There’s much talk in the Westminister/Media worlds today about the third US Presidential debate which took place in the early hours of this morning. They’re undoubtedly a spectacle, and provide an important face to face jousting opportunity for the Presidential candidates (who don’t have anything as regular as PMQs to contend with). After 2010, we should now expect leader’s debates to be an important part of each and every General Election campaign – despite inevitable attempts to worm out of them. The only questions – like in the US – should be how many, where, on what network, and what rules. The debate on that has already begun.
The only one of these questions that matters is “how many?”. Labour’s answer should be – as many as possible. For three reasons:
An opportunity to be on a level playing field with the PM: Even with PMQs even Wednesday, there are few opportunities for an opposition leader to be on a genuinely level playing field with the Prime Minister. For starters, the rules of PMQs massivey benefit the PM, who can refuse to answer a question, ignore it, talk it out – or as often as anything else, just waffle on. In the debates, with moderators and equal rules for all participants, there’s more of an equal playing field. In addition to this, in a debate the country gets to compare the mettle of an opposition leader with a PM shorn of many of the trappings of incumbency and power. The more debates there are, the more a candidate who performs well enough can increase their chances of “looking like a PM” – which Miliband needs to do.
Ed is much better in less formal situations: Miliband may have improved significantly in recent months at PMQs, but he’s still at his best doing a Q&A with an audience. Whether a “town hall” style event, or stood behind a podium, I’m confident we’d see a much more relaxed and better performing Miliband in the debates than we do each week in the chamber.
Ed gets to be Nick: In 2010 we got “Cleggmania”. In the end it all turned out to be hot air, and there was no substantial polling boost for the Lib Dems. However, that was largely because people remembered that there was never – at any point – any prospect of the Lib Dems winning the election. What it did acheive was to give Nick Clegg enough gravitas and popularity in the country to pull off – very briefly – a coalition with the Tories. Clegg’s success as an exponent of “new politics” was to use a tactic that is as old as the hills – to say that everyone else is wrong and you’re right. In 2010 Clegg got to attack the “two old parties” who had governed and ruined the country, as he saw it. This time, the odds are that Ed Miliband will be up against Clegg and Cameron – neither of whom are popular, and both of whom will be desperately trying to differentiate themself from the other one. It’ll be unseemly – and Miliband gets to be Nick Clegg, criticising the two squabbling old parties who have ruined the country.
For Ed and the Labour Party, fortune favours the brave. Lots of debates, starting as early as possible, would afford the maximum advantage for Labour. Dare the PM to argue against them…