NEW POLL: will the TV debates make any difference to the Lib Dems?

We now know the UK will see its first ever televised debates between the leaders of the three major UK-wide parties in the run-up to the 2010 general election. The consenus is there have been two winners: Sky News, which, with brilliant audacity, put the issue front and centre, and by so doing ensured that (i) the debates will happen, and (ii) it muscled in on the act, instead of being excluded by the BBC and ITV. (There’s a lesson there for Channel 4, which had been comprehensively outmanoeuvred).

The second winner, according to the commentariat, is Nick Clegg. Here’s Andrew Grice in today’s Independent:

Which political party leader had the most to celebrate on Christmas Day? Nick Clegg. The Liberal Democrats are the big winners from this week’s historic announcement of three televised debates between the three main party leaders during next year’s general election campaign. … It usually takes a Liberal Democrat leader one election just to “get known.” Mr Clegg’s fatal weakness – that voters simply do not know him – suddenly evaporates. His party’s polling shows that when people see him, they like him. Having watched him at one of his 100 town hall meetings, I can see why. Now about 10 million people will see him up close, and not judge him on a few soundbites on news bulletins.

Jusy by being on the stage, by being so publicly seen to be one of the Big Three, Nick has already won. There is, I suspect, an element of truth in that. The Lib Dems’ achilles heel has always been our supposed lack of credibility: being seen on equal terms as Messrs Brown (assuming he survives to the election) and Cameron is half the battle.

But will it actually matter? Will Nick’s appearance, or the TV debates, in any way change voters’ minds? The Indy’s Steve Richards is sceptical:

I do not expect the leaders’ televised debates to change very much, although they will dominate the election campaign because of their novelty and the media’s fascination of a media event. There will be no “gaffes” from Brown or Cameron in the debates but Clegg will be more vulnerable, unused to the intensity of such exposure. We will learn nothing new because by then there will be nothing left to learn.

He’s right, I’m sure, that the media will self-obsess about the impact of the election debates, with much sport-heavy metaphor talk of ‘knock-out blows’ and ‘no clear winners’. I’m surprised, though, that he thinks Nick will be most vulnerable.

True, he’s the least experienced of the three leader. But as Andrew Grice notes above, Nick has regularly exposed himself to public scrutiny at his town-hall meetings, and also had to hust in front of a studio audience for BBC Question Time when contesting Chris Huhne. Likewise, David Cameron has also appeared at various ‘David Cameron Live’ events, and faced David Davis on TV (who bested him by some margin).

I would have thought the most vulnerable wold be Gordon Brown. For all his world-stage experience, which neither Messrs Clegg or Cameron can match, the Prime Minister has nearly always shied away from set-piece debates, ensuring the Labour leadership race was shut down without a challenge, and avoiding Question Time, even when he was Chancellor. It says something about how desperate the situation is that Mr Brown has, at long last, agreed to a format that he detests.

But Steve Richards hints at the risk which all the leaders are taking by taking part, Nick no less than the others – it’s one that Liberal England’s Jonathan Calder put succinctly back in September:

There seems to be an assumption that Nick will do well in the debates, but will he? From his reaction on live television to the revelation of the “Calamity Clegg” memo in the leadership campaign to his “Our shopping list of commitments will be far, far, far, far, far shorter” in the Independent recently, Nick’s major media appearances have generally contained episodes that could have been put a great deal better. Leading a party in the age of 24-hour media is a horribly difficult job, and Nick has certainly been learning fast, but I do not share this assumption that Nick is bound to shine when placed against Cameron and Brown.

I think Jonathan is a little harsh. Yes, Nick’s mouth sometimes works a little faster than his media savvy – but what the voters see and hear they generally like, even if he’s not always word-perfect. But Jonathan’s absolutely right to note that things can go wrong: the party’s 2005 general election campaign never really recovered from the twin embarrassments of Charles Kennedy’s botched manifesto launch, and his subseqent lacklustre response to a half-hour interrogation by Jeremy Paxman live on BBC1. Though Charles excelled on the live Question Time a few days before the polls (when the three party leaders all appeared independently to be quizzed by David Dimbleby and the audience), the damage had by then been done.

All of which musings bring me to the new LDV poll question: What difference, if any, do you think the televised leaders’ debates will make to the Lib Dems’ standing in the polls?

And here are your options:

  • They will be a real help to the Liberal Democrats;
  • They will make only a marginal difference either way;
  • They will backfire for the Liberal Democrats;
  • They will be utterly irrelevant to how people vote.

