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Monday, 23 March 2015

‘Politics as theatre for ugly people?’: electoral democracy and the seven-ring circus of the leaders’ television debate

After months of public wrangling, behind the scenes manoeuvring and electoral calculation (with the odd principled defence of free speech and public service broadcasting) we finally have a line up for the 2015 election debates.

There will be a seven-way debate on April 2 featuring David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg, Nigel Farage, Natalie Bennett, Nicola Sturgeon and Leanne Wood. This will see seven trained political actors each trying to outdo one another. Then, after the performance, we will be treated to a forensic media analysis of winners and losers, further feeding the tendency to portray the election as a horse race.

While having such a large number of participants is common in other countries, such as Denmark or Finland (or indeed in the US primaries), it is completely new territory for the UK. The inclusion of seven leaders shows how party politics is changing and how this election has the potential to end the dominance of the two-party system. It could usher in an era of coalition government as the norm, not the exception. 

**But apart from the schadenfreude and sheer entertainment value of seeing a well-seasoned leader wrong-footed or a decent joke from an unlikely source, does this debate enhance or ill-serve our democratic political system?  While it may tell the viewing public some more about the personalities of the people involved, will such a debate deepen citizens’ political knowledge? Would the latter be better served by two sets of debates – one between the two largest parties and a second between the remaining 5 (or 6 if we include the DUP)?   **

All political debate is a balance of theatre and rational calculation. The ancient Greeks saw politics as based on ideas but also saw debate as relating to the intimate connection between rhetoric, drama, personality and persuasion.

The considerable furore that has surrounded these debate shows just how important personality, image and soundbite are in British electoral politics. A clever pre-prepared one-liner delivered at the opportune time could not only win the debate but lead in the newspaper headlines the next morning.

And of course that’s precisely what all seven leaders will be thinking about between now and April 2. They will be preparing their lines, statistics, rhetorical strategies. They will be planning what to wear, deciding whether to smile and trying to rein in facial tics.

Such televised debates have long been part of the drama of political elections, adding proof, if that were needed of politics being theatre for ugly people.   Whether it’s the well-known and often referenced televised debate between Nixon and Kennedy in 1960 (where Nixon appeared ill, his 5 o’clock shadow contrasting badly with the shiny, youthful health of Kennedy).  Or the 1987 Finish general election, when the sweater-clad Pekka Haavisto from the Green Party stood out from the sea of other party leaders clad in dark suits and gained positive media coverage and votes as a result. 

The latter raises an interesting prospective for the participants, especially the smaller party leaders. That is, with such a large number of participants there will be the temptation to do, wear or say something that will grab attention in such a crowded context?  While Nigel Farage's USP would put him in pole position to adopt this tactic, and Natalie Bennett's recent media meltdowns have shown her how not to perform, we might also witness Ed Miliband or David Cameron doing something unexpected.  This will be less a 'debate' than 'Britain's got political talent'.  

However, while there is the chance of impressing and winning over undecided voters, this is the exception not the norm.  Televised debates do not generally lead to people changing their minds or voting intentions - rather they serve to reinforce existing perceptions and shore up the 'core vote'. 

Elections are one of the longest and toughest interview processes you can think of, and televised debates are connected to other parts of the interview like a candidate knocking on your door and looking for your vote.  Unlike the face-to-face exchange however, the televised debate is one way and scripted (after all it is a piece of theatre).  While it makes for good political drama (though we should not expect anything approaching Borgen or House of Cards) and can engage voters in the election, it does reinforce a focus on personality not policy.  Voters can be lost not because of their negative assessment of a party's policy proposal, but through its leader stumbling over their words or forgetting their lines.  And politics itself can become a turn off for viewers if participants simply shout and talk past one another. And at that point citizens are not just interviewing candidates for high political office, but reviewers of their dramatic performance.