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In the UK, televised pre-election debates are a strange new phenomenon

Reuters/Stefan Wermuth
This is how TV works, right?
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

There are parts of the world where politics and television are intertwined. Americans’ idea of pre-election head-to-heads were formed by those Kennedy and Nixon match-ups in grainy 1960s black-and-white. German leaders can scan debates recorded on VHS tapes back in the 1980s for style tips.

The UK is different. The British will probably get used to televised pre-election debates and other events eventually, but for now they’re still a novelty, and not just for the watching public: The leaders who have to take part aren’t used to them, either.

Consequently, the candidates are fearful. Prime minister David Cameron made headlines for all the wrong reasons earlier in his re-election campaign by refusing to appear in any debate at all. Then—bizarrely, it seemed to many—he only agreed to a debate if smaller players like the Green Party were included.

Cameron and others, particularly Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, have good reason to be worried. The last election to be held in the UK, in 2010, was also the first to feature televised debates, and they’ve left a difficult legacy.

Clegg was widely judged to have won against challenger David Cameron and Gordon Brown, then Labour prime minister, catapulting the Liberal Democrats out of irrelevance and into the glare of mainstream attention for the first time in many years. A period of “Cleggmania” ensued. It failed to translate into more seats in parliament, but made Clegg viable as the deputy prime minister he then became. Ever since, it’s been bittersweet for the Lib Dem leader. He’s struggles to uphold the policies he championed—and gets slammed every time he’s forced to concede on one of the principles he so very publicly set out.

Not quite Question Time

What’s so strange about the leaders’ antipathy to the pre-election debates is the fact that a debate is televised in the UK every single week. But the style of debating they’re used to doesn’t come across well on screen. Prime Minister’s Questions is an arcane institution in which members of parliament gather every Wednesday lunchtime to perch or slouch on the green leather seats of the House of Commons, and shout at each other.

There have been calls from many quarters to do away with the “farce,” which features aggressive and supremely old-fashioned insult-flinging, shouts of “shame!” and calls for “order, order.” It would be funny to watch if it wasn’t so boring, and didn’t represent the public face of British democracy.

In the latest round of television pre-election events, only one of which—tonight’s—is actually a debate in which politicians respond to one another, broadcasters are trying to do better. Both last week’s Channel 4/Sky program and tonight’s debate have a studio audience posing questions to the leaders. In last week’s, Jeremy Paxman, a career-griller of politicians, put Cameron and then Ed Milliband, the Labour leader, through their paces.

But the effect was hollow. Both leaders, intent on not slipping up, stuck doggedly to the party line and trotted out a stream of stats to back up their arguments. They thanked the audience for questions, re-phrased them to change the meaning, and gave answers that sounded pre-prepared. This wasn’t a conversation, but a performance of listening, and a parody of communication.

Maybe I, a British person unused to televised debate, am hoping for more than this limited format can offer. But I think most of us are watching not to hear a party line one more time, or even catch a stumble. We’re hoping to see something of the real person—to look into the leaders’ eyes, as much as many of us ever can do, and judge them on ineffable qualities like truthfulness and the ability to lead.

The medium is the message

Heads of the seven political parties taking part in tonight’s debate will today, like this Quartz reporter, be en route to Salford in Greater Manchester, whence much of the country’s media has decamped in recent years both to economize and to decentralize away from London. Our destination: a former pastry plant turned TV studio called the Pie Factory.

The location and other information about the debate was released to journalists earlier in the week under strict embargo. No one was allowed to report, until today, that the leaders had drawn lots for stage position and speaking order.

Nathalie Bennet, the leader of the Green Party, will go first. The Greens saw a huge surge in membership over the past year, and polled well amongst young people. But Bennet stumbled badly during a live radio interview and some question whether the party can be anything other than one of protest. Nick Clegg, likely white knuckled but perhaps with little to lose, comes next. After him is Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party. UKIP has hit unheard-of heights of popularity in the past year, campaigning on an anti-immigration ticket and with its sights set on exiting the European Union.

Ed Miliband, often criticized for his public-speaking style but somewhat boosted by favorable reviews of his performance last week, is next. Leanne Wood, leader of the Plaid Cymru, the national party of Wales—and a party few people in the rest of the UK will have heard from before—comes next. Then comes Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party, which gained huge momentum from a referendum on independence last year.

The last to speak will be Cameron, the Conservative prime minister who wants a second term but has stated he won’t try for a third. Party strategists will likely have been exercising themselves over how to make the relative positions work to their advantage. The internet tomorrow will be awash with awkward-proximity pictures of Farage/Miliband and Cameron/Sturgeon. The likelihood of a coalition could make one of many strange combinations a reality.

How any of them will actually run the country will remain a matter of debate, perhaps for the crowded train journey home.

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