Winners and losers in the chancellor's debate

By Jonathan Bartley
March 30, 2010

There is lots of analysis - including much wishful thinking - by politicos and journalists this morning about who 'won' last night’s Channel 4 chancellor’s debate. That is to miss the bigger picture.

It is quite revealing to see people approaching the TV debates first and foremost as another version of Prime Minister’s Questions. Unlike PMQs however, these debates are not about boosting the morale of back-benchers. Nor are they even the same as the slightly less adverserial quick-fire Question Time. They extend much further – beyond the political anoraks. Neither late night nor lunchtime viewing, and with a tighter focus, they will reach beyond the usual suspects in terms of who watches (although viewing figures may be less). They will also be widely covered in other media.

And many of these people who come into contact with the event, despite the narrow focus on winners and losers, will not have failed to see how the dynamic of debate was changed by the presence of a skilled mediator in the form of Vince Cable.

Some commentators are lamenting that there wasn't a punch up. The political system, and indeed the commentary that surrounds it, is based on an adversarial model. Even the voting system makes no allowance for those who don’t come first. There are only ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ under first-past-the-post. Those who back a loser have their opinions discarded.

But such an approach is ill-suited to TV debates like the one we saw last night. Neither is it helpful in analysing a three (or more) party system, and certainly with the prospect of a hung Parliament which would rely on coalition, consensus building, cross party work and bargaining.

Brown urged voters a few weeks ago to have a long hard look at the Tories, and then take a second look at Labour. But the electorate are also having a long hard look at the prospect of no overall majority. And the more the polls hang around hung Parliament territory, the more they will consider what this might mean, and who has the character and skills for dealing with such a context.

Last night, Cable came across as having far more authority than the other two candidates. Not just because he seemed to know more about what he was talking about, but because he took on the role of mediator. This may or may not have been a ‘win’ in the conventional sense. But his presence certainly challenged the adversarial system, and publicly showed that there was another way of doing politics - something Lib Dems struggle to do in the House of Commons where their words are, quite literally, shouted down. Both Osborne and Darling without their parties there beside them, clearly sensed this - as did the studio audience, and no doubt many watching at home.

Some MPs, perhaps also sensing this, immediately started to seek to undermine the authority that Cable carried with him. They, with others, are pursuing the usual line that he can say what he likes, because he will never have to follow through in Government. In short he can’t ever really be a ‘winner’. But in the context of the prospect of a hung Parliament, that argument itself begins to look naive.

Indeed, the real losers here, are the ones who don’t recognise what happened last night, and are wedded to old models, ill-suited to the new context.

[Update 10.30am: Viewing figures from C4: 1.6 million viewers – 750,000 more than watched last week's Dispatches Profile was 65% ABC1 Adults]

[Update 1 April Seems to have been a poll surge to the Lib Dems off the back of the debate: ]

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