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

by Stephen Tall on December 26, 2009

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 …