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.