19 April 2010

The problem for two opponents in three-sided TV debates

One of the things that struck me about the first TV debate between party leaders was how very different it was from election debates between US presidential candidates - and, indeed, almost any other 'debate' I've ever come across.

A three-sided debate in which there are two front-runners
The most obvious - and consequential - difference from the American TV debates is that the British version has three, rather than two, contestants. Add to that the fact that only two of the three are deemed to have any realistic chance of becoming prime minister, and you have very unusual set of dynamics indeed.

Compared with most conventional approaches to 'debating' - including other adversarial exchanges like those in courts of law - the presence of a third party makes these 'debates' about as different from a straight duel between two opponents as you can get.

In effect, there are two debates going on at the same time: one between the leaders of the two biggest parties trying to score points against each other, and another in which the leader of the third party tries to score points against the other two.

The challenge for Brown and Cameron
Brown and Cameron both acknowledged that Clegg did rather well in the first debate, and have announced that they'll counteract by turning their attacks on Liberal Democrat policies.

This might seem a rational and obvious enough response, but I suspect they'd do better by spending rather more time on analysing the dynamics of the unusual situation in which they find themselves and devising a workable strategy for dealing with it - because I suspect that one of the main reasons for Nick Clegg's unexpected success in the first debate came from the fact that neither of the main parties had realised beforehand how a three-sided 'debate' would actually work in practice.

So Brown and Cameron concentrated too exclusively on attacking each other, without much regard for the presence of a third party who, for once, had the same speaking and turn-taking rights as themselves.

To make matters worse, Clegg was able to exploit their two-sided assault on each other and, when he did, scored high points in the Ipsos MORI 'worm' analysis of audience reactions, which was summed up by Ben Page as follows:

Clegg's position as the 'third party' allowed him to align himself with the voting public and express their frustration at the other two parties "the more the two of them attack each other, the more they sound the same."

Equality in turn-taking, speaking time and furnishings
As for why Brown and Cameron misunderstood and/or underestimated what would be involved in a three-cornered debate on equal terms, it probably came from their weekly jousting at Prime Minster's Question Time in the House of Commons - where they have three built-in advantages that formally position the Liberal Democrat leader as a side-show to the main event:
  1. The LibDem leader only ever gets to speak third, after the other two leaders have already had a go.
  2. House of Commons procedures allow the Conservative leader to ask the prime minister three times as many questions as the LibDem leader.
  3. The Labour and Conservative leaders both have dispatch boxes to lean on, rest their papers on, bang their fists on and generally look like VIPs - compared with the Liberal Democrat leader, who has no dispatch box to lean on and nowhere to put his papers other than in his hands in front of him.
But in the TV debates, there is equality on all three fronts: how the turn-taking is organised, how long each leader may speak and where each one gets to stand (i.e. at identical lecterns).

During the protracted negotiations that eventually led to agreement on the 76 rules of engagement, I suspected that they might be creating a beast that wouldn't work in the quite the way they all expected (e.g. HERE) - and recommended that televising the debates between the politicians and broadcasters about the rules would have made for some very interesting viewing (HERE).

After the first debate, I should think that the Labour and Conservative negotiators are kicking themselves for what they agreed as much as the Liberal Democrats are patting themselves on their backs.

For the next debates?
If I were advising the parties on how to deal with the next debate, I'd be telling the Brown and Cameron camps to give at least as much thought to the dynamics of dealing with a three-cornered debate as to working out attacks on LibDem policies.

Meanwhile, I'd be advising the Clegg camp to carry on with more of the same and urging him to make the most of the rare equality afforded to the LibDems by the rules.

As I said in my post on Vince Cable's victory in the 'Chancellors' Debate', attacking the other parties along the lines of 'a plague on both your houses' has been an recurring Liberal line of attack for more than thirty years. In the aftermath of the MPs' expenses scandals and widespread disaffection for politics and politicians, it's a line that seems to be playing better then ever - and whose moment may finally have come.

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