The audiences, both the one in the Methodist Central Hall in London and at the post-debate Question Time were not impressed, judging by the applause they gave when David Cameron’s absence was criticised by party leaders and members of the Question Time panel. Nor was the Twittersphere, where the hashtag ‘#wheresDave’ was trending. Probably a lot of people tuning in were unhappy that the PM was not in attendance.
The Twittersphere and press have picked over the Challengers’ Debate-minus Clegg (he counts as a challenger, surely?) scrutinising every statement; assessing body language at key moments.
Yet I think that the big story, Cameron’s no-show, will have little bearing on May 7th as to how people will vote. I just think too much can be made of ‘small’ events during election campaigns, for instance Bigotgate in 2010 and the TV debates of that same campaign, the first in UK history. Observers of American political history have speculated whether certain incidents in televised debates have swung tight presidential contests. (JFK facing a tense and perspiring Richard Nixon in 1960 or Gerald Ford’s assertion in 1976 that there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe being touted as ‘pivotal’ moments in such elections.)
Do these things really influence where people put their cross or which lever they pull when inside the polling booth? I’m rather sceptical. Lots of people have probably made up their minds before a campaign starts. If not, then they might have a clear idea who they won’t be voting for. There must be millions who would never consider voting for a particular party(ies).
Cameron’s absence probably irked his critics more than his supporters, the people who weren’t going to be voting Conservative anyway. If you are a Conservative, or at least a Tory sympathiser, then would his decision not to participate offend you to the extent that you suddenly felt compelled to penalise his party by voting for Cannabis is Safer than Alcohol or whoever?
Leaders’ debates are defensive affairs where everybody wants to avoid dropping a clanger or making a serious gaffe. Playing it safe seems like a sensible option; to use sporting idioms, ‘play a straight bat’ or ‘parking the bus and playing for a draw.’ And so we hear the usual things from the party leaders that many casual observers of politics and the election have heard; Miliband denouncing zero hours contracts and berating the Tories as the party of ‘the few’ while Sturgeon, Wood and Bennett denounce austerity, spending cuts and Trident while Farage talks immigration and Europe. If Cameron (and Clegg) had been there I doubt we would have heard anything new from them either.
It might have been beneficial for Dave not to attend. Sturgeon, Wood and Bennett formed an anti-austerity alliance and were in agreement over the issues of tax, Trident and the EU. Miliband was broadly on the same lines except on Trident and on elements of ‘austerity’. Nigel Farage (as the right-wing candidate) cut a lone figure. By removing themselves from a distinctly left-wing atmosphere, the Conservatives may have done themselves a small favour because to a section of viewers there was little in the way of an alternative platform to the one being offered by the Sturgeon-Wood-Bennett axis and Miliband.
Of the leaders that took to the stage the other week, millions will not have the opportunity to vote for SNP or Plaid Cymru by virtue of the fact that they don’t live in Scotland or Wales whereas the Greens have only been polling around 5 percent. UKIP may win a decent share of the vote although this is unlikely to translate into anything more than a handful of seats at best. Only Miliband has a realistic chance of becoming Prime Minister, although the SNP may have a role to play in a Labour-led government. Many viewers may have therefore been wondering, in this debate and during the previous one, whether the format used was entirely appropriate. Although I am in favour of televised debates in principle, I couldn’t help but wonder why I, as a resident of England, should listen to the SNP and Plaid when I can’t even vote for them.
There are those who have speculated that Cameron and his allies have been reluctant to agree to televised debates because, as the incumbent, he has more to lose, particularly against the smaller parties. Squaring up to Miliband would pose risks. With the Labour leader’s dire poll ratings, only a major gaffe would deny Miliband the opportunity to come out of the encounter well. In fact, Miliband seems to have benefited from the extra exposure. His approval ratings have climbed sharply due to his performances in both televised debates and during the interview/Q&A session hosted by Sky and Channel 4, raising voters’ expectations of his abilities.
While the precise outcome of the election remains unclear and predictions over the next government’s format are anyone’s guess, just don’t expect Dave’s no-show or the debates in general, to be much of a deciding factor in the all-important marginal seats and elsewhere in the country.