It is now generally accepted that David Cameron made a colossal blunder in agreeing to the televised debates. Had last Thursday’s debate not taken place, the Conservatives would still have a comfortable lead over the other two main parties, on track for a small overall majority.
Yet among the commentariat — even those in the blue camp — the consensus is that the debates are good for politics. Whatever the outcome of the election, the British public will have made a more informed decision about whom to vote for. In particular, large swaths of the electorate who might otherwise remain disaffected will have been engaged by the televised debates.
But are they really good for the common weal? The surge in Lib Dem support following Nick Clegg’s performance isn’t based on any popular support for the party’s policies. Few people know what they are. Rather, it’s because Clegg has novelty value. He’s the surprise candidate whom the public can throw their weight behind in order to disrupt the narrative. Supporting him is a way of taking ownership of the contest.
This is a familiar model, but it’s not that of a general election. It’s the X Factor. Simon Cowell said earlier this year that he thought there might be a way of grafting a reality show format on to politics, and the prime ministerial debates have proved to be exactly that. In America, where televised presidential debates preceded the emergence of reality as a dominant television genre, that isn’t the way they’re perceived by the viewing public. But in Britain the debates are new and, as such, they’re seen through the reality show lens. The fact that they’re being held once a week in the 8.30pm-10pm slot, and will culminate in a popular vote, doesn’t help.
Is this good for democracy? I have my doubts. For one thing, it means this election will be more prone to faddishness than any previous one. Voting patterns on reality shows often reflect short bursts of public enthusiasm without any real examination of the contestants’ merits. The political columnist John Rentoul quoted a young man called Arieh Kohler who made this point: ‘The British public does have these sudden bouts of love or hate for someone, be it Princess Diana or Sharon Shoesmith, Susan Boyle or Fred the Shred, Jade Goody or Tony Blair. Often the public will lose interest, or flip from hate to sympathy to love to jealousy and back to hate again. But this takes time. It doesn’t happen all in the space of 20 days. There’s not time for the rise and fall of Nick Clegg in the next two weeks.’
Thanks to the debates, we could end up with an election result completely distorted by a meaningless spike in the popularity of one of the party leaders. I say ‘meaningless’ because it will almost certainly subside as soon as the election’s over. That’s usually the fate of reality show winners. Again, this is an effect the televised debates don’t have in America because the presidential campaigns go on for the best part of a year, allowing these transitory peaks and troughs in public opinion to work themselves out. In Britain, by contrast, by holding the debates on three consecutive week nights and then having an election exactly a week later, we’ve left ourselves vulnerable to irrational exuberance. If the Lib Dems do unexpectedly well in this election, it will be an example of what Charles Mackay called extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds. Do we really want our governments to be chosen on that basis?
From now on, all future party leaders will be selected according to how well they’re likely to perform on this particular version of The X Factor. It won’t be their grasp of the issues that matters, their judgment, their ability to keep their heads in a crisis. It will be their hair and teeth — how ‘authentic’ and ‘likable’ they seem. In short, the decision to hold televised prime ministerial debates will probably prove to be disastrous, not just for David Cameron but for politics in general. Far from having introduced a more serious, discursive tone to the election campaign, they have rendered it even more trivial than usual. There’s no doubt that the British public was already susceptible to snake oil salesman — just look at the success of Tony Blair — but the debates have exacerbated this. And we’re stuck with them from now on. If I were Simon Cowell, I’d be thinking seriously about forming a political party.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 24, 2010