Wednesday 21 January 2015

It's all an act

I doubt that there’s anyone who really believes Cameron’s line about not wanting to take part in leaders’ debates because the Green Party has been excluded, even himself.  He’s simply calculated the potential risks and benefits and decided that the downsides of participation are greater than the upsides.  The line about the Green Party isn’t entirely the fig-leaf as which it’s been painted though.  Part of his calculation will have been that having Farage present as a perceived alternative to the Tories might at least partly be countered by having Natalie Bennett there as a perceived alternative to Labour.
The others are just as calculating.  Farage probably calculates that the status accorded to him and his party as a serious player, coupled with his ability to play the outsider, can only be a plus.  Miliband should be very wary of going head to head with Cameron if he has any sense at all, but is milking Cameron’s refusal to take part for all it’s worth.  I can certainly see why he’d calculate that going ahead with the debates without Cameron might help him.  As for Clegg – well who knows what goes on in the mind of a Liberal Democrat?  Probably that nothing he can do can make things much worse, so any chance at all of redeeming his party's position is better than nothing.
The way that they and their advisors are calculating the risks and rewards of these debates isn’t the only similarity between them of course.  When it comes to policy there isn’t that much to choose between them either.  And four middle-aged male millionaires from the South East of England, saying and believing much the same, aren’t exactly a representative or exciting prospect.
I’ve never been a fan of the idea of leaders’ debates anyway.  Partly that’s because of the exclusion of any serious alternative viewpoint, and partly it’s because the election is about electing a parliament not a president.  (Although I wouldn’t have a major objection to separating the election of the executive from the election of the legislature, as it happens – indeed, I can see a number of advantages to doing that.  But while we're still electing a parliament rather than an executive, treating the votes of all the citizens of the UK as votes for one or other of the ‘leaders’ is to treat local MPs as nothing more than lobby fodder.  That may well be what they are much of the time, but that’s another problem which needs to be addressed not reinforced.)
However, neither of those objections are really what concerns me.  My biggest objection of all is that they’re not even proper debates.  They’re staged to suit the broadcasters’ wish for good television. 
The participants have all been coached and rehearsed and we’re encouraged to distinguish between them on the basis of their performance.  It’s all an act where the ‘winner’ is the one who has the best coaches and the best memory.  Remembering to look sincere in the right places, to display the right degree of outrage at others, to deliver the scripted sound bites and even the scripted jokes – all of these are more important than the substance of policy.
Would it be any different if Nicola Sturgeon, Leanne Wood, or Natalie Bennett (or even all three) were included?  It would certainly look different, but how certain could we really be that they too wouldn’t have been coached and rehearsed to perform well?  And how well would the format really suit the presentation of a serious alternative viewpoint?
I’m not at all confident on either score, much as I’d like to believe otherwise.  Unintentionally, perhaps Cameron is doing us all a favour by finding an excuse to block the debates.  For sure, the broadcasters will complain about the impact on democracy, but in reality it’s no such thing.  And believing that the broadcasters are interested in democracy rather than ratings would be as silly as believing that Cameron really cares about excluding the Green Party.

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