I’ve never really been the kind of person to give an instant reaction to anything. My sister is the complete opposite: you could tell us both the same news and you’d know instantly what her response was – usually
incoherent rage righteous anger. I’m usually slow to react, either because I’m still trying to get my head around what I’ve heard, or because I am feeling conflicted about it, or because I want to maintain my lofty rationality in the face of base emotion. (That last one’s more theoretical.)
So having watched the heptagonal #leadersdebate, aired on ITV last night, I’ve taken some time to chew over what I saw. I am sure that there has been no end of commentary, and with the Easter Bank Holiday weekend now in full swing, most politically-engaged people will have read much of it already.
Certainly on Twitter and Facebook there seems to have been some consensus emerging. A lot of this was around the fact that Nigel Farage is a horrible individual. I’m not sure how surprising that is, but it certainly bodes well for any future EU referendum that even naturally right-wing voters (and I know and love quite a few of those) simply find him appalling.
The other thing that came out strongly from many of the responses I saw was that it was great to see some diversity in the debate. Certainly it was good to have some balance, although it was painfully white. I always flinch a bit, too, at the idea that it’s in any way surprising when politicians of the calibre and experience of Nicola Sturgeon – who is, after all, the current First Minister of Scotland, and who has been in government for longer than anyone else on the panel – prove themselves articulate and competent.
My main reaction to the debate was that it really was a collision of worlds. There were two separate conversations running simultaneously, each only including some of the leaders. Nigel Farage was of course having his own personal conversation, aimed at people who already think he is Churchill reborn.
On one hand, you had a serious-minded, largely managerial discussion between David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband on the realities of government and policy. This was painfully familiar to those of us who live and breathe the political process, but would still have been relatively new to most voters. I thought all three leaders did well in stating their case, but that as in 2010, Clegg did a particularly effective job in demonstrating that there is a middle ground to be found. It felt far less fresh this time around – and will have a drastically diminished impact on the Lib Dems’ fortunes – but it will still have an impact on the ground.
On the other hand, you had a far more free-wheeling conversation led by the anti-austerity brigade. Sturgeon in particular took on Clegg’s 2010 mantle as the sharp, intelligent and human alternative to “politics as usual”. She also capitalised well on the other leaders’ ignorance of Scottish politics, which enabled her to make bold assertions on issues like privatisation and funding of the Scottish NHS that, on closer inspection, simply fall apart.
To me, the big tactical question of the evening was whether Ed Miliband would get dragged into that debate. He will be pleased today that he largely avoided it. The decision he had to make was whether to present himself as the main challenger to David Cameron, or to spend his time fending off attacks from smaller parties. He chose the former – correctly – and emerged unscathed.
What does it all mean? In terms of this campaign, very little. None of the parties will receive a major boost in the polls as a result of the debate. While Sturgeon probably “won”, as far as anyone could, her party has already risen as high as it can in Scotland alone.
Does a seven-strong debate change the view people have of general elections? Perhaps. But until we have seven parties capable of having one conversation, not much will change.