In all the brouhaha surrounding the potential party leader debates during the forthcoming election, most attention is focussed on the multiple leader debates, and just how many parties will be represented. Less attention is being paid to the proposed debate that pitches the two potential Prime Ministers – David Cameron and Ed Miliband – against each other.  That one seems simple to envisage. It’s the non-controversial proposition.

But in this pentagonal contest, what will it actually be like? There is a tendency amongst many commentators to imagine it is the key contest: the two potential PMs, head to head, with all the extraneous noise of the minor parties finally stripped out of the picture.  Here we are, finally, the classic Labour vs Conservative head to head – normal politics resumed.

Wrong. It won’t be like the presidential head to head in France, in advance of the second round, when all the alternative choices are indeed stripped out of the equation. In the UK, with our Parliamentary system, all the alternative choices will still be in play. And most significantly of all, the big contest for votes out there is not taking place directly between the Conservative and Labour parties, but between those two parties and their different rivals.  The flow of voters switching directly between Conservative and Labour and vice versa is now small. The bigger net movements are elsewhere: from Liberal Democrat to any number of new ports – Labour, Green, Conservative, UKIP; from Conservative to UKIP; from Labour to UKIP; from Labour to Green; from Labour to SNP. These flows combined massively outweigh the trickle in either direction between the two traditionally dominant parties.

Dave and Ed know that. Although they are set to debate each other, they are not in the contest for votes many assume they are.  Mr Cameron won’t, on the whole, be trying to woo Labour supporters and Mr Miliband won’t be trying to sway Tory supporters. They will both be trying to shore up their bases by stemming – and hopefully reversing – the net drift to a variety of alternative options. They won’t be addressing each other, as much as addressing those no longer on the platform.

But such is pentagonal politics. There are many different contests taking place on the same pitch at the same time. And added to the mix, this time, there are a larger number of uncommitted voters, eyeing a wide range of possible options. Some polling has indicated that as many as 50% of voters could still change their mind before May 7th.

The party leaders know that as well. And their campaign strategies are designed accordingly.  We can expect a lot more along the lines of ‘a vote for ‘x’ (minority party) will let ‘y’ in (leader of the other large party). That will be an attempt to induce voters to select a ‘least worst’ option, recognising the constraints imposed by a first-past-the-post voting system trying to deliver a result in a multi-party contest.

The hard question is how will voters respond to pressure to hold back from supporting their top preference?  The approach has worked in the past.  The so-called ‘squeeze message’ was effective on Liberal Democrats in Conservative marginal in 1997, who moved to Labour in large numbers to oust a suiting Conservative MP.

But that was against a backdrop of an essentially binary choice, when there was already a huge flow of votes directly between the two main parties.  This time, that stream has dried up, voter scepticism is far more widespread, and voters are less likely susceptible to the ‘squeeze message’.  Anxious as they are to express their frustration at traditional politics and establishment options, they are more likely to stick with their alternative preference.  They are not in a mood to be told what to do by either of the two parties with which they have become disillusioned.

Hence the pentagonal contest, which is bound to be uppermost on Dave and Ed’s mind as they mount the rostrum for the prime ministerial head to head.  The more they try to score points of each other, the more they will aggravate an electorate bored with the old politics, and more they will peel away towards alternatives.  It is more likely to become two debates in parallel, taking place in the same room, as Mr Cameron addresses his deserters who he needs back in the fold, and as Mr Miliband does the same in relation to his deserters.  As Mr Cameron seeks to appeal to conservatives who are still inclined towards UKIP, and as Mr Miliband appeals to radicals who are inclined towards Green or SNP, don’t expect much in the way of a vigorous contest to occupy the centre ground.

This not political campaigning as we once knew it. 

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