Television debates are something that are part and parcel of US presidential elections. With Labour and Conservatives locked in a stalemate, do TV debates increase political participation amongst undecided young voters or are they only for party loyalists already sure what box to tick on May 7?
By Emily Hawkins
|Did the 2015 debates encourage young people to feel as if they have more voting options? (Source: Manchester Evening News)
Following the first ever British televised election debate on 15 April 2010, where Brown, Cameron and Clegg argued to the electorate on domestic, international and economic issues, polling data significantly changed. The Liberal Democrats increased to an unprecedented 28 – 33%. In fact, as Norman Baker, a Lib Dem campaigning to regain Lewes in East Sussex, said to me, 2010’s post-debate boost was unexpected “to the extent that the organisation was not able to capitalise properly on it.”
However, the results of ITV’s debate on Thursday were volatile with no clear winner, owing to their hectic structure. Unquestionably, ITV’s debate introduced to many young people minority party leaders like Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood and the Green Party’s Natalie Bennett, but it’s unclear if it will trigger a 2010-esque effect.
|We can safely say 2015’s first debate was
more exciting than 2010’s, but perhaps
less politically significant.
(Source: The Guardian)
With recent Lord Ashcroft polling predicting Clegg to lose his seat of Sheffield Hallam, Lib Dem supporters might be feeling nostalgia for “Cleggmania”. Initially, YouGov declared the SNP’s Sturgeon, who powerfully opposed Westminster austerity, to be Thursday’s winner with 28% in their snap poll, while placing Ukip second with 20%.
Perhaps this is a similar post-debate romanticism of “outsider” parties to 2010, where minority leader Clegg was seen, albeit for a few glorious moments, as an unexpected yet convincing rival against Brown’s lethargic, economically disastrous government, and Cameron’s vacuous, Etonian rhetoric. However, as Norman Baker said to me before Thursday’s debate, “This time round, because of the shenanigans of David Cameron, I think the whole process will be less illuminating – more heat than light.” Retrospectively, this does seem to aptly summarise the implications of the debate’s pluralistic, seven-way structure, when the next government will be either Conservative or Labour.
Yet what are the implications of debates for young people? Some first time voters in May will have watched the 2010 debates, some may have a vague recollection of news discussions of them at the time, and others may have been completely oblivious – understandable as political debates are not exactly riveting television.
Consequently, Elara Kyffin Shurety, 18, said of Thursday’s debate “The format I think would have left many young people feeling somewhat alienated. Spending so long on each question which was done in an attempt at party equality just ended up leaving the message confused and frequently unanswered.” Regarding the structure, Rania Ramli, 16, also said, “The debate did at some points turn into a shouting match and some young people would have felt that this reinforced their view of ‘dirty politics’.”
Despite this sense of ineffectuality, it seems televised debates will, like the US, become a staple in future elections, shaping the next generation’s perception of politics.
In 2015, a multitude of political TV shows are aimed at young people. Recently, BBC Three’s Free Speech has given young people the opportunity to question senior party figures on a plethora of election issues, with politicians like Ed Miliband. One of Filibuster’s editors, who was fortunate enough to attend the most recent one where Norman Lamb of the Lib Dems and Ukip’s Diane James were quizzed, judged the disposition of the Ukip representative to be of frank delusion, while the Lib Dems presented themselves as too foolishly selfless to gain his trust.
Thursday night’s social media frenzy only further illustrated young people don’t need to be isolated from politics by their age; their issues are already, inherently, political. Just 19 years’ old, George Aylett could be the youngest MP in British history should he win South Wiltshire for Labour. Concerning whether televised debates improve youth political participation, he said, “Many young people will talk about the debates afterwards e.g. the next day at school, which can only be a good thing. It will increase discussion but may not necessarily persuade them to turn up to the ballot box.”
Indeed, there is a sentiment that politicians must do more than simply presenting their policies in an accessible, publicised medium; they need to win trust for votes. One 18 year old’s words reflected this cynicism, saying:
“Watching the debates reinforced my belief that politicians don’t tell the truth and avoid answering questions… they make me want to create a party worthy of a vote.”
Many identified a lack of substance in Thursday’s debate; student Marley Bennett said “I didn’t think the debate was productive, there was little talk about actual policy and too much focus on the past with little said about what they would do in power.”
There’s also a sense debates only appeal to party tribalists, unwavering supporters, and are generally avoided by “floating voters”, unsure who to vote for, if at all. Certainly, party campaigners naturally hope the debates will encourage others to vote for them. Highlighting a positive aspect of debates for parties, 19 year old Labour candidate George Aylett said leaders are given “the opportunity to be themselves in front of the public without media intervention and tongue twisting.”
Aylett used Paxman’s interviews, held last month, to illustrate this: “The Murdoch-owned media often only show Miliband at his weakest, for example the ‘Bacon Sandwich Gate’ fiasco, claiming ‘How can he run a country, he can’t even eat a sandwich?!’” However, as the Labour candidate went on to say, “When it came to the first “debate”, Miliband could show the public who he really was: a strong, principled leader. Can he run the country? Hell yes. He calmly answered questions and was honest, showing what his party stood for.”
|Do debates help clarify policies?
(Source: Free Foto)
Debates are not purely preaching to the converted then, they can help make decisions. Sixth-form student Aishwarya Suharu said, “Debates help me clarify the different policies of each party and sometimes when the chairperson picks out problems it makes me question them too. If you’re serious about voting then you go and figure out the real meaning behind the policies. It does change my opinion about a party.”
Another teenager, Rania Ramli also said, “having politicians on our TVs debating their policies gives politics a more modern feel and changes the idea many young people have of it being outdated and out of touch with the public. By using this modern platform, politicians’ manifestos become more relatable to young people; we are able to understand them and see how they would affect our own lives.”
Let’s let the dust settle on ITV’s debate, and the polls spin out new winners and losers as this election campaign progresses; it will be interesting to see what impact, if any, the BBC’s subsequent opposition leaders’ debate occurring on April 16 will have. Little is certain about May’s election, yet it appears we have fully adopted television debates from across the Atlantic, and they won’t be going anywhere. Let us hope future election debates will not be as futile or chaotic as Thursday’s.
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