Thursday, 9 April 2015

The Leaders Debate: British Politics is No Longer a Three Horse Race

After the rather staged and formulaic Sky/Channel 4 leader interviews on 26 March (a.k.a. ‘The Return of Paxo’), by conceding a lectern to what the Westminster media village has disparagingly thought of as the minnows of British politics, David Cameron may just have breathed new life into what was in danger of becoming a rather dull three horse race. Here are some of the reasons why the ITV Leaders Debate on 2 April may represent a turning point.

We have never seen so many women represented in leadership positions for their national parties, all arguing passionately in favour of social justice and against the politics of austerity. As Paul Mason noted, in fact we have never heard such a sustained argument against austerity from any political figures on prime television before. Even this shift in political discourse may persuade those in Labour’s inner circle who have watched the rise of Syriza and Podemos with baffled amazement that there are votes in an anti-austerity message – especially north of Hadrian’s Wall and west of Offa’s Dyke.
The Ipsos-MORI ‘worm’ and the instapolls created more confusion than clarity regarding the leaders’ performance – producing enough variance in terms of cheers and boos to allow The Telegraph and The Sun to call it for Cameron and The Guardian and Daily Mirror to hand the laurels to Miliband. Neutral opinion probably scored Nicola Sturgeon ahead of the rest (as did the YouGov poll), while Farage succeeded in rallying his core support and scoring highly in the straight talking/trust department. Despite Labour’s genuine woes in Scotland this is not a bad position for Miliband to be in going into the election after several years bumping along the bottom in the political leader popularity stakes. The more voters see Miliband in open combat with Cameron the more they seem to like him, which is why Lynton Crosby was shrewd enough to go early with a debate that would give Miliband few opportunities to land sucker punches and make headlines close enough to polling day to sway floating voters.

The Seven Party Leaders Square Up for Debate © ITV News

Nigel Farage deliberately eschewed what he considers to be the politically correct consensus of the established parties in favour of an all out assault on immigration, foreign aid and Europe. This was all fairly predictable stuff until Farage suggested that non-British nationals with HIV (not very subtle code for Black Africans) should not be treated at public expense by the NHS. This drew visible gasps from the audience and an immediate storm on social media. Significantly though, only Leanne Wood for Plaid Cymru called Farage out directly on his remarks – calling them ‘disgusting’. Miliband condemned the remarks after the debate, but Cameron kept silent. It is a measure of how far Farage has managed to push the immigration debate into territory that used to be considered toxic by all but the far right and of UKIP’s dominant position as the party most trusted by voters on immigration – a traditional Tory trump card, the loss of which may cost them dear come May 7th.
There has been a noticeable shift towards presidential-style politics with #TeamEd working hard to de-geek and ‘Obama-ize’ their leader. So we had lots of ‘Honest Ed’s nearly new policies’ direct to camera pitches, which trod a thin line between sincerity and cheese, but also flashes of wit and passion that went down rather better. Five years of government, and the scars to prove it, ruled out a repeat of ‘Cleggmania’, but the Deputy Prime Minister has grown into his role and still appeals to moderate voters with a social conscience despite his notorious broken promise on university tuition fees (though ironically perhaps not enough to save his own seat in Sheffield Hallam).
David Cameron continues to exude the ‘born to govern’ Old Etonian confidence that his rivals might snipe about but which still impresses the Gogglebox constituency. Tory strategists were happy enough that Cameron stuck to the ‘who would you rather have in 10 Downing Street?’ script and avoided the elephant trap of where the £12 billion in welfare spending cuts was going to come from. Nigel Farage has made a virtue out of bizarre facial expressions and windmill impressions. Rather like Boris Johnson, Farage always gets his self-parody in first, and this sets him attractively apart in a ‘man in the saloon bar’ way from the Westminster clique. Therefore despite, or even thanks to, the liberal furore over Farage’s ‘health tourism’ remarks, UKIP achieved their goal in the debate.
By contrast all the women leaders came across as professional but approachable and much more interested in the substance of their party’s position than the style of its delivery (highly polished though Sturgeon in particular was). If nothing else the presence of Sturgeon, Wood and Bennett proved that there’s more than one way to appeal to voters than being a middle aged white man in a suit.
Does any of what viewers saw on April 2nd matter in terms of the outcome of the election? Probably not, but the exposure that the Greens and the Nationalists have gained will have boosted their membership and given their campaign teams something to shout about. Voters wanting a ‘Brexit’ were given little reason to vote Conservative or LibDem despite promises of a referendum since Cameron still seemed to be betting his shirt on a British opt out to EU free movement. On this topic, Miliband scored a rare blow by pointing out that David Cameron’s failure to stop Jean-Claude Juncker from becoming European Commissioner didn’t auger well for renegotiating the European Treaties in order to assuage the Tory right, UKIP supporters and the Europhobic press.
However, when it comes to the battle on the doorstep in the key marginals, the Tories will be relying heavily on the partisan support of much of the national press and an electoral war chest that dwarfs that of all the other parties combined. Conservative Central Office will now be concentrating all of its resources on promoting #TeamCameron in favour of the much weaker brand of the party at large. Despite a reasonable start to the campaign in England and Wales #TeamEd and Labour face a huge and unexpected problem in coping with the #SturgeonSurge since the SNP leader is unquestionably the most capable politician in Scotland. Jim Murphy has an uphill battle to persuade voters that the Labour Party will stand up for Scotland’s interests better than Nicola’s tartan army – particularly given the success of Alex Salmond in keeping the Barnett Formula and wresting more powers from Westminster thanks to the unionist parties’ Devo Max concession prior to the Scottish Referendum.
The Leaders Debate may have fired the starting gun but with such a tight election race in prospect we can expect many more thrills and spills before the runners cross the line on May 7th.
Dr Simon Parker
Senior Lecturer
Department of Politics


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