Getting Personal – The Leaders’ Debate

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Every once in a while, throughout history, human beings engage in spectacle. We expect, for our own entertainment, figures to battle it out against one another trying every measure possible to win our favour. The recent TV debates are little more than this spectacle, the winner will never be the leader with the best ideas – it will be he who articulates them best. It really doesn’t matter what you believe; it matters far more what you sound like and what you look like. It’s an inescapable fact of public life. Its also, obviously, dreadful. However, we resolve nonetheless to take from these debates what we can, in the case hopefully we can see something of the values each party represents. So, here is my rundown of each of the party leaders:

Nicola Sturgeon, aka: The Loch Ness Monster:  For my money, she won the debates. She was quick witted, calm and held a rather firm line pressuring both Cameron and Miliband successfully. Her concern was not with England, but with Scotland, a fact she made very clear in her opening address. However, she managed to mirror the ‘centre ground’ of English politics far better than the English parties did. Quite a disturbing fact for anyone concerned about the rise of Scottish Nationalism and its effect on English politics. Regardless, the SNP’s electoral chances I suspect, have only increased after the debate.

Ed will you be my friend? Miliband: His performance was poor. I am unsure how he managed to poll as well as he did, I presume there is a degree of bias there. His copy-cat-Clegg style of looking into the camera, repeating ‘here’s what I think’ and constantly asking if people agree with him only reminded me of someone desperately trying to make a friend on their first day of school. His only moment of identifiable passion was on the NHS, and he seemed to fail even there to really grasp the issue and run with it. Admittedly, he was under a lot of pressure from other left-wing parties, perhaps this sapped his usual ‘social justice’ vibe. Though one thing seems clearer: he doesn’t look like Prime-Ministerial material.

Nervous Natalie: She was clearly quite nervous. This was a prime opportunity for the Greens to establish themselves as a left-wing protest party, and Ed Miliband will no doubt be delighted with her performance. As David Cameron had his natural supporters sapped to the spell of Farage, Natalie failed to make any inroads with the public. I’m trying desperately not to refer to polls, as I find it terribly misleading and rather dull. However, I do think in the case of the Green Party leader, her polls reflect her poor performance. Her loony-shade of politics was clearly demonstrated and poorly articulated. Even the SNP wouldn’t claim the Tories wanted an American-style health care system. Though, those who didn’t know the Green Party were totally beyond reason, are probably themselves, beyond reason.

Nigel Im not with them Farage: Clearly a strong performer on the stage, and cleverly calculated his responses to appeal to his core vote. His Europe comments will go down well with many Tories, and he hammered David Cameron effectively on this issue. I doubt his HIV-gaffe will offend anyone considering voting UKIP, though will almost certainly solidify the dislike of him amongst more progressive circles. Though of course none of this matters to Farage, he successfully claimed ‘they’re all the same’ and by the end even the audience were laughing in agreement. He is the anti-establishment, anti-Europe, anti-foreigner candidate. Who now also apparently cares about ‘social inequality’. . . though I strongly suspect that just another branch of populism designed to appeal to an anti-posh rhetoric. So, if you define yourself by everything you don’t like, you probably like Farage.

Leanne Wood, aka: The Welsh one: I really don’t have much to say about her to be honest. Her performance was poor and uninspiring. I have no doubt the people of Wales will like the Barnett-formula stuff, but ultimately she made no impact on any English voters. Sturgeon was the Celtic-hero of the debate.

Nick Im sorry Clegg: Clegg was keen to apologise. And very keen to distance himself from David Cameron. Also keen to defend Britain’s ‘right course’. I am not entirely sure how all those things equate in Nick Clegg’s mind. However, presuming there isn’t a cognitive dissidence there, he performed well. We all knew Clegg was good at debates, and considering his disastrous popularity polls recently, he did remarkably well. He hasn’t made the inroads he needs to save the Liberal Democrats from electoral annihilation, but he may just about have saved his own seat.

David Cameron, the man with a long-term plan: In many ways Cameron won, though certainly not for his performance. Everything he said, we have already heard him say a thousand times before. However, considering this was never going to be the highlight of his campaign, and the last set of debates essentially lost him the 2010 election, this one went remarkably well for him. Ed Miliband hasn’t stormed ahead, his constant repetition of PR phrases didn’t seem to repulse most people, if anything, he got away with it. This could have been a lot worse for him, and he emerged unscathed and ready to fight on until the May 7th.  Don’t get me wrong, his performance was poor and full of clichés. He is by no means the technical winner, and quite like Miliband, I am left unsure how he polled as well as he did and I suspect bias was involved. However, Cameron has now got the hard bit over, and all things considered, will be quite happy with his performance.

All this can teach us one crucial thing about TV debates; they are a really bad idea. They are a bit of fun, and I am not in any way advocating we stop having them, but ultimately they are little more than a vehicle for people to put out endless rhetoric, in a slightly more competitive way. It was little more than a fracas (where’s Jeremy when you need him, it’s not like he’s busy anymore, and frankly the event needed spicing up) between really rather dull and uninspired people. However, despite this, it does give us some clear indication about how to vote. We should vote on our values, and not on spectacle.

If debates pit together the best trained monkeys parties have, then contrary to expectation, we are not looking for the best trained monkey, rather the monkey who best echoes our values. Therefore the winner, really has nothing to do with technical performance or articulate responses. It’s much more about what each person claims to stand for, and who they are claiming to represent. As a conservative, I will always be naturally disposed towards the Conservative Party, because for me they take to the public the things I already believe. In the case of Cameron, I don’t find someone I particularly believe in, but he none the less represents the values I stand for. We in this country should be wary of these debates, as it puts unnecessary focus on individual leaders, ever pushing us down a more presidential style of governance. I can be a conservative, without liking David Cameron. This is one of the virtues of a parliamentary system. When you vote on May 7th, you are voting for a local representative, a new government and a set of values all in one. People will balance out those priorities differently, some may like their local MP regardless of party, others will have no idea who their MP is, but quite like a set of policies advocated in one party or another.

For me however, voting is an expression of deeper things than choosing between Ed and Dave. It’s about reflecting a broader set of principles that I believe are associated with any self-governing nation. The left talk a lot about their values, their compassion and how ‘fair’ they are. It’s time the right, rather than relying on a few dodgy businessmen to sign a letter, hit back with a set of ideas of their own. The debate therefore, is a total irrelevance. It’s a spectacle, designed to distract you from the politics of ideas, and towards a politics of personality. My review of the leaders is satirical and personal; I attempted to reflect the seriousness of the occasion.

Dylan Grove

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