By accident or design, the election’s got a debate series that could work

By accident or design, the election’s got a debate series that could work


Multiple structures will probe the parties & leaders

In a little over nine months’ time, the US presidential hopefuls will be campaigning hard in the then snow-bound small rural state of Iowa, the first in a long process of state-wide elections that will ultimately determine the two parties’ nominations. That process has evolved over the years, partly organically, partly by design but the main reason there’s been little wholesale reform in the schedule, despite offerings to that end being put forward from time to time, is simple: it works.

The reason why it works is in the asymmetry of the challenge. Small states are intermingled with large ones, caucuses with primaries, one-off elections with multi-state dates; the campaign jolts around the country in no particular order. There is no particularly natural progression and no obvious logic to the order of the series. What that means is that for any one candidate to be nominated, he or she has to demonstrate a wide range of campaigning talents, from the up close and personal in Iowa to mass fundraising for the TV onslaught of Super Tuesday. One-trick ponies need not apply.

And after the months of to-ing and fro-ing over the debates in Britain, we’ve landed on something similar over here. The innovation of the debates in 2010 was to be welcomed; the excessive influence they had in the election was not. Apart from crowding out local campaigns (yes, in theory we vote for individual MPs locally but most people in most seats vote on national issues or preferences), they also made it harder for the leaders to be held to account in other ways.

This time, with the sequential interviews this week, the big 7-way debate next week, the 5-way opposition leaders’ debate mid-month and the 3-way Question Time event at the end, the leaders cannot just rehash the same arguments against each other as each event has its own dynamic and its own line-up. On top of which, the two two-week breaks in April mean that they ought to spend more time on the road and less time prepping.

Of the four events, the 7-way ought to be the most significant. It’s the only one where all the leaders are present and the first in the campaign proper. Much will depend on the moderation, as with so many people on stage the twin risks of the discussion being either stilted or a shouting match will be ever-present, but if it’s done well then the arguments made and public perceptions gained will frame the rest of the election. I wouldn’t be surprised if the viewing figures are three times the size of those for the Paxman interviews. Thereafter though, we should be back to something like normal campaigning for much of the rest of the month. It strikes a good balance.

The big question is who will benefit from that apart from, hopefully, the public? The answer to that lies in their credibility. Put simply, the major parties have to look like competent parties of government; the minor parties have to look like the voice of that part of the electorate they’re fishing in. As throughout the parliament, the direct Con-Lab battle is likely to be secondary to those between both Con and Lab on the one hand, and UKIP, the SNP and the Greens on the other, with the Lib Dems as something of a wild card.

In particular, this is Nigel Farage’s moment as kingmaker. Although UKIP has taken votes from both Con and Lab, he doesn’t have time to attack both Cameron and Miliband equally and expect to score two hits so his choice in where to direct his fire in that debate is probably one of the biggest specific variables of the election (particularly when combined with whether he’s effective in doing so). Having both gained hugely since 2010 and slipped since 2014, he has votes to defend and to win back. There is a strong argument to go for Miliband, whose electoral support will already be under attack from the Greens and SNP and so he has less chance to respond; there’s also a strong argument for him to go for Cameron given that more UKIP support has come from the Tories than anywhere else. If he does try both, he may fall flat and invite a shellacking in return. With the polls so close nationally, upon that call may turn the course of the election.

David Herdson

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