With 27 days to go until the polls open, the question is, have you had enough of it as yet? Voters are now surrounded, either through choice or submission, by leaflets, daily polling, party political broadcasts, tweets and of course, the leaders’ debates.
While naturally there was more press attention on last week’s debates on ITV and the earlier ‘interviews’ of David Cameron and Ed Miliband by Jeremy Paxman, we’ve also had two Scottish debates this week and await a further broadcast on the BBC on 16 April.
Like most things political, the debates can be analysed and generate a great deal of coverage, yet the most important question on the format is whether they have a bearing on voter influence? The obvious answer is yes. For most of the electorate that don’t spend their days immersed within the day-to-day happenings of Westminster, it is a simple insight into who the leaders are and in a Presidential format, whether they would be inclined to see them as Prime Minister.
I suspect that while most people would agree that debates are important from an accountability and democratic perspective, there remains a question on whether the format actually works.
While there were several ‘moments’ between the leaders within the ITV broadcast, most notably from Nick Clegg to Ed Miliband and Leanne Wood to Nigel Farage, is it a fair assessment to say that it wasn’t really a debate? The strict time slots allowed only for party messaging, which is exactly what you want if you’re looking after the campaign, but soundbites and constant interventions hardly create fruitful programming.
If the broadcasters want to get it right for the next election, then they should probably look a bit closer at the Scottish debates over the past couple of days. While one could argue that these were more interesting because the race in Scotland is fiercer and more engaging, the viewer certainly learnt a lot more from the Sturgeon, Murphy, Davidson and to a degree, Rennie than they did from the week before. These actually were interesting debates and we learnt a lot more about policy rather than about presentation.
It is understandable that agreeing the ‘correct’ format isn’t particularly easy and in a world of communication and electoral strategists in overdrive, there is no guarantee that the final product will make an interesting programme. However, the broadcasters and the Ofcom had plenty of time to make these considerations and negotiations beforehand. While many will be glad that they eventually went ahead in the end, for many, it was simply a lost opportunity to learn anything substantial.