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Election Notebook

Bad television is good for democracy

This election has broken the aura and expectation accorded to TV debates

Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn ended their series of election debates in Maidstone in the same way that they began them, 17 days previously in Salford, with a draw.

Once again, neither leader landed so clear a punch that the other was left seeing stars. Neither committed an unforced error of such a magnitude as to leave a fair-minded viewer aghast at the sheer God-awfulness of their performance. 

That is the conclusion of the instant Sky News/You Gov snap poll that followed this last head-to-head debate: Johnson’s narrow lead of 52 per cent to 48 per cent is the equivalent of a hung parliament. It was a margin identical to that produced by the first debate.

In this, the pundits watching these debates from a studio ante-room broadly agree that the evenly divided public has it about right. As the leader of the party trailing in the polls, this is a missed last chance for Corbyn. Nothing less than the delivery of some blistering upper-cuts were required.

For those – particularly in the media – who hoped that introducing televised debates to the democratic process would hit the popular sweet spot of high viewing figures with the public service of shedding light upon darkness and, even more exciting, changing the course of history, this must count as a defeat.

Who can remember a single thing that Nick Clegg said during his supposedly stellar 2010 performance?

But what is bad for television is not necessarily bad for how we choose our leaders.

When televised debates were first introduced for the 2010 general election the prospect of them being game-changers was both their strongest recommendation and the greatest cause for concern. The benefit was that the format allowed the electorate to see their leaders under pressure and in direct conflict in one place, at one time. Direct comparison was facilitated.

The assumption was that a leader cool under studio lights would be calm under pressure. Actually, it is moot whether some of the greatest leaders of the past would have been handed office according to this test.

After the first debate in 2010 — memorable for the “I agree with Nick” stereo incantation — it seemed that the ups and downs of performance across a full parliamentary term could indeed count for naught compared to a strong performance in front of a studio audience on one night.

With his ability to remember the names of the questioners in the audience whilst looking directly into the camera, Nick Clegg was hailed as the future. The sugar-rush in the polls enjoyed by the Lib Dems as a direct result lasted just long enough for them to find themselves, unimaginably, in coalition government. Of course, who now can remember a single thing that Nick Clegg said during this supposedly stellar performance?

Hence the fear that far from making manifestos and the secrets of leadership clear and digestible for busy people, the reality was to render politics even more superficial, sound-bite-friendly and susceptible to ever sharper media training.

If the 2019 leadership debates have achieved anything, it is to break the aura and expectation with which they were, until now, accorded.

Only the initial, 2010 series of debates, could really be considered consequential and, perhaps, only the first encounter of that series at that. No subsequent resurrection, whether in 2015, 2017 or now, can really be said to have single-handedly been consequential.

For all that, this last debate was in many ways the best of the series. As US presidential debates show, a straight head-to-head format works better. The choice is binary and the comparison direct. It also allows a little more time for the two men to answer. The more the number of contestants, the shorter their answers have to be.  The seven-way debates have been little more than sound-bites, partly as a consequence.

Yesterday also showed the two lead performers at their sharpest. Only with the glib answer to the question about an appropriate punishment for politicians who lie, did the Prime Minister fumble the ball on an issue that has become toxic for him personally.

Corbyn noticeably failed to contradict Johnson’s claim that far from Labour’s spending plans falling merely upon the now famous 150 billionaires even those on salaries of £20,000 would be paying an extra £1,000 in tax. Johnson also slipped in references to Corbyn’s history of entertaining the representatives of the IRA and Diane Abbott’s ambition to abolish MI5. Puritanical where his adversary is cavalier, Corbyn remained throughout the personification of charmlessness.

It is a civil war drawing to a close. On Thursday he will discover whether Britain has returned to the mood that decapitated its monarchy in 1649 or welcomed it back with relief in 1660.

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