Well, the debates are all over. The opinion polls have David Cameron winning this last one, one of them by a substantial margin. That’s not how I saw it. Like the second of the debates, I thought it was pretty even, but that will not be enough for Gordon Brown. I think we can definitely say that barring a miracle and Labour finishing first (which ain’t gonna happen), he will no longer be Prime Minister in a week’s time, no matter what. In fact, I would bet that he resigns as leader of the Labour Party pretty quickly too even if a deal needs to be struck in a balanced parliament. Whatever his faults, he’s aware of the damage it would do to the party if he didn’t go quickly and with dignity.
Some things have become clear during the debates. Firstly, the leaders and parties are going to take some time to get used to this new feature on the British political landscape. My impression is that in all three of the debates, the leaders were too restrained, too careful, not confident enough to go for broke or to break the mould. They were probably over-coached and under-experienced. Despite being the favourite to do well in these debates, I don’t personally think Cameron came across at all well in any of them. He seemed too uptight, too aware of himself, as if trying too hard to give himself a Prime Minsterial ‘aura’. Nevertheless, he’s a good enough communicator to get his points across, unlike Brown who seems a throwback to a different age.
Which is, I suppose, exactly what he is. We saw, before our eyes, the end not only of the New Labour era, but also of the New Labour method of political communication. When Brown and Blair were hatching the New Labour project, they came up with a methodology to beat the overwhelmingly hostile right-wing press: keep it simple, keep it quick, and repeat, repeat, repeat. This style of speaking has, after nearly twenty years, become so ingrained that it has become a habit of thought. The most formidably intellectual of recent politicians seems reticent to actually think deeply – at least in public. And the mantra-like approach that served Blair and Brown so well in opposition, and in the early years in power – against not only the right-wing press but also attack dogs like Jeremy Paxman, and John Humphrys – now seems out-of-date in the era of televised debates. Just when a format comes along that gives Brown the opportunity to expand beyond his simple formulae and lists of statistics, he can’t break the habit.
What these debates demand is an ability to think on one’s feet, to move with the flow of the argument, to attack when the opportunity presents itself. And this requires not just challenging your opponents with questions that you think they will not answer and assume that is enough to prove you have won the point; it also requires being able to tease apart what your opponent does say – preferably with a bit of wit and humour, certainly with a degree of precision.
Brown might have far greater knowledge about economics, and far more experience than either Clegg or Cameron, but he couldn’t get this across because he has only one gear. His debating style is thus one dimensional. When Cameron made his reference to ‘cutting waste this year to prevent the jobs tax next year,’ a more nimble debater might have seen this as an opportunity. Only once – and very briefly at that – did Brown even mention that his own government is already planning to cut waste this year – £15bn of it. A further £6bn on top of that, and Cameron’s claim that his proposals amount to saving £1 in every £100 in government expenditure (a dubious claim, I reckon) begins to look hollow – anyone can see that saving £21bn in one year is a tall order.
But then, how about going on the attack? Why not remind voters that in the space of a mere two weeks, the Shadow Chancellor ‘Boy’ George Osbourne (whom the noted economist David Blanchflower calls ‘Slasher’) went from deriding the government’s proposed plans to find £15bn in ‘efficiency savings’ as a ‘fantasy’ to claiming that the Tories could, in fact, see that and raise it to a staggering £21bn? Brown could then have reminded them that not only was this reversal worked out in indecent haste, it was done so on a four-page press release (in comparison to the Tories’ 2005 proposals, which ran to 103 pages). The basis of Tories’ economic plans would have been exposed as a quickly thought-up ruse to gain the tactical advantage of being able to outflank Labour on National Insurance. The seeds of doubt sown by suggesting the Tories are making policy on the hoof would have been far more effective than abstruse debates about the difference between an ‘efficiency saving’ and a ‘cut’. Labour did this in press conferences when nobody was paying any attention; why not repeat the attack when 12 million people are watching?
For added measure, Brown could have pointed out that raising NI isn’t ideal, but at least it means both employers and employees contribute to the national task of reducing the deficit (hang on, aren’t we supposed to all be in this together?), and it is nearly impossible to avoid. Raising income tax would only give non-doms like Lord Ashcroft the chance to avoid paying it. A cheeky point, but one that would have stung.
Of course, Brown couldn’t do this because he isn’t capable of it. At the last election, he might have been ok (even in 2007, had he called the phantom election). After 13 years in power, he didn’t have enough left in the tank, nor the armoury to adapt to the new battlefield.
As for Clegg: to my mind, the undisputed ‘winner’ of the debates as a whole – not necessarily because he out-performed the others (which he certainly did in the first one, but not in the second and third) but because he grabbed his chance when it was presented to him. He realised very quickly that the best way to debate is to try and talk as normally as possible, as if you were having a conversation, not only with the two men on the stage beside you, but to the country at large. This style suited him well, and will surely be the template for future politicians. If truth be told, he seemed to be a bit overshadowed by the other two in the ‘economy’ part of the debate tonight, perhaps betraying his weakness in this area. He soon got in his stride in the general debate that followed, but he didn’t really break sweat. He didn’t have to.