The debates could be great for Miliband – he should embrace them

October 23, 2012 2:26 pm

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…

 

  • Amber_Star

    Mark,

    Cameron & Clegg will mount a joint ‘get Ed’ attack regardless of any wish for differentiation between their Parties. The bigger picture is: Both will want to shake loose the ex-Libdem vote from Labour because that’s the voters who watch debates & they’re the voters without whom we cannot win.

    If Labour are well ahead in the polls, it would be hubris to think we can top it off by winning the debates. The terms & style of debate will surely be weighted in Cameron & Clegg’s favour, not least because the TV political media men are like an old boys club.

    There are as many reasons for steering clear of the debates as there are for doing them. At the end of the day, Labour strategists will have a very tough decision to make about the debate(s)!

    • postageincluded

      Agreed. I’d add that if Labour are well ahead in the polls Cameron and Clegg will have agreed an electoral pact and a joint manifesto – informally at least; in effect it’ll be one LibCon party with two spokesmen. 
       
      Mind you, Amber, Ed will have the opportunity to display his unfeasibly large and noisy gonads. Mark would obviously be in favour of maximum exposure.

  • Andrew McKay

    There won’t be any debates.

    Did anyone else read Nick Robinson’s article in the Times today?

  • Carolekins

    Yes, I agree – Ed should go for as many debates as possible.  He’s now a relaxed and confident performer,while the coalition duo are tainted.

  • Serbitar

    Sad to say but I think Miliband is a very poor debater and even worse orator. The few hits he manages in PMQs usually originate from lines fed to him by behind-the-scenes advisers and lame gag writers of dubious talent. Miliband comes across as mutable, indecisive, uncommitted and insubstantial – in short, not very leader-like. I really cannot see how encouraging Miliband to make an exhibition himself, alone, without guidance, during televised debates viewed by millions, can be anything but counter productive for Labour.

    • http://twitter.com/renieanjeh Renie Anjeh

      Have you seen PMQs recently or watched Ed Miliband’s recent Conference speech? #justasking

    • telemachus

      The message is good
      The messenger will seem unpracticed
      Cameron is smooth and women friendly on screen
      I would be agin debates.

    • AlanGiles

      All sorts of things can go wrong in live debates. You might be suffering from a really bad cold, so not up to par, or you can stumble over a word, and as it is live there is no chance to do a retake (and have you ever noticed how, if a newsreader makes a mistake early on in a bulletin he or she tends to make more later due to nerves?), as the audience in the studio will be made up of supporters of all the parties, you might find your opponents audience is more vocal than your own.

      On the pro side there is always the possiblity that you could goad Cameron into losing his temper, but there are many more entries on the con side – not least those mentioned by Serbitar.

      One of the things in such contrived debates is that you have to be a good salesperson – it should also be remembered that the real winner of the 2010 debates was Nick Clegg, and look where he is now.

      • Serbitar

        American debates eventually wind up as “one to one” contests between two men who belong to different political parties. In this country we would have to hold three-handed debates between Miliband, Cameron and Clegg, as representatives of the country’s three main political parties as before. This is bad news for Labour since by the time of the debates the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats will be deeply entangled after having been in coalition with each other in government for five years: Cameron and Clegg will inevitably end up like some kind of unholy political “tag team” working  jointly to belittle and damage Miliband rather than trying to best each other in argument as individuals. 

        Two against one is more like a bloodsport than a fair fight.

        Miliband should steer clear if possible.

        Discretion is the better part of valour.

        (Before Gordon Brown no Prime Minister had ever agreed to appear in a televised debate and poor doomed Brown only triggered the process because he was sinking like a lead balloon and desperately casting around for stunts that might help revive his fortunes, e.g., the dire Piers Morgan interview and similar. Awful.)

  • MrSauce

    Ed’s damaged goods.
    He can be picked-off at every turn.
    Go through the motions in 2015.
    Focus on 2020.

  • John Reid

    What did Clegg actually say in the debates, anyone remember, It was more his charm, and Look at gordon It was his finest hour, but no noe was listening to him by that point, it’ also works on the assumption that We will be far ahead in the opinion polls…

  • markfergusonuk

    Yes, I linked to it – I think he’s wrong

    • postageincluded

      Andrew Grice in the Indie seems to be suggesting the same.  Question is, why are the Tories putting this story about? A bargaining ploy would be my guess.

  • AlanGiles

     Such things are, sadly, by their very nature, beauty contests – a slightly-more-serious- reality show for the X Factor & Only Way Is Essex brigade,  and I doubt if most of the audience at home can remember what any of them actually said – but if the 2010 debates were “Gordon’s finest hour”, I should hate to see his worst one! :-)

  • Serbitar

    Yes and yes. Hence my previous comment. The real point that needs to be addressed is that in a three-way debate where two of the participants have established associations (Cameron and Clegg) is a bad way to air political ideas in public because the two will always gang up on the one unfairly. A fairer way to hold debates in an n-party system is for each leader to debate with each of the other leaders, separately, one-on-one.

    This would require a minimum of:

    C(n,2) = n!/2!(n-2)!

    debates per subject area, i.e., 3 debates per subject area in a three party system like ours, excluding representatives from every minor party. 

    Domestic, international and economic affairs were the subject areas chosen for debate in 2010, which, if repeated, would require a total of 9 debates in toto if Miliband, Cameron and Clegg were to face each other mano-a-mano as outlined and as far as I’m concerned that’s 9 debates too many!

  • Serbitar

    We can only hope.

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