The televised leaders’ debates are having an effect on the election beyond what almost anyone imagined. They are changing the way the campaign is being conducted. As of now, they look as though they may well change the result. And they could end up transforming the whole way British politics and government operate. They could well mark a major turning point in British political history.
Few people foresaw any of this when it was first announced that the parties had agreed that the so-called ‘prime ministerial’ debates should actually happen. The idea of them had been knocking around for decades but there had always been one party or another, looking at its narrow electoral interests, which found reasons to scupper the idea. So it was quite an event when, for the first time, the parties reached an agreement and the debates became a fixture of the election campaign.
Even so, many people regarded them as little more than a novelty which might have little effect. So restrictive were the rules of engagement that had been hammered out, it was argued, that the debates themselves would end up being so boring and stilted that they would prove a turn-off. The campaign managers would go back to relying on the old methods of seeking votes and this election would seem much like all the others that had gone before.
But the first debate, a week ago, upset all these expectations. In the first place, many viewers didn’t find it boring at all. Viewing figures were high. The rules didn’t seem to make for an inhibited debate and the three leaders were all deemed to have put up creditable performances. But it was the performance of the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, which transformed things.
Mr Clegg was instantly and universally hailed as the leader who had ‘won’ the debate. The effect on the opinion polls was equally swift and decisive. Support for the LibDems soared; the margin on which the Tories had relied in hoping to win power shrank, taking optimism of victory with it; and Labour found itself, in several polls, in third place. The election was now a three-horse race.
The focus was now on the second debate. Could Mr Clegg be put back in his box, the LibDem bubble burst and politics returned to the familiar battle between the Conservative and Labour parties?
The second debate, last night, far from producing this result, seems to have entrenched the effects of the first debate. Initial polling responses suggest that Mr Clegg did not win the out-and-out victory of the first debate but nor was he torn apart by the other leaders. Some polls showed him ‘winning’ narrowly; others had Mr Cameron, the Tory leader, doing so. And even though Gordon Brown mostly came in third for Labour, his ratings were higher than last week. In other words, all the leaders did quite well and the election is very much still the three-horse race. Experienced political commentators are admitting that they haven’t a clue how this election will end up.
What we can already see, however, is how the debates are transforming our politics. In the first place they are transforming the way the election is being fought. The focus has become so much on the debates themselves that much of the other, more familiar activity of election campaigns is being rendered almost irrelevant. Party activists, knocking on doors, are discovering voters unready to make up their minds until they see what happens in the debates. The performance of the leaders in a television studio is proving far more pertinent to how people are choosing to vote than any arguments about policy.
To some observers this focus on the debates and on how the leaders have ‘done’ is deeply alarming. To them it has turned a serious election into a version of the X-Factor, as though we were choosing a prime minister in the same way we would pick a pop star. There is as much interest, they complain, in what ties the leaders wear, how often they look straight at the camera, and whether they can remember to refer to members of the audience by name, as in what they are actually advocating.
Even those who say there is more than just style and spin to these debates and that the leaders are actually talking substance, express concern about how presidential the debates have made the election. After all, they argue, ours is not a presidential system but a parliamentary one. We are electing members of parliament representing parties not a head of government. Maybe there is a case for Britain electing a president, they say, but in that case we need a wholesale change in the way our government is structured. The trouble with the debates is that they are giving us a presidential election without a presidential system.
Quite aside from that, the debates look (as of now) as if they may have a huge effect on the outcome of the election. If the LibDems are able to maintain anything like their recent surge in the polls, then Britain is heading for a hung parliament in which no party has an overall majority. Whether this is a good or a bad thing is itself a matter of huge political controversy in which the interests of the parties themselves are entwined in the wider issue of what is in the national interest.
Labour and the Tories, as the parties which have alternated in holding power as majority governments for the last sixty five years, naturally say that a hung parliament is something to be feared. Ken Clarke, the Tories’ shadow business secretary, said this week that Britain’s financial and economic position was so weak that a majority government was essential, otherwise the financial markets would take fright at the prospect of weak government and that the IMF might have to be called in to enforce the sort of measures he argued were necessary. Before the election he even went so far as to say that a majority Labour government would be preferable to a hung parliament.
The Lib Dems, equally naturally (since they would hold the balance of power), say that this is scare-mongering and point out that there are plenty of successful and stable governments round the world in which no one party exercises sole power. Coalition government, they say, would be good for us.
Britain, however, is fairly unused to having hung parliaments and lacks clear constitutional procedures for turning them into strong governments. The conundrum facing the nation is that while coalition government (should we want it) is highly unlikely to come about without a hung parliament, a hung parliament does not itself ensure coalition government. Just as probable is that the parties in such a parliament would fail to agree terms for such a government. Instead there would be a weak minority in government in office, with everyone just waiting for another election to be fought, and one which might prove equally indecisive.
But there is a third possible transformation that could emerge from the extraordinary events that have flowed from the televised debates and Mr Clegg’s success. If the LibDems continue to do well, they are likely to insist in any negotiations in a hung parliament that the whole voting system be changed. In the current situation, with the polls as they now are, one perfectly plausible outcome is that Labour could come third in the popular vote and yet win more seats than any other party. Many people would regard such a cock-eyed result as the final nail in the coffin of the first-past-the-post system. Some commentators are saying this could well be the last election fought on that system. If that is the end result, then the televised debates will indeed have had a transforming effect on British politics.