The Prime Ministerial Debates in 2010 had little impact on the final result of the election. Discuss.

The 2010 general election was unique in a number of ways. It was the first time in the modern era that a third party (the Liberal Democrats) had competed during the election campaign in both the polls and the popular vote with the Conservatives and Labour (Denver et al., 2012, p.159), even though they were not competitive in parliamentary seat share. Also, the election came after thirteen years of Labour government, never before had Labour been able to serve two full terms, let alone three (Fisher and Wlezien, 2012, p.1). In addition to this and similarly to 1964 and 1997, it ended a long-standing one party premiership (Fisher and Wlezien, 2012, p.1). Most notably, it was the first time in the United Kingdom that televised party leader debates were held. Leader debates during elections have been common in many democracies since John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon faced each other in the 1960 United States presidential race (Pattie and Johnston, 2011, p.147). There were three televised debated in 2010, contested by the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, the leader of the opposition, David Cameron and the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg.

The final outcome of the election saw the Conservatives win a plurality of the popular vote with 36.1%. They failed to win an overall majority in parliament with 306 seats, irrespective of a 3.7% increase in popular vote and a constituency increase of 96 from the 2005 general election (Wring, Mortimore and Atkinson, 2011, p.1). Labour won 29% of the vote and 258 Parliamentary seats, down from 35.2% and 348 seats in 2005 (Rallings and Thrasher, 2011). A point of interest lies within the Liberal Democrat statistics. Although they increased their vote share by 1% to 23% in 2010, they suffered a loss of five Parliamentary seats from their 2005 result of 62 MPs (Wring, Mortimore and Atkinson, 2011, p.1). The Conservatives inability to win an overall majority led to a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, the first peacetime coalition since the 1920s (Fisher and Wlezien, 2012, p.2).

The most memorable aspect of the 2010 general election was undoubtedly the three televised party leader debates, in particular the first debate, which resulted in the rapid spread of ‘Cleggmania’ across Britain. The first Prime Ministerial Debate caused dramatic shifts in short-term party support. Nick Clegg was viewed as the unanimous winner by opinion polls and the Liberal Democrats jumped into second place in the tracking polls. Labour suffered slightly after a less than impressive performance from Prime Minister Gordon Brown. It was David Cameron and the Conservatives, however, who were the real losers of the first debate, dropping from over 40% to 32% in the polls (Denver et al., 2012, p.159; Kavanagh and Cowley, 2010, p.164-165).

47% of people thought that Gordon Brown performed better than expected in the second debate. The expectations of his performance were set so low, that although he was not perceived to have won, he could hardly lose (Lawes and Hawkins, 2011). David Cameron performed much better during the second debate and set the Conservatives on a path of steady electoral recovery for the rest of the election (Denver et al., 2012, p.158).

Instant post-debate polls indicate that by the time the third debate had concluded, David Cameron had pulled ahead in winning the debate, a stark juxtaposition from after the first debate (Lawes and Hawkins, 2011). The difference in the ‘best Prime Minister’ question between Cameron and Clegg had levelled out at 37-38%. Prior to the debates Cameron was on 47% to Clegg’s 23%. After the first debate it was Cameron’s 35% to Clegg’s 43% (Lawes and Hawkins, 2011). Even though he won the final debate, Cameron struggled to articulate clear policy standpoints and the electorate were unclear on what he stood for (Lawes and Hawkins, 2011). Many would advocate that, in conjunction with the entire campaign period, the debates changed the outcome of the election. I would argue that the validity of this claim is a matter of debate in itself.

The importance of an election cycle on the result is often disputed. It must be noted that there is a subtle difference between a shift in the course of an election and an outright change in the outcome. Upon review of the polls throughout the campaign, including polls taken around the three leader debates, it becomes evident that debates, and in particular, the first election debate and the birth of ‘Cleggmania’, did have an impact on the course, conversation and political rhetoric of the campaign. It therefore can be concluded that the election debates had an influence over the direction of the campaign. Whether that in turn led to a change in the outcome is to be discussed.

There are notable trends that occurred during the campaign. These raise pertinent questions about the election and the extent to which the debates effected the result. Polling shows that the Conservatives suffered in the month directly before the election. Their share of the popular vote dropped by 2-3% to their final result of 36.1% (Pattie and Johnston, 2011, p.151). Did this cost them an overall majority in Parliament? The Liberal Democrats vote share in the polls increased drastically after the first television debate (Denver et al, 2012, p.159), how did this and ‘Cleggmania’ alter the conversation of the election and the strategy of the Liberal Democrat party? In addition to this, did the Liberal Democrat upsurge cost the Conservatives a Parliamentary majority, or were there other factors involved?

