Sunday, April 18, 2010

Leaders' Debates: More of the same?

Ceri Ames: the TV debates are a further move towards the trivialisation of political debate.

As you may have noticed, Nick Clegg has been declared the victor in great leaders' debate. Even if the surge in support for the Liberal Democrats 'sticks', I fail to see why this is in some way a vindication of these debates.

Sure, an election where the LibDems achieved 30-odd percent would almost inevitable lead to a hung parliament, and give the LibDems their shot at a governing pact.

Presumably they would try to get agreement on electoral reform, but they have been very cagey about what exactly they would insist on- and given the hostility of both Labour and (especially) the Tories to this, I can see this being jettisoned in favour of other polices.

Given the choice between making no deal by insisting on electoral reform, or of taking the opportunity of getting some say in policy (and of appearing responsible etc), I think the LibDems will make the latter decision.

Obviously, I would love to be proven wrong, as electoral reform would make the LibDems' showing, and thereby these debates, the watershed moment some commentators are trying to claim for them.

However, for me these debates have been a further move in the trivialisation of politics and political debate. Given the level of disengagement and disillusion with politics in the UK at the moment, the leaders' debates have been presented as a way of re-engaging people, of fostering interest in politics.

Now if this were the case, I would be all in favour. But these debates are not doing this, they are not engaging people with issues; instead they are being presented by the media as the issue, the personality and performance of the individuals are being judged. It is appearances, and judgements on the appearances, that are being discussed, rarely the actual policies and the issues to which they respond.

Politics is messy, political issues are often difficult to assess and to decide upon. They can't be reduced to the level of these debates, with their one minute answers and emphasis on avoiding mistakes.

I've no objection to trying to engage people, the majority of whom think politics is 'what politicians do' and is therefore corrupt, boring and has little to do with them, just as visiting the Science Museum can enthuse and engage people with science. But that isn't what these debates are doing or are designed to do, any more than a visit to a museum makes you a scientist.

In the long-run, the debates, by focusing on individuals and continuing the type of coverage of politics that we endure now, can do no more than temporarily arrest the decline in trust and engagement in politics that they are trying to address.

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