Leaders' debates are here to stay

By Jill Segger
April 29, 2010

Gordon Brown's nightmare in Rochdale seems to have had little effect on the standing of the three big parties. Following tonight's debate, a ComRes poll for the Sun showed Cameron gaining 35 per cent. Clegg 33 per cent and Brown 26 per cent. YouGov, polling for ITV, recorded the figures as 34 per cent, 28 per cent and 27 per cent respectively.

In this third and final debate, the leaders had obviously lost their uncertainty as to the format - the exchanges were sharp and combative and as clear policy division and social views emerged, no one following the proceedings could justifiably claim that “they're all the same”.

The demeanour of the three men which we saw in the first debate had changed very little. Cameron looked tetchy and cross when challenged or contradicted and his jibe at Brown on youth unemployment:“I'm not sure what country Gordon Brown thinks he's Prime Minister of” sounded peevish and a little puerile. Clegg was open and engaging, managed to inject a degree of passion into many of his points and appeared entirely at ease (but of course, he has less to lose than do his opponents). Brown, who is not a natural media performer, came over the least well in terms of body language – his trick of shaking his head at everything with which he disagreed was irritating and looked rather forced. It is worth recording a text I received from a friend as the debate began: “I like Gordon but find it painful to watch him”. In a media age, this is a disadvantage. Brown's mastery of his brief - the economy is obviously his strongest area – and his consistency of vision was again impressive but it may not be sufficient to balance his perceived unlikeability.

In the aftermath of what is inevitably being called “bigot-gate”, it is not surprising that immigration provoked some of the fiercest debate of the evening. Here, Nick Clegg's espousal of an amnesty for illegal immigrants who have been here for over ten years and who speak English, with a view to “getting them out of the hands of criminals and into the hands of the tax-man” is good sense and contrasted with the 'tough, tougher' approach of the other two, but it is a pity that he couched this only in terms of pragmatism rather than taking account of and advancing its morality.

Cameron showed an inability to understand the destructive effect of poverty and deprivation on a child's ability to learn. No amount of tighter discipline in schools or the idea of permitting parents – who will be largely middle-class, persuasive and articulate - to set up their own schools will make the least difference until his party learns that poverty generally kills aspiration. He was apparently similarly unable to understand the offensiveness of reducing inheritance tax for the 3000 wealthiest families in the country, especially when refusing to commit to meeting Labour's pledge to sustain investment in policing, education and the NHS. When pressed on this by Gordon Brown, he was slickly evasive and - as through most of the debate - refused to look at his interlocutor.

On work and benefits, Clegg made the most sense with the commitment to taking the first £10,000 of income out of tax. This would go a long way towards making low paid work worth doing and offers the essential underpinning of fairness necessary to make any measures of enforcement - “no life on the dole” - palatable.

As on previous occasions, the party spokesmen all insisted that their man was the winner. As they can hardly do anything else, it seems a pointless exercise to permit this particular piece of silliness. Perhaps more useful was the audience 'worm' graph which showed a sharp drop indicating how listeners were turned off when the three leaders were attacking each other. That is a lesson politicians need to learn – during this campaign I have heard more voters than ever before effectively saying “never mind kicking lumps out of the other guy, just tell me what you're going to do.”

The leaders' debates have been in many ways a success. They have stimulated interest in politics, moved us from a two to a three party system and have been the cause of a significant number of 18-34 year olds registering to vote for the first time. On the minus side, they have probably entrenched a 'personalities before policies' trend and made it a little harder to remember that we elect a government, not a Prime Minister. It is also more likely that good looks and an easy manner before the cameras will come to be seen as having greater importance than the more solid virtues of vision, competence and integrity.

But one thing is certain: they are here to stay.

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