The televised leader debates were the headline feature of the entire campaign period during the 2010 election. Based on the premise that as the highlight of the campaign, the party leader debates influenced the direction of the campaign, it is therefore important to investigate the effect that the campaign period had on the final result of the election. It would be conceivable to argue that the debates had an impact on the election campaign, which in turn had a slight effect on the final result. For example, how the campaign negatively impacted the Conservative party, as seen in the polling data (Denver et al, 2012, p.159). Whether this could attribute to an overall change in the result remains to be seen.

Ultimately, the Conservatives expected to win the 2010 election by an overall majority (Jones and Norton, 2014, p.145). A year before the election, the party was polling 15-16% ahead of Labour (Baines et al, 2011, p.694). Irrespective of this, the Conservatives ended the election only 7% ahead of Labour with only 48 more Parliamentary seats (Baines et al, 2011, p.695). This does not however, allude to a campaign in which the Conservative party suffered greatly in voter intention or a campaign in which Labour made substantial gains. The day the election was called, April 6th 2010, the Sun newspaper posted a YouGov poll that had the Conservatives tracking 8% ahead of Labour (Kavanagh and Cowley, 2010, p.157). As explained by Kavanagh and Cowley:

“On a uniform national swing, this would not have been enough to produce a majority Conservative government, and so it also was the first campaign since 1992 to be fought, from the beginning, with the realistic possibility of a hung parliament looming” (Kavanagh and Cowley, 2010, p.157).

This clearly shows that the subsequent result, a hung parliament and the resulting coalition government, was not a complete shock result; polling data in the run up to Election Day suggested it. It also proves that for the Conservatives, the election was neither won nor lost during the campaign cycle. Ergo, by logic and statistical evidence, the Prime Ministerial debates had little impact, if any, on the final outcome of the 2010 election for the Conservative Party.

Polls around the start of the election campaign had Labour tracking at around 30-32% (Denver et al, 2012, p.159). Similarly to the Conservatives, Labour saw a decline in popular vote throughout the campaign. The final outcome for Labour was 29% of the vote. 3% less than on the day the election was called (Pattie and Johnston, 2011, p.151), a statistic in line with the polling numbers of the Conservatives. This further strengthens the argument that the campaign, and by extension, the party leader debates, were not decisive to the final outcome of the election.

Polling data suggests that the party leader debates were of paramount importance to the outcome of the election for the Liberal Democrats, however. But were they an asset to the party or did they ultimately confuse their campaign? It appears evident that the debates were advantageous to the Liberal Democrats. At the start of the campaign, in national polls, they were tracking at around 18%. By the first debate, it had grown to around 22%.

“To some extent, the slow growth in the Liberal Democrat vote was to be expected. The third party is often squeezed out of the limelight of British politics but its enhanced media profile during election campaigns tends to remind voters that it exists, boosting its standing” (Pattie and Johnston, 2011, p.152).

This point is further compounded by the unprecedented amount of exposure afforded to the Liberal Democrats and their relatively unknown leader, Nick Clegg, by the three party leader debates. The ‘Cleggmania’ that occurred in the aftermath of the first debate saw Nick Clegg become a household name overnight. The Liberal Democrats soared to around 30% in the polls and surpassed Labour as the other two parties’ support dropped slightly (Pattie and Johnston, 2011, p.152). Throughout the remainder of the election, the Liberal Democrats continued to jostle for position in the polls with Labour before falling 6% short in the final result (Denver et al, 2012, p.159).

As previously mentioned, it seems apparent that the party leader debates had a positive impact on the Liberal Democrat campaign, however, this is arguably not the case. ‘Cleggmania’ was short-lived. Clegg was attacked in the press by both the Conservatives and Labour (Jones and Norton, 2014, p.145; Wring and Ward, 2010). Liberal Democrat support subsequently fell to a post-first debate low of 24% by the end of the election cycle; 1% more than their final total and only 2% more than their 2005 result (Denver et al, 2012, p.157).

