Sunday, 25 April 2010

The TV Debates and the Liberal Democrats

There are good reasons for readers of this blog to expect more postings on international affairs than on domestic UK politics but, since we are here in the midst of what is shaping up to be an historic change in the UK political scene, I am afraid there are going to be more postings on this election. At present, what is interesting me, is the response on the part of the traditional print press and mainstream political establishment, to the innovation (in UK terms) of television debates between the leaders of the three main parties.

There are a number of curious features both of the debates and of the responses to them. In relation to the debates themselves the focus of coverage has been less on the specifics of things said than on the instant opinion polls published afterwards. Whilst the general comment has focused on these there has also been a corresponding deprecation of the debates themselves as though they were simply a form of popularity contest like the entertainment show X Factor. So the media sets it up in terms of polls and then denounces the debates themselves due to the way they have chosen to report them!

This irrationality is then reinforced in terms of response to the main apparent beneficiaries of these debates: the Liberal Democrats, whose leader, Nick Clegg, has emerged as the most articulate of the three and easily the best at conveying both the policies of the party he leads and a sense of himself as capable of being a leader. Precisely because Clegg has come out of the debates as the popular favourite he has been greeted with the opprobrium the media has determined the debates in general deserve. So he has been cast as an "anti-politics" candidate due to his challenge to the previous two-party system, denounced by his opponents as immature and presented, most recently in the Financial Times, as the leader of a party that is not really ready for power, not least, according to the FT, due to opposing nuclear power and desiring a debate on nuclear weapons. The fact that nuclear power's safety record is, to say the least about it, dubious or that the very same newspaper reported only days before the need for debate about the future way to relate to Britain's nuclear deterrent? Apparently not relevant or "mature" responses to the situation.

Most bizarrely of all, the former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer from the years of the last Conservative government of John Major, Ken Clarke, has recently claimed that a "hung parliament" in which no party had a majority, would produce an intervention from the International Monetary Fund! In the course of claiming this, Clarke also went on to attack such new media sources as Twitter for, once again, making the election into a "popularity contest" as though winning enough votes was, in some sense, an unfair way for an election to be won! 

The bizarre and incoherent responses to both the debates themselves and the apparent surge in support they have given to the Liberal Democrats suggest a couple of responses. On the one hand, the fact of the debates is unsettling to the traditional media. Such media is compelled to report on them even though the means it does so is precisely through the medium of opinion polls rather than sustained analysis of the policies the debates have articulated. In focusing so consistently on the question of instant polls the media thereby both respond in a way that mirrors the new media they apparently wish to differentiate themselves from and yet also provide the basis of a reflexive backlash on their part to such media. All of which indicates a serious crisis in the form of media itself. Secondly, the apparent rise of a third force within British politics that does not fit into the mould of the previous political structure has further undermined the responsive model of the media itself. In Britain the print media is mainly favourable towards the Conservatives, to such an extent, in fact, that it is always worthy of comment that the Conservatives are so generally unsuccessful (or at least have been for the past 13 years). Those who oppose the Conservatives, by contrast, gravitate naturally towards Labour with the result that none of them are prepared for a possible powerful third force despite the evident greater coherence of the Liberal programme as revealed in the manifestos of the parties. Should the surge reported in the opinion polls be confirmed come election day there can be little doubt that the result of this will to be change British politics as the only basis for a deal between the Liberal Democrats and either of the other two parties would be electoral reform. Once grant electoral reform and there will be no return to the two party system. As I said earlier, this is surely shaping up to be an historic election after which, all could well be, "changed, changed utterly" though it remains to be seen whether or not "a terrible beauty" will thereby be born!

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