Did the UK General Election Debates Make a Difference?

When historians of the future look back at the British General Election of 2010, chances are it will be seen as a decisive moment in the country’s democratic history. Not just because of its unusually messy result, but also because it heralded a new era in the mediation of electoral politics, featuring televised debates between the leaders of the three main parties for the first time in British history.

Americans might be startled by the idea of televised debates as a novelty. After all, the US electoral landscape has been shaped by these events ever since the famed clash between Nixon and Kennedy in 1960. In Britain, however, debates are seen to favor outsiders and newcomers over incumbents and have therefore long been resisted by ruling parties.

This is not necessarily because the debates unearth information that would otherwise be hidden from public view. In general, British election campaigns do not fall short on media scrutiny of the contenders. The British media are widely known for their adversarial stance to politicians, and elected representatives are accustomed to robust questioning in a variety of different arenas. The BBC, in particular, is known for inquisitorial interviewers such as Jeremy Paxman and John Humphrys, as well as for its weekly Question Time panel show which places prominent politicians before an often-antagonistic audience. If anything, observers noted that the ground rules for the debates, negotiated by the party leaders, assured an unusually civil environment, as no interruptions or audience reactions were allowed.

Most importantly, the debates included not just the leaders of the two main parties – Labour and Conservatives – but also Nick Clegg, who leads the Liberal Democrats, the third party in what is usually a two-party race. While much political reporting pays little attention to the Lib Dems, the debates provided the party with a legitimacy and visibility which proved to be crucial to the narrative of the campaign. Ever since the young and charismatic David Cameron took over as leader of the opposition Conservative Party in 2005, polls have been predicting the demise of the governing Labour Party with Gordon Brown at the helm. What nobody predicted was the rise of Nick Clegg.

Polls after the first debate, which focused on domestic politics, showed that Clegg had won convincingly, and hinted at the possibility of an astounding reversal of electoral fortunes, as the number of citizens intending to vote for the Lib Dems surged to the extent that they surpassed the ruling Labour Party in support. At the same time, the debates led to a significant increase in voter registration among 18-24 year olds. The success of the Lib Dem leader led to claims of “Cleggmania” and a prediction of a historic increase in the number of seats for the party.

These predictions, however, did not come to pass. Though Clegg did well in all three debates, the popular vote for the Lib Dems went up by just 1%, and because of the winner-takes-all electoral systems, the party actually lost 5 seats.

Nevertheless, what the debates did achieve was perhaps more fundamental: They seemed to shift citizens’ views of politics. We conducted interviews with more than 200 voters in London and Cardiff on polling day, repeating studies we’ve done in 2001 and 2009 to assess prevailing discourses on politics. Whereas our earlier studies demonstrated a predominance of “immobilizing discourses” (Wahl-Jorgensen 2001) which highlighted disgust, disenchantment and alienation, this time many voters expressed excitement about the election, because of the introduction of the debates. They said it “galvanized” voters, and “sparked people’s interest.” “It spoke to the things I was interested in, so I felt it gave me the information I needed,” one voter observed. Some complained about how the debates represented “personality politics” and “Americanization”, but even these interviewees enjoyed the debates. This excitement translated into electoral participation: turnout was up to 65.1%, from 61.4% in 2005. Some areas reported increases of up to 17% in the number of young people voting.

In the end, the debates may not have altered the outcome of the elections, but they did change voters’ views of them. They made politics exciting again, embodying the possibility for change that democracy should be all about.

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7 comments for “Did the UK General Election Debates Make a Difference?

  1. Matt Hills
    May 11, 2010 at 10:46 AM

    What I found interesting was the fact that the debates had so *little* apparent impact on eventual voting behaviours — the ‘Cleggmania’ surge in opinion polls seemingly being vastly unreflected in final share of the vote for the Lib-Dems. I can see how fluctuations in opinion polls serve the media’s interests, enabling a narrative of ‘media influence’ to be constructed post-debate and after specific rolling-news coverage.

    And, of course, the exit poll on the night of the election was roundly dismissed, precisely because it was so far out of alignment with prior opinion polls.

    However, what the debates dramatise, for me, is a potential gulf between media/spin narratives, and the voting public. I agree that engaging voters in a sense of excitement — an electoral affect — is significant, but doesn’t it remain equally notable that media fuss over worms, Cleggmania, TV debates and bigotgate all seemingly mattered very little to voters in the end? Mediated ‘narratives’ of the election appear to run into a different, obstructive type of affect rooted in the life-world: one of generational and biographical voting ‘identity’?

    Also, while the voting system is tipping ever further towards illegitimacy — stacked undemocratically in favour of the Labour party — to what extent can we view TV debates and their like as a ‘presidential’-style distraction from the creaking system buried beneath ever more media glitz, glitter, and gaffes?

  2. May 11, 2010 at 4:51 PM

    I wonder whether the debates would have had more effect if they were closer to the election. As Matt notes, all the LibDem hoopla and hopes seemed to subside quickly in a week or so, leading Andrew Sullivan to note at his blog, for instance, that if the “shy tory” was a problem for polls of the past, this year’s problem was the “loud but flaky LibDem”

  3. Karin Wahl-Jorgensen
    May 12, 2010 at 8:03 AM

    Good points, Matt and Jonathan!

    Matt, the gap between political insiders and citizens always comes across strongly (particularly among left-leaning voters, in fact), as many citizens feel that politicians “are just in it for themselves” and don’t have any interest in improving the lives of ordinary people. I found myself wondering what the outcome would be if I asked the exact same questions of voters today, in the wake of the new government with Nick Clegg as David Cameron’s lieutenant…

    Jonathan, the limits of Lib Dem support was also a theme in our interviews — or, in fact, the idea that people were impressed and excited by the Lib Dem performance in the elections but that they, personally, were going to stick to the same party they’d always voted for — they were just hoping and expecting that ***other*** people would support the Lib Dems.

    • May 12, 2010 at 4:55 PM

      It raises fascinating questions, doesn’t it, about how people’s votes can be so strategic, rather than simply votes for who they like most. It also shows how important it might be in a parliamentary system to get the parties (not simply party, singular) that one wants into power. In Canada for a long while, I knew many people in British Columbia who didn’t like the Reform Party but who couldn’t stand the idea of the official opposition being the Bloc Quebecois; one goes to the polls later than the rest of the country in BC, so many people I know voted with a sense that Eastern Canada had already decided things, and that BC might at least decide the official opposition … which led them to vote for a party they found odious, but less odious than the Bloc, rather than for the Liberals who they preferred more but who they didn’t think needed their support!

  4. May 30, 2010 at 2:46 AM

    Here in Australia we have had televised debates for quite a few years, the impact of them is pretty debatable with many commentators saying that their effects are negligible. If anything the opposition is the one side to get the most out of it as they get a platform on prime-time TV to convey their key messages.

  5. August 17, 2010 at 6:12 AM

    Here in Australia we have had televised debates for quite a few years, the impact of them is pretty debatable with many commentators saying that their effects are negligible. If anything the opposition is the one side to get the most out of it as they get a platform on prime-time TV to convey their key messages.

  6. August 18, 2010 at 1:21 AM

    Matt, the gap between political insiders and citizens always comes across strongly (particularly among left-leaning voters, in fact), as many citizens feel that politicians “are just in it for themselves” and don’t have any interest in improving the lives of ordinary people. I found myself wondering what the outcome would be if I asked the exact same questions of voters today, in the wake of the new government with Nick Clegg as David Cameron’s lieutenant…

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