The Debate: An Alternative Outcome

Today is the 7 way leaders’ debate. Who will come out on top? Who will make a major gaffe? Jacob Whitehead, writing a special edition of PoliticalBeat, asks: Who cares?

By Jacob Whitehead (@jwhitey98)


‘It’s 8pm, 2nd April, and the nation is fixed to ITV, TV dinners on their laps, curtains closed, small children in bed. They wait in anticipation, some nervously, others excitedly, others reluctantly, with maybe even a smattering of debate. They are of course waiting for the 7-way leaders’ debate. 

Julie Etchingham, (if ever a name epitomised the Conservative party) begins proceedings, and the audience gets a first look at their wannabe Prime Ministers. 

On the far left we have Natalie Bennett. She’s come with a daisy chain in her hair, although hard-line Greens are disappointed to see her leather Louboutins. Next to her is Nick Clegg, garishly dressed in a novelty clown tie to help him stand out. Meanwhile, Nigel Farage has brought props with him, in the shape of two or three ethnically diverse Ukip minions, who circulate the room telling everybody in earshot that they aren’t racist. Or at least to everybody but the blacks and gays. ‘

The first ever TV debates took place before
the 2010 Election. (Photo: The Guardian)

Next to him, Ed Miliband, looking through a Fired Earth catalogue to relax his mind before the debate. He’s already spoken to his neighbour, Leanne Wood, leader of Plaid Cymru. She’s got a handmade nameplate on her lectern, which says Leanne, and is surrounded by pictures of daffodils and unicorns, in the manner of a Year 3 student on their first day of school. Sadly it doesn’t seem to be working, Ed has already called her Tim. The penultimate leader is Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP. She’s rigged up to an elaborate structure reminiscent of a marionette. Meanwhile Miliband keeps being interrupted from his colour charts by a strange jerking movement. And on the end, some (most) would say hiding, is David Cameron, the Prime Minister. Whilst he’s perspiring less than he did during the Paxman debate, the front row are still getting wet as he shakes his head at the song Clegg’s tie has begun to sing. 

The first question is asked from ITV’s culturally diverse audience, a collection of hardworking taxpayers, benefit scroungers, and retired politicians including Tony Blair, Paddy Ashdown and Edwina Currie. Anika, a lesbian supermarket worker from Stroud, asks whether the leaders would relax austerity measures to fund an increase in benefits for disabled people like her. Cue a Nicola Sturgeon tirade. 

The Tories are attacked for their ‘draconian’ measures, Clegg’s attacked for letting it happen, and even the lovely Leanne is attacked for once being pictured with Cameron at a charity fundraiser. Miliband begins to cry, having been thrown to the floor by Sturgeon’s gesticulations. Farage sends the on-site doctor away, but luckily Ed’s grazed knee is treated by one of Natalie Bennett’s herbal remedies. Nigel launches his own attack on the welfare state, bemoaning the day Clement Attlee and Nye Bevan entered politics, comparing it to the day an Irishman took over his local pub. 

Just as Nick Clegg begins to give a detailed answer, Peter Robinson of the DUP leads a charge onstage, his anger at Farage’s answer compounded by his humiliation at not being invited to debate at all. The 50 screaming Irishmen behind him are joined by Natalie Bennett and her supporters, who see their similar shades of green as one and the same. As Cameron, Clegg and Miliband exit stage left (pursued by Blair), Etchingham draws the debate to a close, thanks the viewers for their attention, and reminds them to tune in for the Question Time special next week.

This may seem like a ridiculous spectacle, and I’d forgive you for shutting the Filibuster site, unfollowing us on Twitter, and returning to your Financial Times, muttering under your breath about timewasting (sorry Editors!) But an equally unlikely headline on May 8th would be something like this: “X’s historic debate performance propels him to victory.” 

The media have been relentless in drumming up hysteria about these debates, chastising Cameron for not agreeing to have a crew of cameramen virtually living with him, and running opinion polls about the smallest things: “Post-Kitchengate Opinion poll gives Tories 2 point lead”.  And these debates are likely to not change many peoples’ minds. The Paxman interviews only reaffirmed how each side hated the other’s leader, as Paxman tried to trick the leaders rather than actually get specific facts on figures on how they hoped to improve the country.

This election, being as close as it is, will be decided in the marginal constituencies. How much will the people living in these places really discover, if their only source of information is public point scoring. 

Latest Guardian projection: 30 March

I’m not saying the debates are pointless. They’re entertaining, and much better than no debate at all. But it’s only worthy of the media hysteria if they mean something. How can these mean something? The leaders and PPCs could debate each other in 10 of the closest constituencies, getting tightly focused and detailed answers. 

Undoubtedly this would have more of an impact, not even Douglas Alexander would claim that these interviews could swing 10 seats. The latest Guardian projection has the Conservatives only 8 seats ahead. This could make a difference. Maybe it will be more boring for us. Maybe we’ll have to find something else to watch on Thursday night (new Game of Thrones anybody?) It’s time to understand that the majority of us don’t decide this election. It’s the few who need these debates, and these people are being crowded out by the current format. 

So who knows, maybe my scenario will come true on Thursday night. It probably won’t. But each is equally relevant for educating us about what our next government will look like.

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