Good for democracy? Debatable…
So a lot of folk have been discussing the leaders debates of late. Most of the discussion has centred on the impact they are having on British politics and how much they are responsible for the unprecedented swing towards the Lib Dems and making the election seem a three horse race rather than simply a two horse race.
However the important questions, to my mind, are being ignored: are the debates a good thing for democracy? Will they lead to more engagment with politics? What effect will they have on the smaller parties?
Paying no attention to the order in which I wrote those down I will start with the question of engagement.
Are the debates engaging people with politics more? Well research (see the twenty-first floor blog for more info on this) suggests that debates in the past in the US and other countries are most watched by pundits and those who are already partisan. However there are strong arguments that this is perhaps not the case in the UK.
Certainly people are talking a lot about the debates: but are they talking any less than they would about an imminent general election? Who can say – we should have measured that at the last election for comparison.
But does water cooler chat equate with engagement? To my mind no. A lot more people may have listened to the rhetoric and spin that constituted the first two debates but how much do they know about the parties actual policies? How aware are they of their manifesto pledges beyond soundbites?
At a guess I’d say not much. In short I’d say the debates don’t engage people with politics they engage people with personality. They encourage style and over substance and spin over sense. Do we really want to measure a future leaders potential on how well they speak to an audience or can present an argument? None of this makes them right or anything more than charismatic and a good manipulator. Perhaps good to represent the country on the international stage but no substitute for actual policies and competency.
There is also the worrying side effect of the debate that it further marginalises the small parties who struggle to get media attention as it is (there is also the tacit and (to my nationalist tastes) insidious ignoring of potential constitutional change issues).
Changing the election from a two horse race is seen by some as a good thing – but is it really? I doubt they will expand the leaders debates to ever include the smaller parties: a move that could effectively cost them votes and ultimatly damage the amount of democratic choice we have in this country.
In short I think the debates will ultimatly damage and devalue democracy in Britain and lead to an (even) more media driven government and more disproportionate influence for the Daily Heil and the Murdoch press.
Their value isn’t debatable to my mind: they may well serve as the point at which historians look back at as when Britains political system irrevocably changed. Not for the better but for the worse.