Some thoughts on the three British televised Leaders’ Debates

I just finished watching the three televised British Leaders Debates on C-Span (the player at never booted up for me: wake up CPAC). This was the first time that the United Kingdom had a televised confrontation of the Leaders of the three major national parties: Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Labour, Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats and David Cameron of the Conservatives. It was a telling set of debates.

First of all, I have always been amazed that the British have never had a national televised Leaders’ Debate. The British penchant for debate, their respect for wit and wordplay and a national sense of fair play – all seem to scream that this would be a popular format.

From a media training and debate-prep communications perspective, we saw a progression from one debate to the next. In the first debate, Gordon Brown was simply awful. He looked tired, confused, rumpled and dowdy. While he gave off a certain feeling of kindness and caring, he couldn’t overcome his low-energy performance. He seemed to wilt under the glare of the cameras. David Cameron was haughty and difficult. He seemed at many moments to not know where to look – whether he should be speaking to the other Leaders, to the audience, to the moderator or to the camera. He was shifty and unfocused. He was unnatural and when he started in on Nick Clegg, he sounded prissy – like a schoolyard bully. When he attacked Gordon Brown, he sounded like an angry young man railing against his already-defeated and almost forgotten grandfather. Nick Clegg was spectacular. He was smooth, easy going, and well-briefed. He was able to take complicated ideas and bring them down to earth in simple, effective formulations that spoke directly to different demographics in the television audience at home. Brilliant.

In the second and third debates, the pattern continued.

Brown improved his delivery, looking a little more spry and less fatherly. By the third debate, I no longer expected him to take a moment to dust crumbs off his shirt and dandruff off his shoulders. But he remained ineffectual. He seemed to spend an awful lot of time restating the platforms of the other two parties and then using adjectives such as “not ready to govern.” The problem for him is that by listing Conservative and LibDem policies, he only made them more salient in the audience’s mind. The fact that he disagreed with them was just registered as his opinion. Not effectual. The most emblematic moment of his ineffectiveness was when, in his closing statement, he said: “We are desperate to get this country through the recession …” Well, you know what? You look desperate, Mr. Brown. And you just finished your closing statement by telling the British public that you are.

Cameron improved slightly as the debates wore on. He tried to cast off the “boring, over-privileged establishment Tory” look and feel, replacing it with a livelier, more authentic, “this is the real me! I’m a youngish, good-looking modern gentleman,” persona. But the fact was that he kept repeating the more staid and traditional elements of Conservative policy: tax cuts, reducing immigration and making the public service more accountable. It sounded like a broken record, and there were moments, when he really lost his zeal. During a definitive exchange about immigration caps, he was skewered by Nick Clegg who asked him a direct question: “David, would you admit that your immigration cap will have no effect on the 80% of immigrants who come from the European Union? Yes or no?” He had no answer. He looked panicky for a split second. He turned away from Mr. Clegg and spoke directly into the camera, his eyes wide open in alarm. But he didn’t realise that the camera facing him wasn’t live, so there was a really awkward moment when the 45 degree angle really captured his confusion. But it was perfect placement for Clegg, who had a full-on frontal platform to continue to demand a yes or no answer. Clegg asked several times, “yes or no?” and all Cameron could do was mumble a deflection, in a high-pitched voice that communicated his discomfort and alarm. Major fail for Cameron.

Finally, why did Clegg dominate these three debates so thoroughly?

My theory is two-fold: first: tonality and style, second: messaging.

First off, he is naturally charismatic and was obviously extremely well-briefed. He had evidently undergone some effective media training and practice and had a lot of the standard verbal and non-verbal gestures that one has come to expect in Canadian Leaders’ Debates: exaggerated nodding of the head, pregnant pauses and a calculated allotment of time spent between looking at the other Leader he addressing, the moderator, the person in the audience asking the question and the viewers at home. He felt very natural and easy – as though he were speaking in a “normal” setting.

But it was his ability to convincingly and naturally deliver his moderate Liberal messaging that truly won the day. He managed to take the philosophy of modern Liberalism  which is a notoriously hard sell in the media and give it a voice that makes it shine. Clegg actually sounded an awful lot like the Hon. Jean Chrétien, a very successful former Canadian Liberal Prime Minister.

A quick aside on why Liberalism is so hard to sell in modern campaign formats.

