Reinforcement not change? Reflections on the 2015 Leaders’ Debate
The 2015 Leaders’ Debate was a markedly different affair to the first ever debates held in the 2010 General Election. Five years ago the platform was limited to three representatives of parties who were each comfortably attracting at least a quarter of the electorate’s support. Now seven politicians, four of who lead parties currently polling less than 10%, were able to take part in what will be the sole face-to-face Debate between all of the key protagonists in this election. And even this nearly didn’t take place due to various disagreements between the party and media negotiators involved in tortuous and highly publicized rows over the format. So perhaps the most significant consequence of the 2015 Debate is that it has established a trend that makes it very difficult for leaders to avoid participating in these kinds of campaign event in the future.
Predictably the various parties claimed their leader triumphed in last night’s encounter. The rival post-Debate polls as to which candidate did best offer comfort and support to each of them but none has seemingly emerged as the stand out winner. This may simply reflect voters’ more heterogeneous patterns of support so that relevant portions of a more fragmented electorate are just backing their preferred choice. However from this it is also noticeable that the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has performed strongly . Sturgeon leads a party that is contesting less than 10% of the UK parliamentary seats so her showing represents a vote of confidence from many non-Scots. Nigel Farage also performed well although simultaneously scored the best and worst ratings in ComRes’s ‘half-time’ survey, reflecting his status as the ‘Marmite’ politician different groups either laud or loathe.
The Debate reportedly attracted 7 million viewers so this audience considerably down on the 9.4 million who saw the first encounter in 2010. Famously the latter ended in a unanimous declaration by pollsters and pundits alike that Nick Clegg had triumphed against his then opponents David Cameron and Gordon Brown. This changed the dynamic of the 2010 campaign but it did not significantly alter voter behavior to make a major difference in the subsequent election. It is difficult to see the 2015 Debate having a pivotal influence on this General Election. Many less committed voters will not have seen the programme. Furthermore of the available reports on the Debate many may have read or seen there is little by way of a conclusive narrative of the ‘Cleggmania’ kind from last time.
In the 2015 Debate most of the leaders including the rivals for the premiership Cameron and Ed Miliband mostly put in a competent performance but had little opportunity to make a distinctive impression. This was primarily because of the involvement of so many protagonists and a two-hour format that limited the kinds of spontaneous interactions between candidates that could have left a memorable impression. The nearest thing to this was Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood’s denunciation of Nigel Farage for his comments on drug treatment for migrants with HIV. And yet Wood did not see any noticeable success for her performance in the post-Debate polls despite her winning the first round of applause from audience members present. But this is perhaps to miss the main point of participating for the Plaid leader as well as her SNP counterpart and their fellow progressive, the Greens’ Natalie Bennett. It has given these representatives as well as Nigel Farage unprecedented exposure to a mass audience. Regardless of their levels of polling support, what were once labelled ‘minor parties’ now have equal billing on the same stage alongside a serving Prime Minister. Much indeed has happened since 2010.