Let the debate commence …

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11 Comments

  • Andrew Suffield 26th Dec '09 - 7:22pm

    I think he tends to win a few points just for being imperfect, rather than reeking of PR polish like some of the well-funded politicians.

    As for the debate, I’ve said it before: people tend to see what they expect to see in these things. Supporters of each party will mostly think “my guy gave the best performance here”. As such, I’d expect it to strengthen people’s belief in decisions they’ve already made, but not to change anybody’s mind. People who are still on the fence by the time the debate happens are hard to predict, but most likely not to vote at all.

  • i tend to agree. Although Nick may not have the polish of the pounds for press of brown or cameron, he has a genuine chance to get our message across to the mainstream. I may be wrong but I always thought that after a broadcast, we had a bounce. It never ceases to amaze me how many people agree with us after you get to talk to them.

    Once people get past the hype, they agree with many policies. This could be our chance to shine against the other two.

  • Liberal Neil 26th Dec '09 - 8:23pm

    The likely outcome is that the debates won’t change very much. They will be a about three hours of hundreds of hours of TV coverage during the campaign and will mainly be watched by people who are not going to swing their votes.

    They might have an impact if one of three is clearly better than or clearly worse than the others. This is most likely to be Brown being worse.

    As others have said there will probably be some benefit to us simply because Clegg is there.

  • cynicalHighlander 26th Dec '09 - 9:45pm

    “They will be utterly irrelevant to how people vote.”

    Simply because they are totally undemocratic and have been contrived by the media and the 3 main parties have fallen hook line and sinker into that frenzy.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thereporters/briantaylor/2009/12/a_blogs_about_blogs.html#P90252995

    Just a simple question “With a title of Liberal and Democrat how can you say that you look forward in a liberal and democratic way when this is an example of dictatorship under the cloak of democracy.”

  • I don’t think this’ll do us any harm. I’m hoping that Nick takes it as an opportunity to push the agenda that Labour and the Tories are more similar than different, and that the only way to really change the system is to vote Lib Dem. We need to think of this as being a generic squeeze message across every constituency!

  • I don’t think the debates will make much difference directly, but I expect the nats to make the most of their exclusions in Wales and Scotland and some of that will come at the expense of the Lib Dems.

    But then I already reckoned the Lib Dems were in for a proper kicking in Scotland even before this nonsense was announced.

  • Its not the debates that will win or lose but the spinning afterwards. The Tories are better than us or Labour at the moment at making something a media narrative. Don’t write off an on-side Peter Mandleson either. This is where our advantage will be lost.

  • Yes the consensus seems to be that Nick and the party will automatically benefit, conversely if he makes a gaffe or fumbles or waffles, it could be very damaging indeed.

  • David Allen 28th Dec '09 - 4:51pm

    This will be good for us if Nick puts forward one or two really good, clear, convincing reasons to vote Lib Dem. It will be disastrous for us if he doesn’t. At the moment, he hasn’t. “Savage cuts but not quite as savage as Osborne’s” is not a natural vote winner.

    Back in 2005 we were “the real alternative” to two right-wing parties on the Iraq war. Where, oh where, is our equivalent USP this time?

    We could have had “Green Tax Switch”, we could have had “Green New Deal”, we could have had “an end to the Afghanistan war”, we could have had “clean up politics”, we could have had “government for ordinary people, not just the millionaire donors and non-doms who run the other parties”. We have dabbled with some of these ideas, but we haven’t really come up with clear leadership on any of them.

    It’s rather a surprise that neither Cameron nor Brown has objected to Clegg contesting the debates on equal terms. My guess is that they have allowed it because they think we are vulnerable. They both want to take voters away from us, and they both think they will do well if they go after them.

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th Dec '09 - 11:26pm

    Clegg was sold to us on the grounds he was some sort of amazing charismatic communicator, so much so that his very presence at the top of our party would give us an instant boost, push us forward in the polls, and keep us there due to this superman at our helm. A fair number of people who had doubts about his policy stand nevertheless voted for him on this basis, enough to give him the majority (plus the other contender wasn’t too much different on policy).

    Well, it hasn’t happened (note to the naive – the right-wing press do this every time we have a leadership election – pick the one they want, and convince us he’s so much better than the rest and they’ll respect us more if we have him, then still treat us exactly the same as they did before once we do).

    Anyway, we’re stuck with him now, so he’d better do good and prove (really, I am a loyal member of this party, I do want him to do this) my assessment was wrong.

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