Due to the nature of Liberal Democrat campaigning, which is contingent upon local strategy and efficient targeting of competitive constituencies, the campaign and election cycle tend to influence their final results more greatly, the Liberal Democrats simply cannot compete with Labour or the Conservatives on a national front. As stated by Pattie and Johnston (2011), this is partly a result of a limited national spotlight, which places more significance on the campaign for the Liberal Democrats than it does for the two larger parties.

Not only did ‘Cleggmania’ lead to the Conservatives and Labour allocating resources to quell the Liberal Democrat surge, it also led to a raise in morale within the Liberal Democrat party and the belief that they could complete electorally with Labour and the Conservatives. The tactic of targeting was overtaken by a national strategy to increase the national share of the vote. This was consequential to the party as they won only 57 seats compared to 62 in 2005 (Rallings and Thrasher, 2011), even though their national vote share increase by 1%. The 2010 election was a success in many ways for the Liberal Democrats. They formed a coalition with the Conservatives and governed for the first time. On the other hand, whilst the final outcome was a success, the campaign in itself left much to be desired, as evidenced by their loss of five parliamentary seats from 2005.

To conclude, the debates undoubtedly altered the direction and rhetoric of the 2010 election campaign. Ultimately, however, this failed to significantly change the outcome of the result. Labour are effectively irrelevant in the discourse surrounding the 2010 election and whether the debates and campaign on the whole influenced the outcome. On the day the election was called, Labour were tracking at 32%, this fell to 29% by Election Day. Labour did not prevent the Conservatives from capturing a parliamentary majority, the Conservatives’ wounds were self-inflicted. On the day the election was called, the Conservatives were not positioned to win a majority of MPs and that was the final result in May. The debates had no direct impact on the overall outcome of the election; a hung parliament was the expected result. The Conservatives failed to win the election in the year prior to voting day when their lead in the polls fell from 16% to 7%. They simply did not do enough to earn an overall majority. In regards to the Liberal Democrats, polling data shows that the debates and ‘Cleggmania’ did little to penetrate the electorate long-term. The day of the first debate they were polling at 22%, they ended up winning 23% of the vote. Regardless of this, one area the debates did impact was the Liberal Democrat campaign. Their diversion away from targeting to a national strategy cost the party seats and political capital in the coalition they went on to form with the Conservatives. Therefore, the Prime Ministerial Debates had little impact on the result of the 2010 general election.

Bibliography

Baines, P., Macdonald, E., Wilson, H. and Blades, F. (2011). Measuring communication channel experiences and their influence on voting in the 2010 British General Election. Journal of Marketing Management, 27(7-8), pp.691-717.

Denver, D., Carman, C. and Johns, R. (2012). Elections and voters in Britain. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Fisher, J. and Wlezien, C. (2012). The UK general election of 2010. London: Routledge.

Jones, B. and Norton, P. (2014). Politics UK. 8th ed. Routledge.

Kavanagh, D. and Cowley, P. (2010). The British general election of 2010. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lawes, C., & Hawkins, A. (2011). The polls, the media and the voters: the leader debates. Political Communication in Britain. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 56-76.

Pattie, C. and Johnston, R. (2011). A Tale of Sound and Fury, Signifying Something? The Impact of the Leaders Debates in the 2010 UK General Election. Journal of Elections, Public Opinion & Parties, 21(2), pp.147-177.

Rallings, C. and Thrasher, M. (2011). Election 2010. London: Biteback Pub.

Wring, D. and Ward, S. (2010). The Media and the 2010 Campaign: the Television Election?. Parliamentary Affairs, 63(4), pp.802-817.

Wring, D., Mortimore, R. and Atkinson, S. (2011). Political communication in Britain. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Wider Reading

Allen, N., Bara, J. and Bartle, J. (2013). Rules, Strategies and Words: The Content of the 2010 Prime Ministerial Debates. Political Studies, 61, pp.92-113.

Davis, C., Bowers, J. and Memon, A. (2011). Social Influence in Televised Election Debates: A Potential Distortion of Democracy. PLoS ONE, 6(3), p.e18154.

Quinn, T., Bara, J. and Bartle, J. (2011). The UK Coalition Agreement of 2010: Who Won?. Journal of Elections, Public Opinion & Parties, 21(2), pp.295-312.

Stevens, D., Karp, J. and Hodgson, R. (2011). Party Leaders as Movers and Shakers in British Campaigns? Results from the 2010 Election. Journal of Elections, Public Opinion & Parties, 21(2), pp.125-145.

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