The first-ever televised debate between the leaders of the three largest UK political parties has divided opinion as to the ‘winner’ – with Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg winning most plaudits overall.
The stalemate between Labour and Tories was reflected in the ups and downs of the leaders’ arguments over tax, spending cuts, immigration control and political reform.
The audience, who were banned from clapping, sat in virtual silence as the three men bidding to lead their country addressed each other.
Many press reports of what ITV and political correspondents are now calling “the prime ministerial debate” said little about the issues, focusing instead on how the personality traits and rhetorical thrusts were coming across with audience pollsters and pundits.
Predictably, Labour said Mr Brown had been “very substantial”, the Conservatives said Mr Cameron was “strong and personal”, while the Liberal Democrats declared that Mr Clegg did “very well” – with all three claiming “our man won”.
However, political reformers, campaigning for a parliament with no overall majority for any of the big parties, are pointing out that the real victor in the debate may still be a hung parliament – something not on the ballot paper, but which many people disillusioned with the system and wanting change want to see, according to polling and interviewing.
Psephologists say that if there is a boost to the Liberal Democrats from Mr Clegg’s strong showing, and if – as polls indicate – extra votes for them come from the Tories, the chances of a hung parliament are strengthened yet further.
Meanwhile, the online campaign to ‘Hang ’Em – until they change’ (http://hang-em.com/) has been attracting growing interest and comment.
One of Hang ’Em’s backers, Simon Barrow from the belief and values thinktank Ekklesia, commented: “The first impressions from the leaders’ debate have been positive. But on reflection many people will realise that this was mostly about style rather than substance; that reducing our political options to the three biggest, richest parties is a degrading diminution of choice; and that the ‘casino politics’ of squabbling over who we bet will win a TV beauty contest mirrors rather than challenges the ‘casino economics’ which has got the world into a terrible mess."
Ekklesia argues that beyond the limited options being presented in the 2010 General Election is an underlying ‘ethics election’ in which ordinary people are voting with their feet, their voices, their lobbying and their growing online power for real change in the political system, for social justice, for peace rather than war, for action to combat global warming – and for a host of other policy possibilities which the big parties are trying to tidy away.
Hang ’Em says that the elected politicians will only really be forced to pay attention if they face the parliamentary logjam which would be a true reflection of the state of institutionalised politics in Britain today – and which poses the need for a radical shift in attitudes, systems and possibilities.
The first of three TV leaders debates took place on the day the Green Party launched its manifesto, but it wholly ignored ‘green new deal’ economics and politics proposed by the Greens and by others, both inside and outside the parties.
The Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru, who are in government in Scotland and Wales respectively, have also been excluded from the prime ministerial clash.
Critics say that the collusive dominance of ‘the big three’ in what was billed as a gladiatorial-type television contest shows what is wrong with the Westminster system, rather than offering any meaningful way forward for it.
The SNP managed to get in on the act from the sidelines, ensuring that its election broadcasts were scheduled to show across the UK as well as in Scotland before the leaders’ TV contest.