Why it’s time to consign televised political debates to the scrap heap

Corbyn’s decision to show up in Theresa May’s absence was vindicated—but the format hindered all candidates, and the viewer learnt little

June 1, 2017


All it lacked was Graham Norton doing the commentary. The BBC’s staging of last night’s Leaders’ Debate had more in common with a ratings’ driven TV contest than an informative event to help the “undecideds” vote next Thursday. It was as if the seven leaders of the main political parties and their stand-ins were vying for the top slot of most retweeted quote or most viral putdown. Admittedly BBC bosses had a tough brief: finding televisual strategies that appeal to a cross section of the entire UK’s diverse demographic is nigh on impossible. Only that can explain the rather bizarre juxtaposition of the grandiose wood paneled University of Cambridge backdrop, connoting “importance,” against the Weakest Link style semi-circle of podiums. In fact, it felt like one of those nightmares you have on the eve of a major job interview.

So much so, Theresa May—the woman who actually called this general election—made the bizarre decision to bail out and sent the recently bereaved Amber Rudd into battle. Rudd defended her leader’s decision on the grounds that “part of being a good leader is having a good, strong team.” Now, I loathe it when female leaders are maligned for showing little warmth, a criticism all-too-often laid at the door of women and not men. But Home Secretary Rudd’s rather severe demeanour did nothing to reassure a largely terrified and certainly confused British populace that it is safe under Tory rule. The moment when she said the Conservatives care most passionately about the poorest had the trappings of pantomime and a Crimewatch reconstruction rolled into one.

To be fair, the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon wasn’t there either, with deputy Angus Robertson—the party’s Westminster leader—speaking instead. And Caroline Lucas is one of two co-leaders of the Green Party. Lucas was the most impressive of the assembled, standing out from the cacophonous crowd in her challenge to the Tories’ record on arms sales. If anything, she made Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s case for him, but with more conviction.

Deciding late in the day to pitch up, Corbyn ditched the “Chairman Mao-style” cycle cap and presented one of the more polished performances of his campaign. Not only did that seem to sway the studio audience in his favour—in fact if the audience were randomly selected and representative of a cross-section of voters then it looks like a Labour landslide—it probably surprised the majority of his own MPs who’d previously voted no confidence in him. Head tilted to one side, we witnessed a resolutely statesmanlike Corbyn, a more authentic leader, happy in his own skin as a man with four decades’ experience in politics. The 1970s lecturer vibe of yore has been consigned to history, thankfully. Beside Corbyn and Lucas, Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron appeared affable but ill-equipped—and somewhat too immature—to take on sole-charge of society’s challenges.

During the 90-minute debate, there were clashes over living standards, public sector pay and immigration. But I was surprised to hear nothing on school-level education, given Darth Mayder’s manifesto pledge to bring back grammars. Had the debate touched more on that fundamental bedrock—children’s, and by extension, the nation’s future—it might have given the delegates their much-needed breakthrough moments.

As for Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, he came across like a pub bore with his profoundly offensive views on immigrants unembellished with any factual grounding. As one Twitter commentator put it, he made even Nigel Farage sound like Abraham Lincoln.

If there was one big takeaway from the programme, it is that an alliance between Labour and the other progressive parties no longer looks as scary or chaotic as it might once have done. But I don’t think the programme’s format fits with the times anymore. In the wake of the Manchester bombing coupled with Brexit and the NHS crisis, the public needed deeper, thoughtful interrogation, not a battle for primacy and soundbites.


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