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TV election debates: Tune in -- or drop out

By Robin Oakley, CNN Political Contributor
Students in Brimingham brave the rain to watch the third UK election debate between leaders of the main political parties.
Students in Brimingham brave the rain to watch the third UK election debate between leaders of the main political parties.
  • Many observers believe that Nick Clegg benefited most from the three election debates
  • Observers ask if the debates have brought the UK closer to a coalition government
  • Political parties in the UK cannot ignore how leaders perform in TV debates

London, England (CNN) -- "It was the Sun wot won it" claimed the bumptious newspaper in a famous headline the day after the 1992 UK election surprisingly returned Conservative Prime Minister John Major to power.

The newspaper's front-page banner headline on polling day itself featured Labour Leader Neil Kinnock's, his head surrounded by a lightbulb and urged: "If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights."

If the shape of British politics changes on May 6, with a hung parliament leading to discussions about a coalition government, then somebody somewhere will write an article entitled "It was the TV debates wot dun it."

The four-and-a-half hours of detailed and sometimes passionate debate between Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Conservative leader David Cameron and his Liberal Democrat counterpart Nick Clegg have not only had a significant effect on the likely outcome of this contest -- they have probably changed the whole shape of British politics.

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By giving equal billing to Nick Clegg, as leader of the third party -- who seized his opportunity brilliantly -- they have quite possibly speeded the progress of multi-party politics which was already on the way.

Back in the 1950s the Labour and Conservative parties between them took around 95 per cent of the votes in Great Britain. The old joke then went: "A taxi drew up outside the House of Commons and the Liberal Party got out." But by the last election in 2005 the two major parties shared less than 70 per cent of the votes cast between them.

Not only did the Liberal Democrats have 62 seats in 2005 (a poor return for the 23 per cent of the votes they secured) but the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists had another 10. There were also significant votes for the Greens, the United Kingdom Independence Party, the British National Party and a string of independents.

The inclusion of Clegg in the debates was in part a recognition of that in theory. But in practice his inclusion not only enabled the public to see a capable debater in a much better light than when he is normally howled down in the Commons by the massed ranks of Labour and the Conservatives; it also enabled him to play the "plague on both your houses" card.

Clegg was able to become at this particular angry moment in UK political history a conduit for the feelings of many electors who are currently motivated, above all, by their desire to punish politicians for the expenses scandals of the last parliament.

Certainly the leaders' debates rewarded those with effective TV techniques. "Cleggmania," as it was rapidly christened, developed because the Liberal Democrat leader stared straight into the camera to address the audience at home, picked up on the names of those asking questions and presented himself as the ordinary bloke standing between two corny old politicians, representative of the old way of doing things. Not so much "après moi le deluge' as "I am change."

Labour leader Brown was probably doomed the moment he agreed to the TV debates, with the risk that they would become the centerpiece of the election, as indeed they have. But he looked doomed at that point in the opinion polls anyway, and anything was worth a try.

Brown had probably hoped to dominate. He has knowledge and experience and can juggle statistics impressively. But he is not an easy communicator and he knows it. He even tried to make a virtue of that, conceding: "If it is PR or style you are after then I am not your man." The subliminal message was: "Don't be taken in by those glib youngsters with their trendy haircuts."

Like it or not, televised election debates are here to stay
--Robin Oakley

Once Clegg had won the first debate and consigned Brown to third place, the prime minister was always going to struggle. The main focus of the election was on a medium in which he was never likely to be able to produce a game-changing performance.

Cameron, who can do PR standing on his head in a bucket of treacle, somehow took till the third debate to hit his stride. Maybe he was shaken at having the mantle of change whipped off him by Clegg with the speed of a waiter changing a tablecloth. Maybe he just looks a little too smooth for some voters' tastes. If an excess of five o'clock shadow ruined Richard Nixon's chances in his debate with the tanned and well-made-up John Kennedy, maybe Cameron should try the reverse by sporting a designer stubble.

Whatever the respective talents of the leaders of the UK's biggest political parties -- and there is only so long Clegg can get away with making the political point of "Let's stop making political points" -- the re-weighting of would-be election winners' talents will only continue going the way it is going.

Communication now is everything. Already parties choose their fast-trackers not by such criteria as "Does he or she come up with good policy ideas?" or "Can he or she run a team?" but simply by asking "Is he or she good on TV?"

Like it or not, televised election debates are here to stay. And parties choose leaders who can't cope with them at their peril.

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