It’s a curious fact that the United Kingdom has, only in the last twenty-four hours, fielded its first ever televised election debate. Both locally and in the United States, debates between the key party leaders have been conducted during election campaigns for many years now. Historically, British Prime Ministers seem to have been rather reluctant to cede any of their billing as media “top dog” to their political opponents. The difference this time around is the devastating nature of the challenge facing Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who most people have written off in favour of David Cameron over the last few years. Of course, the other reason (antipodean chortle), is that perhaps the Brits are sometimes just a wee bit degenerate when it comes to political innovation. We have, after all, been directly electing our Senate for over a century now… whereas the House of Lords… anyway, let’s just not mention our shared head of state.
The debate outcome has been both interesting and unexpected – indeed it may serve to re-energise the election campaign for a lot of Britons. The leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, was also invited to participate in the debate, and most commentators seem to believe he stole the show. Clegg’s performance has reignited debate around the possibility of a hung parliament, should the Liberal Democrats perform well enough to capture a decisive number of seats in the May 6 election. Polling results following on from the debate and indeed the subsequent planned debates should be very interesting indeed. One presumes that Conservative and Labour Party boffins (particularly the former) will be just a little bit nervous about what could happen if Clegg manages to ride a wave of debate-driven popularity into the final days of the election campaign.
Even if it achieves nothing else, at least this whole TV debate lark has proven quite the novelty for UK political columnists, with a few notable exceptions. I think Jackie Ashley from the Guardian is being just a tad harsh, but Australian readers might find something a little familiar in this observation:
A tame, silent audience was confronted by three leaders, who rarely made eye contact and never let fly. No real humour, no surprises, nothing spontaneous at all. No doubt some interesting things were said towards the end. Nobody was still awake to hear them.
If this was a natural history programme, it was less carnivores tearing across the plain than hanging around for far too long, waiting for sloths to mate. The television negotiators must have been grinding their teeth with disappointment.
A disturbing use of imagery, yes, but somehow, so very apt.