with Labour closing up to 19/20, the conservatives moving out to 17/20, UKIP rushing in at 50/1 and the Liberal Democrats stuck at the same odds as an alien invasion, 500/1. Will the debates go ahead? Will the influence the outcome as much as the people involved believed? Only time will tell, but one thing is for sure, the race for No.10 Downing Street is going to be a steeplechase not a marathon.