Conservatives and Labour have platforms that easily fit into ideological boxes. They both run against one another. That sort of polarized, categorical platform lends itself to quick soundbites and slogans. One only has to look at how Canadia Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper demolished Stéphane Dion (Leader of the Liberals) by essentially skipping over him and attacking Jack Layton’s (Leader of Canada’s Labour Party: the New Democrats) “socialism” and Gilles Duceppe’s (Leader of the Bloc Québécois, a sovreigntist, nationalist pro-Quebecker party) “separatism” during the Canadian prorogation crisis of December, 2008. It was easy to just dismiss Dion, because Dion had never defined why Liberalism was relevant. Why is this so hard? Because modern Liberalism, at least in its practical application in real-world politics, is notoriously slippery and hard to define. It occupies the “reasonable middle ground” between pro-market Conservatives and pro-Union Labour. It appeals to people’s natural tendency to seek the “Golden Mean,” and strive for moderation in all things. It is about being caring but vigorous about the disenfranchised; supportive yet challenging of organized labour; generous yet frugal in redistributing wealth from the richest and most powerful to the weaker and more vulnerable. It is a thoughtful philosophy which speaks quietly to people’s inner feelings in moments of honest self-appraisal: “I really should be kinder, more frugal and more generous. I really should care more about those around me.” But those moments are often lost in the cacophony of the blaring media horns and the gladiatorial arena of the “political coverage segment” of the evening news, where sound bite is pitched against sound bite – barb after barb, tired canard after tired canard in a pantomime of political reality that people have gotten used to and accept only out of habit. Television politics is like the WWE or maybe more like UFC – a tiny little area in which caricatures of the common man duke it out in mock violence.

This is not a place for the reasoned, middle of the road arguments of Liberalism to be heard.

But honestly, this is where Nick Clegg succeeds. By dint of having a truly human grasp of politics, and by being able to communicat that he understands how politics are visceral – the reflection of  the hopes and dreams, fears and joys of the population – Clegg manages to awaken the quiet voice of contemporary Liberalism and unleash its power. His soothing tones and “everyday lived examples” bring out how his Liberalism is blend of what the other two parties are offering. He offers reason and case-based logic instead of ideological formulas. He speaks in parables. He tells little stories to illustrate how an everyday person doesn’t necessarily reject all of what the Conservatives or Labour are offering, but that they don’t accept all of what they are offering either. Clegg makes Brown and Cameron sound shrill, partisan and hide-bound to ideology. His “human touch” allows him to transcend them and present his Liberal view as a set of “meta-policies” that pick and choose among the ideological delicatessen of Labour and Conservative to make an assorted sandwich. It is fascinating to note that he is succeeding where Michael Ignatieff and Stéphane Dion have stumbled: bring out the human side of Liberalism – spotlight its flexibility and its reasonableness.

In the age of the Internet and social media – choice is king. But so much choice has made the various publics that politicians have to sell to distrusting and insecure. It is amazing to note that the massive selection of information and options of the internet has led to a public that seeks more moderation and understanding. A more human touch. It’s interesting to note that a big part of the fallout of Nick Clegg’s success will be a Westminster Parliament in which the LibDems win a large share of the popular vote but a small number of seats – a result that may prompt a move to a proportional system of representation. Possibly a “natural-feeling” system for the Internet generation of networked and reasonable citizens, used to the rhetoric of marketing and public relations agencies whose persuasive language, sounds, visuals and infographics present the most compelling metaphors for explaining the spread and impact of social media and the world wide web.

Nick Clegg has managed to find a way to take a complicated, moderate philosophy and make it sound and feel reasonable, humane and real.

Clegg represents, with Barack Obama, the type of politician that will succeed in our current age of information glut and confusion of choice: a rhetorician with a profound understanding of the human experience and the confusion of human feelings. A hip-looking, current and reasoned person who behaves like a caring guide, friend and ally. That’s the kind of politician that people want during this transitional period from the Industrial Age of the 20th Century to the Information Society of the future.

I can’t wait to see who else crops up in the coming years. Which parties will adapt their rhetoric and ethos successfully? How will voting and electoral systems be transformed?

It’s going to be a fascinating ride for political communicators who will try and find such candidates, and then convince them to run!

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1 Comment

  1. This post was extremely informative, and your talent at describing and lecturing humanely kept me hoping that there was a lot more to read! Very very very informative Alex. The popular yearning for government here in Egypt is a system like the one you described as a more liberal case-by-case logic, and not lent to ideological formulas. Moderates never have a voice, because by default, they are moderates! And it is such an interesting idea of how television as a very medium is not suitable for a moderate outlook! Thank you for sharing, really!

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