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The UK Election Debate – little more than a political speed date

April 3, 2015

Leader Debate

According to Daniel Finkelstein, columnist for The Times, Conservative Peer and statistical analyst. “this campaign will turn out to be the election campaign of our lives”. If last night’s General Election debate between seven party leaders is anything to go by, he may be right, but not necessarily in the way he intended.

The debate was a contest of personalities. Its format was about as conducive to exploring the issues as a stream of Twitter one-liners. For unfortunate voters who might be pondering how to cast their ballots, it was about as useful as trying to listen to birdsong in a London traffic jam.

No doubt the orchestrators of the debate would say that the limited time restricted the number of issues. They would be right, but shoe-horning the opinions of seven leaders into two hours allowed for little more than soundbites, big pictures and pointing fingers. One wonders how Churchill, Macmillan and others would have fared. Or which opponent Harold Wilson would have smacked in the face.

On the personality front the bombastic Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader, won out because he had little to lose, because everybody expected him to behave like the pub loud-mouth. I found myself waiting for each successive variant on his single theme – we must leave the European Union. He also won hands down in the face-pulling contest, rivalled only by Labour’s oh-so-caring Ed Miliband.

Commentators often explain the rise of marginal parties like UKIP on the grounds that an increasing number of voters are anti-politics. I don’t believe that the electorate is wearier with politics than in any of the dozen-or-so previous elections I can recall. I think that most of us are anti-bullshit, and our cynicism is more about broken promises than honest failure. Nothing new there. Have we not heard the same refrain at every election in living memory?

Judging by the issues selected for the debate, it does seem that we are more insular in our concerns than at any recent time. Whether that’s the media’s fault or that of the politicians, I don’t know. But it says much about our national mindset that the Iran agreement – potentially one of the most significant diplomatic breakthroughs of the past decade – took second place to the debate in the subsequent news programmes.

For what it’s worth, here are some thoughts on the topics discussed – and not discussed – last night:

  1. Nigel Farage claimed there was nothing any of the leaders could do about immigration as long as the UK stays in the European Union. There was no discussion on limiting immigration from outside the EU, which is something governments can control.
  2. There was no discussion on foreign policy. Developments in Russia, Iran, China and the Middle East could derail the best-laid economic plans. Not a single caveat that the UK’s prosperity over the next five years depends as much on factors beyond the country’s control as within it.
  3. Another subject that didn’t get a mention was defence. Are we so certain that we will never again need to act unilaterally in defence of our interests or against the grain of international consensus, as we did in the Falklands?
  4. Farage’s health tourism remark – about the cost of treating non-British HIV sufferers – snuffed out any potential debate on the benefit to the National Health Service of paid health tourism. Does the UK make the most of its reputation and facilities in treating foreign visitors who are prepared to pay?
  5. Nicola Sturgeon’s remarks about the benefits of free tertiary education hit home. If there was a choice between university places for all at a cost, and free places rewarding those who meet tougher selection criteria, one wonders which option the electorate would go for. With the National Health Service firmly entrenched in British politics as a sacred cow, why is education not similarly sacred?
  6. Why did nobody point out that foreign students, who do pay substantially for their education in British universities, play a major part in funding tertiary education? Should be not be welcoming more of them, not less, not least because of the goodwill towards Britain that these graduates bring back to their home countries?
  7. Nicola Sturgeon was impressive, just as Nick Clegg was in the 2010 debates. Almost certainly her Scottish Nationalist party will have greater influence in the next parliament even if they don’t end up as coalition partners. But Sturgeon should ponder the fate of Clegg, whose Liberal Democrats stand to lose many seats this time round. What goes up comes down.
  8. It’s interesting that there was no mention as to whether the experiment of a fixed term parliament will be repeated. Are we prepared to be stuck with a weak and indecisive coalition for the next five years?
  9. Finally, the leader of the Welsh Nationalists made a point that I would endorse. If there is to be a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, an exit should be contingent on each component of the United Kingdom – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – voting in favour. If we believe in devolved decision-making in the British Islands, we should not be seeking to force any component in such a fundamental direction against its will.

It sticks in my craw that a single-issue demagogue like Farage, who represents the sum of England’s racist, xenophobic sentiment, was given an equal place at the debating table despite leading a party with as much substance as the national football team. Fine if there had also been debates between the parties with a realistic chance of being elected. But then I suppose it was useful to hear from the minority parties that, like it or not, are bound to have an influence over any minority government that might be formed.

All in all, for this viewer the event was a pretty futile exercise – as unsatisfying as a cardboard burger. I suspect that this was the outcome in David Cameron’s mind when he agreed to what was always going to be a political speed date.

I’m not one who writes off all politicians as self-serving careerists. There are plenty of talented, well-meaning people in all the parties represented last night, with the possible exception of UKIP. The sad reality is that the presidential-style debate format projects the participants as the embodiments of the parties they lead. Thanks to the campaign managers, other voices will not get a look in, or at least their exposure will be limited to two-minute news clips and specialist (therefore minority interest) current affairs programmes.

I suspect that this debate might be the only piece of discussion that many of our voters will tune into over the next few weeks. So if our nation’s perception of each party stands or falls on the performance – and likeability – of the not-so-magnificent seven in two hours of superficial blathering, then the outcome on May 7th is anybody’s guess, and not necessarily one I look forward to.

From → Media, Politics, UK

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