We’re living in what Seth Godden calls “the century of ideas diffusion”. Last night’s historic TV debate was launched with a weight of expectation as to how it might change this perception. If it did, it was mostly for the political classes.
The debate was carefully, rigorously planned as an attempt to revivify politics, seen as a necessity now that all trust has been leeched away from politics and politicians. But if the people behind its gaffe-free polish thought that this would help re-engage the electorate, who have been drifting away slowly but surely for years, they were wrong.
Everyone wanted to make the election interesting, wanted to grab the populace and generate positive word of mouth. It’s a shame, then, that the big two parties offered no big ideas, no choice.
Only one man made a concerted effort to engage in a meaningful manner with the populace; Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg. In football terms, he was Michael Owen in his first World Cup appearance – an unmarked outsider who took to the big stage as if he was born to it and blew the crowds away.
Clegg clearly took Cameron and Brown by surprise, easing himself into a position of advantage last night, partly because he wasn’t being heckled by backbenchers but mostly, I suspect, because he couldn’t afford any American advisers – fresh from the Obama campaign and clearly snapped up by Labour and the Tories – schooling him in the best ways to win a TV debate. He did it by using language that was recognisably human rather than highly polished. Whether it was enough to create votes for his party remains to be seen.
All eyes had been on Cameron, of course; the fresh-faced newbie until Clegg stole that crown. Cameron and Gordon Brown came across as too polished, too over-produced – just the sort of thing that gets the electorate switching off in boredom.
The killer component in last night’s debate was complacency. Everything was neat, controlled, polished to the point of looking the same. There were no surprises. The sense that this was a historic event was mostly lost because the main parties treated it as part of the same old same old – a karaoke politics show.
The debate certainly exposed the backroom boys who, now more than ever, need to find real substance and stop using and abusing the endless soundbites that are turning the elctorate off.
The drift away from politics amongst the young is a real threat to democracy, but what is there to engage them? Only Nick Clegg offered a real point of difference last night, but he was still deep within the usual rules of engagement. The populace has lost all but a few shreds of trust in politicians and a PR marketing plan that reads “look, this is how Obama won – WE should do that” is doomed to failure. They should think globally, yes, but Clegg proved they need to act locally.
The main parties have no idea how to win trust – from a PR point of view, they are fiddling whilst Rome burns. This was essentially a smug Westminster village exercise in karaoke politics sold as a major breakthrough.
The media needed to buy into the debate, because they are as culpable as the politicians in the diffusion of ideas and trust.
There were no straightforward winners – but the only loser was Cameron, who had started with nothing to lose but lost it anyway. The fresh face, the new blood, belonged to Nick Clegg. It remains to be seen if the rest of the election plays out this way.